How Body Neutrality Can Improve Your Fitness Journey

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Body neutrality is the philosophical idea that focuses on recognizing and appreciating what your body can do for you rather than obsessing about your outer appearance. It is accepting your body as it is, at present, without judgment. Body neutrality isn't about loving your appearance but instead developing more ambivalence toward your physical appearance and concentrating on respecting the abilities that you possess.

Often when we start a fitness journey, too much focus is placed on trying to control our physical appearance. While there's nothing wrong with having goals based on how you look, using body neutrality as the philosophy behind your fitness journey can help you become more in tune with your physical and emotional well-being. This connection allows you to make decisions that serve your body's current abilities rather than what you expect or hope your body can do or look like.

The body neutrality philosophy encourages people to step away from centralizing their physical bodies as drivers of their self-worth. This includes releasing judgment of your fitness level, health, or exercise performance. While it is perfectly normal to still want to strengthen your body, beginning a path of body neutrality can help you separate true happiness from the perceived happiness you think you'll gain once you reach your goal.

Here's how adopting body neutrality may improve your fitness journey.

Greater Mental and Physical Connection

Sometimes fitness can feel like a punishment. Perhaps you hear that more intense exercise helps burn more fat, or adding more volume to your workouts will build more muscle mass, so you strive to accomplish that with every training session. But, when you focus solely on optimizing your workouts for physical appearance, it's easier to ignore what your body might be telling you.

You might start to feel fatigued, resentful of your workouts, lose passion for the activities you once enjoyed, or begin noticing more aches, pains, and injuries. This can result in overtraining and not seeing the results you feel you’re working so hard for. What’s worse is that you don’t feel healthy; you feel defeated.

When you focus on participating in movements that make you feel good mentally and physically, your body becomes the one in charge rather than your mind. You may stop pushing yourself to exhaustion and focus instead on activities that bring you joy. If you begin to feel achy or overly fatigued, instead of trying to force yourself into an intense workout, you might go for a walk or practice some meditative yoga. 

In the case of activities like yoga, focusing on what your body can do right now can be a healing process. If you previously were discouraged because you couldn't hold a specific pose or get a better stretch, switching to a mindset of acceptance of where you are right now can deepen the connection to your practice and yourself.

Improved Motivation

With less pressure on physical appearance, your motivation will likely increase. A 2018 study found that women whose motivation to lose weight was based on their appearance gained weight after the 30-month-long study was complete. On the other hand, women who were focused on their health naturally lost weight during the study.

This telling research shows that basing our health decisions on physical appearance is not a successful strategy for lasting motivation. Instead, letting your body guide you from the place where it is now increases your chances of choosing practices that are healthier and more in tune with what your body needs.

One primary reason for this is that external motivation is less likely to last when compared with intrinsic or self-driven motivation. Enjoying exercise because it makes you feel better, less stressed, or stronger leads to more lasting motivation.

Positive Relationship with Exercise

Some people think of exercise as a way to burn off extra calories rather than a joyful experience. When movement becomes a way of punishing yourself, you lose sight of the many benefits of being active beyond your physical body. Being physically active is an integral part of a healthy lifestyle, but when exercise is shrouded with negative feelings, it can become difficult to feel good about attending that next training session or scheduled gym trip.

When exercise stops becoming a balancing act between what you think you should do and what you want to do, a more healthy and positive relationship with movement can begin. Viewing exercise as a way to help you feel better emotionally and mentally can give you the space you need to learn what types of activities make you happy.

Less Stress to Conform

When you accept your body for where it is right now, the pressure and stress of conforming to a certain expectation melts away. Instead of always looking to the future and trying to fit into an ideal form, you might notice how you were able to make it up the hiking trail a little faster and were less winded, or perhaps you were able to cycle for longer without needing to take a rest.

The pressure and stress of trying to always get to a place that you aren't currently at physically can take away from enjoying the current moment. Adopting the philosophy of body neutrality allows you to become more mindful and intuitive about your fitness journey and your current physical abilities. You can appreciate what you can do rather than be discouraged about what you are not yet able to do.

Long-Term Success

Studies show that more than half of weight loss is regained within two years, and by five years, more than 80% of lost weight is regained. Furthermore, research shows that nearly half of people who sign up for a fitness membership terminate it within the first six months, and many more just stop going. One study showed that people who struggle with poor psychological health and overall wellness (including increased stress and sleep) are significantly more likely to end their memberships.

It's true that many factors influence one's ability to making a long-term commitment to fitness. One common deterrent may be a focus on physical appearance. When things don't change as quickly as you hope, you might give up altogether.

If, instead, you accept your body for where it is now and what it can do, there is less reason to give up. You become more in tune with your day-to-day successes and incremental improvements. Plus, when you choose activities and levels of intensity that make you feel good, you may develop the internal motivation necessary for long-term success.

A Word From Verywell

There are so many reasons to adopt a mindset of body neutrality, including how it affects your fitness journey. If you've struggled with low motivation or poor self-image, body neutrality can lift you out of a negative mindset and into one that serves your physical and mental health.

Don't worry if you initially feel that you cannot love your body as it is or you still want to change your appearance. You can still begin trying to leave the expectations and ideas of how you should look or perform behind as you become more mindful and in tune with where you are right now. It is a process, and like any journey, it begins with one step.

3 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Hall KD, Kahan S. Maintenance of Lost Weight and Long-Term Management of Obesity. Med Clin North Am. 2018;102(1):183-197. doi:10.1016/j.mcna.2017.08.012

  3. Hooker SA, Ross KM, Ranby KW, Masters KS, Peters JC, Hill JO. Identifying groups at risk for 1-year membership termination from a fitness center at enrollment. Prev Med Rep. 2016;4:563-568. Published 2016 Oct 28. doi:10.1016/j.pmedr.2016.10.016

By Rachel MacPherson, BA, CPT
Rachel MacPherson is a health writer, certified personal trainer, and exercise nutrition coach based in Montreal.