What would it feel like to separate FITNESS from body image, and move our bodies with no ULTERIOR MOTIVES? By Alison Izzo
It’s a Sunday morning in my regional hometown back in …let’s call it 2002, and I’m blearily stomping up and down on a purple plastic platform. Up and down, up and down; my head hurts thanks to last night’s pub crawl. Step, knee, step, side-kick. Repeat. Around the world. Pony. Now … cha-cha! My hands are doing spirit fingers and my legs are on autopilot, but above Tina Turner’s “Nutbush City Limits” I can hear my instructor, Mindy, doing her best to motivate the class. “Anyone have a big night last night? Time to sweat off those wines, ladies! C’mon, and now … jump!” She’s smiling, and I self- consciously giggle along but instantly regret that third (or was it fourth?) Midori lemonade.
In Mindy’s defence, these kinds of cues were normal in the social context of the early noughties: Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers were big business, magazine covers glorified celebrities who ‘halved their size’ and there was no size diversity on fashion runways, or red carpets for that matter. Group fitness classes and bootcamps seemed the only way to get that hallowed ‘bikini body’. Our definition of a ‘healthy body’ has undoubtedly broadened since then (thankfully!), but much of the allor-nothing approach to exercise persisted until recently. I’m talking 7am spin classes, 28-minute HIIT workouts squeezed into lunch breaks and ‘weekend warriors’ proudly posting their
Tough Mudder challenges to social media. Now? This all-out mentality feels a bit … passé. Unnecessary. Like ‘girl bossing’ and ‘leaning in’, the mood has shifted to a less intense, more balanced place. We may not be quiet quitting our workouts just yet, but we are dialling down on the fitness culture that led to burnout. Recently, Nike renamed its Instagram ‘training account’ a ‘wellness collective’. Gyms are upselling ‘holistic health retreats’ to members instead of ‘30-day detox challenges’. Today, if you were to hear your Pilates instructor telling you to ‘burn off the weekend’, you’d likely feel the urge to slap them. Or at least give them the side eye.
For so long, working out and body shape have been inextricably linked; moving our bodies has been an extension of diet culture, whether we’re fully conscious of it or not. Yet with the shift towards body neutrality and our growing knowledge that while exercise is excellent for health, it’s not necessarily a silver bullet for weight loss, does movement take on new meaning? Does it become more about longevity, mobility and just feeling good than about burning calories and working on our abs? And in which case, wouldn’t it be better for all of us that we decoupled exercise from body image completely? Libby Babet, founder of The Upbeat fitness studio in Sydney, has been in the industry long enough to notice that the goal posts are moving. “When
I first started in this industry it was very ‘go hard or go home’ and the focus was solely on losing weight or competing. But now, fitness has become more of a lifestyle pursuit,” she says. “Over the past 15 years, I’ve onboarded every client who’s entered my business with a survey to find out their motivation for joining, and people’s answers have recently changed significantly, especially since Covid. Almost everyone lists mental health and wanting to ‘feel happier, calmer or more themselves’ as their number-one motivation.”
It’s not just about improving mental health, though, but rather a shift towards finding easier, less intense (and subsequently more enjoyable) ways to move. Last year, The New York Times put health psychologist Kelly McGonigal’s eight-minute ‘joy workout’ in the spotlight, based on her The Joy of Movement book. McGonigal suggests that certain kinds of movement are not only an expression of joy, but can actually elicit it; a shift in motivation from ‘sweating away your sins’ to jumping (literally) for more joy.
A similar hypothesis is posed by the ‘grease the groove’ theory: move less intensely for less time but more often, and see the same – if not better – health benefits than if you were to work out intensely on the reg. The thinking, curiously, can be traced to a Russian weightlifting expert, Pavel Tsatsouline, who writes in his 1999 book, Power to the People! Russian Strength Training Secrets for Every American, that working to exhaustion “is more than unnecessary – it is counterproductive”. The rationale is, if you shorten your workouts and make them less arduous, you’ll not only move more regularly but are more likely to keep the habit. The theory has found recent popularity thanks to TikTok, with #greasethegroove clocking up more than 740K views.
Ellice De Giovanni, a mobility and movement specialist and founder of Eligned, sees the catalyst for the shift as a new kind of health goal that has nothing to do with dropping kilos. “The focus is on longevity now … exercising to lose weight is missing the long-term game of why movement should
be a part of our daily lives.” De Giovanni has seen firsthand the problems with the ‘all-out’ approach, saying, “If you are burnt out, stressed and living off adrenaline, adding in five high-intensity workouts will drain you even more.” Her advice? “When life gets hectic, utilise movement as a tool to de-stress: more nature walks, ocean swims, stretching in the sun, breathing or yin [yoga] sessions will improve your stress response and boost your energy reserves again.”
But while attitudes might be shifting, individual change will only take us so far. Virginia Sole-Smith, author of Fat Talk and the Burnt Toast newsletter, believes the toxic reasons for exercising are still alive and well – telling InStyle, “I don’t think the fitness industry is making this shift yet, except in very small, reactive ways.” She does, however, see progress in other areas. “It’s now possible to opt out of mainstream fitness culture and engage solely with creators or teachers who understand a weight-inclusive, anti-diet approach to movement,” she says. “That wasn’t the case five years ago.”
Sole-Smith knows the “hamster wheel of fitness culture” well, having hopped off it completely in the past due to the poisonous impact it was having on her. She explains that what we judge as ‘valid’ exercise is part of the problem. “When the program becomes unsustainable, people drop off … then we do nothing because ‘just’ going for a short walk or doing a 30-minute class instead of a 45-minute class doesn’t feel like it ‘counts’. This means we miss out on all the benefits of exercising for fun. Exercise can be great for our bodies in so many ways that have nothing to do with weight loss ... but only if you’re giving yourself permission to move in ways you enjoy, and that actually work with your life.”
If, like me, you grew up in the Les Mills era of gym culture, taking your foot off the pedal (or step platform) when it comes to exercise might take some practice. But slowing down the way you work out can bring powerful benefits – and doubly so if you can move in a way that brings you joy. Because if you can easily do something every day of your life, for the rest of your life, you’re going to be a helluva lot healthier – and happier – than someone who used to look shit-hot in a step class, once upon a time.
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