The Modern Survival Guide #56
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And I have opinions on exercise culture; specifically, I think a lot of us need to chill out just a little bit.
So before I get too much more into that topic, let’s start with some basics, shall we? Exercise is important because it’s a key component of maintaining a healthy body weight, maintaining healthy muscles and bones, controlling stress, and preventing certain diseases. And correspondingly, body consciousness is important because it helps us identify when we need to exercise more or otherwise adjust our lifestyle.
Accordingly, body shape is a factor in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. You can’t be healthy if you’re extremely obese, and that’s simply all there is to it. There’s been some fairly good research recently on the fact that overweight people can be metabolically healthy, but there’s still a lot of damage to joints and body structure that comes with obesity, and that’s not healthy overall. So watching our weight is simply something we have to do if we’re interested in reducing our risk profile for health issues.¹
With that out of the way, let’s get down to a few brass tacks:
- We have to exercise if we want to stay healthy. That’s simply all there is to it. Modern people, unless working in a physically demanding job, just don’t move around enough without regular exercise to stay healthy.
- Exercise isn’t about getting a six pack. That should not be your goal, and if you have a six pack you’re probably dangerously undernourished.²
- Therefore, exercise culture shouldn’t focus as much on body shape. Body shape changes from person to person, and that needs to be ok. The fitness model look just isn’t for everyone.
On (Safe) Exercise
Let’s talk about exercise, and what exercise is supposed to be. Estimates for how much you need to exercise are all over the place, but my general take on the subject is that you ought to exercise enough to raise your heart rate to over 65% of the ideal maximum (you can find that calculation for your age group on any given cardio exercise machine or here) at least two to three times per week for at least 20 minutes per session. Exercise sessions should include a mix of cardio and strength training, and personally I’m a fan of interval training, but that’s just me.
And this has to start fairly early. Evidence shows that losing weight as an adult is hard, and it’s an ongoing battle (I’m guessing at least half of my readers just rolled their eyes and said “no shit” at that statement). It’s much easier to go into that battle with good habits and an understanding of exercise that emerges from our experiences as children and teenagers, as opposed to picking up a barbell for the first time at age 35.
If you’ve never been to a gym and aren’t sure what to do, though, no worries! The internet is your friend. There are literally thousands of sites with all kinds of workout routines just a Google-click away. If you’re just looking for a maintenance workout, find one that is listed as a 20–30 minute routine and try it.
If you are looking to lose weight, weights are your friend. I have personally always found it easier to increase my exercise schedule rather than changing my eating habits (although you should know that changes to eating habits are inevitable as you get older), and lifting weights can be an easier path to a healthier body than just cardio or dietary changes alone. This is because lifting builds muscle, which turns around and burns more calories, and burning more calories than you take in is what reduces fat volume.
Obviously, any kind of physical activity comes with the risk of hurting yourself, so a word on safety. If there’s one thing I’ve learned after more than a decade or regular gym-going, it’s this: if something starts hurting while you’re working out, and it isn’t just muscle burn, stop — and whatever you do, DO NOT let an overzealous trainer or friend force you to keep going. Over the last five years I’ve had several MRIs (thank God for good health insurance) resulting in meds and physical therapy because of things I’ve done to myself in the gym.
Don’t make my mistakes. If it hurts, don’t try to power through, stop and do something else. If everything hurts, go home. Sometimes pain is not gain. Sometimes pain is your body saying “No, seriously bro, that’s gonna tear.”
In the same vein, beware of extremely intense workout trends. Crossfit, for example, appears to have a very high rate of injuries, comparable to Olympic training. This isn’t surprising when you look at people dead-lifting 400-pound tires at high speed; one wrong twist, and you’re in hernia territory. Extreme workouts market themselves as silver bullets to get you in super shape really fast, and to their credit if the participants stick with the program, that can work. But the risks often outweigh the gains; a torn rotator cuff will put you right out of the weightlifting game for years, and nobody likes a hernia.
