It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody that images of unrealistic body standards constantly surround us. Social media wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for fitness influencers, thirst traps, and so-called “fitspo” constantly popping up on your timeline. If Instagram and TikTok are to be believed, you’d think it were the norm for men to have six-pack abs, square pecs, and massive biceps.
Even worse, so many of these accounts try to sell you on how you can achieve their look. They promote detox teas, body wraps, jaw shapers, fitness apps, their personal training, and pretty much anything else they can to make a quick buck off their physique. They seldom talk about the fact that they’ve been an athlete for two decades, have genetics that makes them prone to not gaining weight quickly, or any cosmetic procedures that they’ve had done.
(Side note: a critical distinguishing factor between qualified personal trainers and folks shilling bad advice is their willingness to be transparent and vulnerable– for example, do they post photos where their core is relaxed and they have visible love handles like every other human? Is their skin photoshopped to perfection, or do they have breakouts from time to time? Do they discuss their history of sports, exercise, or other training, or do they make it seem like their physique is spontaneous and easily replicated?)
Regardless, we’re constantly being bombarded by the message that we need to work out and eat absurd diets so that we can match unrealistic standards of thinness and musculature. The fitness industry loves using shame-based tactics to get us to buy into their memberships, products, and services, exploiting our fears of being seen as unattractive or unworthy. It’s what makes it terrifying to walk into a gym by yourself for the first time.
It’s also bullshit.
I will be the first person to shake my fist at the fitness industry. I also spend a significant portion of my time working out and even call myself a gym rat. To me, these two things aren’t contradictory. I’ve been transparent about my struggle with body dysmorphia and engaging in borderline disordered eating practices in the past. Still, I’m at a place now where the easiest way for me to negate those unhealthy urges is to exercise. For me, exercising is about so much more than losing weight or getting thin. Here’s what I mean.
Reason 1: Working Out Sparks Creativity
I have some of my best ideas while I’m in the gym. Lifting weights or running while listening to my favorite music clears my mind and puts me into a state of focus. While I’m doing cardio, I often find myself grabbing my phone, opening the Notes app, and jotting down my thoughts about problems I’ve been facing or content ideas I’ve been mulling over. If I have writer’s block, I know that I can usually figure out what I want to do by going for a walk or doing some push-ups.
Reason 2: Exercise Reduces Stress
My gym addiction started when my doctor advised that I start an exercise routine alongside my antidepressants. As he put it, in his experience, patients who regularly exercise and get adequate sleep tend to get the best results out of their SSRIs without having to periodically increase their dosage or try different medications. Sure enough, he was right. My SSRIs made my stress manageable sufficient that I could function, and going to the gym put me in a position where I felt like I could thrive. After the first week of regularly exercising, I noticed that I was sleeping better and generally had a better mood.
To this day, when I’m particularly nervous (such as right before a job interview or important presentation), I’ll get down on the floor in my office and do 10-20 push-ups. By the time I’ve caught my breath, and my heart rate has come back down, I feel much better equipped to tackle whatever task is in front of me.
Reason 3: Exercising Allows Me to Challenge Myself
Perhaps I’m just competitive by nature, but I see working out as a sort of challenge for myself. Each time I go into the gym, I want to do something new that pushes me past where I was before. Sometimes that means doing more reps or adding more weight. Other times that means tackling exercises that I’m insecure about. However, it manifests itself when I’m in the gym, I’m competing with myself to be better than I was the day before, which feels incredibly rewarding.
Reason 4: I Have Less Pain
Working an office job (from my shitty, hand-me-down desk chair, no less) means that my hips, back, and neck are always in danger of being stiff and sore. On top of that, my left food has what one podiatrist deemed a “major deformity” that results in over-pronation, misaligned joints, and chronic inflammation. For the longest time, I did what I could to avoid being on my feet because I knew that when I walked or stood for extended periods of time, I would inevitably deal with lingering aches and pains.
With time, however, I started to notice this discomfort even if I wasn’t on my feet much. I could sit comfortably all day and still feel inflammation in my feet and knees. In addition to upgrading my shoes to a less-fashionable pair that is specifically designed for major over-pronation, I also started prioritizing exercises where I could practice rolling my foot from heal to toe. Calf raises and slow paced treadmil strolls made it possible for me to practice using my foot in a way that didn’t trigger as much inflammation as well as strengthen the muscles in my feet and lower legs needed to stabilize my mishapen joints.
It’s not just my feet that have benefited either. Strengthening my erector spinae (the muscles that run alongside your spinal cord), trapezius muscles, and abdominals has improved my posture significantly. Doing yoga and deep stretching exercise helps keep my neck and shoulders lose and pain-free. In general, when I notice part of my body feeling less-than-ideal, exercise has taught me how to bring attention to it and mindfully train that part of my body to decrease the severity of its symptoms.
Reason 5: It’s A Great Opportunity to Get Caught Up On Podcast, Audiobooks, or your Favorite Music
There’s something to be said about mindful exercising in which you do not use music or other auditory stimuli while working out. The idea is that exercising can become a form of meditation when you train yourself to exclusively bring attention to your movements and breathing as you progress through your reps.
For most of us, that’s an idea that can be hard to get behind. Many gym-goers, myself included, put in headphones as a part of our pre-workout ritual. I have eleven distinct workout playlists that are varied to pick one to listen to based upon my mood. More recently, however, I’ve started using my gym time as an opportunity to get caught up on some of the audiobooks and podcasts that have been on my to-listen list for far too long. There aren’t other times in my day where I’m likely to have an hour to an hour and a half in which I won’t be interrupted. Plus, unlike when I’m at work, I can give the audio more of my attention.
This also goes back to the first point on this list– it helps spark creativity. Some of the best ideas I’ve had recently are ones that popped into my mind while listening to the wisdom of Liz Gilbert, the philosophy of the Stoics, or the general banter of two goofballs with a microphone.
Reason 6: Exercise Empowers You to Feel More Comfortable in Your Skin
In my opinion, I’ve saved the best for last. This one may also be the most challenging and has the steepest learning curve. Being comfortable in your skin is something that often falls within two camps. There’s the societal pressures of “I’m am comfortable because I meet a set of standards.” Then there’s the body positivity movement advocating that “I am comfortable because all bodies are good bodies that are worthy of acceptance.”
Learning to accept and be comfortable with my body has been a long and challenging journey. I don’t know if I can accurately say that my relationship with my body is neatly within the camp of body positivity yet. Instead, what I can say for sure about my relationship with my body is that I have learned to respect my body.
For me, exercising regularly and getting tattoos have been instrumental in changing how I see and value myself. It’s as if investing so much time, energy, and money into maintaining gym memberships, buying supplies, and taking supplements have helped me see my body as something valuable and worth respecting. Plus, as I continue to get stronger and challenge myself to continue improving further, this sense of self-respect and feelings of personal value has only continued to grow.