If you have had any access to social media within the past five years, you have likely heard that “strong is the new skinny.”
You have probably observed individuals posting pictures of themselves in athletic wear, lifting weights at the gym, or drinking protein-packed beverages (abs glistening in the sun, of course).
Ah, the ever-evolving, ever-confusing land of fitness. It is more popular than ever before. Pilates classes, barre classes, cross-fit gyms- there is a new workout exploding in popularity every other day. Health and fitness apps are being produced and put out at an incredible speed. And don’t even get me started on the meal side of the story-the food industry caught on quickly to the “fitspo” explosion. The popularity of fitness culture has been accompanied by the popularity of gym-approved food. “Buff” baked goods, protein-packed ice cream, macro bars, and super-food cookies-all only a grocery store’s trip away.
The idea is that a focus on fitness is a focus on health. Much different from an unhealthy obsession with weight loss. Right?
Wrong. The emphasis on health and fitness comes accompanied by it’s own special brand of issues. We are now a people with an unhealthy obsession about health and wellness. Strong/healthy really is the new skinny- and that’s not a great thing.
You see, our quest for “health,” still circles back to the idealization of an unattainable body type. So whether we are chasing weight loss or muscle definition- the end emotional result is the same: we invest inordinate amounts of energy into the outside, versus looking inward to find self-worth.
Those in the fitness industry will say that muscle definition or working out in general does not bring about the same dangerous health concerns as does intentional weight loss. To these folks, I will argue that many individuals chasing “strength” are also chasing weight-loss (under the guise of trying to become “defined”). And even for the folks that are truly not chasing weight loss, excessive working out can and does cause physical issues. These issues include muscle strains, stress fractures and muscle overload. Over-exercising has also been linked to immune deficiencies, moodiness, sleeplessness, chronic fatigue and body pains. So you see, just like weight loss, fitness can be taken to dangerous extremes.
The food pressures that tend to accompany fitness culture- “clean eating,” protein-obsession, carb-loading/carb avoidance, ketosis-are ever present, and frankly, just as problematic as any fad diet of years past. I have worked with individuals that have suffered from renal damage from an excessive intake of protein during bodybuilding competitions. Similarly, I have worked with folks struggling with Orthorexia (i.e. an eating disorder that involves obsession with healthy eating which becomes unmanageable and detrimental). Because, just like fad dieting, “healthy eating” and/or fitness can also spiral into obsessional territory. For those with an underlying genetic predisposition for an eating disorder- it often makes no difference whether the chase begins for “health” versus for thinness. The end result is the same-an eating disorder that steals the joy, flexibility, and overall quality of life right out from under you.
The real problem with fitness culture is that we do not recognize the extremes of fitness as easily we do extremes in weight loss. We praise others for exercising. We are encouraged to exercise through pain. Exercise isn’t done right unless it’s done to the point of exhaustion. Sweat is fat crying right? We are constantly trying to collectively up the ante- Marathons? Pshhh kid stuff. If you are truly elite, well then you run ultra-marathons. Yoga? Try hot yoga. Spin classes? Well you’re not spinning unless you’re in the classes that allow you to compete publicly for most calories-burnt, right?
So what is the solution? Well, like I said before, the chase for happiness will never be resolved by focusing on the outside. (And before you say that fitness culture promotes “health” regardless of physical appearance-stop. Just stop. The cultural quest for “health” is mostly about the perceived appearance of health.).
There must be a focus shift. This is even important for the small percentage of folks that are truly chasing “health” (regardless of weight) via food and movement. If we are to truly focus on “health” (which is a personal choice, not a moral imperative) then we need to begin taking into account that food and movement are only a fraction of the overall picture. True health involves a myriad of other variables; including relationships, spirituality, and a sense of purpose. Emotional health is incredibly important. So while traditional fitness may fall into the spectrum of your overall health, it is important to make sure that it is in proportion to all of the many other aspects of your well-being. Simply put- if it starts to get in the way of your quality of life- it’s out of proportion.
Additionally, the movement that you are drawn to may not fall within the realm of traditional fitness culture. Maybe you feel best when you take a leisurely walk with your dog, versus an all-out run on a treadmill. Maybe your body and mind respond to long stretches in the evening, or impromptu dance parties in your kitchen. These types of movement are valid- more than valid, really. Because movement that brings you joy is immeasurably better than moving to fulfill some arbitrary barometer of health pushed on us by capitalism, fat-phobia, and the fitness industry. (Also, it’s important to note that one may have to take a complete break from any and all exercise when in recovery from an eating disorder, as that is what may be mentally and physically healthy during this time)
Overall, the answer when it comes to health and well-being is individualized and totally grey-area. Black and white ideas of “always right” or “always wrong” movement/food are typically not helpful. We need to work to push exercise and food back to their rightful place of a small part of our overall well-being. Because, when it comes down to it, life is just so much bigger than muscles.
-Dr. Colleen Reichmann