Realistic Expectations and Body Image
That discussion brings up a point: if you’re exercising for health, you don’t need to do Crossfit. And if you’re not exercising just for health, I would recommend examining your motivations, because there are really only a couple of other options: Are you exercising competitively, or do you want to look good naked?
Now, there are plenty of people out there who exercise competitively, and this section isn’t for them; unrealistic body expectations are kind of the point in that kind of competition. But for the rest of us, we exercise because we want to look good without clothes on. And that means that our body shape is on more or less equal footing with our body image.
Basically, my philosophy is as follows: The important things are to be healthy and be comfortable in your skin. There are more than 7 billion people on planet Earth, each with their own preferences and ideas of style and attractiveness. Odds are pretty good there’s someone out there who will like the way you look. So, don’t worry too terribly much about achieving the “ideal” image. You can certainly work towards it, but there’s a reason models are models — they’ve arrived at a precise moment in history when their body type is in style, and they work very hard to keep it that way.
Let’s be honest here, most of us are not going to be fitness models. We can’t afford the plastic surgery or personal trainers, never mind the time commitment, and that’s just kinda that. That means there’s an inherent problem with going to the gym two or three times a week and trying to look like a model. You can pull that off for a while in your 20s, when everyone looks great because they’re young, but it gets increasingly harder as you get older. Add to that the simple fact that there are different body types out there, and some of them are not going to look like the contemporary ideal physique.
It’s also interesting to note that “ideal” bodies change with the times. If we were to go back in time a few hundred years, most of the models running around today would have been instantly shunned by high society because they would have looked like poor people. Think about it; if you’re in a pre-refrigeration society, having enough food on hand to get fat is kind of a life goal. Being skinny and ripped would have been a mark of being relegated to physical labor, which was unfashionable in the society of yesteryear.³
All of this is to say that what is promoted as an “ideal” body is a combination of (1) what’s in style and (2) what the privileged people are doing. But that’s not to say that “ideal” is attainable, or at all desirable, for everyone. If you can pull it off, good for you. But for everyone else: chill. You’ll still be ok if you don’t look like your favorite Kardashian.
On Body Positivity
To sum up, this is why I kind of think modern exercise culture, or perhaps more precisely modern body culture, needs a reset: we’ve got a lot of people running around trying to look like Jason Momoa or whichever Kardashian is the popular one now, and that’s simply not going to work for some of us. We’ve got to be ourselves instead. That means we have to learn to be body positive.
Being body positive doesn’t mean that we should just accept whatever we look like the in mirror in any circumstances; that’s not the point, to my way of thinking. The point is that, once we’re doing the healthy things, once we’ve got our healthy routine, once we’ve introduced ourselves to the gym and eaten right and done all the other things we can do to be good stewards of our mortal coil… that’s when it’s time to be happy with what the mirror shows us, whatever the mirror shows. When you’re living your best life, appreciate it.
This is going to mean different things for different people, and that’s ok. My body is not your body. My healthy may not be your healthy. My results at the gym almost certainly will not match your results. Body chemistry, body type, genetics, life circumstances… all of this stuff goes into each of our health situations and influences each of our body shapes. There is no one shape that is perfectly attractive, or perfectly healthy.
Stay healthy, stay safe in the gym, and remember — we are not cookie-cutter Calvin Klein models. We are not movie stars. We should not expect ourselves to match the ridiculous standards that apply to the entertainment industry. And it’s ok when we don’t.
¹Note the phrasing here. Staying healthy will not let you live forever, it’ll simply make it less likely you’ll die young and will hopefully increase your quality of life.
²The “six pack” look requires insanely low body fat. Like 2–5% for men, or around 10% for women, and that’s low enough to have adverse effects on body function. Six packs are for cameras, not for living.
³This is why so many rich, influential men were painted with pear-shaped bodies in the 1700s and 1800s. Seriously.