Exercise as Joy, Not Punishment

Have you ever asked someone how their workout was, and heard that it was fun or joyful? I hope so, but I’m guessing you’re more used to hearing words of punishment, like brutal or ass-kicking, in relation to exercise.

Have you used these words too? It’s okay; we all have. It’s the culture we live in. Toxic fitness culture has it that fitness and exercise should be grueling and strenuous to make up for our less-than-healthy (especially eating) habits. Think of it: have you thought of a workout as a way to make up for eating pizza or birthday cake? Have you heard others talk this way?

It makes exercise sound like it’s not fun or enjoyable, but rather an unpleasant means to an end.

But what if that’s completely untrue? And what if you didn’t have to participate in that thinking? What if you could use your body’s comfort and enjoyment as your compass to navigate your fitness journey? What if punishment need not apply?

Identifying Negative and Punishment-Based Messaging

Before we can choose joy as our fitness compass, we must first notice the opposite: the negative and punishing messaging of our mainstream fitness culture. This can be tricky because the messages are insidious and everywhere. Much like whiteness as the dominant culture, or the ever-present patriarchy, toxic fitness culture is the water we swim in.

But if you start looking, you’ll find these toxic fitness messages all over the place, such as: “I need to work out longer to burn off that pizza” or “Unless I am at the gym pushing my limits every time I workout than I am not working hard enough,” but there are (so very many) more. Here are some:

  • To be healthy, you must be thin
  • Fitness has a “look” (generally thin, toned, white-bodied, able-bodied)
  • Fitness goals are about weight loss (hence “before” and “after” pictures)
  • “No pain, no gain” and, “Pain is weakness leaving your body”
  • No one WANTS to work out; you do it because you have to.

If you’d like a longer list of toxic, punishment-based fitness culture statements, check out Ilya Parker of Decolonizing Fitness.

Look for— and Choose— JOY

Your WHY of fitness

Are you currently fitnessing and moving your body? Do you enjoy what you are doing? If not, identify what specifically you don’t like, and look for ways to incorporate joy. Could you exercise at a different time of day, with different people? Doing a different discipline?

Remember that moving your body doesn’t have to include traditional fitness like lifting weights, running or using an elliptical machine for 30 minutes. Maybe it’s those things, but maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s a mix of things like walking in nature, a strength circuit group fitness class, or a dance class in the park. Maybe it’s something COMPLETELY different. If you think of the last time you really enjoyed moving your body, that could give you a clue and help you move toward movements like that.

Once you know your why, it will be easier to choose which activities align, and which ones don’t.

Listen to your body

Aside from finding movements that bring you joy, listen to what your body tells you. If you are feeling unwell or need to rest, it’s okay to take some time. If you’re new to fitness, that may seem like a weird thing to do, especially if you are trying to build a habit of moving your body more.


As you practice listening to your body, you will learn the difference between “I am tired and I need to go home to rest and recharge” or “I am tired because of my work day, but exercise will recharge me.”

Oh, annnnnnnd, your body will start to tell you what it LIKES and what it wants to do more of, and it will even thank you by feeling joyful, vital, alive, and generally WELL.

Examine your language

The next step is to examine the words you use when talking about exercise and food. Is it language that is moralizing food: good, bad, healthy, unhealthy, junk, cheat day-that sort of stuff? Is it phrases like “I’m hitting the gym to burn off that birthday cake from earlier today” or “I better have a second workout today after that meal I just ate.” Additionally, catch yourself with thinking like: “I’m disappointed that I’m not sore today from my workout yesterday.” Your workout still counts if you don’t feel like a semi-truck hit you the next day!

Pay attention to your language and catch yourself when you hear it, whether with yourself or with others. Catch yourself and choose new joy-based phrasing, such as, “Exercise is going to feel really good after that long work day,” or “My body is saying it’s time to MOVE!” And of course I am not asking you to say that certain exercises feel joyful if they don’t. I’m asking you to find those places where exercise and joy DO overlap, and use that joy-based language to say so.

Changing to a joy-based perspective will be an ongoing process. It will not be quick or easy to make this change. Doing so means working against a lifetime of living in this society where punishment-based messages are pervasive and everywhere, from the media we consume, T.V. shows and movies, the news, magazines and fiction books to social media. Truly everywhere!

Build community

Building a community of joy-minded fitness folks can be a critical support when you’re taking brave steps to stray from the usual narrative. You can use this community to help each other identify toxic messages and consciously choose a different way.

As you do this, you may find the fitness-based accounts you’ve been following on social media no longer resonate with your values and your why. There are plenty of groups online or locally that embrace body diversity, intuitive eating, weight-inclusive approaches to health, and joyful movement. Check out these accounts that we love:

  • @i_weigh
  • @decolonizingfitness
  • @bodyposipanda
  • @maintenancephase
  • @mynameisjessamyn
  • @thefitnessindustrialcomplex
  • @yrfatfriend
  • @chr1styharrison
  • @disabledgirlswholift
  • @haes_by_asdah
  • @decolonizing_fitness
  • @roxthediva
  • @sonyareneetaylor
  • @breakingbodybiases
  • @thenutritiontea
  • @liftofstrength
  • @moretoloveyoga
  • @fitness4allbodies
  • @napministry
  • @thegirlsgonestrong
  • @unlikelyhikers
  • @blackgirlpilates
  • @superfithero
  • @damali.fraiser
  • @amberricelmft
  • @nonnormativebodyclub
  • @steph_gaudreau
  • @laurakhoudari

There are podcasts, books and articles talking about the negative effects of toxic fitness culture. You are definitely not alone!

The Reimagym Way

Joy and Comfort are at the Center

At Reimagym, we focus on the joy of moving your body and the satisfaction of consistent, incremental change. The organizing principle at Reimagym is that movement is good and it feels good and you know what’s good for you! For us, fitness is a conversation between you and our coaches. We’re focused on the goals you have for yourself and your fitness journey. We celebrate your victories, be it consistently coming each week, no longer feeling knee pain as you climb stairs, or picking up heavier weights. We foster community, creating connection, camaraderie and discovering your joy while participating in serious fitness— we try to be that community that steps outside of the usual narrative. We don’t talk about body size or shape and we don’t focus on weight loss.

I hope this post has given you something to think about. It’s my hope for you to discover your why for moving and discovering the movements that are in alignment with it. I hope to support you to begin or deepen your practice of noticing toxic and punishment-based language out there in mainstream fitness, and continuing to reframe your thoughts and language around fitness.

Reach out if you need some assistance. We are here for you!