What if we started talking about fitness and exercise more positively?
I'm an indoor cycling instructor and dabble in other group exercise classes. I love teaching. It’s something I fell into as a temporary gig, but I’ve ended up enjoying it a great deal.
When I teach, I'm aware that what I say can stay with the participants—in the same way that other instructors’ words stay with me. I'm intentional about giving positive feedback and encouraging the people who work out with me. I instruct them in the proper form so that they can gain endurance and strength. I push them to go faster, harder, and longer so that they can be proud of their increased fitness level.
You know what I don’t do? I don't encourage them to lose their belly. I don't tell them to banish fat.
These aren't the ultimate goals of exercise. But that’s the language we’re constantly confronted with in the fitness world. As someone who usually has fun trying new activities and visiting new gyms, I'm frustrated by gym lingo. So much of it is negative, and so much of it is about hating yourself. I exercise because I love myself and love seeing what I can push my body to do. Hearing other people—especially women—talk about their bodies in a negative fashion is heartbreaking. So I wonder: Would people be more successful in achieving their fitness goals, happier with their progress, and more likely to sustain an active lifestyle if we framed exercise in more positive terms?
An article from Time magazine commenting on the new term "skinny fat" noted that being skinny doesn’t equal being healthy. People may have a poor diet and never exercise but look like they're in perfect shape. Others may have eating disorders that keep them thin, even as their bodies are shutting down. Neither of these are healthy ways of living, but we often discuss being skinny and being healthy as if they're interchangeable.
Exercise, for those of us blessed with the privilege, should be a healthy part of life. In fact, I like to say that no one can afford not to exercise. But fat talk and body shaming don’t encourage healthier choices. According to a recent New York Timesarticle, such language does the opposite—it makes women less likely to take care of their bodies.
Too often we're warned: “No pain, no gain.” We're pushed to “work that butt off.” We're told to “think about how hot you’ll look in those jeans.” And of course, there are those incessant reminders that “swimsuit season is coming up.” But just like the unattainable images of beauty that Hollywood tells us to hold as ideal, exercising to “earn our beach body” isn't a realistic goal. It’s not specific. It's not measurable. And it doesn’t actually have anything to do with health.
The messages put forth by ads at the gym, by fitness instructors, and by mainstream media promote an unhealthy obsession with body appearance and limited attention to much else. The overwhelming focus on the visual aspects of women’s bodies often means that we don't pay enough attention to our worth as individuals.
My body looks nothing like what I see on the cover of Cosmo or Shape, and it never will. But I love my body the way it is because for me, the purpose of exercise isn't to make my figure pleasing for other people to look at. My legs have carried me through two marathons, seven half marathons, and a few triathlons to boot. It will continue powering me through whatever I decide to do next. My arms and core aren’t skinny or even all that solid. But they allow me to move, to be independent, and to carry just about anything I need.
I’m proud that most days I’m able to appreciate my body not for what it can do but for what it is. It hurts and worries me that we are so often told—and so ready to believe—that we aren’t good enough. Our bodies are beautiful and don't need to be “fixed.” Let's quit the negative talk, and turn the fitness conversation to celebrate the amazing abilities of our bodies instead.