Redefining Success in Fitness with Sadie Lincoln
This is a powerful episode full of tips and ideas to put into practice.
Are you ready to redefine what success and fitness mean? That’s exactly what we’re going to do today with Sadie Lincoln, co-founder and CEO of barre3.
In this conversation, we tap into this idea of redefining “modifying”, something that barre3 has done brilliantly and something that needs to be seen across the fitness and wellness world.
Sadie’s personal experience with fitness, feeling like she was failing in it for many years, is what led her to redefine success in fitness. She was at war with her body, trying to get it to “shape up”. She had anchored fitness to the idea that it would change her body into something that would be seen as more successful, more attractive, a signal of worth. She wasn’t conscious of it, but like the rest of us, she had been fed a message since she was born that there are certain ways to look as a woman. There are certain ways to look that are acceptable, that means you’re successful, certain ways to be attractive, and to be seen in the world as someone who achieves. Sadie really bought into that as a young adult. Physical fitness was a way for her to show up.
She said what they said to do, which at that time in the ‘80s and early ’90s, was all about the harder and longer you go, the more successful you’ll be, the heavier the weight, the stronger you’ll be, and that was the way to win the race. She did it all as best as she could, but fitness was a real chore and just about counting minutes and calories. It didn’t feel good in her body, though. She ended up always feeling heavier in her body and spirit, and the harder she tried, the worse she felt. That was Sadie’s experience in fitness for many years.
Fortunately, this awareness came with hindsight; you can’t change something if you’re not aware of it. Sadie first noticed this relationship with fitness and exercise when she became pregnant with her first child. At that point, she realized that for so many years she had not been listening to what she needed, instead, focusing on external measures (i.e. how many miles she ran, calories eaten and expended, weighing herself, noticing her size of clothing). Those external measures had been her motivation for exercising, although she wasn’t entirely aware of that.
When she became pregnant, however, her motivation completely shifted to listening inside herself about what was right for her body, right then. She started to work out and do yoga at home, playing around with modifying different moves to adjust to her growing body and really paying attention to what was best for her and this growing baby inside her.
Suddenly, exercise became so enriching and rewarding and she felt good in her body. Even though she was heavier and curvier, she felt beautiful. For the first time in a long time, Sadie rocked a bikini and felt joyful in her body, rather than trying to change it.
This change came during a lightning bolt moment while practicing yoga. Sadie had said to herself, “maybe I’m not failing fitness, maybe fitness is failing me”. Why did it take being pregnant to love moving and exercising in a way that truly was enriching? That was the seed of the idea for a fitness concept that wasn’t attached to external measures, that instead, honored being empowered from within and moving to feel good in your body as it is in this very moment, versus moving to get to a finish line in the future. That was the beginning of barre3.
Sadie took that realization about fitness and shared it in a big, powerful way. She knew these ideas to be true at her inner core, and noticing that it didn’t match what she saw in the world, created it herself. Even though she knew these ideas were true and important, she was up against the possibility that her idea wouldn’t work. Perhaps this fitness model didn’t exist in the world yet because people weren’t ready for that kind of reframed approach to exercise. Sadie was able to move through that tension, though, with this idea of taking time to look within and truly find empowerment from within.
Being empowered from within means: listening to my core when I am my most authentic self. Asking, what do I always value? What is most important to me when I am my most authentic self?. Building that muscle and proceeding with purpose creates joy and happiness in life.
For Sadie, when it comes to exercise, she is her most authentic self when she moves in a way that honors what she needs at that moment. She trusted that her experience mattered, this data point of one, even though the vast majority of fitness to this day is sold completely opposite to that idea. Fitness, a 30-billion dollar industry, is sold based on the before-and-after picture, based on the result in the future. Even though that is how the vast majority of fitness sells, it’s important to move in an honest way, which is where joy in fitness comes from.
Every single person Sadie has talked to about this over the last eleven years of growing barre3 has come to this same conclusion. These testimonies include super athletes, people whose lives depend on winning the race. In fact, they share that the reason they love being an athlete is for the joy of the journey, the working toward winning the race, not the actual act of winning.
Starting with her own experience, Sadie started to observe the world through that lens. She quickly realized that she is not alone. That reality we have all been fed, that we need to have fitness products and services to be worthy, to achieve the “after” picture, is actually not serving any of us, nor is it what we actually want. This inner knowing is what continues to drive her. Admittedly, people like Sadie and Robyn would probably be more successful if they photoshopped and drove hard with a marketing campaign highlighting a before-and-after. But they are willing to take a financial hit in order to uphold this core value, to be committed to real, to redefine what success in fitness means.
Sadie’s true, honest success, her data point of one, is a case study to see that this other approach to fitness works. When it comes to the fitness world that’s out there, just because it’s selling, doesn’t mean it’s working. Consumers are not actively listened to, health trends are not watched, and the fitness industry does not shift based on those trends. Shockingly, since 1980, when fitness really arrived as a mainstream consumer product, global obesity has doubled. Additionally, lifestyle illnesses that are related to things that we can control through fitness and healthy habits are increasing (i.e. diabetes type-2, anxiety, depression). We are not getting better, we are getting worse as the fitness industry is trending upward.
