Healthy Movement vs. Toxic Fitness: How to Tell the Difference

If you spend any time in the fitness space—whether that’s following fitness influencers on social media, going to exercise classes, hitting the gym, or doing at-home workouts—you’ve probably heard phrases like these:

“No pain, no gain.”

“Sweat is just fat crying.”

“Pain is weakness leaving the body.”

“The only bad workout is the one that didn’t happen.”

Phrases like these are unfortunately pretty normal in our society, where diet culture tends to inform most people’s attitude toward exercise. But they’re also examples of toxic fitness.

Though it can be framed as “motivating,” the reality is that relating to fitness in such an aggressive and unyielding way can take a toll on your body and mind—I know from experience. For a long time, my fraught relationship with exercise led me to have poor physical health, including reproductive issues and amenorrhea (or loss of period), as well as mental and emotional issues, like panic attacks, crippling anxiety, and a disconnection to my true self.

Thankfully, there’s a much different, truly healthy way to relate to exercise. While there’s no official name for this life-supportive relationship to exercise, it’s commonly referred to as healthy movement or joyful movement (as a dietitian who works with clients on such relationships, I like to use the word “movement” as opposed to “exercise” to help differentiate it from more toxic forms of fitness). Today, we’ll explore toxic fitness and its consequences, and joyful movement and its benefits. You’ll also learn how to spot the differences between the two within both your internal and external worlds, and what to do if you’re struggling.

Defining healthy movement and toxic fitness

Healthy or joyful movement is about focusing on how your body feels as you move it, instead of how it looks, how many calories you’re burning, or how it will affect your body shape or size. It’s about moving in ways you enjoy and that enhance your well-being, and for reasons outside of appearance. When you engage in healthy movement, you might move to improve focus, feel empowered, connect with community, or other goals that have nothing to do with changing your body. In my experience personally and professionally, one of the game-changers of healthy movement is flexibility instead of rigidity. “When you have a healthy relationship with movement, skipping a workout feels easy and uncomplicated when life happens or an unplanned rest day is the better choice,” explains sports dietitian Lexi Moriarty, MS, RDN, CSSD.

Another important aspect of healthy movement is its respectful and intuitive approach to the body. “Healthy movement is something that can be adjusted and adapted for our needs,” says Maria Sylvester Terry, MS, RDN, LDN. “It's full of gray area and less about exercising ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’” In other words, it’s about being with and doing something for your body, instead of battling and disconnecting from it.

Toxic fitness is the exact opposite of healthy movement. In fact, the only commonality between the two is that they both involve moving your body. Terry describes toxic fitness as transactional, meaning that you must complete certain movement-related goals in order to deserve or “earn” something else in your life. “With a toxic fitness mindset, you might say, ‘I can't eat X until I walk Y number of steps,’ ‘I have to run X miles per week to eat Y number of calories per day,’ or ‘I can't go out to dinner tonight because I haven't exercised,’” she says. “It negates the benefits of movement and rest in general to fulfill an arbitrary expectation of what ‘counts’ as exercise.”

Toxic fitness also includes black-and-white thinking and an all-or-nothing mentality. According to Terry, someone trapped in these unhealthy thought patterns might set rigid standards for themselves, like, “burn X calories in a fitness class or it doesn't count, run all miles under a certain pace or else you didn't really try, and no days off.” She describes it as a “you-versus-you” mentality, which “may appear ‘committed’ on the outside but can erode your relationship with movement, food, and your body.”

Moriarty adds that if you’re an athlete or are training for an event, being intentional and consistent with training is typically necessary and normal. “However, ignoring an injury, training through significant illness, overtraining, going above and beyond your coaches’ recommendations, and underfueling your training should never be the case,” she explains. “Doing things like this often indicates a more unhelpful mindset around training or exercise.”

Benefits of healthy movement

Healthy movement can improve your holistic health and well-being in significant ways. A growing body of research shows that healthy movement—usually defined as two to three hours of moderate physical activity per week—has a host of different benefits. Specifically, studies show that this level of exercise can improve mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. Research also shows that healthy movement can help improve physical well-being, including balance and coordination, and help prevent or manage some diseases, like diabetes and heart disease. Another scientific review shows an association between healthy movement and improved cognitive functioning. “It’s important to note only a small amount of movement is required to experience these benefits,” says Equip lead dietitian Camilla Blanton, RD, CEDS. “This means that exercise does not have to be strenuous, structured, or take a long time to have benefits.”

And it’s not just the actual exercise that has benefits, it’s also the relationship to exercise that healthy movement fosters: one study found a link between women who relate healthfully to physical activity and better body image and self-esteem, when compared to those who have a more difficult relationship with exercise. Personally, I feel way more empowered and have a much better relationship to my body after replacing toxic fitness with healthy movement. Instead of being the only way I deal with hard emotions, movement is one of several emotional outlets. My flexible, functional, and joyful movement is one of many self-care practices that support my core life values, so I can be more fully myself. By trading toxic fitness for healthy movement, I freed myself from defining my identity through exercise and my body’s performance.

