A few weeks ago I was sitting at one of my favorite lunch spots writing an article about our dysfunctional relationship with our bodies, and how fitness culture contributes to this dysfunction.
As a couple of girls at the next table were getting up to leave, I heard one of them say:
“I went for a run today, I’m so proud of myself”
“…I hate running.”
What the hell.
The comment reminded me of a sign I used to pass almost every day when I was in grad school. It was posted in the basement of the University of Minnesota Rec Center urging people to visit the snack shop that sold shakes and sandwiches (they did have a mean club sandwich). It read: “And now for the best part of your workout: the end.”
In other words: “Thank God, it’s finally over!”
This drove me crazy.
Please understand, there is absolutely something to be said for the sense of accomplishment that comes with pushing your limits—the euphoria, the fantastic mood after finishing a kick-ass workout—plus a host of physiological health benefits. In that sense the end of a workout can be downright incredible. Unfortunately, a whole bunch of people miss out on this feeling. And I suspect that one of the main reasons behind this is that our culture has turned exercise into a form of punishment.
Physical activity has become the penalty for our indulgences. Exercise has become the currency one must spend to join the ranks of our celebrity body-idols. But the people whose miracle stories we see on demeaning weight-loss reality shows and read about in so-called health magazines are exceptions to what is in reality a grueling, sometimes humiliating, and altogether unpleasant experience for a huge number of Americans.
This is such a shame, because everyone has the potential to enjoy the benefits and pleasure that come with being physically active.
So when did physical activity become a payment for our “sins”?
I posed this question to Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, a founder of Ottowa’s non-surgical Bariatric Medical Institute, and author of the book “The Diet Fix.”
“This is not a new phenomenon, “ he said (he told me about a fad diet book he found from 1905). “Suffering to lose weight works—we all know that it works. The problem is that it doesn’t last. Most people aren’t wiling to suffer in perpetuity.”
At a superficial level, the messages we get from the diet and fitness industry tell us that there is an easy trick out there that will help us get the body of our dreams. So say our fitness magazines, daytime health shows, and late night diet pill commercials. But go any deeper than that and we all know that to significantly change the way our bodies look is anything but easy. And if it sucks to exercise and to diet, if we don’t like it, and we continue to fall short of the results that have been promised us, we’re not going to keep that up.
By focusing on mostly unattainable aesthetic outcomes rather than the intrinsic enjoyment of healthy behaviors for their own sake, we’re setting ourselves up for failure.
Dr. Yoni Freedhoff again: “Whatever you’re doing to lose weight, to improve your health, to exercise more, the question you’ve got to be asking yourself is quite simply, ‘Could I happily do this forevermore?’ Where ‘happily’ is one of the key words in that sentence. You know, tolerating life is not good enough.”
But that’s what so many people are doing. Our world (at least for those of us lucky enough to live in developed countries) is filled with empty calories, more than any creature on this planet needs. At the same time, the physical cost of obtaining those calories has disappeared. We are in a situation unlike any that any animal population has ever faced on this planet. It’s a perfect recipe for some serious health problems, and we’re seeing that in high rates of type II diabetes, heart disease, and some forms of cancer.
And so we either succumb to this caloric glut and sedentary life, or we fight back with the only tools we think we have been given: The diet and the workout. But instead of focusing on those health problems, we’ve created this bogyman called obesity, that must be stopped at all costs.
One of the primary reasons we’re losing this fight is that we’re using the wrong weapon to fight the wrong enemy.
“We have unfortunately sold the public a bill of goods,” said Freedhoff, “that exercise is the ticket to the weight-loss express . . . It’s not.” He conceded that there are exceptions, and that some folks have experienced significant weight-loss partly as a result of new exercise habits, but for the average person, this is not a road to success.
“If the only thing a person is trying to do to lose weight is exercise, it usually ends up in the suffering realm, because that’s the only way to do enough to actually have an impact—you’ve gotta really kill yourself in that gym . . . People don’t, and can’t maintain those degrees of insane amounts of exercise in perpetuity. Short term, sure, but long term, no,” Freedhoff said.
So as long as we’re using exercise for weight-loss—as an exchange for our dietary transgressions, we risk missing out on the amazing benefits that come from incorporating physical activity into our lives—for the rest of our lives.
“Exercise is the world’s best drug,” Freedhoff said. “It’s just not a weight-loss drug . . . So if people are ‘taking’ exercise for weight management, they’re going to stop taking it when it doesn’t work. And that’s a shame, given the benefits it has to everything else . . . Exercise [and a healthy lifestyle in general] will help to prevent or treat 80 percent of all the chronic non-communicable diseases that there are! That’s a really impressive drug! But the one thing it will not help, at least not dramatically, is weight.”
The transaction of exercise for calories consumed is a product of fitness culture’s obsession with weight. This obsession is getting in the way of us being able to move our bodies simply because moving our bodies is amazing and feels great. It’s getting in the way of us getting strong, simply because being strong and being able to do stuff is awesome. It’s getting in the way of eating asparagus and Brussels sprouts simply because they’re delicious and help keep us from getting sick.
In her book “Fit for Consumption,” Jennifer Smith Maguire writes that “the problem with fitness, from the point of view of health, is that the [fitness] field’s prescribed negotiation of denial and pleasure produces not healthy, but consuming behavior. The work of the workout is rationalized as a means to earn rewards—a thinner and more toned body, a chance to buy smaller clothes, such an attitude undermines the potential benefits of exercise . . . by focusing attention on changing, rather than enjoying the body’s capacities.”
And there’s the rub. When physical activity inhabits this transactional space, where we’re essentially using exercise as a payment to look a certain way, we’re bound to lose. If you don’t like running, don’t run. You’d do well to find something active that you do enjoy, but as long as you’re exercising as a chore, as a penance, you’re setting yourself up for failure in the long run. Try going for a walk. Who knows? Maybe you’ll like it.