By Coach Lawrence
Just a forewarning – this is unlikely to be your standard “fitness blog”, where I tell you the 49 best ways to improve your squat, or the secret list of foods that will kill your belly fat stone dead… This is going to be more of a first step into some aspects of the fitness industry that lie just beneath the surface, but are very rarely discussed.
I say a first step – you’re in for a little over 3,000 words (which is about 10-15 minutes of reading), loads of references… more of a two-footed leap into the abyss.
On your first read through, you’ll probably either vehemently agree with me, or completely disagree… it’s a bit of a marmite post, this one.
Pre-Amble – What Sparked This Off
“Fitspiration” is huge.
A quick search on Instagram reveals nearly 5 million pictures with the hashtag #fitspiration.
From the more philosophical ripped-dude-in-sunglasses-staring-out-to-sea-with-a-motivational-caption, to the stark black and white “puking is acceptable, but failure isn’t” pictures, it’s designed to motivate you to embrace the “fitness lifestyle”, make sacrifices in order to achieve a goal physique, and basically become a better human being.
…or something of that ilk, anyway.
Either way – it really grates with me.
What sparked me to pen a few of my thoughts was a discussion with a fitness model friend at this year’s BodyPower Expo and via Facebook, during which he asked the question:
“What is a healthy level of obsession towards your own physique? If someone maintains for health reasons, is that ok? If so, where do they draw the line? I ask because so many people love training and make some crazy sacrifices around it. I actually struggle to understand where the line is between a healthy balance and an unhealthy one. Can a fitness model ever have a healthy balance and still be on the top of their game?”
This sent my brain into overdrive.
What exactly is the “fitness lifestyle” that is being promoted by the current fitness industry?
What is the “fitness lifestyle” that the fitness industry should be promoting?
(No, they’re not the same – I’ll reveal all in a bit)
What is driving people to make these crazy sacrifices when it comes to training and dieting?
What is a “healthy balance”?
I’m going to attempt to answer these. But the answer isn’t easy, or straightforward, and I’d like to point out that this is simply MY interpretation of both the scientific literature and my experiences. The answer is by no means black and white, either – as with all things fitness, we have to talk in various shades of grey.
I’m going to break it down into the following sections:
- “The Fitness Lifestyle” – The Dream vs. The Reality
- Motivation – Intrinsic and Extrinsic
- Why Fitspiration Isn’t Helping Your Motivation
- Fitness And Happiness – Fitting It All Together
Note: I’ll be touching on some pretty emotive and sensitive topics in this article, namely a few psychological theories, body shaming and eating disorders. Please be aware that I’m not qualified to diagnose or treat any form of eating disorder, I’m not a psychologist and I am not accusing anyone reading this of having an eating disorder – I am merely commenting on what the scientific literature reveals, and my own observations as a Personal Trainer and Coach in as objective a manner as possible.
“The Fitness Lifestyle” – The Dream vs. The Reality
When we distil “The Fitness Lifestyle” into its purest sense, what are we left with?
Strip back the stringer vests.
Throw out the tan.
Toss out the Tupperware.
What we should actually be trying to achieve by promoting the “fitness lifestyle” is this:
- We want to enable an individual to exercise in a sustainable, enjoyable manner.
- We want to enable an individual to be mindful of both the quantity and quality of the food they’re eating.
- For the most part, we want them to be motivated to do this intrinsically – this will likely take time to develop, given that most people start exercising .
In short – if we want to promote lifestyle changes that are going to lead to a healthier world (looking at the obesity stats, the fitness industry is a massive fucking failure in this regard), we need people to be intrinsically motivated enough to do those first two things at a certain basic level.
I’m not talking about everyone having a shredded midsection.
I’m not talking about everyone tracking their macros to the gram, or eating only “clean” foods.
I’m talking about promoting a lifestyle that’s going to help people WANT to sustain a certain baseline level of strength, cardiovascular fitness and calorie intake to keep them fit and healthy.