The booming industry that is fitness is, for the most part, based on this sales tactic that we buy into because we want to belong, to be attractive, to be worthy. Yet, we buy things and we don’t do or use them. When we buy fitness based on a future ideal, we end up dropping out, getting injured, or anchoring fitness to something negative. This relationship has been observed in research.
The vast majority of us fall short of the expectation that we’ve been sold around fitness. Impossible standards are impossible to achieve. It’s hard to get out of the loop of thinking that we are the problem and reaching for perfectionist ideals, comparison, or all or nothing.
When Robyn first walked into a barre3 studio, she was 3-months postpartum, had gained weight from being pregnant, had just gone back to work for 60-hours a week, was enrolled in a full-time doctoral program, and was just the worst and meanest to herself than she had ever been. She walked into the studio and began comparing herself to everyone else in there, feeling like she didn’t belong there, feeling like a failure.
She went back a couple of months later, starting with the same comparisons as before. Then, the instructor said, “you’re your own best teacher and it’s okay to modify”. Not only did Robyn have a realization that she could do these modifications, but she also got such genuine reinforcement that modifying wasn’t a weakness. In fact, modifying was a strength, it was wisdom.
It is really hard to modify when everyone is doing the same thing. To do it, you have to be very centered on yourself to do something different. Modifying will change the way you feel about fitness, the joy that you experience, and your ability to do it in the long term. It’s so important for all of us to be there for each other for that reason. After Robyn’s first barre3 experience, her husband picked her up and she got in the car devastated. He reminded her that she is her own best teacher and that she was running her own race. This type of support is so important, for all of us to be there for each other, always being a voice to reflect back. Because it doesn’t matter what we look like on the outside; it is irrelevant. The inner voice is so loud, and we’re conditioned to believe that we’re not enough no matter what we look like. Reflect back to people when you notice that they are body-shaming themselves or have the inner critic going at high speed, reminding them that “you’re enough, just as you are”.
There are so many barriers to getting through the doors of a fitness studio (which are all closed now anyway due to the coronavirus). Robyn shares from a place of privilege, being a white, straight, blonde woman, that she felt out of place when she walked into a fitness studio. Not because someone called her out, but because her own brain told her she didn’t fit in. She was someone who, by many markers, should have felt like she fit in, but many of us come at it like with the perspective of being an outsider, that there is a right way to be, and we are not that. This is a universal feeling. Sadie has yet to meet someone who didn’t have insecurities about walking into the studio, regardless of fitness level, size, shape, gender, race, it doesn’t matter. We all struggle with an inner critic.
On the flip side, we all have this amazing ability to be compassionate, supportive, and unified in changing this narrative that we’ve been fed. Some of the most enriching, wonderful exercise experiences for Sadie have been when she looks around the room and sees all different people working out together. When we’re all moving together, with everyone taking slightly different shapes, all centered on being empowered from within, all completely committed to the greater good, to supporting each other in that idea that we can all move our own way, look our own way, and be our own truth: that is success in fitness. There is no greater feeling of success than that.
We, as human beings, need and thrive in a community. We need community as much as we need deep sumo squats and being drenched in sweat. A huge part of fitness is social connectedness: I am seen, I am heard, I am honored. When you combine that with the physical side, which is still important, it’s what Sadie is most proud of with barre3. She is hoping to make barre3 accessible to a wider audience, to be more reflective of who we are as a society. Fitness and wellness are white and affluent, which isn’t okay; fitness is for everybody. She has a lot of learning and growth to do in order to figure out how barre3 can help remove barriers so that we’re all moving together.
This includes welcoming age diversity, something barre3 definitely does. It’s not about talking about diversity, it’s making changes for accessibility, changing what you offer so there are no barriers. When you offer modifications as a way to be true and strong, instead of a way to adapt because you’re not capable, it removes barriers. They have huge age diversity at barre3 and they’re redefining modification. When you modify, you are literally and figuratively standing up for yourself; you’re building that muscle of looking inside and asking for what you need right now. We have all these ideas of how and why we should do a posture, but the truth is, it’s about listening to your body and modifying what you need right now.
You can start to find all these other things you can develop in a modification that is equally powerful and good for you while taking care of what you need. There’s something powerful about standing up for yourself in that way in the community, because people are witnessing that. And we have to validate that. It doesn’t matter what your age is, it’s about working out and building our ability to make honest choices. Sometimes that’s listening and acknowledging that you don’t feel good today, taking your awareness back to how you feel, not fighting with it, honoring it with compassion.
