Recently I’ve been having a lot of conversations about fitness with a bunch of people (hence last week’s post), and they have been telling me their goals and asking for tips on how to achieve them.
The thing is, fitness is not rocket science. You want to lose weight? Eat fewer calories than you burn. You want to be skinny-fat? Eat less. You want to be bulky? Eat more and lift heavy. I know I’m oversimplifying here, but so often I find that these are not the actual hard parts of fitness. It’s not that difficult to work out or to plan a food regime. The hard part is all mental.
However, most people’s fitness goals, have little to do with fitness. They’re usually exclusively aesthetic. People want to be thinner, more muscular looking, or have certain measurements. Obviously, there are ways to accomplish any of these, but the problem that I have with them is that they are exclusively focused on outcome. As in, if this person doesn’t achieve that certain ‘look’ or size, they will have failed. Furthermore, this type of goal setting implies that there is an ‘end’ and fitness never ends. It is a lifestyle. Of course, if you’re trying to achieve something for a specific competition or event then those can act as an endpoints, but most people consider a body type their endpoint.
However, achieving this body can leave a hollow feeling because work to maintain it would have to continue, you can’t just stop when you reach your goal weight and go back to old habits or you won’t keep your supposed ‘goal body’.
I bring this up because I believe this is one of the major reasons people become frustrated and disillusioned with working out or eating healthier. It becomes only about the outcome, and they view everything in between as necessary suffering to achieve said end result. This is particularly difficult because an aesthetic outcome can often be a hollow pursuit and the journey there can have many false starts. Changing your measurements doesn’t occur in a straight line so when people don’t see immediate results, they don’t view the ‘suffering’ as worth it anymore and they stop. Furthermore, it creates no relationship with the journey of becoming healthier so then even if people do reach their ideal body, they aren’t sure how to proceed in keeping it because their entire relationship with fitness has been with that specific outcome this whole time, not with fitness itself.
So when people ask me what they should do to lose weight or look a certain way, the first thing I ask them is why they want to look this way. This makes people stop and think because generally, the reason they want to look a certain way is because they feel they are supposed to look a certain way. Society or someone in their lives has made them feel as though their current appearance isn’t cutting it. Ok, fine, I understand. However, I then caution them that having an aesthetic as their goal can be really demoralizing, especially if they’ve already struggled with body issues in the past. Then I ask them to think not about what they’d like to look like, but what they’d like to be able to do.
Let me explain – Sometimes my shoulders make me insecure. They’re pretty broad and muscular, and there are lots of tops I feel I can’t wear because they’re too delicate or don’t stretch right across the muscle. When I look at magazines, I see women with slim, sometimes even dainty shoulders and everything from necklaces to sweaters seems to just hang so perfectly on them. So sometimes, I think about trying to lose the muscle and making my shoulders and arms very slim. But then I think about what my shoulders can do. They were built on swimming for hours every day, and now I can lift heavy things, rock climb, do all sorts of exercises with my own body – including pullups, I can lift suitcases into overhead bins for old people on planes, I can move furniture around by myself, the list goes on and on. They’re really strong muscles. In order to slim down my shoulders, I’d have to lose some of the muscle, and I wouldn’t be able to do the same things I can do now. And that’s not worth it to me. Once I come to that conclusion, I realize being insecure about my shoulders is fruitless because I wouldn’t be willing to compromise their abilities for looks anyways. I take pride in my strength and as a result, I also take pride in how I look.
Consequently, this approach to your body works for two reasons – one, it takes the pressure off what you look like. Your looks will fluctuate from day to day, as your mood changes, how much you ate on one day, as you age, and we all know logically that it makes no sense to compare ourselves to people who have been redone and retouched. Two – it forces you to think more about the journey of your body than the outcome. If you’re thinking about what you want your body to be able to accomplish, whether it’s dancing, being flexible, lifting heavy, or running far, you start to enjoy the journey so much more because that progress truly is trackable and more rewarding than dropping pounds or inches. And honestly, if your goal was aesthetic in nature, you’ll probably end up accomplishing it anyways based on your functional goals.
I have met people who have been successful in their fitness journey through aesthetic goals, but I would say they are in the minority. Of course it can work, but I think it takes a type of mental fortitude that most people don’t have when it comes to fitness and body image. But if that’s what gets you going, then you do you! But for myself, and for most other people I meet, it can be so discouraging to focus only on how your workouts are translating to your appearance. It is so much more satisfying to realize you’re able to run farther, do that crazy squat jump move, or have more energy in a day, because that’s what makes the journey fun too. It also forces you to think about the pride you have in your body, what it can do, and what it needs. Once you’re proud of what you’re body can do, it’s a lot easier to be proud of what it looks like as well.