In 2015 I put together a #Fitspiration photo shoot. The idea was to broaden our perception of fitness, showcasing women of different racial backgrounds, sizes, shapes, fitness levels, and attitudes about what fitness means to them.
Many of us have an extreme, singular concept of what fitness is. We limit our idea of what it means to be in-shape to aesthetic flawlessness (i.e. not one inch of fat to pinch). This image perpetuates unrealistic expectations of what it means to be healthy, and alienates people who are looking to become fit. People who struggle with obesity or lead extraordinarily sedentary lifestyles feel especially helpless.
I admire body builders, athletes, and fitness models. I know firsthand the work ethic it takes to achieve the outstanding results we see in fitness magazines. I have nothing but the utmost respect for people who model exemplary standards of fitness. But there’s a bit of a gap between the Career Couch Potato, and the Former High School Track Star who can’t imagine NOT running 6 days a week. There’s also a wide bridge between constant binge/emotional eating, and eating boiled egg whites with unsweetened oatmeal for breakfast every day. Granted, it is a bridge which can be crossed (I’ve crossed it), but only through a series of steps, not leaps and bounds.
Fitness, in a technical sense, is characterized by muscular strength, cardio respiratory endurance, joint flexibility/range of motion, and an optimal body fat percentage (<31% for women and <24% men) . However, fitness as it relates to us on an individual level has various meanings and degrees of importance. For people who suffer from depression, exercise improves their mood and self-esteem. For dancers, movement is about self-expression, freedom, and joy. Some people value their exercise regimen because it allows them to focus on themselves, clear their thoughts, and connect to their bodies in a way we often don’t in our everyday lives. So there is a psycho-emotional benefit to exercise and eating well which can far outweigh the benefits of having 6 pack abs.
Another misconception around fitness involves its execution. When we think of what it takes to be fit, we picture ourselves running or lifting weights. I personally enjoy running and lifting weights; however, there was a time when walking was a laborious task. How did I get from barely being able to walk 5 NYC blocks to running 7 miles? The key has not only been moderation and progression, but also finding innovative ways of moving my body and making the experience rewarding. NEWSFLASH: Exercise can feel rewarding! It does not always have to be excrutiating.
Some people associate exercise with fierce physical intensity, but I lost my first 50 pounds dancing to my favorite music playlist for 20 minutes a day. I was working up a sweat and enjoying every moment of it. If we didn’t worry so much about the elitists who caution, “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you,” we could stop trying to do what we think we’re supposed to do in the gym and discover a form of exercise we love. Humans we are motivated by rewarding experiences. For the seasoned gym rat, the reward is in the challenge itself; however, for the beginner, the reward can be as small is showing up to class. The challenge of intense exercise is a deterrent for newbies and is the reason for a 50% drop-out rate from new exercise programs.
I have witnessed some of the nastiest judgments aimed at people who go to the gym regularly yet still don’t “look” fit–as if their efforts are a waste of time. I find this mentality to be extremely elitist and exclusionary. What if the people who don’t meet your standards of fitness are actually happy with their bodies, and simply happy to be moving? This is the prevailing mindset among some fitness enthusiasts who, instead of inspiring others, wind up alienating and intimidating them. It’s the reason people who are overweight are terrified of going to the gym and either being judged, or worse yet, patronized: “Oh, look at that fat person working out. How good for them!” Both approaches can be humiliating.
This mentality plagued me, and for years exercise was a tool I used to punish myself for having an imperfect body. I used it to try to fix what was broken. Instead of focusing on the healthfulness of foods, I grouped them into two categories: foods that threatened my ability to keep the weight off, and foods that helped me stay slim. I lived in fear of ruining my progress.
This was not how I began my journey. Exercise and eating well was a meaningful and joyful experience. But as I began to put my story out there, I faced a lot of criticism from people who told me I didn’t have the body of a fitness professional. I heard a lot of unsolicited comments and tips on how to “tighten that up” or “get rid of this or that.” I allowed these comments to strip my hard work of its beauty, pride, and triumph. I veered from my joyful approach to health and wellness and became perpetually dissatisfied with myself.
Luckily I’ve done the work to transcend such a limiting mindset; however, I know a lot of people who work out religiously and adhere to stringent diets at the expense of happiness. They’re driven by feelings like shame and fear. It is an unbalanced view of health– it is unhealthy.
Fitness begins in the mind. A healthy mindset is unlimited in its capacity to inspire change. When the mind and the body are working together harmoniously, it doesn’t matter where you are on your fitness journey, it will feel good. This rewarding feeling is accessible to all of us regardless of where we stand on the path to fitness. It is for everyone.
What does fitness mean to you?