How Do I Run for Health Not Weight?

Published on 11/3/2020

I’ve been uncomfortable in my body since I can remember. It makes me sad, to think back to the little girl who realised too young that she wasn’t as skinny as the rest, that she had to pose a specific way in photographs, that she was somehow less than the rest. I loved running, I’d never been good at sports given my lack of hand-eye coordination, but running made me feel free. First through the power of a sprint, focusing only on the finish line as the cheers and faces blurred around me. Then through long-distance races, realising that I could accomplish something bigger, that I could keep going.

Sadly, running was yet another thing I lost to my eating disorder. Running stopped being my freedom and became my cage. I stopped enjoying the sensation of running and instead focused solely on the numbers. How far am I running? How many calories am I burning? How many calories do I need to burn to make up for the piece of bread I ate today? I didn’t like running anymore since it was a chore; it was something I had to do to lose even more weight. It was a punishment rather than a reward. My limbs ached, I was always exhausted, and yet I kept running and working out every day. A lot of that time is a blur to me, looking back, I feel like crying, but at the time I was too numb even to feel it.

It took me several years, but I’m reaching a point of doing exercise for me and not for my size. I’m bigger than I’ve ever been, but also happier in my body. People say I finally look like myself, I look in the mirror, and I see someone alive, and someone who actually wants to stay that way. But how do you reach this point? How do you learn to view exercise as something for your health or mind, rather than weight? Or rather, how do you unlearn everything you thought you knew and believed previously?

1. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Pun most certainly intended! This isn’t going to have overnight. This isn’t going to be a switch that you flip, and you’re cured - if only! Changing your mindset and relationship with exercise takes time, a lot of it. There will be setbacks, mistakes and bad days. But there will also be good days and hope on the horizon. Don’t let yourself get disheartened early on, just keeping trudging along to the bigger goal. Reward yourself for the smaller moments and milestones.

2. Not a punishment.

Somehow, at a young age, the majority of us were taught to view exercise as a way to lose weight. If you’re fat, you have to do more of it. If you’re skinny, you can do less of it. There are so many flaws in this logic, but somehow we still believed it wholeheartedly. We considered exercise as our responsibility on a journey to being thin.

The biggest change in mindset is to stop seeing exercise as a way to lose weight, to stop seeing the need to lose weight. This is really hard to do, and needs to be a daily commandment said to yourself. You need to look into the mirror and find what you love in it. It’s hard, especially when society loves to shove their ‘perfect’ image down our throat. But the biggest step to enjoying running and doing it for (mental) health, is to stop seeing it as a way to be thin. And to particularly stop seeing it as a punishment for overeating.

Most of us are guilty of this at some time or another. We treat ourselves to pizza or another delicious meal, maybe even dessert. But is it really a treat when we tell ourselves we need to make up for it the next day? To go for a run or exercise to work off those calories. Maybe it’s intended as a harmless joke, but despite that, it reinforces this concept of punishing ourselves for eating and punishing ourselves using exercise. When these thoughts enter your mind or even come out of your mouth, stop them right there. Tackle them at the source. And don’t let those around you get away with them either. Confront this negative thought pattern. When you are pushing yourself to go for a run due to bingeing out the night before, don’t. Do it when you are running for positive reasons instead.

Run to gain, not to lose.

To gain health, peace of mind, enjoyment, relaxation, strength and more.

Not to lose weight.

3. Why do I run?

This can sound like a self-evident question, but many don’t take the time to consider what the answer is for them. Ask yourself why you run. Is it for health, such as heart health or muscles? Do you want to feel stronger? Do you run to help your mental health? Do you run to explore the area, to get away from your desk? These are all valid reasons, and multiple can apply, but it is important to work out which are your personal reasons. Sit down or go for a walk and think about this. Next time you finish a run, work out how you’re feeling, what do you feel good about? By focusing on these positive emotions and sensations, you attach them to the act of running and make it easier to access them each time.