Let’s hold that idea for a second, and compare that with a snapshot representative of the current fitness industry.
BodyPower UK 2015 – the largest fitness expo in the world, currently. Just shy of 80,000 people attended the 3 day event in Birmingham this year, me included.
(If we’re looking to evaluate the modern fitness industry, I’d say that’s a pretty decent sample size)
On the one hand – 80 THOUSAND people flocked to the UK to celebrate all things fitness. That’s a huge win, and BodyPower as a brand is doing an amazing job of spreading the health and fitness buzz to a progressively wider audience.
On the other hand, the event still seemed to be a Mecca for those whose idea of a good time is necking a lurid pink pre-workout caffeine concoction, donning a stringer vest to reveal their impeccably shaven chests and bench pressing until their pectorals are pumped to Schwarzenegger standards.
I’m a health and fitness coach by trade, and I would be lying if I said that the whole event didn’t make me feel a little uncomfortable at times. The obvious emphasis on steroid-enhanced physique ideals, the outrageous claims made by sports supplement companies and the focus on fitspiration-esque imagery in particular struck a slightly discordant note with me.
This is an exhibition of today’s Fitness Industry – the proposed alternative to the burgeoning obesity problem in the Western World.
What “fitness lifestyle” is this trying to promote?
That you have to #SacrificeToWin?
That people who walk around at single digit levels of bodyfat, all year round (apparently), are to be revered and put on a pedestal?
That you really, really, REALLY need this big red tub of fluorescent powder in order to make the gains that will make you look like you actually lift?
To understand why placing this much emphasis on physique ideals is taking the industry in completely the opposite direction to where it should be going, we need to dig a little deeper into the human psyche and discover a little more about motivation.
Motivation – Intrinsic and Extrinsic
What Is Intrinsic Motivation?
Warning – science and psychology incoming. Personal Trainers… listen up. This stuff is useful for you. I’ve kept it relatively brief – there’s a full reference list at the bottom if you want to do a bit more reading!
Intrinsic motivation is defined by Professor Edward L. Deci as “initiating an activity for its own sake because it is interesting and satisfying in itself, as opposed to doing an activity to obtain an external goal (extrinsic motivation).”
One of the main models describing intrinsic motivation is called Self-Determination Theory, which describes three innate, universal needs that all humans are intrinsically motivated to fulfil:
- Competence – humans are driven to control things, and experience “mastery”.
- Relatedness – humans are driven to interact with, care for and be connected to other humans.
- Autonomy – the ability for a human to make their own decisions.
Intrinsic motivation is awesome – it’s self-sustaining, incredibly powerful and usually very long-lasting. However, it generally takes a long time to develop, and as a result some extrinsic motivation is important when trying to alter habits and behaviours – especially at the beginning.
How Can We Enhance Intrinsic Motivation?
Put simply, anything that increases an individual’s feelings of competence, relatedness or autonomy – positive feedback on work, pointing out to someone that they’ve done well on something because of a decision they made, and providing an environment for an activity that allows someone to feel connected to other people.
Positive feedback is especially powerful if it is unexpected.
In this light, we can see how a good coach can really boost someone’s motivation to exercise – as coaches, we provide positive feedback, we take into account the client’s wishes when constructing a training programme, and whether you’re with a PT in a gym, or part of a supportive online community such as Shredded By Science, you feel connected to others.
In fact, research has been conducted into how training with peers can influence your enjoyment of exercise. The researchers found that a climate in which the peers are supportive and there is an emphasis on teamwork, putting in effort and personal improvement, positively influences the trainee’s motivation and enjoyment of the exercise.
This goes some way to explain why having a training partner, or group training of any form, can develop someone’s motivation to exercise.
Furthermore, intrinsic motivation appears to be linked to how “internalised” an activity is – i.e. how much the individual considers an activity to be linked to one’s sense of “self”. Anything that helps link an activity to the individual will help to develop this sense of internalisation.
