I walked into a boxing club in Calgary many years ago, and I was terrified. I walked in because I wanted to better myself, to feel better about myself, to challenge myself. But I was riddled with insecurities on whether I was good enough, if I had what it took to be a fighter. The coaches were good, and they pushed me and supported me with my training, which in turn built my confidence up more and more. All the times I spent at the club felt special, and I believed I was part of something, something bigger than me. Everyone around me was always happy, and we all had a good time swapping stories while duking it out in the ring, or side by side while the bags glistened with sweat as we pummeled them. But it changed when I entered the industry as a trainer, what I believed to be the epitome of health and wellness.
The internal drive we have towards exercising can be summed up by our desire to find happiness, and the philosopher Epicurus would say that the pursuit of happiness is typically driven by extrinsic desires like romance, money and fame. So, you see, the problem that is presented in our culture regarding health and wellness is that we are drawn to that extrinsic ideal and are led to believe that it will bring about real happiness. In other words, if you look like that model in that magazine, then you will be fulfilled, perhaps happy. That idea takes us down the rabbit hole of finding products and services that feed off our insecurities, like what our body fat percentage is, noting any cellulite we may carry, or the proportions of our body like breast size, arm size or how large our butts are. Exercise carries many benefits to our health and well-being, but the outward appearance it pervades us with in its marketing tells us that the superficial ideal is the only way. But is it?
The fitness industry can be hypocritical if you ask me, what with all the imagery and marketing that conveys the idea that looking a certain way will make you happy, when the reality is it is only a small part of what brings us happiness. For starters, several fitness magazines, like Men’s and Women’s fitness, are loaded with fitness models and bikini models looking pristine and perfect, when both of which must grind to the bone to look the way they do. When I first got into personal training, my mentor told me a story about her time as a fitness competitor. She said she was regularly under ten percent body fat percentage, a proud feat to have when exchanging conversation in the bathroom with other competitors. What can happen to women with a low body fat percentage is they can develop athletic amenorrhea, which is where women have irregular menstrual cycles, and that leads to many negative health affects, which in time can wreck havoc on a women’s body. My mentor hurt her back one day training, but nothing too serious she says, so she went to the doctor to discuss it. Her doctor examined her and did some tests, and later explained that her bones were as strong as that of an 60-year-old – and she was in her 20’s at the time. One of the side-effects of amenorrhea is lower bone mineral density (BMD), which can lead to osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. Amenorrhea, along with anorexia and osteoporosis, make up the female athlete triage, a syndrome that is prevalent in girls and women alike, mostly a result of sports and other pressures of maintaining low body fat percentages. Anyway, my mentor was prescribed medication to counter her low BMD, which caused her great pain, but mostly shame as she was becoming bloated and overweight. She saw herself as a failure, as someone that wasn’t the ideal anymore. But that isn’t the end of her story. Now she looks at fitness a little differently, and when I met her, she was instructing trainers with Canfitpro, and now through her company, she tells this story to everyone, to warn others not to make the same mistakes she did. If you think of the mental stress of it all, from preparing to compete in front of people that may know nothing of you, to the sparse realization that there can only be one winner (which is true of all competition), it can be taxing, and the affects on our mental health is made more common in the bodybuilding world, especially once it is all done with post-competition depression being quite common.
If you look through the various social media handles of fitness influencers on Instagram, a lot of them will sell you anything for a buck, so long as they carry any semblance of attraction or fit appearance to show that the products work. So is the lifestyle led genuine? In early 2019, Kim Kardashian marketed an appetite suppressing lollipop from Flat Tummy Co., a company she has been marketing on her Instagram account prior to 2019. The ad carried a suggestion that to look like her, you must try this lollipop because of its appetite supressing traits. The post received a lot of negative press because of the implications of the ad; that the young women she is influencing are being led to believe that they need to suppress themselves to look beautiful. Not to mention her payout from that ad on Instagram, which Kris Jenner has stated is at least “six figures” in an interview with CBS Sunday Morning news. According to a recent Nov 2019 interview for The Cut, Kim stated that she is an expert when it comes to plastic surgery, and that she gives out advice to plenty of celebrities along with knowing exactly who to send people to for any specific jobs needed. It makes one wonder: why, or how?
