Sometimes you’re better off alone.
The way to combat these sorts of harmful relationships with exercise is the same as the way to combat these sorts of harmful relationships with people – I’m generalising like crazy, but as negativity begets itself, so does positivity. Choose methods that you enjoy, that make you feel good – not those that make you feel judged or inadequate. Invest in developing your own sense of self-worth, and as you do so, you’ll get better at choosing the thing that does not exploit you.
What makes you feel judged and inadequate? Counting calories and measuring waistlines. Sure, it’ll keep you going to the gym if you’re wired that way - but at what cost? I’m interested in building character, not eroding it.
What makes you feel good? Moving for joy and freedom. The pure physical expression of human emotion.
Now how can you systematise that?
It’s a tough one. So many training methods these days promise weight-loss with little-to-no science to support or verify their methods, but really they’re just working off the assumption that training of any kind will help to make you thin, and although you might shed a few pounds – it’s unlikely it’ll be enough to move you down to the next weight class. The other day, a friend of mine who doesn’t do yoga was told she’s got great yoga arms. She lifts weights.
But your training – how and when and what and whether or not you do it – has nothing to do with other people’s assumptions.
We are so used to jumping on the treadmill, pressing ‘fat-burn’, and watching the numbers tick over on the calorie counting display, we forget there are other ways to train, other ways that won’t make us feel like we’re participating in our own debasement. And if you’ve done yourself harm through training and dieting obsessively, even if you’re curious about exercising again, even if you want to give it a shot - it’s dangerous ground.
I cannot emphasise this enough: if you never count another calorie – either burnt or neutralised – another day in your whole life, you’ll be healthier for it. If you let go of the ‘work off that food you ate’ mentality, and instead recognise food for what it is – this awesome stuff that promotes and enables life and movement and all things joyful – your experience of training will improve in so many ways I don’t think I can describe them. When you’re not training in an attempt to diminish yourself, the revelations that can bring...
Things you can do – in no particular order – that have the potential to be both totally rad and awesome:
Swimming, yoga, martial arts including karate, judo, taekwondo, boxing, kung fu and tai chi, dance in as many and more styles, rowing, weightlifting and powerlifting, rock climbing, archery, team sports in all their varied splendour, tennis, golf, walking, running and Feldenkrais.
Unfortunately, many of these things can also suck. It’s not only what you bring, it’s what other people bring, and sometimes it sucks that we have to participate in a culture. Maybe this is why I enjoy training by myself these days – generally more than I enjoy participating in classes and group activities.
At the heart of calorie counting lies the belief that you are unworthy. That you can be made better. Let that shit go. Exercise cannot make you as a person better, just as not exercising cannot make you worse. Sometimes people don’t like to hear that - when they’re convinced that their training makes them better than regular peasants. But such people clearly aren’t interested in public health, so who cares? Stop counting the calories, and if you love running, run. You can run outside, or on the treadmill, or in any way that does not exploit your own fears and insecurities. We all know exercise is good for you, and many of us are starting to see through the calorie delusion as well. It’s pretty clear – if calorie counting worked, diets would work, but they don’t.
Ever wonder why they grab testimonials to inspire you? To make you feel like you, too could be one of them? If something has a 95% failure rate, and 100 people participate, you can still grab five people, hold them up and say – look! This works! Look at these people! Be like these people!
And it’s a common theme these days - if you put out an unreliable system and people fail, just blame them for not wanting it hard enough.
When we fail at diets we feel like failures, but when the method itself is ineffective, what does that reveal about us? Only that we were hopeful and trusting, and betrayed. If being fat actually was an indicator of laziness, then the science would reveal that people who are dedicated to counting calories are thinner. But it doesn’t reveal that at all. What it reveals is that calorie restriction, while it may provide some encouraging short term results, doesn’t work in the long term - irrespective of degrees of dedication.
Don’t go back to the thing that hurt you – you’re better off alone. It’s the harder path, but it’s the more worthwhile one. It leads to self-respect and understanding, it leads to increased autonomy and ownership of one’s life and decisions, and it leads to freedom.
When you experience the true benefits of training – joy, freedom, the physical experience of autonomy – pleasure and pain, the consequences of training too hard or not hard enough – all this teaches you about yourself, all this teaches you self-awareness, and curiosity and a sense of being free naturally encourage people to play, to try shit out, to investigate, to experiment, to discover what they enjoy, what they find satisfying, and all this builds strength of character. No wonder we don’t want individuals to have that kind of experience of training. We in health and fitness want you to remain compliant. As long as you feel bad about yourself, we can exploit your fears and insecurities for money. The war on obesity is fought like all wars – not for people, but for money. The secret they don’t want you to know is that obesity doesn’t cost money, it makes money.
It makes money, because when someone is berated and obedient, you can tell them what to buy. When someone calls you lazy, it caries weight, not because it’s true, but because it exploits your fears. Telling someone they’re beautiful just the way they are can’t combat that – as true as it may be, it doesn’t exploit anyone so it will always lack weight, and sound unconvincing.
But you can’t tell someone to hate their body, you can’t tell someone that they’re not worthy of respect until they’re thin, and expect them to enjoy spending time in their body with awareness, to enjoy being reminded of this thing they have, that requires care, that they’ve been taught to despise. But who cares if you enjoy training? Better that you continue to pay your fees and never go to the gym. Wanna mess with them? Turn up and train. They know what they’re doing when they make their own gyms inaccessible. They’re taking your money and providing you with no service at all.
So what do you do? How do you get started at training when previous attempts have been ‘unsuccessful’ or have only done you harm? When previously you’ve been told you’re weak in the name of motivation – when they don’t even want you at the gym in the first place? Start simply – don’t go back to the thing that hurt you. Don’t pander to that particular propaganda, whatever it was. Don’t buy the lie that if you’re a real man you can belt out a bunch of chin-ups. Don’t buy the lie that women cannot be strong. Don’t buy the lie that real women have curves, or don’t have curves, or maybe there is a right number of curves, or curves should be only in the right places, and I don’t know how many curves you're supposed to have, but God help you if you’ve got the wrong number of curves! Maybe we should all just try harder at having a different number of curves.
Or instead... maybe work on what you find satisfying, investigate and discover what you might need to do in order to promote joint function, mobility and harmony of movement - maybe investigate developing towards your own desires and capacity for free movement - it may require some sort of rehabilitation or programming, but you don’t need to worry about dedication or discipline - these traits aren’t prerequisites - they arise as a result of training, as a result of experiencing the physical satisfaction of investing in a process, an activity, that does you good - not one that does you harm. One that works for your own personal betterment from a positive place, not one that exploits your fears and insecurities - ultimately, that will only cripple your motivation to train - and then you're stuck back at the beginning, bullying yourself in an attempt to get your ass to the gym.
Try something else, try developing a skill, and train as little or as much as you need in order to be able to progress at the thing you’re trying to develop. This is self-corrective. You can tell when you’re training too much or too little by your familiarity with your skills development, by the way you feel in your own skin, and by your rate of progression.
Or, try seeking out something you enjoy, simply for it’s own sake. Because if it’s not fun, if it’s not something you enjoy, or if you aren’t actually working on something - what’s the point? To train is to practice and what are you practicing at? Counting?