A central aspect of my fitness philosophy -- one that I try to instill in my clients, my readers and myself -- is that the purpose of exercise should not be just to look fit. The goal of exercising should be to actually become fit, to experience less aches and pains, to increase one's self confidence, to feel energized, to gain the ability to play the sport you love and spend more quality active time with friends and family.
On a purely rational level, I think most people would understand this. Practically speaking, however, most people care an awful lot about looks and presentation.
Our lives are all full of contradictions and hypocrisies. I hate the fact that people are judged on their appearance. Nevertheless, I spend my life providing people with information on how they can assess and improve their fitness level, and for many people, this becomes about assessing and improving their physical appearance.
Health and fitness discourse that is solely based on achieving a particular image or look is anathema to me, yet my image as a trainer and fitness professional is a huge part of my business. I produce a website and newsletter, both of which contain photos of me which are meant to produce a particular image. Despite my abhorrence for image-obsessed fitness, I expend an awful lot of effort judging and disciplining myself in order to try to match the image of fitness that I am selling to my clients.
It may sound like I am complaining, but I am not. I love my job. I love my clients, I love writing about fitness. I love helping people become stronger.
I love all this because I genuinely feel that actually being fit -- as opposed to just looking fit -- positively affects my life. I want to positively affect other people's lives too, but I worry that the nature of the fitness industry and the prevailing attitude towards the purpose of fitness in North American society leads to people working out for all the wrong reasons.
The image-oriented nature of the fitness industry -- and the appearance-based assessment of virtue that accompanies it -- is deeply problematic on a moral and philosophical level. More than that, however, judging oneself and others is often counterproductive. It can keep people from actually starting or maintaining a workout program. Living up to the prevailing image of being "fit" or "cut" is not something that all people can attain. People get so caught up with wanting to achieve a certain "look" rather than actually being fit, that they become anxious and self-critical. These emotions become yet another barrier to becoming active.
When starting an exercise program, the fear of being judged can be debilitating. I work at a private studio so people don't have to be looked at by other members when they are working out. Many of my clients tell me that although they will train with me, they don't want to go to their local gym on their own until they start to look "fit." Many clients have even told me that they put off hiring a trainer because they did not feel fit enough. They were worried about being judged by the trainer.
Being watched when working out might be exactly what some people desire, but for many the fear of going to the gym and being looked at with a critical gaze can sap any will to exercise. What is worse is that often individuals internalize this critical gaze: we all become our own worst critic.
Take my behavior last week as an example. I was meeting a friend for a boot camp class and I was exhausted. I thought about not going to the class because I did not want to be embarrassed by my lack of energy. I emailed my friend and told her "not to judge me during the class." How ridiculous and hypocritical am I? Last week I spoke at an event and told people that the key to creating a balanced healthy lifestyle is about not comparing oneself to others. This week I not only compared myself to the other boot camp members, I almost allowed this self-judgment to keep me from working out. As I said, our lives are full of contradictions and hypocrisies. Understanding something intellectually is different than actually embodying that knowledge.
I want people to stop being so worried about looking fit. It is not useful. Our fitness goals should be about becoming fit and energized. This is especially true for me. It is easy for me to get caught up comparing myself to other trainers, and feeling like I have to model perfect healthy habits for my clients. The reality is that we are all human, and fitness and health involves a lifelong learning process, not an end result.
Open the door, step outside, and just move!