What We Value: 3 Ways the Fitness Industry is a Barrier to Health
If we step back and take an honest look at how fitness plays out in our culture, we may find that mainstream commercial fitness is actually a barrier to long-term population health and well-being, rather than a solution. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
What do we value?
First, we value weight loss, and body shape above all else. Sure, we give lip service to healthy habits and body acceptance, but the reality is that most people in this country want to look a certain way and feel like not looking that way is a personal moral failure. The fitness industry is one of the most pervasive sources of this lie. If you examine the bulk of the messaging that comes from the most popular fitness communications, the industry is perpetuating an unattainable body standard. It’s all about belly fat, flat abs, bikini bodies, and weight loss, weight loss, weight loss. Yes, weight is associated with certain health problems, but the available evidence doesn’t indicate that for most people, weight loss (to the degree that we promote it) should be the primary goal, rather than striving to adopt healthy habits. More on this here and here.
Our obsession with looks is the number one thing that is preventing the fitness industry from actually becoming a force for helping people become healthier. An honest look reveals an industry that makes most of its money from making people feel bad about themselves. Research shows that this is great for business, but it’s not great for helping people actually adopt healthy habits.
Second, we value the quick fix, “that one trick,” the silver bullet. We value excitement. We value shocking new breakthroughs. Go to the grocery store checkout lane and look at the cover of any magazine. Open your browser and search for ‘weight loss,’ or ‘fat loss’ or ‘fat burning.’ Check out the latest episode of Dr. Oz or The Biggest Loser. In all of these places you will find the promise of fast, easy weight loss. But losing weight is not fast, nor is it easy.
These are the average consumer’s most common starting points for health and fitness. What people learn from these outlets is that they definitely need to lose a lot of weight, and they need to do it fast, and that there are all sorts of products that they can buy that will make that happen. Most health professionals know that this is bullshit. There are thousands of fitness folk who howl at Dr. Oz every time he uses the words “fat-busting,” or shake their heads at the cover lines of the latest issue of Shape promising a 10 lb weight loss in 10 days. Yet these messages persist.
It’s very much like campaign finance. Everyone in politics knows that it’s a problem, but they have to play the game, or they’ll get beat. Unfortunately, what we know about what it takes to live a healthy, happy life is actually pretty boring. The “quick fix” is so much more compelling and exciting than eating your vegetables and walking every day, and trying to take the stairs more often, and slowly developing healthy habits that you can maintain throughout the rest of your life. The responsible fitness professional know this, but she has to compete with the guy across the street who is promising his clients a miracle. So, she has to package her legit, sensible approach in a shiny box that will catch the consumers’ attention. It’s an arms race of bullshit, and the consumer gets left wondering why he or she failed, when in fact, we have failed the consumer.
Third, we value what we do a little too much. Many in the fitness industry fail to realize how crazy diet and exercise actually are. We accept at face value this idea that people should exercise, and people should not eat too much junk. But this is myopic. No other creature on this planet would ever expend energy just for the sake of expending energy, or restrict calories just for the sake of restricting calories. For billions of years, humans’ physiology, psychology, and social structures have developed almost entirely for the purpose of consuming and storing energy. Never in this planet’s history has a population had too many calories, so easily available. The inevitable outcome then is obesity and its associated health problems. It is important to keep in perspective that it is actually the “fit” people, who are exceptions to what is actually a perfectly natural reaction to an energy–rich environment. It actually makes more sense that people would become overweight in this environment. This has profound implications for how fitness professionals should approach their practice.
We hope that our project, New Body Ethic, can help provide an alternative marketplace, where professionals are competing based on quality of service, rather than the sexiness of their marketing. Sure, there will always be the BS, but we hope that if we can bring all of the responsible people together to compete with one voice of reason against the commercial hype, that consumers will begin to recognize there’s a better way–an approach that yields lasting, achievable results. An approach that actually is aimed at helping them to become well and happy.
Sign the Pledge today! And join New Body Ethic in making fitness more inclusive, responsible, effective, and hype-free.