What girls should know about exercise

On Facebook the other day, I stumbled across this article a friend posted: 10 Things I Want My Daughter To Know About Working Out. This friend plays roller derby with me, and I know exactly where she’s coming from – because it’s what I believe about exercise as well.

Strength equals self-sufficiency.  Being strong – particularly as a woman – is empowering.  It will feel good someday to be able to carry your own luggage down the stairs if the airport escalator is broken, and it will be important to have a solid shot at outrunning a stranger should you meet one a dark alley.

Fitness opens doors.  Being healthy and fit can help you see the world differently.  The planet looks different from a bike or a pair of skis than it does from a car or an airplane.  Out in the elements you have the time and space to notice details and meet people and remember smells and bugs and mud and rain and the feeling of warm sunshine on your face.  And those are the moments that make up your life.

Exercise is a lifestyle, not an event.  Being an active person isn’t about taking a class three times a week at the gym.  It’s about things like biking to the grocery store and parking your car in the back of the lot and walking instead of taking a cab and catching up with friends on a hiking trail instead of a bar stool.

Health begets health.  Healthy behavior inspires healthy behavior.  Exercise.  Healthy eating.  Solid sleep.  Positive relationships.  These things are all related.

I’ve always been athletic. I’m decently tall-ish for a girl, and I’ve always been “thin”. I played soccer for 12 years growing up, a hobby that kept me lean and in shape for a long time. I took a brief hiatus from exercise in college, but (magically enough) I still managed to stay relatively “in shape”. If you look at my two brothers, you’ll find this same body type. We’re a family of runners, even if some of us love it (one brother ran track and cross-country), and some of us hate it (this girl).

I started running again once I graduated from college, but it was when I started playing roller derby in 2011 that I started thinking seriously about exercise. I loved the team atmosphere of roller derby, and so “working out” at practice became infinitely preferable to doing something at home, or going to the gym. Eventually though, I realized that if I wanted to improve at derby, I needed to work out on my own, improve my endurance, and strengthen my core and legs.

I’ve had a few exercise routines since then, but I’ve now settled in a rhythm of going to the gym at least twice a week on top of derby practices. I started by focusing on my core, running, and leg exercises, but have since moved on to devoting one day a week to my upper body. I’ve always had a small upper body, and have thus always felt “weak”. Yeah, it’s been nice having thin arms most of my life, but it’s frustrating when I can’t take care of myself – when I have to ask someone else to lift the heavy things. I wanted to be stronger than that, and so instead of settling for the 5lb free weights I have at home, I took to the gym and have since steadily increased my weights. I’m not Wonder Woman yet, but J insists he’s seeing some definition in my triceps, and for some reason, I feel very proud.

Because – and this is what’s important about this article – exercise for women shouldn’t be about “looking good” or “getting skinnier”, it should be about growing stronger. OK, I get it ladies, you don’t want to look like a bodybuilder. Cross-fitters freak you out (don’t worry, they freak me out too). But focusing on strength – whether it’s in your lungs, your legs, or your biceps – is not unfeminine, it’s a sign of power. As women, we should be able to take care of ourselves, and have a body that is healthy and able to take on any challenges. But you’re not going to get there if you’re obsessing about losing every last pound, and looking good in a dress. Or, even worse, looking good for other people.

I won’t lie: even though I admit I’ve always been a thin girl, I have always-always-always-always hated being called “skinny”. In junior high and high school, it was a backhanded insult, not a compliment. It’s something predatory girls say to demean others because they can’t get over their own body issues. But even more that, being called “skinny”, to me, is like being called weak.

Instead, I’d much rather be called strong, lean, in shape, and womanly. I don’t care what my body looks like to others when I’m wearing a swimsuit. I’d much rather work on my self-esteem and confidence so that no matter what I look like in the mirror, I feel beautiful. Because, as the author of the article says:

If you feel beautiful, you look beautiful.  Looking beautiful starts on the inside.  And being fit and strong feels beautiful.

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