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What is body neutrality and how can it change the way you exercise?

It’s not about loving or hating how your body looks but about accepting and respecting what it can do – even if it isn’t the way you wish it would be.

What is body neutrality and how can it change the way you exercise?

The key to staying active long term may be to care less about how you look and more about how you feel. (Photo: Nicole Craine for The New York Times)

When I had a baby last summer — my first, a healthy boy — I knew that my body would be in rough shape afterward. Or, as my mother put it when I gingerly tried on a new pair of sweatpants one week post-birth: “Nothing is going to look good for a while. Try not to worry about it.”

I didn’t expect how easy it was to take her advice. Maybe it was hormones, or the immersion of parenting a newborn, or a new appreciation for what my body could do, but I felt surprisingly sanguine about my wobbly physical state.

At six weeks postpartum, I was cleared to start exercising, and a well-meaning nurse assured me that my “extra weight” would “fall off” once I resumed cardio.

Instead of testing out her theory, I took slow, sunny walks with my baby napping in his stroller. I wasn’t exactly reveling in my loose skin, but I wasn’t bothered by it either. To my surprise, I didn’t care much about it at all.

UNDERSTANDING BODY NEUTRALITY

There’s a name for this concept: Body neutrality, or the ability to accept and respect your body even if it isn’t the way you’d prefer it to be. The term was popularised by Anne Poirier, a body-image coach and the author of The Body Joyful, who began using it in 2015 to help her clients build a healthier, more in-tune relationship to food and exercise.

(Photo: iStock/Tomwang112)

“Body neutrality prioritises the body’s function, and what the body can do, rather than its appearance,” she explained. “You don’t have to love or hate it. You can feel neutral towards it.”

Poirier said that body neutrality resonates particularly with people who see the much-touted idea of body positivity — or the notion that we should love our bodies regardless of what they look like — as too big a leap. “For me, neutrality was a more accessible stepping stone away from body hatred,” she said. “I didn’t necessarily have to love my body, but I could see it with a different perspective.”

Body neutrality might also appeal to those who find the warts-and-all approach of body positivity to be a bit, well, contrived. Do we really need to embrace our cellulite and tendinitis? Why not just aim for a more peaceful coexistence?

CHANGING THE WAY YOU WORK OUT

Over the past several years, the philosophy of body neutrality has gained traction among people living with chronic pain or disability, as well as those who feel marginalised by a fitness culture dominated by thin, lithe instructors who exhort the benefits of punitive workouts and restrictive eating plans.

More recently, it has taken centrestage in popular fitness apps like Joyn, which boasts “movement classes for every body,” and the be.come project, a “body-neutral, I-can-do-it” programme created by Bethany C. Meyers, a fitness instructor who begins each online class by asking students to type in how they are feeling.

The premises behind body neutrality aren’t new, of course, and plenty of people adhere to them without specifically trying. But for others, they can provide a radical break from chasing the bandwagon of unattainable physical standards.

(Photo: iStock/Koh Sze Kiat)

Lauren Leavell, a personal trainer and founder of the Leavell Up Fitness platform, characterises body neutrality as “a perspective shift that can bring about more realistic goal setting”.

Rather than capitalising on the “New Year, new me” mindset that tends to crash and burn by February, Leavell encourages her clients to do what feels good and avoid what doesn’t.

“Body neutrality is about reframing movement as a lifelong practice that will change with you,” she said. “Bodies change, abilities change, and it’s important to listen to your current body, not what you think you should be able to do.”

She also places emphasis on movement as an intrinsic source of pleasure, not a means for delayed gratifications like a cookie, better-fitting clothes or approval from your doctor. “I operate from a space where exercise is fun and engaging, just because it is,” she said.

ENGAGING WITH YOUR BODY, NOT CHANGING IT

If you’re worried that you’d never work out if not for long-term motives like toned arms, know that research says the opposite: A 2017 study found that participants were more likely to be physically active on a regular basis if it aligned with short-term objectives like relieving stress in the moment.

In another study, conducted in 2018, participants who were told to focus on the function of their bodies during an exercise class reported higher satisfaction afterward, compared to those who were encouraged to think about how it would improve their looks.

Bodies change, abilities change, and it’s important to listen to your current body, not what you think you should be able to do

This distinction is central to what Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist, lecturer at Stanford University, and the author of The Joy of Movement, teaches her students. “One of the biggest principles of body neutrality is experiencing exercise or movement as a way of engaging with life for your body, not to change your body,” she said.

This doesn’t mean that long-term goals are off the table, though. “Ultimately, enjoyment of an activity is about what it means to you,” Dr McGonigal explained. “You can enjoy strength training, even though parts of it are uncomfortable and hard and embarrassing, because you like the idea that you’re getting stronger.”

PUTTING LESS EMPHASIS ON APPEARANCE

For Justice Roe Williams, a certified personal trainer, body neutrality represents an explicit rejection of the “no pain, no gain” mentality of the mainstream fitness industry. It’s also a key tenet of his organisation, Fitness4AllBodies, which teaches fitness professionals how to take a more thoughtful approach to clients across ability and gender spectrums.

His aim is to help clients “let go of the framework and assumptions that they have been taught about bodies needing to be fixed, or bodies needing to look a certain way,” he said.

Those struggling to escape that self-scrutiny might benefit from an environment where they cannot see their body at all. Leanne Pedante, the head of fitness at Supernatural, a virtual-reality workout app, began her career as a personal trainer working with people in recovery from eating disorders.

“One of the biggest requests I heard from those clients was, ‘Where can I work out without mirrors?’” she said. Even if body neutrality doesn’t come easily, she added, “it can be learned, when support is provided and triggers are removed”.

(File photo: iStock/Tirachard)

Critics of body neutrality argue that pursuing a Zen-like sense of detachment doesn’t do enough to bolster self-image. That may be true, said Pedante, but it can still be a valuable tool in that process.

“Most of us have very black-and-white, moralised ideas around what is wrong with our bodies,” she said. “Body neutrality is the unlearning of those harmful myths, so that we can move toward new ways of thinking.”

From a medical standpoint, putting less emphasis on appearance also presents an opportunity to exercise more safely and sustainably.

“If body neutrality teaches people to listen to how they actually feel, rather than how they look, then they’d be less likely to suffer from overuse injuries,” said Dr Lilli Link, a clinician with Parsley Health, a medical practice with offices in New York and Los Angeles that also provides telemedicine services nationwide.

Plus, they’d be more likely to keep up fitness habits overall. “If something causes suffering, it’s not in human nature to continue it,” she added.

It might seem paradoxical that letting go of external goals — losing weight, buttoning our pants — could also be the best way to reach them. In my own case, shrugging off pressure to whip myself back into pre-pregnancy shape allowed me to spend my free time doing what I actually wanted: Stroll around the park with my baby.

Ironically, five months later, my old jeans fit again. It didn’t feel like a hard-won accomplishment; there was no “yes” moment in the mirror. It was just a body, one that I was grateful for.

By Charlotte Cowles © The New York Times

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Source: New York Times/pc

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