Exceeding the Expectations of Exercise

With all the fitness accounts existing on social media platforms such as Instagram, it’s easy to unfairly criticize and show contempt towards your own body. Sometimes, such accounts can be helpful in providing healthy, positive information when it comes to exercise, but they can also unknowingly fuel viewers’ self-hatred and guilt. Nowadays, it’s difficult for people to want to work out for the right reasons.

Exercise culture on social media usually consists of self-proclaimed “gym-junkies” featuring the exercises they choose to do at the gym, their meals, and their “progress”—that is, their body’s appearance as a result of working out almost every day. Often times, there are specific exercises targeted at certain areas of the body, such as one’s abs, butt, or arms. Though they may be effective exercises, often the language used to convey these exercises have negative, self-demeaning connotations. For example, instead of an exercise chart claiming to help someone build muscle, it claims to help someone lose fat or lose weight. The slight difference in the advertised wording can have great effects on audiences, especially young ones that are becoming more aware of the way others perceive them and therefore may be having self-esteem issues. The phrase “lose fat” implies that fat is something that isn’t meant to be had on one’s body, whereas “gain muscle” implies that the body needs muscle. Yet everyone needs fat on their bodies because it’s what our bodies use as long-term energy storage. In fact, the phrase “lose fat” is inaccurate physiologically: humans are essentially born with a fixed amount of fat; it only expands and shrinks throughout our lifetime. Therefore, to “lose fat” isn’t necessarily realistic.

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There’s nothing wrong with wanting to improve oneself, but exercise culture alarmingly focuses on the physical-appearance benefits of working out, rather than the mental and emotional benefits. If exercising is too appearance-based, it may well counteract the psychological benefits and lead an individual to hate his/her/their own body. There’s a reason why exercise is always recommended for individuals who struggle with depression and anxiety, and it’s because it offers great mental health benefits due to endorphin release. It also acts as an effective distraction and good stress-reliever. Videos featuring women with model-type bodies working out perpetuates the idea that you can look like them if you just exercise. Yet it’s common knowledge that all bodies are different, not just in the way they look, but also in the way they function and metabolize. Some bodies might need to be put under more physical stress for longer periods of time to see “results”. But again, the goal shifts away from improving mental health to wanting to look a certain way.

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Often times, I feel guilty for not going to the gym on a day I said I would. I’ve found that the guilt doesn’t motivate me any more to go and rather discourages me and makes me look down on myself. It’s easy to get stuck in the mindset that exercise exists to attain a certain physique. When I get stuck in that mindset, it’s harder for me to feel confident in myself, physically and mentally. I often need to remind myself that missing one day at the gym will essentially make no difference to my overall health. I also remember that the gym is only one way to get exercise. College students can walk a couple miles a day to their classes, dorms, and other activities without realizing it. The hardcore, heavyweight exercises sometimes featured on fitness social media platforms aren’t the only ways to get in exercise, and again, those exercises are often targeted at specific areas of the body.

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It’s important to remember that the physical and mental health benefits gained through exercise are much more important than the appearance benefits. There are so many different types of effective exercise that can be explored to fit your personality and physical and mental needs. Missing the gym to stay in and relax may well benefit your mental health more than forcing yourself to work out when you don’t want to. Working out can be a form of self-love so long as the pressure to conform to beauty standards doesn’t outweigh your overall want to be happier.