From extreme slogans to heavily posed after photos, fitness culture has a lot to answer for. Victoria Stokes says it’s time to forget ‘the grind’
I love the gym – the sweat, the exhilaration, the feeling of accomplishment, there’s nothing like it – but I hate gym culture. You know what I’m referring to. All that Instagram nonsense like ‘no pain, no gain’ and ‘your workout is my warm up’ that makes working out seem like something you should feel intimidated by, especially if you’re a beginner. It makes fitness sound masochistic, rather than something that’s for the benefit of your mind, body and spirit, and can actually be downright enjoyable.
What’s more, this culture can foster a fragile relationship with body image, often leading to obsessive behaviour like over-training and strict diet restriction. There’s a not-so-subtle undertone to the well-meaning advice and motivational slogans that suggests if you aren’t seeing results you simply aren’t trying hard enough, and you must train harder and more frequently. Clearly if you’re not sporting a toned pair of thighs and a squat booty, you’re just not driven, ambitious or determined enough and sadly it’s all too easy to get caught up in a world of workout guides, fitness apparel and well-marketed meal plans to try to rectify the situation.
I’m here to tell you that all of it is bullshit. Fitness can be fun, not torturous. It can be rewarding and liberating and something you can look forward to. It can be about more than trying to squeeze your way back into a too-tight pair of jeans or wrecking yourself so your body looks a certain way on the beach.
It can be about achieving aesthetic goals too, sure, but that shouldn’t come at the cost of your wellbeing or self-esteem.”
Fitness culture says you have to live and breathe the gym or you’ve failed. I’m here to tell you otherwise. Let’s start by busting some common fitness myths, shall we?
You always feel better after a workout
Okay, so 90 percent of the time you do feel great after a quick sweat session. Those endorphins get pumping, your confidence skyrockets, and you leave the gym feeling like Aphrodite. But there’s a problem with this blanket piece of blind enthusiasm: it undermines the need for rest days and the fact that sometimes, just sometimes, what you really need is an extra hour in bed. Put simply, a workout isn’t the answer to everything and it’s good to have a day off when you need one. Bottom line, don’t let anyone ever make you feel guilty for having a lie in. Ever.
Getting ripped is just a matter of pushing yourself
Your favourite Fit Fammer has abs for days, glutes that could crush a chestnut and she credits it all to three gym sessions a week, a macro-balanced diet and a dodgy detox tea. Meanwhile, you’re copying her every move and pushing yourself to extremes and still not seeing the results you so desire in the mirror. You can kill yourself trying to emulate the way someone else looks, not realising that often so much of their success is down to genetics (and occasionally a big old dose of Photoshop). It’s good to know that some people are just lucky in the gene department, instead of running yourself ragged trying to be like them. That doesn’t mean you should stop trying, just that it’s best to aim for something that’s realistic FOR YOU.
All fit bodies look ripped and lean
Recently, Instagram fitness star Siobhan O’Hagan (@siobh.ohagan) outlined the difference between an ‘InstaFit’ body and a body that is actually physically fit. “The way I see it, Instagram’s definition of ‘fitness’ and real life ‘fitness’ are very different things,” she explained on a recent Instagram post. “I got a lot more interaction and praise when I was ‘Instagram Fit’ i.e. Shredded to the bone, no cardio fitness, training was boring and monotonous but served the purpose of a means to look good,” she continued. “Now I’m actually fit. I surprise myself with every challenge. I run 10k in 51.08 with little to no running training. I rowed at 1.29/500m pace. I snatched a 15kg dumbbell 50 times unbroken. Then I did over 30 reps of 20kg.” In other words, you might not have a completely flat stomach or the muscle definition of a fitness model, but that doesn’t mean you can’t run, jump, box, spin or lift like the best of them. Fit bodies come in all shapes and sizes.
If you aren’t in bits, you haven’t worked hard enough
Can’t raise your arms above your head to tie up your hair? Struggling to sit on the toilet or walk up stairs? DOMS (or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, AKA that can’t-stand-it pain you feel the day after a workout) is celebrated in the fitness world because it’s seen as a surefire sign that you really obliterated yourself when you worked out. Trouble is, you shouldn’t live and die by muscle pain, because as training duo Recalibrated Bodies (recalibratedbodies.com) outline in a blog post, “the degree of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is not an accurate measure of the effectiveness of your workout, and the absence of it does not mean your workout was ineffective,” and actually the more you train, the more your body adapts, which typically means less muscle soreness. All forms of movement, yes, even gentle exercise like swimming and walking, have their place and ‘no pain, no gain’ isn’t a motto to live by.
Lean equals healthy
Yes, obesity does leave you at a greater risk of stroke, heart disease, diabetes and cancer, but just because someone’s slipping into a size 6 doesn’t necessarily mean they’re in better health than someone who’s shopping in the plus size section. Some people can mill McDonalds on the regular and drink their body weight in beer every weekend and stay skinny, the lucky divils. It’s just the way of it and it doesn’t mean they’re in peak physical condition. Dress size and health are not mutually exclusive.
You’ll be full of energy 24/7
Actually you might find, especially at the beginning of a new nutrition and training regime, that you’re knocked for six. Exercise and a balanced diet is always going to be great for your health, but you’re still going to be tired sometimes, just like everybody else. Soz.
Carbs are the enemy
Um, no they aren’t, they’re delicious. While it’s important to eat foods that are going to fuel you and keep you full, particularly if you’re training on the reg, bottom line it’s overall calorie consumption that matters, not outlawing whole food groups. Does working on your fitness mean never touching a slice of pizza again? No, no it does not.
It’s all about the after shot
Achieving an aesthetic goal is great. You’ve worked hard and it’s paid off (YAY!) but what do you do now to ensure you don’t run out of steam? Fitness culture may be constantly shilling us quick fixes and passing them off as lifestyle changes, but aesthetic results are hard won and often difficult to maintain, and if you’re hating every second of the gym but slogging it out just for those #gains, there’s no way you’re going to stick at it. We’ve all seen those perfectly posed after photos, but fitness is so much more than that. Do it for the ‘Yes! I beat my PB!’, for the ‘I can’t believe I just benched my body weight’, for the ‘That spin class killed me but at least I tried’. Find a ‘why’ that’s outside of what you see in the mirror and you’ll be well on your way to living that fit life, while giving a middle finger to the culture that surrounds it.