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Fitness goals: what does it mean to have a body neutral relationship with exercise?

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Body image is often considered to be inextricably linked to exercise. But what happens when you remove aesthetics from the way you train?

Ever since I first stepped foot in a gym as a teenager, I’ve never been able to maintain a consistent exercise routine. I’d start something new, after which there would be a short period of exercising intensively and regularly, and then I’d become bored and give up.

In my early 20s, I had almost come to terms with the idea that exercising just wasn’t for me. But then one of my closest friends qualified as a personal trainer and encouraged me to start doing sessions with her. I followed a strength-based programme in which weight-loss was never discussed and, instead, we focused on learning new skills and increasing my strength. 

Two years on, working out is now one of the most consistent and important parts of my life. Training for performance, with almost no focus on aesthetics, has transformed my relationship with fitness. Not only has it made me feel more positive about working out – rather than treating training as a chore – but it has provided me with measurable, achievable goals, which I never had when I was focusing on something as arbitrary as weight loss and ‘toning’ my body.

So what does it really mean to have a neutral relationship with your body when it comes to fitness and how can you develop this yourself?

Pippa Sealey, a personal trainer based in Bristol, practices a body-neutral approach to fitness with her clients. “I didn’t have the knowledge or power to see past diet culture when I was younger but when I started training for performance, it made me feel confident and empowered,” she says. “None of the work I do with my clients is about the way they look. In fact, one of my biggest philosophies is that the way your body looks is the least important thing about you.”

Many of the women Sealey trains are interested in getting stronger and although some of them do come to her with aesthetic goals, she tries to help them focus on more practical, performance-based goals instead. “I always ask my clients to think about why they have certain aesthetic goals and encourage them to put less worth on them,” she explains. 

Personally, I find aesthetics-based goals totally unmotivating and when changing the way I looked was my sole purpose for working out, I had a very negative relationship with fitness and struggled to stay motivated.

Julia Fischer is a personal trainer who has also adopted a body neutral approach to training her clients. “Many of the women I work with are scared to work out for strength and performance because they’re worried about getting bigger but they soon experience the benefits of doing so,” Fischer says.

As well as having a new-found appreciation for their bodies, Fischer says that the women she works with also enjoy practical benefits through training for performance, like being able to lift heavy furniture when they’re moving or finding bags much easier to carry.

There are so many different ways you can plan a performance-based training programme. But the key is to avoid making aesthetics or weight loss a part of it.

Lauretta Johnnie, the founder of Full Figured Fitness and a plus-sized personal trainer, explains that when she is planning programmes for her clients and actually training them, she never insists on body positivity. “I teach them how to scan their body and notice how they are feeling in that moment,” she explains. “I find body positivity problematic as it insists that you validate every part of your body regardless of how you actually feel.”

For Johnnie, body neutrality is a much better way to approach fitness as it allows her clients to enjoy the process of exercising in itself, totally forgetting about the way they look or want to look.

Sealey agrees that enjoyment is the key part of a positive approach to working out. When she trains new clients, the first thing she asks them is what they actually enjoy doing. “I also ask them what they would like to be able to do that they can’t do now, like a chin up or a press up, so we have something measurable to work towards,” she explains. “A plan for a goal like that is so much more exciting and motivating.”

Sealey’s stance on diet and fitness is “what can you gain instead of lose?”, explaining that this is a big part of finding a neutral relationship with your body. Diet culture is all about loss, so in order to undo that, Sealey encourages her clients to avoid restricting their lifestyle in any way and, instead, figuring out healthy things they can add to it.

As well as hitting new fitness goals and lifting weights I never imagined I could lift, removing aesthetics from the way I look at fitness has also allowed me to find real mental health benefits in training too. Because exercising is no longer something I feel like I have to do in order to look a certain way, every time I choose to work out, I’m doing it because I actually want to, which is really empowering.

Of course, training regularly has changed the way my body looks and a body-neutral approach to fitness doesn’t mean that it’s possible for me to ignore that. But it does mean that I don’t really care much about it and I would never let that affect the way I train now that the way I work out is one of the most enjoyable parts of my life. 

For more fitness stories and advice, follow Strong Women on Instagram.

Images: Pippa Sealey, Julia Fischer

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