I don’t know about you, but when the world reopens, I’ll be more excited to get back to the gym or a bootcamp class than I am to return to dinner parties. Perhaps I am not alone. We are living in the ‘Age of Fitness’, after all, or so author Jürgen Martschukat argues in his new book, The Age of Fitness (Polity, 2021). Indeed, despite many of our fitness routines being disrupted over the past 12 months due to global lockdowns, the fitness industry has reached a record valuation exceeding $100bn. Whether we’re squeezing in an online yoga class at lunchtime or a late-night, at-home workout session, we live in a society that is increasingly fixated on fitness. But with mounting pressure to not only stay fit but sculpt a toned, fit-looking body too, is our fixation with fitness starting to become unhealthy?
The fitness boom
Over the past two decades, the fitness industry has exploded. According to Alex Hawkins, senior foresight editor at strategic foresight consultancy The Future Laboratory, “the growth of gym culture and fitness franchises have rapidly accelerated largely because consumers are increasingly health-conscious, but also because the sector has become heavily commoditised as a lifestyle pillar.”
We used to keep fit simply for the physical health benefits. Today, not only do we engage in fitness as part of our pursuit of wellness and self-optimisation, but as an aspirational lifestyle with its luxury workout clothing and boutique fitness classes. Hawkins also puts the rise in fitness down to the proliferation of social media, “which has pushed beauty and body ideals into overdrive”.
Naturally, the pandemic has heightened our obsession with fitness, with the threat of Covid-19 forcing many of us to pay closer attention to our health and general wellbeing. In 2020, luxury stationary bike company Peloton saw sales increase by 172 percent, while UK-based running app Couch to 5K had more than 1m downloads. Elsewhere, fitness app Strava shows the number of uploaded runs and cycle rides nearly doubled in the past 12 months. With most leisure activities off limits due to global lockdowns, exercise has been one of the few things we’ve been able to do, so the uptick may not come as a huge surprise.
“It certainly feels as though our cultural obsession has intensified during the pandemic,” says Dr Nadia Craddock of the Centre for Appearance Research. On its own, this is no bad thing. “Obviously, exercise, movement, sports and general physical activity is associated with a wide range of benefits to our physical and mental health as well as to our social lives and community.” However, Dr Craddock notes that the pressure to keep fit, particularly during the pandemic where there isn’t much else to do, can actually have negative consequences on both our physical and mental health.
Looking fit vs being healthy
In his book, Martschukat argues the main objective of fitness today is about “having, shaping and keeping a fit body”. But things become problematic when we conflate looking fit with being fit. “Appearing fit might even be considered as more important than being fit,” he continues. One only needs to spend a few minutes on Instagram to know much of what defines a fitness influencer is not necessarily their fitness capabilities (how do we really know?) but rather how fit they appear. And when fitness is framed as an aesthetic goal, as Dr Craddock explains, it can undermine the functional benefits of exercise.
Having always exercised, Emily, 31, found the closing of gyms in lockdown challenging, and so she signed up to an online fitness class via Instagram. “It was great to have access to daily workouts,” she says. “I was inspired by how the fitness coach looked and with not much else to do, I started scrolling through Instagram following loads of different fitness influencers with amazing bodies.”
Driven by a desire to look fit like the fitness gurus she saw on her feed rather than focusing on exercise for health reasons, Emily quickly found herself becoming fixated with exercise to her detriment. “Walking for two hours every day, and rewatching the workout videos on the page, I was seeing results in my body, which felt amazing at first, but then I felt myself becoming more critical of how my body looked and began pushing my goals further and further.” But to what end? Surely the pursuit of fitness from an aesthetic standpoint is just another step in the pursuit of perfection. And who is to say when that has been reached?
According to Dr Bryony Bamford, clinical director of The London Centre for Eating Disorders and Body Image, an unhealthy relationship with exercise is when “it is prioritised over other aspects of life such as relationships, social events, work or physical wellbeing”. And as research shows, the more exercise you engage in, the higher the risk of developing an addiction, particularly among the more vulnerable.
“An obsession with exercising can not only lead to putting physical strain on the body, but also to mental and emotional strain,” says Dr Bamford, explaining that a preoccupation with exercise can become all consuming and the consequences of not meeting self-imposed exercise goals can lead to anxiety, low mood or a sense of inadequacy or failure.
A healthy balance
With the fitness industry ever expanding, integrated seamlessly as part of our lifestyle, and gyms slowly reopening around the globe, our obsession isn’t going anywhere. So, how might we protect ourselves from falling into the trap of an unhealthy fixation?
Dr Craddock insists fitness need not be seen as a kind of punishment and suggests we focus on forms of activity which bring us joy. “You don’t need to be following the latest fitness trend, you don’t need to track every step, and you don’t need to spend any money to reap the benefits of physical activity.” If you don’t know where to begin, Dr Craddock suggests thinking about the kind of movement you enjoyed as a child, “I like to think about physical activity as a chance to be silly and playful and an opportunity to have fun and make friends.”
For Martschukat, awareness of the prism through which we understand our cultural relationship to fitness is an important first step to rethinking the role it plays in our lives. The next step is to take inspiration from those people who have managed to avoid falling into the fitness trap. Martschukat believes those less affected by this societal pressure, preferring to lounge and relax on the sofa, are paving the way for a new kind of resistance. So, perhaps as we emerge from lockdown, rather than rushing back to the gym, spending more time tapping into our inner child—be it by embracing joy or relaxation—is the healthiest antidote to the past year of isolation.