Rethinking: Fitness Part I

Word Count: 1700 |  Time to Read: 8 minutes

Images like these dominate most fitness-themed blogs on Tumblr and Pinterest: an inspiring message overlays an image of a woman with an extremely flat stomach.

Their intention is well-meaning, of course. These pictures motivate people to exercise, to sweat and work hard. The reward for that work is also clearly defined– a skinny waist and toned muscles.

Unfortunately, that’s what encompasses fitness for a lot of people. It’s a way to improve their appearance. By itself, vanity can be a great motivator because you don’t only feel the results of exercise, you see them. They come in the form of a smaller number on the scale, more defined muscles, and in some cases, more compliments.

But there’s a catch. Using appearance as motivation for working out will only work in the short-term. Inevitably, a person will plateau and that’s when the real trouble sets in.

TL;DR

Improving your appearance is a great way to get started with fitness, but shouldn’t be the deciding factor in whether or not a person works out. Often, people plateau and they fail to lose extra weight or achieve that ‘ideal body’. When this occurs, people either give up entirely or resort to crash dieting and taking weight loss pills in a last ditch effort to shred those extra pounds and conform to society’s standard for beauty. The three points I outline are:

  1. Everyone has a different body type. Your beauty is something that only you can define.
  2. The quick fix solutions that are promised by infomercials and magazines almost always don’t work and do more to discourage people from fitness.
  3. Have a physique that society idealizes is not the same thing as having good health.

What’s Beauty, Anyway?

Scroll up and take a look at that picture again. In many ways, that woman epitomizes what is held by today’s standards to be desirable in a woman. She’s skinny, but not necessarily muscular. She has a small waist, thin arms, and all without a flat chest.

And take this picture:

 This man has most of the features that guys gleam for: large muscles– but not too large– a flat stomach, and a well-defined six-pack.

When appearance is the sole driver behind exercising, looking like our society’s standards for beauty is typically the end goal. The aim isn’t only to lose weight or fit into a pair of skinny jeans. It’s to have what society deems a ‘perfect body’.

So hours are spent in the gym, underneath a barbell or on a treadmill, in attempt to match what’s seen in the media and plastered on billboards. But it’s impossible.

Even after all that hard work, there’s a strong probability that we aren’t going to look like either of those pictures. Why? Because no two body types are the same.

Some people are able to burn fat easily while others store it in their mid-section or legs. Some are born with wide hips and small breasts and others aren’t. Some are disposed to growing large muscles and others remain skinny.

This is why having an appearance-motivated view of fitness can be so detrimental. After so much effort is put in and the desired results aren’t seen, some people will just give up and stop working out. What’s the point, after all, if the return on investment is so low?

Even worse is when fitness isn’t enough, some take more drastic measures to meet the standards of society.

In the US, over 90% of women on college campuses have attempted dieting to control their weight (ANAD). Of those students, 25% engage in bingeing and purging to manage their weight (ibid). And why? To meet the increasingly unrealistic demands of society.

Despite what the media screams at us, there is no one definition for beauty in men and women.

Because of the way you’ve been socialized, when you first saw those images above, your brain might have said, “Hot! Sexy! Beautiful!” And for a split second, you may have wished you looked like that or were dating someone who did.

A famous maxim always comes to mind when talking about appearance. Here, I’m going to add an important caveat:

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and only the beholder.

Inevitably, we become influenced by the media’s perception of beauty and the opinions of our closest friends and family. We may start to think that we have to look a certain way in order to have a chance at any worthwhile. But it’s simply not true.

What matters is how comfortable you feel in your own skin. Not how closely you resemble a model in a magazine or the number that turns up on a scale. And the only person who can determine that comfort is you.

The Cake is a Lie

“Transform your body in 90 days!”

“Get firm glutes in just an hour a week!”

“Rock your abs from flab to flat.”

We are inundated with these messages. They’re on our televisions, our computers, and in our supermarkets. They each promise to help us improve our appearance with a quick and easy solution.

