Wednesday, 4 March 2009

We rule, you drool

I used to be a fitness instructor. I was doing a first degree, teaching Spanish and English at my old school and doing group exercise and personal training sessions here, there and yonder all at the same time. But I rarely felt overextended - in part because i loved it all, especially the group exercise. I had some clients who were trying to lose weight, some who were training for competitions, others who were trying to help control health conditions, and some who were just there for a laugh and a hobby. But i took it all very seriously, because these people considered me an authority. They would come to me with questions and, quite frankly, take my word as truth. I answered to the extent that my knowledge would allow, and always advised them to read further, if they were so inclined.

So these days, even though I no longer teach at gyms, I still get a little annoyed when I see what looks like misleading information being perpetuated by those who are supposed to know better. To be fair, the diet and fitness industry tends not to know whether it's on foot or horseback on any given day. That is to be expected when research is always being done not only by 'independent parties', but also by people who are trying to deduce findings that will suit their own ends. But there are some things we should all know by now if we aim to educate people in diet and exercise.

Recently, I noticed that a gym where I used to work out, which has always prioritized wellness and functional strength above just looking hot (which they focus on too, of course; they're a gym - not a commune) has a points system based on hours of exercise per month. They then post the points as part of a Top 10, indicating who's at the top, who's at the bottom, and clearly by elimination, who's just sitting on their asses not doing enough. I think this is a less than ideal approach for a number of reasons.

First let me say that I don't know whether you have to submit yourself to this 'competition'. I would imagine that you do, unless there are fitness police with whistles and clipboards tromping around logging everyone's minutes on the treadmill or counting beads of sweat as they fall off. I don't know the procedure for having your workout hours logged, but the fact that there is some agency involved, that you're not being judged against your will, makes it less bad, though not good.

And here's why: prizing time exercised above other aspects of fitness is sending the wrong message to the people who exercise there, some of whom I would think are just looking for a treadmill and a shower and not to be unwitting participants in a special gym edition of Survivor. It implies that there is some virtue in submitting to hours of exercise, when we all know that there is a certain number of minutes after which there are diminishing returns for both cardiovascular and strength training, assuming you're not training for a marathon or other endurance activity. Put simply, training long does not mean training effectively. In fact, it can often work against you. Again I have to make the disclaimer that I don't know whether this is a special club of athletes, which is in any case irrelevant if they're posting the results for all to see: the message that lots of exercise is always good is being transmitted to other gym members, and that message on its own can potentially lead to overtraining and compulsive patterns of exercise.

Apart from bad information, there's also the issue of plain bad feelings. Most people I know exercise to feel better, if not in the short term, at least in the medium term when they start to see results related to their goals. Who wants to see a list of all the people 'better' than you (at least according to some definition implicit in this Top 10 list) as the weight of your ass is dragging you back off the treadmill? Even among the most body-accepting, this is a bit much. And just unnecessary. And for those of us who haven't yet learnt to love said ass at any size, it's daunting, to say that least.

I know that this particular gym encourages competition. They have a great community spirit among very active members and participate in or organize various events. But we're not all universal soldiers, and we already carry our own inadequacies without needing to have them enabled by the people who should be helping us feel empowered.

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