Fitness, especially yoga, is a beautiful way to practice with your body what you’re learning in your mind. When you ask how you’re feeling at this moment, even if it feels weird to do, it has magical, research-backed power. When you practice in little moments, instead of going-big-or-going-home, you build a trust loop with yourself. Sometimes the best way is even sinking lower in the squat, but it’s learning about that honest answer. Those micro-moments are where the transformation happens. Those moments matter, despite how we have been conditioned.
“Modifying isn’t about the easiest way, it’s about finding the best way”.
To practice is to crowd out the dominant narrative that we hear everyday outside of ourselves that tells us something different. It’s not about staying in your comfort zone, which is an important distinction. Sadie thinks about it as a target, with the center being our comfort zone. It’s okay to retreat to that space sometimes, but right outside of that circle is what she calls “brave space”, which happens when you step out of your comfort just enough to be in the zone of checking in with yourself with these micro-moments, where you’re pushing yourself just enough, and ask what you really need right now. If we go too far too fast, though, we end up outside of the brave space, which is what we call a “panic zone”. Even further out is “injury-mode”, when we’re either going to deplete ourselves or be injured, in which case we end up anchoring fitness to something negative. The practice is to figure out what is just enough for you, which isn’t something an instructor can point out for you. Each of us, individually, are the only ones who can know. It’s body wisdom that takes time to learn the difference between negative pain, like in your joints, and good pain, like muscles activating and firing up. Only our inner voice can tell us how we’re feeling and what we need.
This is a practice that takes time and whether or not it comes naturally, it’s an ebb and flow. Whenever we overlay perfectionism onto something, including this practice, we go into a downward spiral. It’s not about perfection and perfect modifying, or always listening to your body perfectly, but just starting with micro-moments and it does become a muscle that you have.
It’s been interesting to think about modifications right now on a global scale. There are external forces beyond our control right now, the coronavirus, that has made us all realize how truly interconnected we are, how important our health and wellbeing are, and that when things out of our control happen, all we can do is be empowered from within. We are all modifying right now, we’re all hitting pause and having to adjust to a new definition of what success means each and every day, layered onto that is a tremendous amount of anxiety and stress that this has put on us. It’s a metaphor for what we’ve been talking about with the fitness industry; none of us can control overnight the dominant external forces in the world, telling us that we’re not enough as we are. Telling us that we’re not enough so we need fitness products and services. All of us can practice shutting that out, pausing, and looking inside for answers, and proceeding with purpose.
Right now, Sadie is stuck inside her house with two teenagers unable to go anywhere, and she can’t control that. But she can listen in every moment to what she needs right then. Nine times out of ten, she needs to breathe. She knows that in anxious moments she needs to shut off screens and take 15-20 deep breaths. Other times it’s been that she’s been sitting too long in conference calls and needs to blow off steam with squats and a massive dance party.
The inner resources we have built exist for this reason. The point of this, the point of wellness, is so that you have tools when things go sideways and life is hard. Even if you haven’t built these practices yet, it’s not too late and you can start right now, without perfectionism. We forget, and we remember, and we can ask ourselves what we need. It is an opportunity to really release the outside expectations. We are not exercising to get into a pant size right now, we are not eating healthy so we can count macros, we are doing this because it is survival. But if you’re still viewing fitness as another chore, it will be really hard to access this. Take this as a moment of permission to just be. Just be. Live in our bodies wholly, fully, and honestly.
One thing Sadie has realized is how much she needs social connectedness. All 150 barre3 locations are closed right now, but classes are being held virtually so you can still have your community in their homes, working out together. We’re truly all in this together. According to Dr. Kristin Neff’s three parts to self-compassion, the third part is recognizing your own shared common humanity. Seeing everyone in their living room being scrappy, showing up in sweats and scrunchies with cats and dogs and children and technology problems, we are here together and that shared common humanity is a root of compassion. There’s so much about this that, frankly, just sucks, but there are some ways we can practice these skills and resources that are here in our bodies.
The most important thing is to find a fitness community who resonates with your inner voice, and join that moment, join that tribe.
On what it really means to be healthy:
“To be really healthy means to be really honest, to be empowered, balanced in body and empowered from within”.
Make it happen:
Practice modifying and flipping the script on what that means.
Regardless of the type of fitness, even if it’s just a walk, going up and down the stairs, how can you use that moment for self-compassion, for tuning in, and asking for what you need.
Sadie Lincoln is the co-founder and CEO of barre3, a fitness company focused on teaching people to be balanced in body and empowered from within. Starting in 2008 with the flagship studio in Portland, Oregon, barre3 has grown to include more than 160 franchise studios powered by female entrepreneurs, plus an online-workout streaming-subscriber base in 98+ countries. What started as a workout has blossomed into a full-blown movement made up of millions of people focused on body positivity, being empowered, and redefining what success in fitness means.
Visit barre3.com for a free 15-day trial to hundreds of workouts and collections specifically designed for the current era (including kid-friendly workouts)
Connect with Sadie on Instagram @sadielincoln
Connect with barre3 on Instagram @barre3 for live-streamed workouts