For those focused on their appearance, it’s hard not to resist these offers. When presented with an opportunity to get a ripped body for only 3 monthly payments of $39.99, they jump on it. Those all important before-and-after pictures are more than enough proof.

Here’s the problem: these supposedly quick fix solutions, whether exercise equipment, special pills, or workout routines, either a) don’t work at all or b) don’t work without additional time and effort.

When they don’t work at all (see: Ab Rocket, Ab Lounge, Ab Circle), it’s easy to get discouraged about fitness and stop trying altogether. After all, where are the results?

What’s even worse is that when we are able to give that time and effort, the results are inevitably not exactly what we want. You’ve lost some weight, but you still don’t have the pancake-flat stomach like the supermodels do.

This is when discouragement can set in. You put your hope into this product and made the effort to change your habits. You thought you made some progress, but the mirror says otherwise. Again, this is when most people give up altogether on fitness.

Hot Bod ≠ Healthy Body

In “Thinking, Fast and Slow” psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes a heuristic as

A simple procedure that helps find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions

Kahneman’s concept of substitution, inserting a heuristic question in place of the target question, is oftentimes what occurs when we go about assessing one’s health.

When we’re asked, “Is s/he healthy?” (the target question), almost immediately our minds ask, “Does s/he look healthy?” (the heuristic question). After all it’s far easier to evaluate one’s health from their appearance, rather than taking their blood pressure and calculating their BMI, which takes a lot more work.

What usually defines a person’s appearance is– you guessed it!– how closely they resemble society’s standards for beauty. There is a very important distinction I wish to make here: having the ideal body doesn’t necessarily mean also having a healthy body.

There’s an evolutionary root for this belief, of course. When choosing whom to mate with, our ancestors went for the healthiest possible mate. They only way they could discern health, however, was by appearance. Who had their all limbs in-tact and possessed no odd bodily deformities? (Back then, no one really cared about how flat stomachs were, though wide birthing hips were desirable in women.)

In today’s world, however, it’s not that easy to determine health. To reach the ideals of society, women often resort to crash dieting and taking special fat-loss pills. It’s not uncommon to develop eating disorders in the pursuit of what is likely impossible. They may have spectacular bodies, but are they truly healthy?

Men aren’t exempt from these afflictions, though they are certainly underreported. Guys: the next time you see a picture of a very muscular man and wish that you were that ‘ripped’, ask yourself how healthy his eating habits are. Is he skipping meals to maintain that skinny waist? How many meal replacement shakes is he taking  every day?

Let’s defeat the act of substitution once and for all. Beauty and healthy are not necessarily the same thing.

My Story

Ideal Body

I downloaded this picture when I was fifteen years old. I titled it “Ideal Body”.

With my hormones raging and my brain not fully developed, I was willing to do anything to make my body look like that.

So, I bought the home workout program P90X. It came with the promise that my body would be completed transformed within just three months. The program encourages users to take before and after pictures when they finish each 90 day cycle to track their progress.

I went along with it and starting taking pictures every three months. I’ll be honest– those first 90 days did wonders for my pectoral muscles and in total, I lost about five pounds.

But as I continued to do P90X and similar workout programs, I noticed something strange: each successive ‘after’ picture looked the same. Nothing really changed. Surely my muscular and cardiovascular endurance had improved, but my body still had its general shape.

For a while, I was desperate. I had come so close, I believed, to finally having what I deemed the ideal body. I stopped eating lunch and began working out twice a day. I started taking creatine on a regular basis and counting all of my calories. I would do anything for that flat stomach and those bulging biceps.

And with each week, I inched closer and closer to those superficial goals, but not without serious costs. I regularly dealt with fatigue and stress as a result of what I was doing to my body. Soon, even after all the changes I’d made, I plateaued again.

It was only in that moment that I began to see fitness differently. Even though my body had made little improvement, I genuinely enjoyed working out. There was a certain ‘feel good’ emotion I felt whenever I started jumping around. That was when I realized the true value of fitness, which I’ll explain in Part II of this piece.

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