For example, studies in students have found that if teachers know their students, and are able to link subject matter back to the students’ personal interests, the students are more motivated to study the subject without external pressures.
How Can We Diminish Intrinsic Motivation?
The main factors that appear to determine whether someone is intrinsically or extrinsically motivated to do something are the amount of autonomy and competence they think they have over the activity.
As such, anything that diminishes someone’s feeling of mastery over an activity will mean they need more of an external goal, and more “pushing” to get them to participate in the task. Negative feedback on tasks, for example, diminishes the degree to which someone is intrinsically motivated to perform that task.
Similarly, if control is taken away from someone, or they perceive that they’re losing control, intrinsic motivation will decrease. Factors such as rewarding someone for activities that are normally intrinsically motivated, and deadlines can all decrease intrinsic motivation – the first appears to undermine the individual’s autonomy, and the second restricts, placing deliberate limits on the individual’s autonomy over the situation.
Anecdotally – as an online coach, my clients tend to undertake most of their training sessions on their own. I’ve had texts mid-session, saying they don’t know if they’ll be able to complete the session because they’re struggling with motivation. Simply giving them the choice to go home, or giving them the choice of a few exercises to finish the session off tends to lead to the next text saying “I just finished the session”. Autonomy is a powerful motivator.
Take home point:
Think of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation like flying a jet.
Extrinsic motivation is akin to flying a jet with the afterburners on maximum – you’ll go very fast, it’ll be very intense, but the effect will be relatively short-lived.
Intrinsic motivation is like switching the afterburners off, flicking autopilot on and cruising to your destination with the minimum of fuss – just remember that in order to reach this, you have to do your pre-flight checks, take off and get up to cruising altitude. Intrinsic motivation takes preparation and time to develop.
Motivation theory is a hugely complex topic, the surface of which I have barely scratched (kinda like humans in general, huh). If you’re interested, click here for the Wikipedia article on Motivation which is a pretty decent starting point to learn more.
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Why Fitspiration Isn’t Helping Your Motivation
Let’s take a look at a few examples of Fitspiration.
Looking at the common themes of these pictures (full disclosure, I did pick the images that elicited the greatest feelings of revulsion from me), we can see that they:
- Focus on exercise as some form of punishment
- Focus on the external goal – a physique ideal
- Are aimed to cause serious guilt (I mean, “so you don’t have to suck it in tomorrow”… fuck RIGHT off)
None of these things are conducive to people being motivated intrinsically to exercise, and eat with their health in mind.
Even if we take these things as extrinsic motivators, focusing on a physique ideal is the only theme that could be classed as an external focus for motivation.
That’s fine to start off with, sure – as we’ve already established, intrinsic motivation takes time to develop.
But couple that with exercise as punishment, and inducing body-related guilt… it doesn’t take a genius to see how quickly things can spiral downwards.
Websites And Other Online Communities
What’s even more frightening is this study, investigating the content of “fitspiration” website compared to pro-anorexia websites.
The researchers looked at 50 of each category of site, and compared the images and content. They found the following:
“Thinspiration sites featured more content related to losing weight or fat, praising thinness, showing a thin pose, and providing food guilt messages than Fitspiration sites. However, sites did not differ on guilt-inducing messages regarding weight or the body, fat/weight stigmatization, the presence of objectifying phrases, and dieting/restraint messages.”
Now, looking a little closer at the data, it would appear that the Thinspiration sites are slightly more overt in their messages:
But even so – these messages are still there, and none of them are conducive to the internalisation of health and fitness and/or being motivated to live a healthy lifestyle.
