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As a university lecturer, Jennifer Wegmann is used to seeing on-campus gyms fill up with students in January, many of whom have made it their New Year’s resolution to get fit and lose weight.
But every year, by the time spring break has come and gone, Wegmann says the majority have already stopped going.
“It’s so cyclic in the population that I work with,” she says.
Improving exercise habits is, year after year, one of the most popular New Year’s resolutions in North America—a fact that objectively seems positive. After all, working out is proven to be one of the best steps you can take to improve both your physical and mental health, and a fitter population seems as though it would naturally lead to an overall healthier one.
But what happens when the main motivation behind the resolution is as unsustainable as wanting to drop 20 pounds or as punitive as trying to “make up” for indulging during the holidays? According to Wegmann, who teaches health and wellness studies at Binghamton University in New York, you get a whole lot of people who are actually worse off, at least mentally, than they were before undertaking this supposedly health-centred resolution.
“When we use it as a punishment, and it’s punitive, it has the exact opposite effect on particularly our mental health,” she tells Yahoo Canada. “Something that’s supposed to help us reduce our anxiety now becomes anxiety-inducing. 'If I didn’t get there today, if I didn’t burn as many calories as I wanted today, if I wasn’t there as long as I was supposed to be,' those are all things that are exaggerating the exact mental health conditions that we’re trying to alleviate or at least manage with exercise.”
Jenna Doak knows just how quickly exercise can go from being healthy to the very opposite depending on the motivation behind it. Doak, a personal trainer who worked in the mainstream fitness industry for more than a decade, has set countless extreme weight loss and fitness resolutions for herself over the years.
“I tried literally everything that has ever been out there—every supplement, every pill, every shake, every type of workout, every workout schedule,” she says. “When I was in the thick of trying to be the fittest I could ever be, I was so anxious, I was depressed, I was exhausted, I was an angry person.”
Doak blames the popularity of the New Year’s resolution on the fitness and diet industries, which she says have made billions by selling people the idea that a drastic weight loss goal can and should be achieved within a certain time frame.
When that doesn’t happen, she says people become frustrated, leading them to abandon the resolution altogether while feeling discouraged and inadequate.
“Because we’re so wrapped up in believing that these things can happen, we blame ourselves when they don’t. And then that just starts a vicious cycle and it is very stressful and hard on your mental health,” she says. “If they did work, why have you set the same New Year’s resolution every year of your life for the past 20 years? It’s almost 100 per cent going to fail.”
While trying everything in her power to achieve unrealistic and unsustainable weight loss goals, Doak developed disordered exercise and eating habits. At her thinnest, she says she experienced numerous physical injuries as well as persistent knee and back pain, and her mental health was in the gutter.
Pushed to her breaking point, Doak took a step back from fitness altogether before eventually becoming interested in the Health at Every Size approach, body positivity and what health actually means. She began to unravel all the beliefs she had been taught from the fitness industry for so many years, and says the experience felt, in a sense, like leaving a cult.
That’s what inspired her to start Body Positive Fitness (BPF) a "home for folks excluded from or unwelcome in mainstream fitness spaces—no matter [their] size, gender, disability or fitness level.”
At BPF, there is absolutely no talk of physical appearance or weight. Instead, the focus is on improving mobility, energy levels, strength, mental health, stress levels, sleep and more.
“When you’re focusing on those types of things rather than a number on a scale, you're actually going to see the changes in these other things, which makes it more rewarding and more enjoyable, and then people do want to keep doing it,” she says.
If you’re looking to develop a regular, sustainable exercise routine in an effort to improve your overall health without the disordered focus on weight loss and appearance, Doak suggests seeking out a body positive space or instructor, which she says are fortunately becoming more and more prevalent.
She also recommends getting rid of your scale or anything else you use to measure your body. And most importantly, Doak says the way to form fitness habits that will go the distance is to find exercise that you truly enjoy, so working out doesn’t feel like a tiresome chore.
“You don’t have to run, you don’t have to weight-train, you don’t have to do yoga,” she says. “There are so many different types of movement that we can do, so if it’s brand new to you, try them all and see what type of movement does bring you joy.”
Wegmann, meanwhile, recommends focusing on a more holistic approach to improving your health.
“I think the best advice that I could give people is to really kind of stay away from this concept of making a New Year’s resolution,” Wegmann says. “I think it should be about setting sustainable, healthy, achievable goals.”