The growing amount of plastic surgeons on social media is surprising, and with the superficial nature of Instagram, it may have a consequence of leading women down a path of self-loathing and negative self-imagery as they will be pressure to receive surgery, especially when one of the biggest celebrities in the world is promoting it. Sounds crazy to me, but in the world of social media, the avatar – the person we invoke online can reign supreme in advertising fitness. The need to exercise and train can be thwarted because you can change your appearance with filters or with Photoshop, like with the video made by Tim Piper. In this video, Tim does a shoot with a model lying on her belly in a red bikini, and afterwards he edits her so much with Photoshop that she can be considered a different person. Another video of his that was made for Dove, shows that any Photoshop that is done on photos and finished products are distorting peoples ideas of beauty. You can’t help but feel that many influencers that market a path to happiness via exercise and other health products are only looking to get paid.
There are fitness magazines that have a disingenuous way of discussing exercise, with the way exercises are marketed in headlines and articles, they all say to do them to “lose fat,” “shape your curves,” or to “get that six-pack.” If you take a quick look at the Men’s Health exercise section on their website, you will see a couple of articles with titles like “Blast your arms and chisel your abs in one workout” and “5 old-school ab exercises actually worth doing,” when in reality, to have six-pack abs or a vascular complexion requires having a low body fat percentage and isn’t tied to the specificity of the exercise. The current research on how much of a difference exercise makes to weight loss is interesting, with a review study by Damon L.Swift et al, suggesting that the many forms of exercise we go through only play a small role in reducing our body fat, if any. Do my eyes deceive me? So, exercise does not even play a large role in weight loss? But that goes against everything we have been led to believe? Well, if you go further into that study, you will also see that the level of intensity isn’t congruent with increased weight loss, meaning that lower intensity exercise have the same results as high intensity interval training (Damon L Swift, 2014.) I remember when I entered the industry, I was told that exercise contributes to about 40% of weight loss, but that number kept getting smaller and smaller the more people I talked to, with exercise contributing to maybe 10% after the discussions I had with co-workers and gym owners. And now you see classes that feature calories burned and other metrics to gauge your progress, because seeing isn’t believing when it comes to progress, or so they say. With all this in mind, the industry seems warped in its presentation, only appealing to our base emotions, and creates standards based on some societal normative that is only made true via these kinds of marketing tools.
So, what then? With the superficial reigning supreme in advertising and with the way gyms market personal training, class passes, or memberships, it seems to carry with it a disingenuous motto of helping you lose weight, all while collecting a paycheck. According to Obesity Canada and Public Health Canada, as of 2017, the cost of healthcare towards obesity is estimated to be between $5 billion – $7 billion, and it is expected to increase to $9 billion by 2021. As of 2018, Statistics Canada has on record that 65% of the population is considered obese, with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 and higher. Newfoundland and Labrador (40.2%,) Princes Edward Island (37.8%,) and Nova Scotia (33.7%) have the highest rates of obesity in Canada (Alberta sits at 28.8% which is above the national average of 26.8%.) In the IBISWorld market research report, the Canadian fitness industry has reaped a solid $4 billion in revenue as of November 2019, and the global fitness industry revenue according to Business Insider statistics is $100 billion as of 2019, up from $87.9 billion in 2017. And on Instagram, looking within the app itself, there are over 380 million tags of #fitness, and according to the website Top-Hashtags as of writing this, #fitness is in the top 30 most used hashtags. With an industry that clearly makes money, has a large voice, and is growing in popularity, one must wonder if it is truly in the interest of the client. Or rather, a better question to ask is this: If we are so heavily invested in our health and well-being, then why is obesity and heart disease still on the rise?
