I stood in the bathroom, wiped the steam off the mirror, dropped my towel and let out a disappointing sigh. As I grabbed at my squishy stomach and pinched my inner thighs, I thought the same thought I’d been thinking every morning since I could remember:

“If only I could just shed these few extra pounds, life would be a whole lot easier.”

This thought came from years and years of comparing myself to countless beautiful women, both in real life and in the media. I thought, if I could just lose the extra cushion around my midsection, all my insecurities would vanish, people would take me seriously and, most importantly, men would find me desirable; it wasn’t about self-improvement or self-love, it was about seeking validation from those around me. I wanted so badly to have a flawless figure so other people would think I was worthy of their time and attention.

For years, this unrelenting insecurity stopped me from truly allowing myself to live my life without caring what other people think, which in turn, has resulted in far too many missed opportunities. And surely growing up with the rise of social media hasn’t done me any favours, because let’s be real here, who hasn’t spent hours scrolling through the Instagram profile of a Victoria’s Secret Angel or two?

Cue multiple gym memberships, weeks of binge workouts, glimmers of progress, and countless spirals back into the pits of self-doubt. I wasn’t working out to feel better, I was working out to look better. Do you see the issue here?

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I realized I was doing this fitness thing all wrong, but I can say that years of yoyo dieting and subpar workout routines unfortunately led me to rely on past relationships and one-night-stands, dragging myself through emotional mud, in order to feel any sort of validation that I was, in fact, desirable.

Perhaps it was that one regrettable hangover, or maybe it was the fifth time my ex-boyfriend and I tried to cut ties, or possibly it was the simple fact that none of my dates or dusty gym memberships were making my clothes fit any better. All I know is that I woke up one morning and realized that I needed to love myself from the inside before I could recognize any physical progress at all. (I also realized that I needed to buck up and actually take the gym seriously.)

These revelations lit a fire in my soul and forced me to put my blinders on, focusing on bettering my mental health while taking care of my physical body at the same time. See what I did there?

It is common knowledge that exercise releases endorphins in the brain, which leads to a happier and healthier mindset. It wasn’t until I did a little research, tested a few fitness studios around Edmonton, and found a workout I truly enjoyed, that I finally felt the mental and physical benefits of sweating it out.

It also helps that I have an incredible support system in my best friend and workout partner. Working out with someone else makes all the difference. You can challenge each other, tell each other to suck it up, and motivate each other to achieve maximum results.

People always tell you to be patient and push through the burn to see physical results, and because it was my own impatience that faulted my success in the past, I encourage you to step back and accept that physical results take time. However, I find that people don’t talk about the mental health benefits of working out enough. Once I got into a regular fitness routine, my mindset almost immediately flipped a switch and I found myself waking up happier and healthier.

There is a certain feeling of freedom and self-acceptance that comes with physical health and wellness. And while I’m still waiting for my six-pack abs to reveal themselves, I have never felt so content to live life on my own terms.

I no longer seek validation from others around me, because I know that the only true path to self-love is doing it for you and no one else. It might take months for me to reveal a tight and toned figure, but for now I get to enjoy more energy, healthier sleeping habits, and a general thirst for life – a desire to smile, laugh, and enjoy everyday without thinking about who’s analyzing my physique.

If not for your body, workout for your soul. Success comes from within, and the only person stopping you from reaching your goals is you.

By Hayley Merchant