Mirror, Mirror: Body Image and Exercise
As a fitness professional, I often work with clients who have very specific aesthetic goals, which reveal a lot about each client’s body image and self image in general. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this (we all love the idea of being lean and looking great at the beach), sometimes that enthusiasm for self-improvement can become counterproductive, or even obsessive.
While there are clinical markers that exist for disordered eating and exercise, it’s important to remember that these characteristics occur along a spectrum. It can be common at any time for active, health-minded people to become overly perfectionistic about fitness goals. When you sense that you’ve reached this point, it’s wise to re-assess your fitness and nutritional roadmap.
The Quest for the Perfect Body
Some people get very upset when I say this, but the bottom line is that most dieting – and a lot of exercise – is in reality disordered eating and exercise, or is at least not far from it. Why?
Many of these behaviors are motivated exclusively by an emotional, urgent quest to control and change appearance.
There is a tremendous difference between (1) having generally beneficial eating and exercise habits that help you attain/maintain an appropriate (or even lean) weight and (2) dieting and over-training.
You may ask, isn’t that just a semantic difference?
Dieting is goal-driven, temporary, aesthetics-based, failure-destined, and restriction-oriented.
Sound eating and exercise practices, on the other hand, are good for the mind and soul as well as the body, because these habits don’t affect your larger life much, if at all. This is the goal of healthy, normal eating and exercise – for it to be as easy, enjoyable, simple, and instinctual as possible for the long haul. It’s built around habits and results that can last.
This is where it becomes very important to be a discerning social media user. Lots of “fitness experts” with sponsored ads sell the message that you, too, can be as lean as they are, if you buy their product, gimmick, or “coaching” package for 28 days or for only 7 minutes a day.
However, the problem with believing everything you see on social media, including what is advertised by “experts,” is that people lie. It may not be malicious or even intentional, but many Instagram and YouTube fitness stars do not represent themselves, their lifestyles, or the results of their customers accurately.
The reality is that being in the top 1% of elite fitness comes down to two factors:
- Genetics play a much larger role in body shape, weight distribution, and appearance than people want to admit. Think of genetics as giving you a spectrum of potential. You can live anywhere on your own spectrum with your body type, but your spectrum may not be the same as another person’s. The problem with the “perfect body” quest is that it is a self-defeating journey that automatically compares you to others. Who defines the perfect body? Builds vary widely, and one woman’s 20% body fat may not look like another woman’s 20% body fat.
- Moving your needle to the 1% end of your own spectrum, no matter what your genetic potential may be, is extremely hard work. People whose livelihoods depend on being chiseled (fitness models, action stars, etc.) work constantly to maintain that physique. Their meals are timed and scientifically portioned, and their workouts are disciplined and precise. People who work full-time jobs and have family and personal demands will have more difficulty incorporating that lifestyle into their existing obligations. It’s not impossible, but it is hard work and it is calculated, and the average person needs professional help to get there.
This article about someone attempting to follow Dwayne Johnson’s food and exercise plan for a month is not only hilarious, but also highlights how much someone must commit and sacrifice in order to achieve professional-level physique.
To quote one of the more salient parts of the article, the man who tried the “expensive, exhausting” lifestyle for a month explained about The Rock:
That dude works really really hard. This is what this guy does; this is his livelihood, the fact that he looks like this and trains like this every day of his life while making his movies, being on set 14 hours – that kind of discipline to me is absolutely amazing. To me this is less about ‘Can I look like him?’ and more about ‘Can I work as hard as him?’”
The danger for women in particular, however, is that body ideals often don’t promote being big or strong like Dwayne Johnson, which can be attained through simple food and exercise equations. In other words, The Rock is basically a result of metabolic math. Eat 5,000 calories of high-quality protein and vegetables and exercise for two hours every day, and regardless of your genetic potential, you will put on lean muscle fast.
For women, however, the ideal of body image is often get smaller — to “tone up” without getting “bulky.” As a result, fitness misinformation is dangerously rampant and incredibly confusing, and healthy women obsess over how to eliminate a few bits of cellulite from the backs of their thighs. They don’t eat like The Rock. Instead, the end result is often unnecessary calorie restriction, obsessive cardio exercise, stressful yo-yo’ing, and owning several sizes of pants. These over-training habits and restrictive food behaviors only cause setbacks, not progress.
