moving with joy improves body image

How moving joyfully helped me to get mentally and physically stronger

Posted by for Strength

After years of exercising as a form of punishment, writer Mollie found the Don’t Hate The Shake movement. It was those videos of people shaking their money makers with wild abandon that finally helped Mollie to see movement as an act of self-love – something to be enjoyed, not survived. She offers her tips for moving with joy.

Exercise is a magical thing. It can make us feel free and powerful – like we can achieve anything. That’s something I’ve only discovered relatively recently when I chose to start moving joyfully, something that makes me feel good while benefiting both my mental and physical wellbeing. I don’t use exercise as a form of punishment like I once might have done and I no longer feel the need to “burn off” food or make up for only having done a little bit of exercise. I move because my body can, I move because being a plus-size woman doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy exercise, be active or more importantly, strong.

Growing up slightly bigger than other girls my age meant I had always had a somewhat peculiar relationship with exercise. School ingrained a hatred of sport because it instilled the idea a bigger body was somehow morally wrong. “Mollie, you should really go to the gym and get that weight off, then you’ll be able to run faster,” a PE teacher once remarked as I was trying to catch my breath after finishing my last loop of the field. I was 13. Fast forward three years and I remember cranking up the music on my iPod docking station and exercising until I felt light-headed. I wasn’t exercising because I enjoyed it or because it made me feel good – I was exercising to punish myself and because I wanted to change my body. Before my bath every night, I’d take to my bedroom and exhaust myself for 45 minutes non-stop in a ritual that continued for months.

It wasn’t until the age of 18, after years of trying different fad diets, slimming teas and consuming #thinspo online, that I discovered the body positivity movement on Instagram – and a whole host of #DontHateTheShake videos.

The Don’t Hate The Shake movement (originally created by Melissa Gibson, aka @yourstruelymelly) now has over 14,000 tags on Instagram and is all about celebrating what your body is capable of in the present. Seeing all those people with back rolls and stomachs that weren’t flat dancing to music in their bedrooms in their underwear was amazing. I was stunned by their confidence and the way they moved for joy rather than results, and I wanted to feel like that. From that moment on, I tried moving for joy – rather than to halt the shake, which meant having to reframe how I saw my jiggly bits and my ability to move. 

It’s thanks to that incredible discovery online that I’ve been able to cultivate a positive body image over the past few years, cemented by practising intuitive eating and joyful movement. It’s impossible to overestimate just how much eating without guilt and exercising without motive has helped my mental and physical wellbeing. Instead of forcing myself to workout each day, that mind shift has allowed me to move when my body wants to – whether that be a little or a lot. I can often be found doing some yoga in my living room or dancing to my favourite upbeat Taylor Swift songs in my bedroom, free from end-goals.

“The focus of joyful movement is on the positive feeling, rather than the results,” explains mental health nurse Fatmata Kamara from Bupa UK. “You can practise joyful moving by getting active with something that makes you feel empowered, whether this is dancing, yoga or running. By keeping active you’re likely to feel happier, calmer and have an improved self-image. On top of this, finding an activity you enjoy also helps you to celebrate what your body is capable of, allowing you to fit physical activity around what works for you and your body.”

Now a size 16-18, I dance and workout when my body or mind needs a break from the daily strains we are all currently facing. I dance to upbeat songs to clear my mind, I use resistance bands and ankle weights to build my strength, and I get sweaty to feel energised and accomplished. After exercising I feel happier, uplifted and brighter – my mind is always clearer and I have a sense of positivity that I never used to get before. Focussing on the joy movement brings and the way in which endorphins are being released helps my mental health and gives me a big dose of serotonin. 

5 TIPS FOR MOVING JOYFULLY

1. Don’t give yourself a weight-related goal. Mental health nurse Fatmata tells Stylist that “exercise should be something you enjoy, otherwise it will be hard to keep motivated and begin to feel more like a chore.” She explains that our exercise goals don’t need to be focused on weight-loss: just setting small goals like walking for 20 minutes a day can be enough “to clear your head can bring positive benefits to your wellbeing.”

2. Create a joyous playlist on Spotify. Include upbeat songs with positive lyrics that make you feel fierce and powerful. Songs like Dear Me by Madeline Merlo, and Sorry Not Sorry by Demi Lovato are two personal favourites. Turn up the volume, dance to the beat and go with the flow. You’ll instantly feel good.

3. Exercise in front of a mirror. This won’t be for everybody, but it has worked wonders in improving my self-confidence. I’ll turn on my playlist and dance in front of my mirror whenever I feel sluggish or down. Seeing my body move, jiggle and withstand a fun yet high-intensity workout really makes me feel empowered.

4. Work out because you want to, not because you should. Betsan de Renesse is a female-specific and body-positive PT at The Glow Method, and she believes that having a “should exercise for health reasons mentality” is demotivating. “Celebrating your body [and] enjoying your workout is so much kinder to your mental health than telling yourself: you need to work out [or] you’ll get fat.” Betsan also says that how we speak to ourselves is powerful: “If you wouldn’t speak to your best friend in that way, then you definitely shouldn’t speak to yourself [like that].”

5. Get in touch with nature. If you’re bored with exercising in your living room or bedroom, take to the great outdoors. With exercise listed as an essential reason to leave your home, you’re free to take a short walk to a local green space to do your daily workout. Breathe in the fresh air, stretch your legs, worship the sunrise when doing yoga. If a local green space isn’t feasible, then your balcony or back garden can be just as lovely. Moving joyfully in the outdoors is such a great way to feel positive and energised.

Follow on @StrongWomenUK Instagram for the latest workouts, delicious recipes and motivation from your favourite fitness experts.

Images: Mollie Quirk/Getty

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