Body Neutrality: A Mindset for More Joy

With each new year, a new approach to weight loss, fitness, or nutrition to optimize health and well-being seems to materialize.  The body-positive movement that embraces all shapes and sizes has been gradually replaced by “body neutrality”.  But what does this concept mean really and how can it help people stay active and feel better over the long term?

As people age, there are bound to be some changes in how the body functions, looks, and feels.  There may be bulges we would rather not see in the mirror, a few stiff joints in the morning, and perhaps less endurance.  But, according to a recent New York Times Move article, being able to accept and respect what your body can do, rather than its appearance, may be key to developing a better relationship with food and exercise. 

The term “body neutrality” was made popular by body image coach and author Anne Poirier.  She used the concept to help her clients gain a different perspective about their bodies, even if they didn’t look as they might wish.  Instead of trying to find love for all the flaws you see, aiming to accept and appreciate the body for what it can do and how it feels might not only be more realistic but could also lead to greater participation in sustainable activities and helping people enjoy movement more.  

Instead of viewing physical activity as a specific means to lose weight, tone your core, or tighten up batwing arms, what if exercise was designed to be fun and focus on what the body is able to do and what feels good.? Maybe the goal of the day is to relieve stress, stretch out tight areas of the body, or work to gradually improve muscle strength.

Health Psychologist Kelly McGonigal, who authored The Joy of Movement, teaches the principles of body neutrality to her students at Stanford University.  Instead of trying to change your body, McGonigal endorses viewing exercise and movement as an opportunity to engage with life.  This approach helps people learn a new way to relate to their bodies with gratitude and listen to what feels good on any given day.  And by releasing some of the judgment and focus on appearance, it may be more likely that individuals will stay active doing the things they enjoy. Rather than trying to fit into pre-pandemic skinny jeans, take a walk when the sun shines and see how you feel. You might just want to do it again tomorrow.