As a serious magazine junkie, I often find myself in awe due to the amount of stories focusing on losing weight.
“Drop those last 10 pounds,” “Blast that fat away” and “Get the body you’ve always wanted.” Those are just a few of the typical “thinspirational” headlines making the covers of the glossy girly publications my eyes go to.
And with my experience in health and fitness writing, I sometimes wonder if I am choosing an important career path that inspires people to get healthy or if I’m just promoting the type of fitness propaganda that turns men and women into scale-obsessed dieters who frequent the gym not because they want to get healthy, but because they judge their worth based on an arbitrary number.
I fully understand that many people work out to lose the weight that may be holding them back, but I wonder if the pressure to hit the gym seven days a week is just too much. Shouldn’t getting fit be fun? Shouldn’t it be measured by how good we feel rather than by how many calories we can burn? And when do we cross the line between being healthy and becoming an over-exerciser who replaces time with friends and family with miles and miles on the treadmill?
Most of us are quite aware of addictions like alcoholism, cigarette smoking or gambling, but over-exercising has negative effects on our health and mental well-being too. Just like anorexia and bulimia, many people use compulsive exercising as a way to purge. And just like other common eating disorders, exercising too much can end up taking control of every aspect of a person’s life.
When I struggled with an eating disorder, I would punish myself for eating a measly few hundred calories with hours at the gym. Even when other things came up, like a trip to the beach or a last-minute homework assignment, I chose working out, taking time at any cost to get in a sweat session. Once, even though I had a bad fever, I convinced myself that I needed to go on a run in order to burn off the soup I could barely get down.
It started to seem like my self-worth was based off of how many crunches I could squeeze into an afternoon, and all of a sudden, the activities I loved, like my nightly dance classes, went from a way to relieve stress to a torture method to drop another pound.
Not every case is so extreme, but I often see others using exercise as a punishment rather than a reward. Whenever a friend of mine eats an extra slice of pizza or treats herself to frozen yogurt, she feels the need to proclaim “tomorrow I’ll workout extra” or “I’ll be paying for this tomorrow.” Why the hell can’t she, and I, and you, just enjoy our food without immediately planning ways to feel less bad about eating it?
The truth is, it’s healthy to take a day or week or even a month off from going to the gym without feeling guilty. I’m not saying it’s a good idea to take a full-time job as a couch potato, but replacing those intense cardio classes with a leisurely walk with someone you love or a game of Frisbee with friends you haven’t seen in a while can be just as rewarding. You don’t need a red number flashing the number of calories you burned to prove that you were active for the day.
So how are we supposed to make exercise fun again when Shaun T from Insanity is screaming in our faces to do another freaking pushup to get the abs totally spray-painted on those before and after photos?
Give all of those outside influencers the middle finger and start making it about you. Stop freaking out about what Jessica Alba’s secret is to looking like a supermodel two seconds after popping out a baby and realize that your sanity is much more important than the number of shoulder presses you did that day.
Next time you hear your friend whine and moan about the workout class she “should” take in an hour, tell her she’s gorgeous – no, flawless – and that she should check out that park you’ve been dying to go to instead.
Next time your mom is ripping celebrity workouts out of magazines and trying to squeeze in gym time between her full-time job and cooking dinner, convince her to take a moment to breathe and sit on the porch instead.
And next time you find yourself sore from the hell that is your senior year, remember that the gym really will still be there tomorrow, and the next day, and your happiness is by no means dependent on you squeezing in an hour to get there right now.
Too much of anything, even exercising, can end up hurting us. And I assure you that your happiness is going to be much more important and useful in the future than having a Ryan Gosling-inspired six-pack. Plus, it’s way more fun to gawk at him on TV than sweat your butt off trying to look like him at the gym. Trust me.
Cary Carr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.