The “fitspiration” bombardment (sorry, no food talk this time)

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I recently posted the article “The 6 Most Shockingly Irresponsible ‘Fitspiration’ Photos” (http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/kevin-moore/fitspiration-photos-_b_3908741.html) by Kevin Moore on my personal Facebook page, because I thought it was really great and because it touches on a lot of issues that have concerned me increasingly as I’ve stepped up my exercise routine. I guess it’s only fair to place myself on the fitness spectrum at the outset here. If left is absolute couch potato and right is fitness-obsessed every waking minute of every day, I’m probably slightly right of center. My current base routine is 2 yoga classes and 2 Savate (French boxing) classes a week. Plus, I live blissfully car-free, which means a lot of walking and a decent amount of biking. While I’ve never been inactive, I did identify as profoundly un-athletic, and there’s a very deep sense of accomplishment around shedding that identity – one that reverberates well beyond my improved physical condition.

This article resonated with a lot of my friends as well – but not at all with one who has been on a similar, albeit more intensive, physical (and dietary) journey. This is what prompted me to give the points the author raised even more thought. To me, the friend who took issue with its critique of “fitspiration” messaging seems a model of the kind of good fitness the article stands for: she has integrated a rigorous exercise routine into a busy life; she pushes her body hard, but without serious injury; she enjoys the aesthetic reward, but is not driven by being hung up on it – and at the same time makes real time for her family, friends, and non-physical goals. So, then, how could we have such different reactions?

First of all, I think part of the reason is that various things going on in my life (and in my province) have made me spend a lot of time thinking about diversity lately. While I do have a list of issues with being bombarded with images of “hot” bodies at every turn, it’s not that I think they should go away. Nor, for that matter, do I believe their disappearance would suddenly make everyone find their way to accepting their body. What I do wish for is a range of models of what stands for good fitness, not just in terms of body shape but also of approach. Beyond the need to protect against injury (which, I’ve learned, happens shockingly often), do we really want to define good fitness as nothing short of obsession?

I know people make up a lot of excuses not to exercise (I did this plenty myself), but not all reasons are excuses. Life is a balance of many things, and I sure haven’t found a way to add extra hours to the day. There should be no shame in bumping fitness lower down the list when this matches your current priorities, or in taking time off when you are injured. Yet, almost anyone who has ever talked to me about doing either was wracked with guilt. In fact, I think it should be a matter of pride to be capable of stepping back from your fitness routine if it is damaging your body or interfering with other things you actually value more. Too much is just as problematic as too little. It takes strength to know what’s best for you and shut out all the voices, internal and external, that tell you you’re weak, lack motivation, aren’t truly committed, etc. Just as lots of people make excuses not to exercise, lots of people use intensive exercise as an excuse not to face other things – a message you never see integrated into athletic ads or fitspiration photos.

During our debate (if you can call writing bits back and forward on Facebook a debate), my friend made the very valid point that 5 hours is a totally reasonable amount of time to spend at a gym if you are training for a marathon. True! I don’t mean anything I say to challenge this. I can imagine perfectly good reasons to spend 12 hours a day exercising. Kudos to those few who have the stamina! Still, I think we would be better off if we backed away from seeing this level of commitment to fitness as inherently good in and of itself. I mentioned earlier that my current level of fitness is reasonably new, but I’m far from new to being rigorously committed to something. These are issues I first started to reflect on during my PhD. Yes, learning is important and, just like exercise, one of the very best things you can do for yourself. But it’s also all too easy to blind yourself with this value, slip into obsession, and not take sufficient note of what your commitment asks of those around you – or of how many other things you’ve eliminated during its pursuit. This doesn’t mean it isn’t important to ask (yourself and others) for the space to indulge in these things when they are right for you, or to support people who make this decision.

I loved this article because I found it a call to engage in fitness as rigorously as makes sense for you and to constantly reflect on and re-evaluate what this means. It’s about the importance of asking the questions – not just once, but over and over and over again as your body, priorities, and circumstances change. I get that “Don’t think, just do!” might be more helpful when the alarm goes off and you’re trying to stick to a commitment to get up at 5.30am to run before work, but that doesn’t mean you should never reflect on whether those runs are actually bringing good things to your body and your life. If the answer is no, then what exactly is strong or smart about carrying on with that particular routine? The trick is to develop the self-awareness to know when no is for the right or the wrong reasons – and this article strikes me as bang on with its critique of all of the ways these images tell us to simply silence that voice, rather than do the difficult work of learning how to best interpret and engage with it.

I know I’m no expert, and I have to admit to feeling like something of an imposter writing about fitness, but it really does seem to me that diversity and self-awareness are the keys to fitness that not only reduces injury, but also promotes healthy relationships with our bodies. Diversity, not just from person to person, but also within ourselves, as recognition that the nature of our days and our lives is in constant flux. Self-awareness, not just of how our bodies work and what they need, but also of how, where, and why we integrate exercise into our lives. If these kinds of fitspiration photos inspire you in a healthy way to be where you need to be right now, great! But the fact that they speak to some people some of the time doesn’t make their single-minded, all-or-nothing approach unproblematic. It means they have a place, and, yes, I do believe it would help make the world a better place if we did a better job of reducing them to this.

 

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