At this point in this essay, you may think I have a hatred for the fitness industry, which is understandable. However, while I find the industry can be morally ambiguous, there are a lot of positive elements within it. For starters, gyms cultivate communities, there is no question about that. I see it myself in the gym I trained out of, with members engaging in conversation across the floor and becoming fast friends. I have witnessed couples forming before my eyes, sharing moments of adoration and kindness on the floor, and I even saw a marriage as the result. I have also seen a family grow-up in front of me through a member and his young sons. He joined the gym years ago after he had divorced his wife and ended up as a single father to three boys. When he joined, he brought along his two oldest boys, both being 15 and 12 respectively. He was and is a positive part of the club with his stories and care for everyone around him. I have had many deep conversations with him regarding mental health, and he has made many friends within the club. Now his kids are growing to be towering young men as they continue to train, and have now included their youngest brother in the mix.
There is also the fact that exercise has proven beneficial towards reducing mental illnesses like depression and bi-polar disorder. Blumenthal JA et al, observed 156 depressed men after splitting them into three groups, one on medication, one exercising aerobically, and a combination group. While medication worked a little faster than the others, it was observed that all three had no significant differences among treatment groups (Blumenthal JA et al, 1999.) It was also observed that after ten months, the exercise group were better at staving off depression, with 70% of respondents having lower rates of depression compared to the other two. Lastly, exercise is extremely effective for keeping weight off. In the review study referenced earlier by Damon L. Swift et al, exercise is helpful for maintaining weight, and plays a role in reducing visceral fat compared to only dieting to lose weight. It was also observed in a study by Anderson et al, that after a year of checking caloric expenditure and exercise programming from a group they studied, the people that kept it up lost some additional weight, while those that weren’t keeping it up regained a lot of their weight, which shows the importance of exercise after weight loss. We are communal, social animals with needs that transcend the superficial, but the immediate pleasure seeking of training can blind us from that, with the way exercise is marketed and why the extrinsic motivators such as how we look can seem important when it is all we pay attention to.
If you already feel like you aren’t the ideal or aren’t attractive – not until you look a certain way – you will keep chasing and chasing till it harms you, mentally and physically. Anorexia and Muscle Dysmorphia or “Bigorexia” are real illnesses that come at the cost of a person not being happy with how they look, so they starve or over train to hit that ideal which doesn’t ever come. The story of Gregg Valentino and his exploding arms as a result of his steroid use can be a reminder of gratitude and loving thyself. Gregg Valentino wasn’t always into steroid use, being a natural bodybuilder in his mid 20’s, but he started to take drugs to get as large as possible with his view of himself being a symptom of his muscle dysmorphia. He said that those who were “half his training age” were getting bigger than him in a short amount of time. Gregg injected himself with synthol oil to “lift” his muscles upwards, while also using equipose and propionate (which are used directly for the growth of muscle) to have that aesthetic, popped out look. However, Gregg had to have his biceps drained as they literally exploded or imploded from the sustained use, and as such, suffered the negative health issues afterwards. Eugenia Cooney is a YouTuber that posts vlogs and make-up tutorials, but what she is known for is her battles with anorexia, which has been the subject of controversy, Petitions have been made to halt her content because she could be a negative influence on young girls. When I first heard about the video, it sounded innocent enough because it was just her discussing a Kingdom Hearts cosplay, It was viral at the time and now has 7 million views, but I didn’t know why, and when I finally saw it, I was in shock at what I saw. She looked like she needed help. Her vertebrae and ligaments were clear as day, and her hips and ribs were so prominent that you could count her ribs out, and her wrists looked like they could be snapped between my fingers with ease. But she had this smile on her face, and she looked happy while talking about her cosplay. She disappeared from YouTube shortly after the video was made public. Months later, in an article with Insider, she talks about taking a break from YouTube to seek help, which started when she received an intervention from her close friends. According to her friends, as Insider also spoke with them, talking with Eugenia was always a challenge, and she had always shied away from the topic when they brought it up. She has admitted that she didn’t think she was ill, or that she needed help, but is now on a path of recovery. There is a lot to these stories, but the affects eating disorders have on people seem paralyzing, and change can only happen when they want it or when they see it, and it is a fine line to draw between encouraging free expression and hurting yourself for it, with the latter being my belief of Gregg, and how it was for Eugenia.
