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Many of us set New Year’s resolutions to get fit, buy gym memberships and cute workout clothes and download the best health and fitness apps … but very few of us have any idea how to actually stay motivated for the rest of the year. When we try, it’s often focused on our weight or physical appearance, using self-effacing jokes about how fat or lazy we are when we slack. But considering the high rate of eating disorders and body dysmorphia among the LGBTQ community, there’s gotta be better way.
Turns out there is! We spoke with David Perkins, a gay psychotherapist who has a private practice in New York City, and Sarah Park, a pansexual psychologist who has a private practice in San Luis Obispo, California, about how to stay motivated without self-shaming. Here’s their advice:
Step 1: Understand your motives
A thin line separates a healthy desire to improve your fitness and a negative desire to change your physical appearance, says Park. “If your desire to lose weight or increase your muscle mass starts to negatively impact your life,” she says, “then it’s time to take a serious look at what is going on.”
For example, if you feel really guilty for not sticking to a rigid diet or cancel plans with friends to not miss a gym day, then Park says you might have have a self-harming approach. Rather than setting your self-worth on what you eat or how often you workout, Perkins says, it’s better to identify the motivating core beliefs driving your behaviors:
If you have a core belief that you are not worthy of love if you are not a particular physical look, you are going to be extremely motivated to achieve that look. Other core beliefs would be ‘I must have a six pack or flat stomach in order to find love’, ‘You must be thin in order to have a partner’, ‘Thin is superior to fat’, ‘Tall is better than short.’ These are not ‘facts’ they are value judgments yet the community often mistakes values and beliefs for facts.
He says you should examine those beliefs and consider whether your motivations are based on a self-negating fears or a positive ideals based on self-affirming values. It’s the difference between “I must be thin to have a partner” versus “I feel better about myself when I go to the gym,” or “Eating well ensures that I stay healthy.” By framing your beliefs with your own values and well-being, your motivations become internal and personal rather than external and based on how others see you.
The best way to change any behavior, Perkins says, is to know why you want to change. He suggests writing down the pros and cons of changing your behavior as well as the pros and cons of not changing it. “That will help you gain some clarity as to why you are doing it. If you lose sight of what is motivating you, it becomes difficult to keep maintaining the changes, so know what is motivating you.”
Step 2: Consider dropping self-critical jokes
You’ve undoubtedly heard people make self-effacing comments about “pigging out” or “being a lazy ass” whenever they eat junk food or don’t exercise; you might’ve even made those comments yourself.
Perkins doesn’t think that such comments are necessarily a problem, just as long as they’re not hurting your self-esteem. In fact, he seems them as a harmless way of acknowledging one’s undesired behaviors. “I assume these comments are a way of saying ‘I know this is bad, but I’m doing it anyway because I want to so it’s okay,'” Perkins says. “It’s a version of camp, (i.e. as long as you know it’s bad, it’s okay to do it).”
But Park has a different opinion:
“What we say to and about ourselves is so very important. We often believe what we say to others. Also what we say about ourselves to others can impact how they see themselves as well. This can contribute to a culture of not good enough, never enough and body shame. This does not help you or anyone else become healthier, it often leads to feelings of shame, which is demotivating.”
Step 3: Focus on health improvements instead of bodily appearance
Lots of people gauge the success of their routines based on physical appearance: Repeatedly posting selfies, tracking weight loss or examining their physique. But instead of focusing on what the scale says or your feelings when looking in the mirror, Park says, you might focus instead on functional improvements like whether you can lift more this month than you could last month, your ability to run longer or the improved ease of key yoga poses.
“These are better measures of progress,” Park says. “Weight can fluctuate frequently and is not a reliable measure on its own.” Similarly, bodies can appear differently based on small things like water intake, hormones and even how much you’ve slept, so the body isn’t always a reliable measure of progress either.
If you have friends who focus mostly their physical appearance, Park suggests (counterintuitively) not commenting on their body or its changing appearance. Rather, she recommends complimenting your pal’s effort, the good ideas they’ve put forth or even some other enjoyable aspect of their personality.
“We are so much more than what our body looks like,” she adds. “Beauty standards are ever changing and contradictory; focusing on those standards is not useful.”
Step 4: Stop dieting, start mindfully eating
While you can definitely drop some pounds by reducing calorie intake, studies suggest that you’re likely to gain the weight back. Rather than obsess over calories, Perkins suggests that people practice “mindful eating”, that is, paying non-judgemental attention while you eat to how your body feels when it’s hungry or full. If you only eat when you’re hungry and stop eating when you’re full, you’re more likely to maintain a stable weight without worrying about food. It can even help resolve an eating disorder.
People commonly engage in eating disorders in an attempt to feel more in control and manage their stress, Park says. Someone with an eating disorder is not able to “just stop” or “just eat normally”—they would if they could—and they face a long road to recovery. But allies can help by creating safe spaces to talk about these issues, getting involved with the National Eating Disorders Association and fighting mental illness stigma by posting good information about eating disorders on social media.
Step 5: Find supportive groups
While some people motivate themselves by posting selfies, workout results and status updates on social media for their friends to see, Perkins suggests joining a online exercise or healthy eating group rather than relying on your pals for motivation.
“People in the group are all dealing with the same issue and have more empathy for what you are going though,” he says. “That is why 12-steps and other support groups are effective because you are with people you can identify with and vice-versa.”
Step 6: Do what you enjoy
Most importantly, Park says the best way to stay motivated is to find enjoyment in the acts of exercise and healthy eating themselves:
Engage in joyful movement! Do something you enjoy. If you like being outdoors, take a hike with a friend, or if you live on a coast, go paddle boarding. You are going to be more likely to engage in something you already enjoy. If going to the gym feels like punishment, then you will feel stressed out at the gym. When we feel stressed, our bodies release cortisol. Cortisol makes it difficult to lose weight. It is counterproductive to engage in movement that you don’t like.
You could extend this logic to healthy eating as well. Good nutrition doesn’t have to mean ingesting flavorless soy cubes or protein paste every day. By finding healthy foods that you like, nutrition can feel like less of a chore—you might even find yourself liking it and sticking with it for years to come.