Every once in a while, members of the fitness media will highlight the extreme diet and exercise regimes that make up the "dark side" of the fitness field. Of course, this stance can be slightly hypocritical since so much of the field is predicated on selling both the product -- and ideals -- associated with extreme weight loss solutions. The same magazines that criticizes extreme solutions one week promotes quick fix diets the next. Recently, the controversy over The Biggest Loser finale has been the principal locus of the "dark side" discussion.
I am all for the discussion, as long as we don't fixate on the show. We can't ignore the social structures, cultural beliefs and personal relationships we all have with our bodies that allow TV shows and media stories promoting extreme diet and/or exercise regimes to be acceptable.
Extreme health solutions are popular in part because so many of us, to varying degrees, are constantly judging, critiquing and generally fixating on the bodies of both our selves and others. This kind of personal and societal judgment can contribute to a relationship with our body built on self doubt and self criticism. At the best of times this results in an ambivalence towards our body. At the worst of times, it contributes to extreme exercise and eating patterns.
A focus on the aesthetic can also contribute to health being conflated with thinness, or lately, health being conflated with extreme muscle "tone" (the 6 pack, or perfectly toned shoulders). Often this "tone" is seen as an external representation of "perfect" health. What needs to be highlighted is, striving to be thin, or perfectly toned, can be the opposite of healthy.
Often, the times in my life that I was the smallest pant size, my relationship to my body was the least healthy, and I didn't like myself much. People complimented me on my weight, but I was physically and emotionally the least happy in my own skin.
Striving for a particular aesthetic can be a manifestation of obsessive control, wrapped in a facade of becoming healthier.
If an individual is already within their healthy weight range, a weight loss goal is actually an aesthetic, not a "health" goal. I am not arguing we should abandon aesthetic goals. I am just saying that for most of us, how we understand our bodies and what we understand as healthy is complicated.
I was an unhealthy teenager. I hated my body, and I didn't think that much of the rest of me either. I always felt awkward, so I gorged on things like ultra-cheesy pasta to escape life. I have gradually built self-confidence, worked to understand the root of my emotional eating, and slowly replaced most of my bad habits with better ones, but the old me, or at least the memory of the old me, still exists and will always exist. This is especially true if I don't continue to work to understand WHY I initially held bad health habits.
Health is a process -- our habits, emotions, and level of fitness develop gradually over time in overlapping, and intertwining layers.
I don't discuss the dark side of the fitness field lightly. I tend to gravitate towards extremes and therefore have to resist the lure of extreme health behaviors. I remind myself daily that health is not about perfection, it is about balance and moderation. For example, for an endurance athlete like me, sometimes it actually healthier to give my body a break then to push another hard workout. Not scheduling recovery days, or an adequate off season, can lead to emotional and physical burnout, and overuse injuries. Learning how and when to relax is part of being healthy.
Don't fixate on extreme, quick health fixes. They don't work long-term. Remember, becoming healthier is not just about reaching a certain weight. Adopting a healthier lifestyle is about feeling strong, powerful and energized. If your goals are not making you feel positive about yourself, maybe you need to rethink them! Maybe you are asking something of your body that is not genetically possible. Exercise doesn't necessarily mean you have to go to the gym or play extreme sports. Everything, including exercise, is best done in moderation. Aim to simply move daily.
What I'd like you to take away from this blog is that everyone really needs to try not to judge the bodies of yourself or others. Instead, use that energy to get up and go for a walk, or to reflect on your own relationship to your own body and not what your body looks like that day.
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