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Around the world fitness studios are increasingly popular as a workout option with classes ranging in length and focusing on various types of movement. From yoga studios, to strength training and high-intensity interval fitness these types of studios often offer membership fees to access their classes regularly and gain a sense of community by working out with others in a group setting.

Another key component of typical fitness studios are the “challenges” they run and advertise at different times throughout the year that often encourage members to increase their workout cadence and follow nutritional guidelines to “get healthy” and lose weight. These are the January “Transformation Challenge” or the “45 Day Challenge’ every other month at your local studio. This reinforcing of the societal belief system that movement must be tied to changing your body is harmful and actually one of the least “healthy” things you could be doing for your physical and mental health. This post is not intended to disparage or shame workout studios or those who attend them – I (Maddy here! Virtual assistant for Therapy for Eating Disorder and Body Image, and recovery warrior extraordinaire) actually go to one too! This post is an opportunity to “challenge the challenge” and dig deep about your motivations for movement and how to live your life aligned to your true values. 

Personally, years ago I regularly attended high-intensity interval training classes. When the studio I went to launched its January “Transformation Challenge” I was intrigued by the promise of a community of accountability, low-effort meal plans and progress documented through before and after pictures. After completing the 6 week challenge I had a feeling of accomplishment and wanted to continue that feeling of “success” by coming up with ways to keep “getting better” at having numbers on the scale drop. I’d think “well now if I start regularly going to that extra workout class every week and cutting out X food group or incorporating Y piece of diet advice” then my results will be even better! My eating habits became more restrictive and my exercise more obsessive. Chasing the high of accomplishment and feeling of control from the Transformation Challenge led me straight into a full-blown eating disorder. And that felt nothing like winning. 

I want to emphasize I am in no way claiming that these types of fitness challenges are the sole cause of eating disorders. In my case, it was a perfect storm that led to my eating disorder, but the atmosphere and incentive structure of the Transformation Challenge did nothing to provide a break from the rain – in fact it made it rain harder and left me scrambling for an umbrella. It is a slippery slope. Nor am I saying that everyone who participates in a fitness challenge will end up with an eating disorder. At the end of the day the takeaway I submit to you is to “challenge the challenge” and the mindset that your body is not good enough right now and will only be celebrated or accepted if you change it. That is a toxic belief system for anyone to be exposed to. 

While in the early stages of my recovery I thought I would never step foot in another fitness studio. I found it hard to believe I would be able to separate the association between workout classes and manipulating my body. And I do want to caveat that I took a prolonged break from all formal movement and it’s something I’d recommend you explore for yourself as well.* If the thought of taking a break from working out is inconceivable to you, that may be a helpful sign to start questioning some of your assumptions and beliefs around movement and its relationship to your body and self-worth. After that break, with a lot of hard work and rewiring my beliefs and assumptions I found myself attending classes again that focused on different goals related to how you FEEL in your body rather than how it looks. I found practices like yoga to be a great way of coming home to my body and treating it with more self-compassion and eventually found myself attending some strength training classes again, but this time with sheer joy, appreciation and awe at what my body can do and all its overcome.

Dr. Colleen Reichmann recommends a stoplight system when it comes to movement, where you can you work to identify the following types of movements: 

  • Red: Which types of movement make you miserable AND you are only doing them for weight loss? 
  • Yellow: Which types of movement are enjoyable AND you mainly engage in them for weight loss?
  • Green: Which types of movement bring you joy (or used to bring you joy as a kid) that you would do even if it was 100% guaranteed to not change your body?

After identifying these types of movements the idea is then to work to fully disengage from the red kind and engage more in the green! As for the yellow, think of it as “proceed with caution” and ask yourself “is this really what I want to be doing right now” before engaging. 

Again, the point of this post is not to demonize working out, rather to encourage you to explore your reasons for doing so. When I found myself going back into a workout studio again I realized that though the studios themselves have not changed, I have, and that makes all the difference. Instead of being angry at the trainers that run these challenges and people that participate in them I found myself feeling empathetic and sad for those who so truly believe their body needs changing.

If you are a member of a fitness studio that is in the thick of holiday advertising for these types of challenges here are some examples of replies to use when a trainer or peer asks you if you plan on participating: 

  • I’m not really into that kind of thing! 
  • I come to these classes to respect and celebrate my body for all it can do, not to change it. 
  • If you are close with a trainer let them know that your approach to food and movement is not reflected in the challenge and so you may feel uncomfortable with the excessive advertising or focus on that part of the workout studio, 

At the end of the day if your values don’t align with that of your fitness studio or something just doesn’t feel 100% right then you also have FULL permission to just leave. You’re not overreacting or asking too much. You know yourself best and sometimes the kindest thing you can do for yourself is setting the right boundaries.

As we go into the holiday season there is no escaping the influx of “fitness challenges” that come knocking on our doors, and now my hope for you is that you can be more open to “challenging the challenge.” 

*Disclaimer: If you are in ED recovery and your treatment team recommends a complete cessation of formal movement, then this is likely the best next step for you. 

By: Maddy Weingast, Assistant for Therapy for Eating Disorders and Body Image