Why My Workout Motivation Shifted to Mental Health


Slim down! Tone up! Get that hawt body! 

In the 21st century, we’re inundated with these slogans. They usually crescendo in January as gyms capitalize on New Year’s resolutions. But we hear them all year, before, during, and after swimsuit season. Are these ads effective? Probably — who wouldn’t prefer to rock washboard abs?

But I wonder, is this kind of message really that motivating when it comes to our day-to-day fitness? After all, selling sexiness might push us to sign up when we’re insecure, but does it really push us to wake up at 6:00 a.m. the morning after a bad date? Is exercising for that “bod” still alluring when we’ve found someone who loves us just the way we are? Can it get us out of the house when there’s been a death in the family? Or after we’ve taken care of a newborn all night? 

I don’t know about you, but my desire to look like a swimsuit model is finite. But my desire to be a happy, functioning person knows no bounds. And I’ve found that switching my motivation to reflect that second desire has gotten me in far better shape than wanting to “body sculpt” ever did.

My superficial take on exercise

From a young age, exercise for me equated to “hotness.” And hotness equated to acceptance. I joined the track and cross country team as a freshman in high school, but it certainly wasn’t for a love of running. My new school was known citywide for its athletic prowess, so I wasn’t going to make the cut for the few competitive sports I actually knew how to play, such as soccer and tennis. But a friend convinced me to join her in cross country and track, instead, as the team accepted anyone capable of running. “Plus, we’ll totally get abs!” she promised. I was convinced.

So I joined the team. I ran the miles. I got the abs. I was wasn’t super fast, but I held my own in the middle-to-back of the pack. To be honest, I didn’t really care about the competition or how fast I was, as long as I looked good for the upcoming homecoming dance. 

So I enjoyed running well enough. The sport kept me healthy. It gave me freshman friends, taught me the importance of guzzling water, and pushed me physically further than I’d ever gone. I learned what real, disciplined exercise looked like. Yet my heart wasn’t in it. During these teenage years, my only goal for running was to produce physical results in shaping my body. It was a means to an end — and the end was rather superficial. 

Still, despite my shallow relationship with running, it became a habit that I carried through college and into my 20s. At the time, I was oblivious that I had tendencies toward anxiety — and that running could serve as an antidote. But I was beginning to recognize running as an excuse to get out of the dorm or cramped apartment and have some quiet moments to myself to think. It slowly became a treasured routine that gave me the space to contemplate challenging school or work assignments, mull over emotions, or get in touch with my goals. 

Life shifts revealed running’s true value

Prior to having kids, I was never terribly out of shape. But motherhood has a way of throwing a wrench into our plans, and I was certainly not immune to these massive physical, mental, and spiritual changes. Between the exhaustion of pregnancy, nursing, changing, and playing with the baby, plus the usual work and life demands, exercise fell to the wayside — and then off the face of the Earth altogether. At first, I didn’t notice, as I was so wrapped up in the vortex of my new life. My running habit died with that superficial motivation I’d carried for so long. As a new mom, the last thing I really cared about was my swimsuit body. 

But the lack of exercise did start to have a serious impact, just for different reasons. Anxiety attacks that I hadn’t had for years started coming back. As our family grew to welcome a second child, I was becoming irritable and angry, and it showed. My fuse was shorter than ever and my patience was dwindling. I really didn’t like the type of mother I was becoming, completely dependent on both coffee and wine to function.

After some reflective and seriously existential chats with friends, family, and my supportive husband, one thing was clear: I needed to get my body moving again. But this time, the reasons were different. My motivation had nothing to do with what I looked like — and everything to do with how I felt. For once in my life, I was running for my mental health, not for my physical appearance. 

The benefits of running for the right reasons

When my motivations shifted, everything suddenly clicked into place. It started with walking. At first, for someone who ran 5Ks for years, this felt really pathetic and embarrassing. But I kept going. After several months, the walking often turned into jogging or even the occasional run. Despite the big humble-pill I had to swallow, I started to feel a real sense of pride and confidence. Making my mental health the focus clarified my motivation and allowed me to sustain the effort and intensity I needed to make this a regular practice. 

I was no longer running for something superficial that I desperately clung to during my insecure teenage years. I was running to be a better mother, a better wife, a better human being. 

Instead of being another item on my to-do list, running was the cornerstone that empowered me to actually complete the more daunting tasks on my list. Running sharpened my will and connected it to my mental and physical abilities. It allowed me to become whole and healthy in a new and integrated way. And — weirdly — I am starting to get in the best shape of my life, which totally wasn’t the point but is a really nice side effect. 

An epiphany recently hit me. I no longer felt “meh” about running or considered it a convenient, portable exercise that I do to look good. I now completely love it for the serenity and peace that it brings me. 

And this newfound integration is the strongest motivator yet, because it’s taking me to another level on all areas of my life. I don’t love running for running; I love it because it allows me to use my body for things that matter far more than appearances.

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