One of the biggest challenges I find working in the fitness industry is sorting through the clutter of information that gets thrown at us, identifying the BS from the truths and the beneficial from the detrimental. What really gets my blood boiling are the fads, quick-fixes and ideas that prey on the insecurities of us women through clever marketing that really doesn’t care (or think?) about the long-term effects of these ideas on our well-being. So the following are three ‘Fitness Lies’ I have identified over my years in the industry. If you have found yourself believing these to be truths, hopefully this blog can shed a little more light and understanding on those ideas.
Lie #1: Being super lean = being healthy
If you follow any fitness celebs on social media or scroll around for ‘fitspo’ you have most likely come across screeds of images of ultra-lean ladies rocking 6-packs and big booties that look a bit like basketballs. The mass marketing of these images entices us to believe that this body-type is the norm or the ‘ideal’ that we can all attain given the right tools and effort. I have had several female clients show me images of the bodies they hope to achieve through personal training and time after time I’ve had to burst some bubbles by explaining that this would neither be a realistic or healthy goal for them.
There are a group of women who are genetically lean and have ‘washboard abs’ and this can be regardless of what they eat or how they exercise. These women are also a very small percentage of female body-types, statistically we may call them ‘outliers’ as they lie outside the norm. Bikini models and those who sell ‘bikini body programmes’ with their own bodies often fit within this category. They happen to have the genetic foundations for a lean body and this goes a long way to help them when they add training and eating regimes on top of it.
In the fitness world we are often told if we train and diet hard enough we can achieve these ‘ideal’ bodies and if we don’t, it’s due to our lack of willpower to stick to the regime. I have worked alongside several body sculptors and bikini models and all credit to them, its tough work! They have their eating down to a fine art and are extremely disciplined in their daily training and activities. However, this sort of training and eating comes at a physical, social and emotional cost and is not sustainable long-term.
If you find yourself busting your butt to achieve that ‘fitness model’ body, first realise that these models do this for a sport, their life (and often pay) literally revolves around their looks and this is generally not considered a healthy lifestyle. Secondly, while this lean body may be idealised in the media it does not mean it is healthy. For our bodies to function optimally we need a certain amount of body fat and as we drop body fat we undergo hormonal shifts through a drop in calories in (food), a rise in calories out (exercise) or a combination of the two. Each of these have an effect on female body functions and if body fat drops too low this can disrupt the menstrual cycle and may also lead to eating disorders, osteoporosis, plus affect thyroid health, fertility and mental health.
If you find yourself stuck in a state of negative body comparison one helpful tip is to simply cut exposure to the people or media channels that contain images or information that facilitate you feeling this way. Follow those insta-feeds or channels that contain images and messages which inspire and encourage you to feel good about yourself rather than comparing you to an unrealistic ‘ideal’.
Lie #2. When you lose weight or reach a certain size you will feel better about yourself
This is a bit of a follow on from above and it is one of the sneakiest and most harmful lies for women that forms the foundation of marketing many fitness programmes and supplements. The reason it is so sneaky is because it is so close to the truth, but it’s not quite the truth. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, programmes marketed to get you ‘Bikini Body Ready’ emphasise self-appreciation based on physical appearance, and often cite testimonials of women who claim to now feel great about themselves because they have attained a ‘Bikini Body’, not to mention the trainers themselves posting screeds of photos of their own tanned and sculpted abs. These programmes generally utilise a lot of ‘before and after’ photos in their marketing which actually continues the cycle of body comparison and negative self-image, conditioning us to associate the ‘bikini’ or ‘ideal’ body with health.
In all fairness, these programmes often have some great workout and eating plans which can be beneficial for your body. However, it is important to get the message and motivation right when undertaking a training programme in order for it be healthy for all areas of your well-being and sustainable for the long term. As a woman I battle with the same insecurities and body-comparison as anyone else and I have found that training for aesthetic purposes always yields the same results; a continued obsession with body image and negative self-esteem. This becomes a cycle of negative self-image or worth, obsessive training/dieting, stress, emotional/binge eating and the cycle continues. When you feel good about your body you are more likely to treat it with kindness, have less stress and therefore see a reduction in size and weight.
