Today, most people have heard of body positivity, especially anyone who is interested in health and wellness. There are even body-positive gyms and workouts popping up around the world that provide safe spaces for people who may not feel safe or comfortable in a fitness environment.
However, a concept called body neutrality is gaining traction, and there’s an important reason for that.” Body positivity and body shaming can be two sides of the same coin,” explains Krista Martins, founder and CEO of Caribbean Dance Fitness Workouts or Wukkout! who teaches using body neutrality in her classes.” In both cases, how we feel on the inside is being determined by how we view ourselves on the outside.”
Martins points out that the basis of both body positivity and body shaming is comparing oneself to the standard ideal.” Body neutrality says ‘beauty standards have nothing to do with how I feel about myself’.”
In contrast to workouts that focus on losing weight, getting a “summer body,” or making certain muscles pop, body-neutral fitness focuses on function rather than form. So, you might prioritize making your upper body stronger rather than losing “arm flab,” for example.
Another way to look at body neutrality, according to Helen Phelan, founder of Helen Phelan Studios, is that it’s about separating your values from your body. For some people, it’s easier to understand than the idea of being positive about your body, Phelan says.” It’s a middle ground that allows you to focus on who you are as a person versus what you are a vessel for.”
When it comes to your health and fitness, there are quite a few benefits to taking a neutral approach to your body’s appearance.
Martins, who uses a body-neutral framework in her classes, says her clients benefit from it.” They feel like they can truly let go and be themselves without shame and, therefore, actually be able to achieve their goals ‘without even realizing it’ (as many of them expressed to me) – because they don’t feel the pressure of trying to look like everyone else,” she says.
“When you exercise with the goal of making your body look a certain way, you’re essentially punishing yourself for not currently looking that way,” Phelan explains. This can make the workout mentally painful. But when you practice body neutral, you’ll find other reasons to exercise: to be able to carry your kids, build more energy or feel stronger, for example.
“There’s a lot of evidence that when you’re doing something physically challenging, you’re sending these messages to your brain that you’re mentally strong,” explains Phelan.” This bleeds into all other areas of your life and builds your resilience.” The benefits of this, she believes, far outweigh the benefits of changing the way your body looks.” It’s really exciting to know that you’re building resilience and making yourself an all-around better person, which in my book is more motivating than pushing for ’10 more calories’.”
“When we downplay fitness as something that simply helps us lose weight, we often skip over other important aspects of health and performance: eating enough food and getting enough rest,” notes Anne Calhoun, a body-neutral certified nutritional therapist and certified personal trainer.” Nine times out of 10, clients come to me with severe under-eating and over-exercising, leading to fatigue, weakness, stagnation, hormonal imbalances, digestive issues, frequent injuries and many other complications,” says Calhoun.” But, when they work together and shift their focus to proper fuel and full recovery, performance goes through the roof!”
“If you’ve ever been prevented from doing a certain style of workout, going to class or setting a specific goal because of your body and how it looks, body neutrality allows you to do all of those things,” says Kourtney A. Thomas, a certified strength and conditioning coach in body neutrality.” Essentially, when you’re not obsessed with thinking about your body all the time, you can actually live in it and do things with it!”
Many people have an idealized version of themselves that they strive to achieve again. Maybe it’s the weight they weighed in high school, the body they had before they got married, or the jeans they used to be able to wear. But these past versions of ourselves can cause us to feel shame about where we currently are, which can make it harder to feel good about our current bodies.” Body neutrality allows you to let go of whatever version of yourself you used to put on a pedestal, which is a very common challenge in the fitness world,” explains Thomas.” It releases the pressure of external standards and meeting societal ideals that may not be right for you. It can be a path to being more present in life, rather than working for some past or future version of yourself.”
Interested in approaching fitness from a body-neutral perspective? Here’s how to get started.
1 Developing Awareness
Thomas emphasizes that practicing body neutrality is a process, but starting with awareness is key.” Notice when you are judging your body, when you use descriptors that attach positive or negative values to your body or your physical abilities,” she advises.” Then, imagine shifting to a neutral state.” This might look like looking in the mirror and saying, “This is what I look like today,” or neutrally restating your positive or negative thoughts.
2 Find a form of exercise you enjoy.
Phelan says one of the cornerstones of body-neutral fitness is finding a form of exercise that you really enjoy.” If you’re forcing yourself to do the bike and you really like dance cardio, for example, it won’t work.” It may take some trial and error to figure out which workouts are fun for you, which trainers or coaches your vibe, etc.” Be patient and allow yourself time to figure out what style of workout is right for you. And it may not even be a traditional boutique class experience,” notes Phelan.” It may just be building more walking or getting up and stretching into your day.”
3 Look for different body types.
One thing that can really help people look at their bodies more neutrally is to make sure you see all the different types of bodies, exercise classes and other parts of your life on social media.” It’s like exposure therapy because you see there’s other stuff out there,” explains Phelan. Otherwise, we can get stuck in a bubble of lean, muscular bodies that fit the traditional aesthetic ideal. It’s also helpful to seek out coaches and other health professionals who don’t necessarily fit the “ideal” themselves.
4 Set functional fitness goals.
Setting goals that aren’t based on your appearance or weight can be tricky if you haven’t done it before, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be coming up with new goals left and right.” Set goals based on what your body can do, not how you can manipulate it into something it’s not,” suggests Calhoun.” Maybe you want to hit a PR on your sit-ups, hike ‘X’ many miles or hit a difficult yoga pose. Set goals that motivate you to grow, not make you feel guilty about changing.”