It’s March 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc on the familiarity of daily life we once knew and loved. We are forced to adapt to new routines, attend school virtually, work remotely and, somehow, find new and creative ways to stay “healthy”.“Healthy” meaning not contracting Covid and “healthy” meaning staying active to protect both our mind and body.
The intensifying stay-at-home orders shifted the focus of working out in the gym to working out at-home. And with that, new YouTube sensations such as Chloe Ting took advantage. If you’re lucky enough to be unfamiliar with Chloe Ting, she championed at-home workout challenges, changed the face of modern exercise, and claimed to be able to transform your body in two short weeks with her “2 Week Shreds”, “Flat Stomach Challenges”, “25 Day Slim Thigh Challenges”, and many more. As someone whose strict routine of alternating between Orange Theory and long runs was thrown off by Covid, I, like many others at the time, gave in to these challenges. And, I, like millions of other individuals, was attracted by these misleading titles.
These fad challenges targeted young, self-conscious, and insecure girls who would do anything to change their bodies to fit society’s standards, and these challenges perpetuated and contributed to society’s toxic standards surrounding health, wellness, and body image as well. A few short months into the pandemic, videos were released on Tiktok and Youtube of women measuring their thighs, their waist, their bodies, correlating their health to these numbers, correlating their worth to how much of their body was lost due to these challenges. How painfully ironic that at a time when no one could see each other in-person, so many of us were fixating on our physical appearances.
Fixation on numbers is much of what the modern exercise industry has turned into. It is becoming more apparent that the only true essential piece of “equipment” needed for exercise today are numbers. Whether at the gym or on the running trail, rudimentary calculation is the fundamental metric used to assess exercise—the weight lifted, the distances run, the time exercised, the calories burned, the inches lost, and the heart rates elevated. A simple test of whether an activity is engulfed by the modern exercise industry is to ask whether or not it could be done meaningfully without counting or measuring it. Perhaps it has been about the numbers for decades, due to diet culture's obsession with calorie tracking and weight loss, but new technologies have further perpetuated and exacerbated this problem.
When training for my half-marathon at the end of 2020, I was one with my apple watch. Not closing all three of my rings was not an option, and not thinking about how many calories I had burned in my runs was not an option. How scary is it that this watch, this piece of technology, had such a strong grip on my daily life. Nowadays, it seems that we view our bodies as a collection of numbers representing capabilities. How is this a meaningful way to live? Our bodies are not calculators—our bodies are individualized vessels that allow us to experience all of life’s greatest pleasures. How did we get to the point where we exist as a set of numbers? We are often at the mercy of counting experts. A lab technician takes a sample of blood, a nurse tightens a cuff around your arm, links you to an EKG, and the basic measurements of your height and weight are taken—more often than not, never to your satisfaction. Exacerbating your dread and expectation, the doctor then relays a series of numbers to you that ends up seeming to be correlated with your worth. These numbers too, are often the hardest to change. Of course, these are numbers that are necessary to track for possible medical concerns, but even so, many of us can't help but correlate these numbers to our self worth. An undesirable number, most likely the result of genetics, feels like a personal failure.
Yet when we turn to the gym or the running trail, we are faced with numbers we can change. What a relief this is for us, to have numbers we can control. With willpower and a sufficient amount of discipline, here are the numbers we can change, here is where we can have control in our life. This control leads us to wanting more, consistently setting new goals as we reach the previous one, yearning for an unattainable perfection. Exercise is all about sets, reps, and mileage: this is a recipe for monotony, and physical monotony tends to be especially hard on the body and on the mind.
Additionally, the less respectable but even more powerful justification for day-to-day exercise and overexercise is thinness. It involves the strict disciplining of a deprived body, rather than the righteous responsibility to maintain the health of the body. Society tries to get us to believe that the body’s natural tendency to not only fluctuate between weights but also put on weight is the physical expression of a moral failure. Society tries to get us to believe that nutrition makes one overweight rather than well fed. And society tries to get us to believe that exercise is directly correlated to your moral stance rather than your overall health. And because of this, the ethos of gym exercise destroys the feeling of safety that humans have when relating to their own bodies and when forming relationships with their own bodies. Often, individuals become more ashamed of their actual bodies in the gym environment than in their pre-gym past. With the modern exercise industry often comes more obsession and self-hatred, rather than less.
This stance is not to discount the vast benefits of movement, exercise, and staying active. Undoubtedly taking charge and taking care of your personal health is one of the best things you as an individual can do for yourself. I consider myself to be a very active individual; you will see me at Brodie or Wilson multiple times throughout the week. However, exercise becomes problematic when you rely solely on the numbers, when you judge your morality based on it, and when you beat yourself up and cause yourself harm for not doing it. When you judge in your mind, if not out loud, the total healthiness of your individual state at each moment, alternating between satisfaction and disappointment, based on what you ate, what you drank, how much you exercised, when, and with what feelings when doing it, that is when it causes more harm than good. It allows us to be so far removed from what our body actually needs.
Yet we know that time and time again exercise fails. We have all been there, January 1st year after year we set goals for ourselves that we know are unattainable. We force ourselves to go to the gym five times a week when we know that regimind will only last for the month of January. So we know that exercise fails often. It is human nature for it to. But at the same time, we know the vast benefits it can bring us if done correctly. That’s why I believe we as a society need to reframe the modern exercise industry. We need a universal push towards movement, a movement that places emphasis on authentic, joyful, enjoyable, and functional movement. For those who have yet to experience the beauty of this kind of movement, it feels and looks nothing like what society pressures us to see as an effective workout. Movement is engaging, movement is diverse, it is authentic, and intuitive. Exercise is a means towards an end goal whereas movement is an end in itself. Of course, physical engagement is still essential if we want to improve or maintain our health. We still need to challenge our bodies, and we still need to push our comfort zones. It is about finding a balance of the two however that works for us.
I am still working towards this balance, and the process of finding it did not come easy for me either. After my half-marathon, I knew changes needed to be made. I realized I needed to begin working out for myself and myself only. I realized I needed to begin moving in ways that benefited me mentally, rather than only physically. I realized what I needed was not a switch from exercise to movement overnight, what I needed was to diversify my efforts, to look for movement of all varieties. I turned off fitness tracking on my apple watch, I didn’t force myself to run 30-something miles a week, I didn’t force myself to work out when my body was telling me not to. I took up a myriad of forms of movement and saw them all as equal, and I stopped seeing exercise in the form of numbers. I began to see exercise as movement. An intuitive endeavor meant to be enjoyed in all capacities. When you move for enjoyment, the movement becomes more approachable, and when it becomes more approachable, it is more likely for it to become repeatable. After all, what we wanted in the first place was to get our bodies moving more, so why don’t we do it in a way that doesn’t lead to burn out? Why don’t we do it in a way that is truly enjoyable? Exercise is not one size fits all, so we as a collective need to stop demonizing people for moving their bodies in ways they see fit. When you move for yourself, in whatever capacity you decide is right for you, not based on what society tells you to do, real progress is made and real change can be seen, both physically and mentally.