Feeling good about yourself is more about your self-perception than your size. Two women of identical size and weight can have very different perceptions of their own bodies; one feels beautiful whereas the other feels overweight and unattractive. If you don’t feel good about yourself there may be deeper issues to be addressed and losing weight won’t necessarily solve them even though it may still be beneficial for your health. These beliefs about yourself may need to be addressed through coaching or counselling. If you are more of a strong-minded, do-it-yourself kind of gal there are also a bunch of books and online resources which can help you work on having a healthier mindset in this area. Try “Womens Wellness Wisdom” by Dr Libby, or “Beautiful You” by Rosie Molinary.
What helped me to relax my mind around body image was to focus on different goals or motivations for training – constantly exploring new activities I enjoy. Some of these goals have included; training for distance running events, building my strength and endurance for surfing, rock climbing, and undertaking a corporate boxing match. By training for active pursuits rather than aesthetics you are likely to find yourself obsessing less over the way your body looks and more on how you can help it perform better in your chosen activity. The enjoyment and release of endorphins these activities bring will also improve your mood and help with a more positive mindset. With the added benefit of lowering stress levels through activities you enjoy, you are highly likely to see positive changes in your body composition as a by-product of training hard in these activities.
Lie #3. A good workout session should always leave you feeling ‘smashed’, saturated in sweat or sore the next day.
This is one of the ideas I used to battle with constantly. A chronic over-trainer in my previous life, there was a time when I worked out for a minimum of two hours per day, 6-7 days per week, either long runs or gym sessions. During this time I didn’t have any clear goals for my training, I just loved to exercise and was a bit obsessed. I thought every training session had to leave me dripping with sweat and gasping for air otherwise it wasn’t really worthwhile. I kept this habit up for almost two years until I hit a wall of exhaustion, possibly what we now identify with as some level of adrenal fatigue. After this I physically couldn’t train at even 50% of the intensity and duration I had been training at. For months I could only manage a few Pilates sessions and some light cardio without feeling totally exhausted afterwards. A couple of years on I still train at about 60-70% of what I feel I was previously capable of otherwise I generally end up feeling wiped for the next day or so.
While frustrating, this experience alongside research led me to change my way of thinking around exercise, learning to listen to my body rather than the latest fitness fads, and an approach of balance rather than addiction. Based on the comments I’ve heard from friends and clients over the years I would conclude that us females can often have an unhealthy and somewhat addictive mindset towards exercise. We seem to easily fall in to the trap of thinking the more exercise the better, and that if we aren’t feeling muscle soreness after a workout it can’t have been effective. Just to clarify – delayed muscle onset soreness (DOMS) is not the only indicator of a great workout. DOMS is caused by tiny tears in the muscles which damage and can enhance muscle growth. It usually occurs after a workout that is new or more intense than what you have previously been doing. As with anything new, as your body adapts to the training you will feel less sore in subsequent workouts. Studies have found that while muscle soreness may indicate that you’ve found a new stimulus to help increase muscle growth, it is not a necessity and too much soreness frequently can have a negative impact on muscle growth.
To get results whether it be increased fitness, strength, power, or fat loss you do need to stress the body in to adaption but it doesn’t have to be all-punishing. When you know your goals you can train smarter using progressive overload and the right mix of training types and intensity to stimulate change in your body. In training toward your goals you will likely benefit from a range of exercise sessions including ‘recovery’ or ‘lighter’ sessions such as Pilates, yoga or walking, as well as more intense strength and/or cardiovascular sessions. Some of these lighter sessions may not leave you feeling sweaty or even remotely tired but may be crucial in assisting your muscles to recover and grow.
Our Beyond strength classes won’t normally leave you ultra-sweaty or panting for breath but as long as you are progressing your weight-loads over time you will improve your strength, and build muscle which contributes to a healthy metabolism. Functional fitness classes will have you working at a higher cardiovascular intensity, sweating and panting, however, the actual work time for these workouts is always around 30 mins which is a safe duration for managing stress and limiting the release of cortisol. Limiting your functional/HIIT type classes to only 2 or 3 max per week is a good rule to manage stress to your body and allow adequate recovery.
To sum up this one, as with everything in life, balance is key. Too much exercise can be just as harmful as too little and it is important to know your goals and to structure your training around these goals with a balanced and educated regime that will progressively steer you closer to your goals rather than into the ground.