My recommendation to clients, especially female clients, is this:
Be patient with the level of fitness that is appropriate for your lifestyle and the result that it has on your body, and stick to it. You can always progress from a healthy starting point.
If you can’t have the consistency of The Rock in your lifestyle (i.e., you are not a model, professional athlete, or full-time action hero), don’t attempt Herculean routines. You will just end up frustrated and out of a lot of money. Be consistent with what you do well and what you can sustain for years, and your metabolic system (as well as your emotions and hormones) will reward you.
Being consistent and patient, especially with your eating habits, doesn’t mean that you won’t eventually see the results you want. Elite physique goals are not wrong, selfish, vain, or even inherently unhealthy. But from my point of view, you need to focus on maintaining a physique that supports your physical, hormonal, and mental health all the time, and that can vary from woman to woman.
Reasons to Exercise and Make Smart Food Choices (That Are Not Aesthetic)
Most fitness marketing is driven by beach body ideals. However, there are many tremendous benefits to fitness that transcend – but can include – appearance. Here are just a few:
- Body chemistry and health readings (blood sugar, blood pressure, triglycerides, etc.)
- Stronger muscles and physical performance/endurance in daily activities
- Denser and less-breakable bones
- Decreased “aches and pains,” increased mobility, and faster recovery from injuries
- Increased energy levels throughout the day
- Better mood overall
- More regular sleep cycles
- Boosted immunity
- Balanced hormones
- Decreased stress
Here’s the secret, though:
- If you regularly make smart food choices that nourish your body and participate in moderate exercise, your beach body will probably show up all on its own!
Just a reminder: what does exercise and healthy eating not do?
- Give you a different person’s body
The Consequences of Too Much (or Inconsistent) Dieting and Over-Exercising
The sad irony of obsessive exercise and dieting is that it reverses the benefits. You can pretty much take the above list and turn it around, and that is exactly what happens when someone punishes their body by depriving it of normal, balanced meals and pushing it through brutal workout routines that are exclusively driven by aesthetic goals. These are the consequences of “messing around” too much with the happy harmony of your body:
- Compromised cardiovascular activity
- Loss of muscle mass
- Brittle bones
- Frequent injuries and slow recovery
- Vulnerability to colds and flus
- Whacked out hormones and loss of normal body functions (like menstruation)
- Higher levels of cortisol (stress) in the bloodstream
You may achieve your beach body through dieting and over-exercising, but the great likelihood is that you will hurt yourself or burn out before you reach your goal, or your body will begin to sabotage you in other ways (like retaining water or adipose fat) to counteract the stress.
The best way to achieve the physique that you want is to eat and exercise in a way that supports total health, and to pursue more elite goals with structure, support, and patience. It may take longer to see results, but they will last longer, as well.
How to Reconcile Body Image and Exercise
Before you freak out because you now think you have an eating disorder or exercise addiction, I will say it again: these behaviors occur along a spectrum. You may have boarded the perfect body train, but you are allowed to get off at any stop.
Did you relate to this article? Are you worried that your fitness habits might be a little over the edge? Here are some things that you can do:
- Stop the behaviors that are not working for you. Injured? Stop or modify exercise (yes, even if the “big race” is next weekend!). Hungry? Eat. Tired? Sleep. Sick? Do nothing. Taking a rest day will never set you back.
- Get support. If you have a lot of body image frustration, verbalize your concerns to a trusted friend, a professional therapist, or a compassionate trainer. Community makes everything better. A smart, well-educated personal trainer will help you break down your goals into attainable, simple steps.
- Look deeper. Often, food and exercise issues are not actually about food and exercise, or even the body. These conditions usually mask a deeper psychological stress or a chronic lifestyle issue, and addressing your body image issues can start to peel back the layers of the onion and help you make effective, long-lasting change.
You can always change your perspective on body image. What you see in the mirror does not categorically define who you are as a human being. Sometimes it’s as simple as some healthy self-talk, but sometimes you may need additional help from others. Stay tuned for the next blog post to learn about creating a “preventative” lifestyle, and if you think you need more help getting back on track, check out these resources below:
National Eating Disorders Association – the primary organization in the U.S. that offers services to people with eating disorders of any kind, as well as to their families
Overeaters Anonymous – contrary to its name, this 12-step program offers free and confidential meetings for not just overeaters, but anyone with an issue with food and/or exercise