And this also applies to when you’re finding the motivation to run, ask yourself why you want to go for this run? As running for your health is super valid as well, but too often we’re unconsciously focused on the motivation of losing weight, which isn’t a good enough reason and doesn’t help our mindset. Ask other people why they run, consider the reasons you could run for.

4. Find enjoyment in your run.

A run to lose weight is quite a boring one. It’s probably a very specific route, as you know how far that is, how long it takes and roughly the calories it burns. You don’t care about the view, merely burning calories to be able to eat dinner. But part of learning to love running and to do it for health is making your runs a fun event in themselves.

This can be through music or a podcast, maximising the experience of the run. Or through not listening to anything at all, taking in the sounds around you and allowing your thoughts to roam free. Think of where you’re running. Use running as an opportunity to explore your neighbourhood, or to get away into nature. Once I released running from the tight binds of being weight-focused, I instead saw it as an opportunity to be in nature. It didn’t matter if I ended up walking a bit or stopping in a beautiful area, as my run was for me, not to maximise calories burned.

What would make you enjoy your run more? It could be new workout clothes that make you feel good in the size that you’re in, rather than waiting to buy stuff in a smaller size. It could be the time of day, running in daylight when you have less time rather than in the dark to make it as long as possible. What would make you love running again?

5. Goal-based running.

I truly managed to get past my eating disorder when I signed up to run a half-marathon. I suddenly had to focus on fuelling my body rather than slimming it, and my body stopped being a cage and instead a force that propelled me along. You don’t need to sign up for a half-marathon, particularly if that kind of pressure would adversely affect you. But rather view running in terms of other goals than weight. It could be distance, wanting to run further and grow that strength in your body and mind. It could be a routine, the power to run a certain amount of times per week - but be careful not to let the routine ruin the enjoyment and freedom of it! It could also be a speed; you want to push yourself to run a kilometre in under six minutes. This helps to make running fun and focused on a different purpose to weight. You then measure your success not by size, but by other variants.

6. Consider whether you’ll measure at all.

I use a Fitbit to track my exercise, and I found that it doesn’t affect me in terms of my body struggles. But not everyone has this, as we each have our own triggers. If measuring your run is one of them, and you can’t help but fixate on calories burned, then stopping measuring your run. It’ll be a difficult change, but worthwhile. Instead, focus on a route or free-run, and allow yourself to be in the moment of the run. It’s easier to digest this by using the length of your run in time, as you still know how long were outside for. This also allows you to take it easier on your body, to walk when your body wants that, as you don’t have a timer ticking away. There is no shame in not measuring your run, in fact, it can be the best way to transition into the right reasons for running.

7. Listen to your body.

It is so difficult to listen to our bodies. It is a skill we never developed. We don’t really eat when we’re hungry, we eat when we should or for certain emotions. We exercise when we should rather than when we want to. And there are limits for this, as with everything. Building an exercise habit includes sometimes running or working out when you don’t extremely feel like it. But there is a difference between feeling less keen and not being in the right place to.

I like to approach this by always trying to go out for the run, but if by a kilometre or two in my body is protesting, I walk instead. Walking isn’t a failure; it’s a great replacement for running. You’re still moving your body; you’re still outside. Walking is also great for mental and physical health and builds condition. When you’re running for health, it’s great to alternate based on your feel both physically and mentally.

If your body needs to rest one day, it feels tired and unwell, don’t push it. Your health benefits more from resting in those weaker moments. The same goes for your mind. Sometimes running can help your mental health, but other times it is only damaging it further. Learn to check in and understand what you need in a moment.

Learning to run for health, whether that is mental or physical, rather than weight is one of the best gifts that you can offer yourself. By no longer viewing exercise as punishment or mandatory task, you end up enjoying it more and maybe even running more. You find that childhood joy in running, the feeling of freedom and the rush it provides, and you’re given an escape for ten, fifteen or thirty minutes. It’s a difficult transition, but one that only reaps benefits.

I'd love to hear about your experience! How did you learn to love exercise again? What stops you from enjoying running?

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