How to navigate fitness without subscribing to diet culture

Kat Nicholls
By Kat Nicholls,
updated on Jan 6, 2022

How to navigate fitness without subscribing to diet culture

If prioritising your physical health is a goal for you this year, avoiding the pitfalls of diet culture can feel tough. Here we explore how to do it with compassion and integrity

We all know how January can feel. Facing an onslaught of ‘New Year, New You’ messaging set against brutal workout plans, diet ads and promises of radical transformation can be overwhelming for many. For those of us with a history of disordered eating and body image issues, it can feel even harder.

I’ll be honest, for many years I shunned any notion of working on my physical health. As an anorexia survivor who now embraces body positivity, health at every size and fat liberation, it’s felt safer to reject the fitness world altogether.

This year though, something’s changed. My body isn’t feeling good. My joints hurt, I’m getting out of breath doing simple tasks and I feel held back by my lack of fitness. So, I decided this year to bring my physical health to the forefront. Entering into the fitness world in this context has felt challenging, a little like fumbling around in the dark as I try to block diet culture rhetoric from view and find my own way though. There have been some pointers that have lit up a path, however, guiding my way through.

Get clear (and compassionate) about your health goals

My first task was to look at my health goals through a critical lens. What did I really want? What was driving my desire for change? Thankfully, this was pretty clear for me. I want to strengthen my muscles to support my joints and I want to be able to walk long-ish distances without feeling like I’m dying. I’ve got a trip to Sedona coming up this year and I want to be able to join my family on hikes through the incredible scenery, so this has given me a helpful boost of motivation (and a deadline!).

What’s important to note here is that none of these goals are to do with the way my body looks or how much it weighs. These are goals diet culture loves to feed us, so if your goals are centred around aesthetics, it may be worth having a re-think and questioning where that idea is coming from.

Finally, be compassionate about your goals. Acknowledge that as humans we live in cycles, just like nature. We can’t expect ourselves to be full of energy and excited to work on our fitness goals every day. Sometimes life simply gets in the way. Allow space for rest and recovery and avoid beating yourself up if you don’t meet your goals. Treat yourself with kindness, pick yourself up and keep going - progress is still progress.

Remember, movement should be a form of self-care, not self-punishment. To learn more about this, join our upcoming free webinar in partnership with RED January on moving for mood, self-care and connection where I’ll be chatting with experts to get their top tips (Wednesday 19 January, midday).

Explore intuitive movement and intuitive eating

Intuitive eating is something I’ve been practising for a long time now and I rave about it to anyone who’ll listen. The premise is to develop a more intuitive relationship with the foods you’re eating, eating what feels good to you, and what makes your body feel good. It’s not about restriction and it isn’t about giving food a sense of morality (food can’t be ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it’s simply food).

Intuitive movement is a concept I’ve learnt about more recently. Describing it as being a way to help people develop a good relationship with exercise, author, podcast host and personal trainer Tally Rye says, "Focusing on how we feel, rather than how we look, is most important."

Again, this is about rejecting the narrative that weight loss = health and punishing ourselves through exercise. Instead, it’s celebrating movement for the health benefits it offers and finding what makes you feel great. For some that may be HIIT workouts and lifting weights. For others, it’s roller skating and yoga. We’re all different and that’s something we should celebrate, not shame ourselves for.

Leaning into both intuitive eating and movement is therefore a brilliant way to shift your mindset and start really connecting with your body.

Find support that makes you feel good

There are countless apps, plans and professionals out there that can help you on your fitness journey. But, if you want to steer clear of diet culture and punishing regimes, it’s important to be intentional and careful about the support you seek. As a general rule of thumb, try to avoid anything and anyone that requires you to:

  • weigh/measure yourself
  • take before and after pictures to show #transformation
  • count calories/carbs/syns
  • push through injury/pain

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by an app I downloaded called Nobs, which, as well as being hilarious to say, stands for ‘No BS’. The app, created by Lucy Mountain encourages inclusivity and feels like a breath of fresh air. If you’re looking for a professional, be sure to learn more about their approach and see if it aligns with yours. Remember, it’s OK to be picky about these things - keep searching until you find someone right for you.

Surround yourself with inspiration

To help you avoid unhelpful messaging as much as possible, I’d recommend a good social media clear-out. Go ahead and unfollow/mute accounts that feel unhelpful or triggering to you and fill the void with inspirational people. Following accounts like the aforementioned Tally Rye as well as Lauren Leavell and Jessamyn has been really helpful in reminding me what it’s all about.

If you’re looking for some gentle accountability too, why not set up a chat group with others who have similar goals to you? To kickstart the year, I’ve joined the RED January challenge which is all about fitting realistic everyday movement into your life. To help me stay motivated, I created a chat with others taking part so we can encourage each other and share tips.

Set boundaries

Diet culture is called ‘culture’ for a reason. It is embedded into society and considered ‘the norm’. This can make it challenging when you find yourself in conversation with others about fitness. Other people’s skewed views can easily bleed into yours, so it’s important to set yourself some boundaries. This may mean keeping certain topics off the table for discussion with some people, or tactfully changing the subject when dieting comes up. For more on this, read our guide to confronting diet talk.

I’m still pretty early on in my journey but I’m excited to see how it goes and how I continue to keep dodging diet culture. It can feel like hopping from one stone to another in a river of lava at times, but hey - that’s some cardio in itself right? All joking aside, the extra work is totally worth it to maintain a balanced and mentally healthy approach to fitness.

Thanks so much for reading and, as a reminder, we are running a series of free webinars in collaboration with RED January about movement for mental health, so take a look at the programme and register to any that appeal to you.  

Find a nutritionist near you who can support your health goals on Nutritionist Resource.

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