It’s no surprise the fitness industry has made many beginners think there’s only one way to think when approaching goals, gains, and the pursuit of a fitness-oriented lifestyle. You can blame the internet, or a certain ‘culture’-like community that’s immersed itself in a singular method of training. “Motivational” fitness photos found on the internet that get plastered on gym walls or bedroom doors can act to motivate certain people, while quietly deterring others from taking a liking to the whole training thing.
I’ve been seeing this for years. And I’ve been writing about it for years, too.
There’s no popular outlet that promotes balance. The closest thing we get to that is a flail at inclusivity because it’s trendy to do so – and that will mean more clicks, more shares, and more subscriptions. Since the year is winding down, it’s probably on more people’s minds than usual to take fitness more seriously. Following the advice of the wrong spokespeople can lead to a short lifespan in the world of fitness, or at the very least, a very distorted view of what it should all be about. And let’s not forget – one of those things should still be enjoyable.
“No Excuses” Isn’t Motivation
Before you think I’m about to be a whistleblower for “shaming”, read on. There are only so many super strong mothers of 5, muscular paraplegics, or deadlifters with cerebral palsy that can circulate the pages of the internet for someone to get the point: It’s possible to take training seriously. What’s impossible is knowing what happens with such ones behind the scenes. Just like a TV commercial for a product does so effectively, many of these pieces of media and internet fodder can sell us the idea that being like this lifter or that lifter will make us so much happier; our lives will be so much better, and everything will be perfect. And that’s only half true.
Of course, adopting a lifestyle that places health and fitness closer to the top of the chain will yield positive change. But what we don’t see in many examples found in popular culture or the internet are the severed relationships, erased social lives, psychological battles with food, or straight up clinical obsessions that can be developed from taking things a step too far – and possibly using unrealistic examples to set the tone.
Before I go any further, I’ll say: I get it. The whole point of this culture is to say that everyone can find the time to work out, and keep a closer eye on the things they eat. Sadly, such a simple interpretation is beyond the grasp of many who consume the content.
There are no excuses to avoid exercise and good eating habits as a lifestyle.
There are countless excuses to avoid them next Wednesday or Saturday.
If that doesn’t make sense, let me explain.
Nobody cares how hard you trained on December 16, 2021. You won’t care either. When the focus zooms itself out toward the bigger picture – maybe to look at your training year, rather than your training week – it can give your fitness journey the dose of reality that it needs. The world won’t end if you take a much needed week off the gym, and all your “gains” won’t go out the window.
I’m a person who takes training very seriously, but tries to apply the same dose of balance to the equation whenever things disrupt the equilibrium in life. I’m not going to get much out of a training session if I’ve had 4 hours of sleep the past two nights. On a similar note, if something’s off within the body (like a case of chronic pain or injury), training around that issue can be beneficial – but so can giving your body the rest it might be asking for. It won’t kill you to take a couple of days. During the months of October and November, my right knee was giving me a little bit of grief as a long-term residual of the major surgery and rehab I underwent back in 2017. As frustrating and annoying an ordeal that was, it was a real eye-opener to find the line between pushing the rehab for this hiccup, and stepping back in the name of recovery and rest.
The Flip Side
Looking at training from the vantage point of a larger frame of reference can expose many of the above obsessions as insignificant in the big picture, but it all comes with a mature responsibility that we need to be accountable for.
Here’s the thing: Someone who’s newer to physical fitness (or, I’ve found, quite young by calendar age) will inevitably have a harder time finding the ideal balance for sustainable gains to be achieved without sacrifice to one’s psyche, life, or body. That’s no strike against them; they just haven’t seen enough to apply proper context. As a 35-year-old lifter who’s gone through a fair amount to this point, I feel safe to sum it up like this:
You should aim to train often, and train hard. Push yourself. All of these things are necessary if you’re looking for results that are even a touch above average. But this all comes with listening to your body as the baseline. The decision not to train or eat well needs to at least have a modicum of calculation to it. If you’ve been doing great in the gym for a while and you’re feeling like letting loose, have at it. If you only train the times you feel like it, and you’re feeling “lazy” today, there’s probably no excuse.
You can’t pride yourself on taking a week off when you never have a week on. And if the good, healthy foods have become the “cheat foods” by frequency of consumption, it’s time to get focused. There’s no excuse for using terms like “balance”, or “big picture”, or “no shaming”, or even “mental health” as only a half-true crutch to lean on in order to enable poor habits to continue. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but the truth is, there are a countless number of people who are guilty of doing just that.
Go Hard, or Go Home?
Adopting a lifestyle that keeps fitness in priority means a few things:
First, it won’t be easy. It’ll probably be a tough adaptation at first, just like any habit-based lifestyle change. There will be times when you need to force yourself to go to the gym to keep the general consistency up, or resist a few cravings for the greater good of keeping it healthy. That’s not obsession. That’s staying accountable.
The urgency of your starting point may require a bit more intensity toward achieving goals – at least at the beginning. There’s a difference between being an out-of-shape individual, and being an at-risk individual. Nobody wants to be in category B. Neither should anyone aim to stay in that category for long. In such cases, it may mean “earning” the right to take the foot off the gas pedal, so to speak, and taking a slightly harder line toward creating discipline in the fitness and nutrition world, in the safest way possible.
It also means keeping things focused on the long game. Everything done needs to be approached with the long game in mind. Even if it’s a phase of training heavy and hard every single day while eating ultra clean, all of your eggs can’t be in that basket. A part of your brain needs to be aware and in acceptance of the fact that somewhere down the line, something will emerge to disrupt that consistency and intensity. And you need to know what the plan should be when that happens. Six months of training 6 days per week and cooking your own meals can easily be met with the next 4 months of only 3 training days per week and plenty of meals bought on the road.
That’s not an excuse. It’s life.
Training as hard as possible every day, through pain or injury? That’s just stupid.
If you really want to be a model of consistency, here’s a concept: It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. If you want to be the person who trains 7 days per week, do it. But make 3 of the workouts your typical full length, make 2 of them half an hour, and make the final 2 last only 15 minutes. If you don’t, I guarantee, you’ll burn out physically or mentally.
Most people who have psychological issues attached to their training or nutrition won’t admit there’s a problem – And that goes for people on either end of the fitness spectrum, for the record. In a world of representation and inclusivity whistleblowing, I actually think that today, fitness culture does the worst job of representing the people who have all of this stuff figured out.
It’s about balance. It’s not about excuses.
A 20-minute workout can still be a workout.
Walking around ultra-lean and jacked year round isn’t realistic. Achieving it means living a life that doesn’t promote that balance… and just might involve some drugs to boot.
It’s cool to train hard and push yourself. And sometimes it’s fine not to also. You need to know when to do which one. The longer you spend training mindfully, the easier that’ll get.
And take those fitness motivation posters off your wall. You probably don’t need them.