Health and fitness don’t have a singular acceptable aesthetic. Here, author and coach Michelle Elman shares the journey of her own relationship with exercise, and why we need to stop making assumptions about people’s health or abilities just by looking at them

When you walk through the world in a plus size body, everyone thinks they know all about you and your medical record. They don’t just make assumptions based on your health or physical abilities, and deduce that you are ‘lazy’, but also about your character, priorities, and hobbies.

It’s something we’ve all heard before, but it feels like it needs saying again: you do not know someone’s life story by looking at them – and I am the perfect example of that. I go to the gym regularly, and have done so since I was 19 years old, but because my body doesn’t demonstrate the aesthetic results people associate with avid gym-goers, people are quick to assume that either my workouts are not effective, or that I’m not telling the truth about them.

I find it so bizarre how many people are keen to emphasise that exercise is so much more than your fitness, that it is good for your mental health, and that it can create hobbies and interests that make your life feel more full, but the moment you see a plus size person working out, the immediate assumption is that it must be for weight loss. Plus size people are consistently told they need to care more about their health, and even though research demonstrates that if you work out, it will have a positive impact on your overall health even when weight is not lost, this point misses most people.

I have had 15 surgeries, a brain tumour, a punctured intestine, an obstructed bowel, a cyst in my brain, and I live with a condition called hydrocephalus, and my passion for working out began when I came out of my last hospitalisation at 19 years old. As a child, I was very active, and loved swimming, tennis, roller hockey, ice skating, horse riding, wakeboarding, and so much more, but then I went into hospital at 11 years old and I became scared of the world. Rather than fun pastimes, everything became a risk and method for me to hurt myself, and therefore I shied away from all the sports I loved.

It actually took another hospitalisation at 19 years old for the fear to reverse, and make me realise that even though I had bubble wrapped myself for the last eight years, and tried to keep myself safe, I still ended up in hospital, so I might as well live my life. I thought that if I’m going to end up in hospital anyway, I might as well live the life I want to, and upon leaving hospital, I made the commitment to myself that I was going to use my body in the way I loved again – moving it and making the most of life! I told myself I would run on behalf of people who couldn’t, and I wouldn’t take my ability to move my body for granted. And I haven’t!

More than a decade on, I have added even more types of movement to the list – from reformer pilates to paddle boarding – and trust me, you don’t go through those health experiences and then not care about your health. But for all the keyboard warriors, no, I don’t do it for my health! I do it for fun, and I believe that is the best reason to move your body.

The thing that makes me sad about this continual obsession around health is that we now only associate fitness with nutrition, as a compensation for the calories we consume, and therefore the associated failure if the number on the scale doesn’t move. But exercise and movement is so much more than that. It’s feeling the power in your body when you do something you previously couldn’t. It’s the freedom of finding a sport that gets me out of my head and gives me a rare hour of peace and quiet in my brain in a world that encourages us all to be over-thinkers. It forces me to find time to prioritise myself, by dedicating an hour to myself in the gym and turning my phone off. It’s bonding when I introduce my friends to my love of paddle boarding, and seeing their faces light up too – and all of that is so much more than aesthetic results or compensating for calories.

Too many people never get to experience the true joy of exercise, because we are so obsessed with keeping the mindset that workouts must be work. We need to return to a time where riding your bike was fun, running about on the playground was natural, and dancing in your kitchen was instinctual.

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