Let’s talk about fitness culture.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say the word fitness?
Getting a six pack?
Doing HIIT workouts until you feel like you’re going to puke?
Exercising, getting injured, taking time off to recover, repeat?
I had some of these thoughts about fitness too, for a long time. Fitness culture has indoctrinated us with ideas about how our bodies should be. Then I realized that even though I’m strong and capable of a lot of hard, physical things, I felt like I was fighting my body to accomplish these things. And I reached a point where my progress was slowed because of it.
It’s so easy to let our ego get in the way, to feel like we SHOULD be able to do something, and push through it even though we’re not doing it correctly. And then we get injured, or we develop/worsen pelvic organ prolapse, and we feel like we’re back to square 1.
This is my current personal definition of fitness, or at least part of it.
- I can move my body for daily life without difficulty or pain (or with pain significantly reduced)
- I can lift heavy things safely
- I can do more difficult physical things without feeling like my body is working against me
- I feel my body getting stronger and more functional over time
Let’s apply this to squats.
Squats are great, and so applicable to daily life. Every time you sit down and get back up, you’re doing a squat. We squat down to connect with animals and children, to pick up heavy things, to clean the floor. I squat all the time! Are these movements difficult for you? Imagine being able to do them easily and without pain. This is fitness to me.
I practice circus arts; partner and aerial acrobatics. Being stronger makes these practices easier, so I decided to work on increasing my strength. I discovered that I couldn’t increase the weight on my squat, because I developed pain in the front of my right hip. My body was trying to shift into a less functional position, and it all just felt wrong.
I was super frustrated, but I took a step back and looked at what was going wrong. Muscle imbalances and weaknesses were causing the top of my femur to be pushed forward in the hip socket, causing pain. This was preventing my glutes from lengthening like they should. Weakness in my core was affecting the stability of the movement. My arches were collapsing, affecting the alignment of everything else.
I took a few months to work on all of those things, and I did squats with lighter weight in the meantime. Yesterday I was finally able to load my squat with more weight and do the movement without pain. It felt like my body was working with me rather than against me! I could feel that I was actually loading and challenging the muscles, not just loading my body and trying to compensate. It felt great!
This helps demonstrate my frustration with the fitness industry in general.
Fitness culture doesn’t encourage taking a step back to reevaluate. There’s a tendency to get so focused on the number on the scale, or the amount of weight we’re lifting, or how hard we feel like we’re working, that we forget about how our bodies actually feel and move in daily life. Too much “fitness” is focused on how we look to the detriment of our health & wellbeing. It’s about doing more and pushing harder, and if you get injured, well that’s just part of it.
So what can we do to combat fitness culture?
I don’t care how much I can lift if my joints hurt all the time, if I’m leaking urine, or if my self imposed expectations make me miserable. Fitness can be something enjoyable that makes your life better, not a punishment you have to suffer through to look a certain way or something you enjoy but causes injury and pain. There is a better way!
1. Listen to your body
Does something hurt? Stop. Did you sleep poorly or are you feeling exhausted? Do some gentle exercise instead of something intense, or take a rest day. Something that feels consistently uncomfortable now is likely to become pain & injury later. See a specialist before it gets that far. Recovery is just as (if not more) important than hard work! You will not reach your fitness goals without it.
2. Only take instruction from people who understand how the body works
There is SO MUCH bad information out there. Question everything. Question me. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Many “Fitness Influencers” and personal trainers have very little actual education. They know how to put some exercises together in to a program, but they don’t really know why. They know what works for them. And let’s be honest; most of them are naturally fit, so they haven’t actually had to work very hard to get results. I would put myself into that last category, as I build muscle easily and tend to maintain a lower weight. Fortunately, I have also had challenges with function in addition to a desire to learn as much as possible about everything. There is still a lot still to learn, but I’m continually learning more and challenging my current knowledge, and that’s really what you want from the person who is guiding you. Find someone who knows a lot, but is willing to admit when they don’t and will go seek out the answer.
3. Treat your body with kindness
All bodies are good bodies! Your body does not need to be punished. It is not broken. It deserves to be nourished and cared for. Move it, feed it, and rest it. Your value as a person has nothing to do with how much fat is on your body, or how hard you work, or what physical feats it is or is not capable of. YOU ARE ENOUGH. Let’s get rid of this “no pain, no gain” bullshit.
4. Find your why
Yes, big goals require hard work. You know when hard work doesn’t feel so hard? When the reason is so valuable and important to us, we’re happy to put in the work. “Because I want to lose weight” or “but I could do this 20 years ago” isn’t a why. Dig deeper. Be specific. Negative whys don’t tend to be very motivating, and are more likely to result in frustration. Plus they usually have something deeper below them. Positive whys are much more likely to lead to better consistency, which is really the key to any fitness goal.
Maybe you want to feel good in your skin. What does that actually mean? Many people focus on weight loss, but that is often so emotionally charged that we end of doing desperate and harmful things to our bodies in the process and not even reach the goal. Think about how you want your body to actually feel. Strong, capable, more confident, less pain, more flexibility? Improve your ability to do a physical activity that you enjoy? These are whys that allow us to make an actual plan, and that you can measure and know when you’ve reached them. This process often involves a lot of emotional work as well, and a therapist may be a helpful addition.
Do you know what else is ok? Not having big goals. Maybe you just want to be able to do certain movements more easily, or to maintain your current fitness level as you get older. Fitness isn’t only for athletes or people who want to make major changes to their body. It’s for everyone.
Do you relate to this struggle?
Are you ready to move beyond fitness culture and focus on what your body needs? I’d love to chat with you about your fitness journey and help you feel better as you travel it. You can also visit our Facebook page for more content and discussion, I’d love to see you there!
Show your body some love & kindness today.