Consequences of toxic fitness

Just as healthy movement can positively impact your body and mind, research shows that an unhealthy relationship with exercise can come with harmful—and sometimes life-threatening—side effects. “The main consequences of excessive exercise include cardiovascular risk like arrhythmias and cardiac arrest, and musculoskeletal consequences like injury to the muscles or nearby tendons, joints, and ligaments,” Blanton explains. “The hormonal risks include loss of period, which can occur if you’re not eating enough to support your workouts, and prolonged unhealthy exercise in the absence of adequate nutrition can cause loss of bone mineral density over time, which may lead to osteoporosis.” Having an unhealthy relationship to exercise can also cause sleep issues, decreased immunity, and mood swings.

Social isolation is another major side effect. This may show up as choosing exercise instead of important events, classes, work, and major life opportunities, according to Blanton. “Exercise takes precedence over everything else, moving someone further away from what is truly valued or meaningful in life.” In my practice, several of my clients begin our work feeling like slaves to their exercise routines, and distressed about how much of their lives, energy, and brain space are taken up by a toxic fitness mindset. “When exercise feels like a ‘have to’ instead of a ‘want to’ or ‘get to,’ it can make us feel powerless in our own routines. Instead of us controlling the movement schedule, the movement schedule controls us,” Terry says.

How to spot the differences, inside and out

If you’re worried that your relationship to exercise has tipped into the harmful territory, it’s important to take action to course correct. An unhealthy relationship with exercise does damage to your mental and physical health, but you can reset that relationship and find a way to bring joyful physical activity into your life in a way that actually promotes health.

To discern whether you’ve become trapped in a toxic fitness mindset, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does exercise feel wrapped up in your food choices? The toxic fitness mindset subscribes to the belief that you have to “earn” your food, while healthy movement has nothing to do with your food intake.
  • Does it feel like exercise defines you? Take stock of how much time and energy exercise takes up in your mind and life in general. If it feels like it’s only one part of your life and self-care routine, that’s a sign that you’re engaging in healthy movement. If it dominates your days, that’s a red flag.
  • What’s your motivation for movement? If you exercise to change or control your body, you’re slipping toward toxic fitness. Healthy reasons to move include empowerment, fun, function, strength, focus, energy, improved mood, and community.
  • Do you only choose workouts for their calorie-burning effects? How would you move your body if it wasn’t about trying to change it? These two questions are helpful in further determining whether body control is at the heart of your exercise choices. Try to imagine what kind of movement you would want to do if they would all burn the same amount of calories or have the same “results.” Healthy movement is all about finding the joy in moving your body and figuring out what feels the best for you. Toxic movement is punitive and prescriptive.
  • Do you let yourself have rest days with ease? “If you aren't comfortable taking adequate rest days, this could be a major red flag for your relationship with movement,” Moriarty says. “Whether they're built into your training or when your body unexpectedly needs it, rest days can make your workouts more effective.”
  • Does your movement routine feel flexible or rigid? If it feels like the world is ending when you miss a day of exercise or you walk instead of run as planned, for example, it’s a sign of toxic fitness. “If going on a long walk sounds like a ‘cheat’ day, we need to reassess how we perceive and participate in movement,” Terry says.
  • Is your movement routine helping you connect more with your body or push past your body’s cues? Remember, healthy movement includes respecting the body and its boundaries, and toxic movement often means overriding its signals to complete workouts. If you’re following a certain plan—whether created by yourself, the internet, or a trainer—make sure it’s adjustable and allows for an intuitive approach to movement, versus a prescriptive one.
  • How's your stress? “Exercise is great for stress management but only to a point,” Moriarty says. “If your workout routine is regularly making your days more chaotic and stressful than they need to be, your routine may need a shift.”
  • What messages are surrounding your movement spaces? Unfortunately, diet culture messaging is typically loud in many fitness spaces, which includes the language used by trainers and instructors. “Out in the ‘fitness world,’ there’s a lot of messaging around ‘earning food’ or ‘burning calories,” Blanton cautions. In fact, research shows fitness instructors are more likely to have unhealthy relationships to exercise than the general population. Given that, it's important to set boundaries and find safe spaces and people that support healthy movement.

If you’re realizing that your relationship to movement may be more harmful than helpful to your well-being, consider working with a dietitian and therapist to start your healing process. Please know, a freer and more harmonious way of moving is possible for your future.

And if you’re worried that your exercise is a symptom of a deeper underlying issue, like an eating disorder, don’t wait to reach out for help. Disordered exercise habits often go hand-in-hand with eating disorders. Our free eating disorder screener is a good first step toward determining if you need help.

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Caroline Young
Contributing Writer, RD
Clinically reviewed by:
Camilla Blanton, RD, LD, CEDS
Lead Registered Dietitian
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