Some people exercise for health. Others exercise out of a sense of competitiveness or accomplishment. But by far, the most popular reason that people hit the gym is to make their body look better. They want to lose weight, be jacked, have abs, or look toned. But I would like to humbly suggest: maybe that shouldn’t be your only motivation.
I don’t mean that it’s wrong or bad to care about how you look. We are all subject to appearance-related pressures both from within ourselves and from society at large. There are expectations from others, your own confidence, your feelings about your feelings about your body, and dozens more things that are probably better discussed with a therapist than a personal trainer. Your body is what it is, but how you feel about it is a complex construct. And because it’s so complex, simply changing the shape of your body isn’t likely to drastically change the way you feel about your body. Let me explain.
Fitness progress is slow
When you embark on a body transformation journey, it will be weeks — maybe months — before you see any significant differences in the mirror. If you’re just trying to lose fat, you’ll begin seeing results pretty soon. If you’re trying to gain muscle, though, it may seem like the process takes forever. Because it kind of does.
And if you want to gain muscle and lose fat? That takes even longer. You have to eat more to build the muscle, then diet off the fat, and repeat. An alternative would be eating approximately the same amount of food you are now, and waiting for muscle and fat to change places, but thta’s an even slower process than trying to do one and then the other.
Importantly, the amount of muscle you can meaningfully gain in a few months (or even a year) is smaller than you might think. If we use the estimate of gaining four to seven pounds of muscle in your first three months of training, with gains slowing down a bit after that, you can see how underwhelming this might be. Distribute those few pounds all over your body, and you may have a noticeably bigger butt, but it won’t be a huge butt…or shoulders, biceps, or whatever else you might focus on.
You may never get your dream body
But let’s say you keep working. You lose fat, gain muscle, put in years of work, and eventually do have a huge butt, chiselled abs, or whatever you dreamed at the start. Are you happy?
For a lot of people, the answer is: not really. Maybe you can see your abs, but you’re unhappy that your waist is “blocky.” Maybe your butt is big, but it’s not big enough. Maybe your arms are toned, but now your shoulders won’t fit the jackets you like to wear. And when you compare your “after” picture to the influencer or celebrity you most admire, you might still feel like you’re coming up short.
The truth is, if you got into exercise because you hate something about your body, you will probably always be able to find something to hate about your body. Nobody cures their eating disorder by getting thin enough and saying “yep, I’m perfect now.” The problem was never their body in the first place.
And if you think I’m being drastic by bringing eating disorders into this, it may be more helpful to think about body image as a mental health issue. Maybe you don’t have a full-blown, clinical mental health condition, but you may have unhealthy thoughts causing you to fixate on your body. According to the National Eating Disorders Association,
Negative body image (or body dissatisfaction) involves feelings of shame, anxiety, and self-consciousness. People who experience high levels of body dissatisfaction feel their bodies are flawed in comparison to others, and these folks are more likely to suffer from feelings of depression, isolation, low self-esteem, and eating disorders. While there is no single cause of eating disorders, research indicates that body dissatisfaction is the best-known contributor to the development of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa…
If you recognise yourself here, that doesn’t mean you need to quit the gym. Exercise can still be good for your physical health, and you can work through your mental health issues while also enjoying lifting some weights or going for a run sometimes, especially if your mental health issues are mild. (You can find resources from NEDA, including a helpline, here.) But you may need to change your focus at the gym to keep yourself pointed in a healthy direction.
What if you focus on what your body can do?
Even if weight loss or body image issues are what got you into the gym, that doesn’t mean they have to be your focus forever. I’ve met tons of people who started working out to look hot, but then ended up getting hooked on the feeling of accomplishment they get from seeing what their bodies can do.
Maybe this means becoming the bench god of your local gym, being able to do all the cool gymnastics stuff at your Crossfit box, or having so much fun in Zumba that you end up becoming a dancer. Maybe you take up a new sport entirely, or decide to compete in the sport version of a thing you already do at the gym: running 5k races, for example, or entering powerlifting competitions.
You don’t have to give up your interest in changing how you look. We’re human, after all. It’s just that looks can be a side effect of your main goal of actually enjoying yourself in a healthy way.
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