The Trouble with Promoting “Joyful” or “Enjoyable” Movement
Today I want to talk about fitness, and particularly the idea that we should push the concept of “joyful” or “enjoyable” movement, or that engaging in joyful or enjoyable movement is a requirement for practicing weight-neutral health/Health at Every Size. This is often done by well-intentioned folks (including, to varying degrees, me in the past,) but it does harm, which is why I want to talk about it.
Before we begin, as always a reminder that fitness, by any definition is not an obligation, barometer of worthiness, or entirely within our control, and it’s an amorphous, multi-faceted, and individualized concept. As someone who has held fitness certifications since the late 90’s, my philosophy is that nobody is obligated to participate in fitness, but every body should be welcome.
Understanding that, there’s nothing wrong with “joyful movement or “enjoyable movement” (and it is certainly better than pushing the toxic fitness culture ideas of movement as punishment for/prevention of being fat*.) And there is a large body of research that shows that movement (aka fitness, aka exercise etc.) confers health benefits to people of all sizes, without the dangers of intentional weight loss attempts. What it doesn’t say, however, is that the movement has to be joyful or enjoyable.
That’s important because, when we talk about our relationships with movement, to me the most important thing is that we come to that relationship on our own terms. For some, that means dealing with the harm that they’ve experienced in the past around movement (looking at you President’s Physical Fitness Test, Dodgeball, and way too many Physical Education teachers.) For others it means starting (or starting again) without past harm, and trying out a bunch of options until they find something that works for them. Still others are looking for the benefits of movement. These are very individual journeys that people are on.
Some people choose joyful movement – they find movement that they like, that sounds fun, that feels good etc. Some go through a lot of trial and error to get there (which is why I encourage discovering the joy of quitting – try the class and leave and celebrate the victory of learning that they don’t like that thing!)
Other people are coming to movement for more utilitarian reasons like health benefits, mobility, or managing chronic conditions etc. This group may not find movement joyful, but they want the benefits that it can provide for them. When I speak and teach about this, a message I often get from this group is that the idea that movement should be “joyful” or “enjoyable” makes them feel like failures because, try as they have, they just aren’t finding the joy.
I can’t tell you the number of times someone’s face completely lights up when I say “Look, it’s ok to pick something you hate the least, and do the bare minimum you need to do for the benefit you want to get.” For many people there is liberation in the idea of fitness as something like dishes or laundry – it’s something they do to support themselves, but not necessarily something they love.
This can feel wrong to those in healthcare and fitness who have been trained that the “right” way to engage in movement is to find joy in it. In future posts I’ll explore more of the research around movement, how much is needed for what benefits etc., but for now I think it’s helpful to de-couple our preconceived ideas of what movement “should” be in someone’s life, and start focusing on helping people develop a relationship with movement (including choosing not to engage in it) completely on their own terms.
I also have a video workshop about this that may be helpful, It’s called “Getting Jiggly With It – Movement In a Fat Body.” You can find out more about it here!
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*Note on language: I use “fat” as a neutral descriptor as used by the fat activist community, I use “ob*se” and “overw*ight” to acknowledge that these are terms that were created to medicalize and pathologize fat bodies, with roots in racism and specifically anti-Blackness. Please read Sabrina Strings Fearing the Black Body – the Racial Origins of Fat Phobia and Da’Shaun Harrison Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness for more on this.