Another study investigated the social hierarchy, body perceptions and health experiences of an online community focused around recreational and competitive bodybuilders and powerlifters – common sources of information for the young and uninitiated looking to learn more about training and nutrition. Their conclusion came with a stark warning:
“Our results expose an extreme social reality held by a devoted muscle-building community with a fanatical obsession with muscular hypertrophy and any accoutrement helpful in its acquisition, from nutrition and supplements to training regimes and anabolic androgenic substances. Few health costs were considered too severe in this muscular meritocracy, where the strong commanded deference and the massive dominated the social field.”
Take Home Point:
Current online resources, whether they come in the form of fitspiration pictures, fitspiration websites or bodybuilding forums, are not conducive to the promotion of the “Fitness Lifestyle” as we outlined earlier. They currently enhance feelings of food- or physique-related guilt; focus far too much on the promotion of potentially unrealistic physique ideals and shame those who do not fit those ideals.
How Fitness Can Make You Happy
Thus far, this article has probably come across as a 2500 word rant about why body shaming sucks, and why fitspiration and the fitness industry aren’t helping.
Hopefully, I’ve got my point across that something needs to change.
But I don’t like to end things on a sad note (yes – the end is in sight. Fear not, brave reader).
I’m going to reveal a little bit about happiness, and how fitness is actually a really perfect tool to make your life happier. I’m also going to tell you something that might surprise you hugely, given the general tone of this article.
Happiness has been researched for over 50 years now by various psychologists and other research groups. Various models have been proposed, each with their own merits and drawbacks, but there is one I’d like to touch on here.
The 2004 model developed by Martin Seligman is based around 5 key factors which appear to correlate with increased markers of happiness:
- Pleasure (tasty food, warm baths, etc.),
- Engagement (or flow, the absorption of an enjoyed yet challenging activity),
- Relationships (social ties have turned out to be extremely reliable indicator of happiness),
- Meaning (a perceived quest or belonging to something bigger), and
- Accomplishments (having realized tangible goals).
A.k.a PERMA, if we were to put it into acronym form.
Hopefully, you can immediately see how including some form of fitness-related pursuit in your life can enhance all of these factors:
- Making great tasting food, which also happens to be really nutritious.
- Pushing your limits – whether that be through a tough workout, rock climbing, or simply trying a new activity.
- Making friends through fitness – I’ve made friends for life in this industry.
- Embracing the awesome parts of the fitness industry – its’ not all bad.
- Hitting deadlift PRs, needing a new belt because you’ve lost a tonne of weight, or using lifestyle changes to reverse degenerative diseases.
All of these things exemplify how fitness can enhance your life, and make you happy.
They’re also pretty easy to focus on if you’re trying to embrace fitness as a lifestyle –recall that intrinsic motivation comes when activities are internalised – linking each letter of PERMA to something that interests you, you enjoy or truly means a lot to you when it comes to fitness will only serve to motivate you to do that activity more.
It may surprise you to hear me say this… but PERMA is how I believe that fitness models can be happy and maintain a healthy balance. Fitness models, due to the inherently restrictive and selfish nature of their jobs, need to make special effort to preserve the pleasure and relationships aspects of PERMA – but it’s perfectly manageable so long as they understand that these areas need particular attention. This isn’t always the case, unfortunately.
Take Home Point:
Your life is yours to live as you see fit, ultimately.
(It’s also far too short, really.)
Don’t be dragged into the mire of self-doubt, body-shaming and food anxieties that certain areas of the fitness industry are all too capable of cultivating – fitspiration, I’m looking at you here.
Embrace fitness for what it is – a tool to enhance your life, not something to rule it.
Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (Eds.), (2002). Handbook of self-determination research. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determinaton in human behaviour. New York: Plenum.
White, R. W. (1959). Motivation reconsidered: The concept of competence. Psychological Review, 66, 297–333.
deCharms, R. (1968). Personal causation. New York: Academic Press.
Murcia, J., Roman, M., Galindo, C., Alonso, N., & Gonzalez-Cutre, D. (2008). Peers’ influence on exercise enjoyment: A self-determination theory approach. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 7, 23–31.