Most of us ordinary folks know what will make us healthier: a little strength training, eating vegetables, maybe losing some fat, doing some cardio sometimes. But it doesn’t follow that somebody who does these things to an extreme is healthy. Even if they look good as a result.
This goes for influencers who show off their bodies on social media, but it also applies to athletes. Even good, successful ones. Olympic medals don’t go to whoever leads the healthiest life while being pretty good at sports, they go to whoever lifts the most weight or runs the fastest or puts the ball in the thing the most times.
Pro bodybuilder Chris Bumstead recently agreed with this in an interview, noting the injuries that hockey players sustain, and then added the following about his own sport:
You’re training so hard, putting so much stress on your joints, bringing your body fat down to unhealthy levels for competitions multiple times a year. It’s kind of what makes it impressive that we’re doing it, makes people interested to watch it and makes us elite athletes…no, it’s not healthy. We’re pushing ourselves to limits.
Bodybuilders not only lift heavy, they also diet so hard that they have to worry about their hormone levels and their metabolism. They lose strength in the final stages of sculpting that physique that looks so strong on stage. Then, they often dehydrate themselves as a finishing touch, before doing their shows and maybe a few photo shoots and then reversing the process. Steroid use is common; so are mental health issues relating to food and body image.
And while both male and female pro bodybuilders take all of this to an extreme, the same strategies are often responsible for the jacked, ripped, or “toned” bodies you see on social media. Or in movies — we see a lot of actors being applauded for rapid body transformations, but it’s not like acting is a drug-tested sport.
Bottom line, just because somebody has a lot of muscle, very little body fat, or both, doesn’t mean they’re healthy. It also doesn’t mean that buying their workout plan or their supplements will get you their body. Besides the techniques mentioned above, there’s also photoshop and surgery. Butt implants are a thing, and it’s very likely that at least a few of the influencers selling “booty workout” plans have had them.
The conflict between health and performance goes beyond aesthetics. The people at the top level in any sport have often sacrificed everything else in life to be good at the specific thing that earns points. It’s not unusual for the pursuit of greatness (or YouTube glory) to ultimately result in eating disorders, or complications from the side effects of performance-enhancing drugs, or injuries.
Who do you really think is going to be healthier at age 50, a retired athlete with countless past injuries and concussions, or a guy who played football in high school and then moved on to other things? A model who has abs and ridiculously low body fat — for the moment, anyway — or a woman who’s 9 kg heavier but eats normally and hits the gym a few times a week? For that matter, who’s likely to be mentally healthier: an Olympic athlete whose life revolves around training and whose career depends on how they do in a few high stakes competitions, or a recreational athlete who can take rest days whenever they want?
If you are an athlete or model, or if you aspire to be one, you may decide to make some of these tradeoffs. Even at the recreational level, I know a lot of us do things for our sport that maybe aren’t great choices for our overall health. But let’s not conflate success in a sport or likes on Instagram with keeping your body in good working order.