One last thing I notice is how unmotivating it is for those people that are intimidated by the gym and the fitness industry. I have heard it many times over the years from new members, clients, and family members; they don’t feel like they belong in a gym. My own Mother has told me this whenever we have talked about exercising, and she also mentioned the attitude she received while living in El Salvador. The gym culture was very superficial, and the trainer she had and the staff at the club paid more attention to themselves and in the trainers case, the other women around him. This is more a problem with the trainer and club then the fitness culture, but the fact the actual desire to help someone doesn’t matter, so long as you look the part and have lots of likes and follows makes the art of helping and communicating with people seem lost. How many other clubs do this? I have heard many stories of other facilities that bring you in, welcome you and are kind, but once you are a member, the staff never bother you again. So I don’t blame her, when the models of this fitness “ideal” look as perfect as they do, and when getting a contract with you was the only goal, it is no wonder some people just decide it isn’t for them. Now I don’t mean to never highlight physical progress or that all gyms do those things. I think that you should be proud of your work, proud of how you feel, along with having a strong community to feel a part of that isn’t a cult. But when it is only about superficiality, when the evidence suggests that exercise isn’t even the cause of that kind of progress, it says those that market such a thing to you are lying and stealing, although their own ignorance could be part of it. The fact that many certifications don’t allow trainers to discuss nutrition for fear of being liable should be a red flag, with the industry telling you that exercise is the only way – to them at least. I think it is important to find those forms of exercise that provide you with enjoyment, as with the evidence presented above, they suggest that it doesn’t really matter what you do, so long as you do it.
The irony I see is that exercise can make you happy, as stated previously, but the chasing can be really depressing, but it doesn’t have to be. The famous philosopher Epicurus believes that happiness is a pleasure-seeking endeavor, and that the external drives of hedonism are what we are led to believe is the way to happiness, when in reality, it comes from within; he calls the lack of chasing a “Negative pleasure seeking drive,” a lack of pursuit. In other words: chasing only leaves us dissatisfied. Consider the common new years rush at gyms: people show up in droves and are motivated to lose weight but stop after a few weeks because they failed to hit their goals, societies ideals. And the fitness industry wants this because their success comes from people’s continued anxiety and insecurities, with shame potentially being part of why many people fail to cancel gym memberships right away. The constant need to keep pushing forward with these fitness ideals only brings about anxiety and disappointment from losing your goals and progress. And it doesn’t stop either. I am around 5-9% bodyfat, I have a visible 6-8 pack, and my veins pop out like crazy (which is because of my low bodyfat percentage), but I have been dealing with depression and mental health issues for years. I never got into training to look good, but I was led to believe this the more I got into it. I was judged as a trainer by how I looked all the time, and I found myself comparing my features to other trainers as a form of competition. I have never been concerned with how I looked, but it changed a lot when I was doing body composition tests, and when people approached me asking me how I did it or seeking my services for that reason, it only pushed that idea further. I wanted to feel better about myself as I carried self-doubt and loathing around like a weight vest on my chest, and exercise did help me feel better, but it didn’t address the problem. It only became a new obsession, something to distract myself with while I continue to fall deeper into that pit of despair.
Looking good outside does not contribute to the internal battles you may have and having that six-pack doesn’t take care of that intrinsic happiness we all desire. As a mentor once said to me “Someone that doesn’t look healthy could be healthy, and someone that looks healthy isn’t necessarily healthy,” and healthy and happy is interchangeable if you ask me. Like the stoics, like Marcus Aurelius or Lao Tzu, it is about enjoying the now. Easier said then done in what we are presented with in media and marketing, but removing those desires, that can be a start.