This article was written by Anna Medaris Miller and appeared in US News and World Report on January 4, 2017. I cut and pasted the article because the original appeared with diet advertisements.
Michele Burmaster used to live in a gym – literally. Every day, the personal trainer in Huntington Beach, California, worked out for up to five hours, trained clients for close to 14 and spent the remainder sleeping in the gym's loft. All the while, she saw someone too big in the mirror – even though she'd already lost 80 pounds.
"I became addicted to that scale going down – that was the only thing I wanted anymore," says Burmaster, now 31. "I just never knew when enough was enough."
A health scare forced her to find out. After getting so sick she needed surgery to remove her swollen lymph nodes, Burmaster took a two-year break from fitness to let her body rest and recover. She took the time to reflect on whether people could pursue fitness while still balancing mental and emotional health. "I said, 'If I'm going to open my own facility, I'm going to do it totally differently,'" Burmaster recalls.
In January 2013, Burmaster opened Surf City Fit Club with the mission of creating a judgment-free fitness facility with great results. Within six months, she had better member retention than any gym she'd ever worked for. "People weren't getting burnt out, they weren't getting injured, they weren't coming in and getting yelled at," Burmaster says.
The concept attracted so much global attention from like-minded fitness professionals and gym-seekers that in 2016, Burmaster and another gym owner formed the Body Positive Fitness Alliance in order to train and verify fitness professionals and facilities that embody their philosophy. The Alliance has since exceeded its goal of verifying 50 professionals and five facilities through either online or in-person workshops.
Surf City Fit Club and BPFA's successes highlight the hunger for fitness that celebrates what the body can do rather than punishes what it looks like. "There's more of a focus on body positivity overall, and I think that carries through in people's workouts and what they're looking to get out of it," says Jodi Rubin, a therapist in New York City who founded Destructively Fit to educate the fitness industry about eating disorders.
Sound inspiring? Here's how to find or create a body positive workout that works for you:
1. Do what you love.
Body positive workouts can only be loosely defined since the definition is different for everybody. "Any exercise that you're doing that you feel invested in, you feel good in, you look forward to doing, you feel strong in is a body positive one," whether that's enrolling in a boot camp, meditating, joining a social sports league or taking a walk with a friend, Rubin says. "It's more about your experience of your body while you're doing what you're doing."
2. Forget perfection.
For Kelly Coffey, a personal trainer in Northampton, Massachusetts, body positive workouts have more to do with your mindset than the actual exercise. "Any exercise can be a body positive exercise if you're doing it the best that you can given the realities of your body, strength levels and stamina," says Coffey, who created the free online workshop, "Why We Sabotage Our Food and What We Can Do About It." To change a perfectionist mindset, first try to recognize when an exercise goes from challenging to frustrating. "Focus on backing off a little bit until you are still challenged but not losing your mind," Coffey suggests. "Stay there for as long as you safely can."
3. Find the right instructor.
If your workout of choice involves an instructor or personal trainer, make sure you find a professional you can relate to. "People who are starting from scratch or who aren't stereotypically fit do a lot better and tend to stick to the commitment they've made if they can find an trainer or studio that has instructors who don't fit the stereotypical fitness model to a T," says Coffey, who used to weigh more than 300 pounds.
Trainers who are verified by BPFA, meantime, might be distinguishable by their nonjudgmental attitudes; their belief that "fit" doesn't have a specific look; their understanding that health is equal parts mental, physical and emotional; and their willingness to refer clients to other professionals, such as nutritionists and mental health providers, rather than dish out advice beyond their scope of practice.
A red flag for body-positive workout seekers: Instructors who emphasize calories burned, inches lost or other physical effects of fitness. Instead, seek those who encourage you to stay present by focusing on what you want to get out of each class, whether it's a clear mind or the feeling of a good sweat, Rubin suggests.
4. Find the right facility.
A gym, studio or other facility's atmosphere matters as much as the instructor, the BPFA contends. "Every single one of these facilities is family," Burmaster says. For example, new and prospective members aren't assumed to want weight loss – perhaps they want to prevent osteoporosis, learn to power lift or improve flexibility. New members are also introduced to every other person in the building. "It shows that we care," Burmaster says.
5. Dress for success.
Sure, body positivity isn't about looks, but chances are, you feel better in exercise clothes that are comfortable and flattering. "How you feel about how you look or how you show up to an exercise can make or break an exercise on any given day," says Coffey, who encourages clients to do whatever they need to feel good about walking into a gym, whether that's taking a shower before (and after) the workout, putting on a little makeup or taking the extra minute to pin up their hair. And don't put off buying new workout clothes until you've achieved a goal, Coffey adds. "It's going to have a positive influence on you now," she says. "Why stall on anything good? Have it, rock it, do it."
6. Keep exercise in the "safe zone."
If you're used to exercising to burn off regretful food choices or to avoid beating yourself up for missing a workout, shifting to a more positive approach isn't always easy. For many people, it first takes the recognition that their self-esteem is overly tied to their bodies and then takes help from a mental health professional. Rubin, for one, often talks to patients who struggle with disordered eating and exercise behaviors about keeping workouts in the "safe zone," or intended for enjoyment rather than punishment or compensation. "It doesn't have to mean going for a run," she says, "it's just moving your body."