We get lost in the ultimate purpose of exercise because society has us running on the hamster wheel of chasing aesthetics. But aesthetics are secondary. We think they aren't, but when you reach the aesthetic goal you set out for, there will always be another one you strive to accomplish. It's great to have goals. It's not great to think you are incomplete until you have achieved them. The fitness industry is famous for preying on your insecurities, thus making you feel like happiness is unattainable without a certain shape or size. It's slowly finding its way back to the mental health aspect, but after generations of promoting exercise as a way to control what you look like, it has really lost sight of its true purpose: to feel good and take care of yourself.
When you approach exercise with only the "I want to lose weight" or "I want to build muscle" trope, you may leave the first session feeling invigorated. However, after several sessions with this motivation you will start to feel drained and unfulfilled, especially if results are slow to come, which is most often the case.
We want exercise to be fulfilling, satisfying, and inspiring. We want to be happy we did it, not ask why did we do it.
So, HOW do you find a way around the deeply engrained and draining mindset of exercise = aesthetic goal? I have grappled with this question for a few years now, and the most effective approach I have found is what I call a Mindset Check-In. Mindset Check-Ins are tools you use to check where your brain is; where your thoughts have carried you as it pertains to your fitness.
The problem is not exercise or fitness. The problem is the goal.
Long-term goals are great for how you end up designing a program to reach those goals, but they are not the things that will lead us to lasting happiness and fulfillment right after a workout. Your immediate short-term goals are what you should focus on, and that's where the Mindset Check-In is useful.
Here's how they work:
You take 2-3 minutes before a session to be still with your thoughts. With my pre-workout Mindset Check-In, I stand and maybe move a little. I like to audio record my thoughts so that they become more than just an idea floating in the ether. A journal will do just fine instead, just takes a little longer. All your answers must have to do with your mind and stressors (this includes lethargy) you feel in your body from life, but they must not include anything about the aesthetics of your body.
During this time you ask yourself these 3 questions:
How do you feel before your workout? This is a good time to feel out any stressors, good or bad, that may be on your mind. You don't have to do anything about them. Just make a note that they are there.
What is your mental goal for your workouts in the long term? This is often, but not exclusively, a long-term mental goal, not something you are hoping to accomplish in the work out. It could be something that happens over the day, week, month, or even year. The answer to this question doesn't have to be long. And it can be the same answer every session as long as you are sincerely answering it and not just answering the question to get on with it. My answer is often, "I'm working out today to cleanse my body and mind of negative energy and toxins. I want to feel clear-minded and patient with my surroundings and tasks." Another good answer is, "I am working out today to spend time with my breath and the moment." Your answer to this question is never going to be something like, "I want to lift x lbs," or "burn x calories," or "complete this many reps." Those kinds of goals are important, but they should be figured out before your mindset check-in.
What do you want to accomplish mentally during this workout? Do you want to see how strong you can be mentally to push yourself past a comfort zone? Or do you want to figure out a life issue you are having as you exercise? Or do you want to break away from life for a moment and just be present with your body? All valid mental goals to have during a workout.
And lastly you want to complete this check-in with an affirmation. My favorite is, "What I physically or mentally accomplish in this workout does not determine my value to me or anyone else." This reminds me that my goals are important for personal progress, but I do not have to let them weigh me down if I don't accomplish what I set out to.
When your workout is finished take a seat away from people, turn on some peaceful tunes or turn off your music completely. Review the 3 questions asked above.
How do you feel now compared to before your workout? - Really dwell in the endorphins that have been released as a result of your sessions.
What is your mental goal for your workouts in the long term? - just acting as a reminder. Whether or not you accomplished it may not be answerable at this point.
Did you accomplish the mental goal you wanted to during this workout?
Record your answers somewhere, either in a journal or an audio recording. With time, you will find that your mind will shift from, "I want to exercise to look like this" to something like "I want to exercise to take care of my mental state and to feel good." That "exercise to feel good" concept will no longer be secondary to your appearance, but rather will become the priority. Any aesthetic goals you set out for will follow, but you don't have to obsess over them. The Mindset Check-In is a process of rewiring your brain to focus on what is truly important: your mental health, the command-center of your entire system.