"Someone's physique never tells the whole story"Twitter/@mjfit

Training in Cambridge, whether it’s solo gym workouts, team ergs, or running with a friend, works for a lot of us as an outlet for energy which has been focussed on book pages or lecture notes for the rest of the day, and provides an escape from the mental strain of reading, writing, thinking, or the planning that goes into daily life. Hitting that sweet spot between pain and gain, finding reward and relaxation, provides a stress relief which only the best of milky brews can parallel.

The fitness hype, however, comes with its own brand of mental strain. Sometimes exercise is, straightforwardly, just about getting moving, getting out of breath, getting a sweat on to some good tunes, getting your head clear and feeling, for that session, for the rest of the day or evening, good about yourself. I think the majority of people who train would say that the buzz really does exist independently of what your fitness programme is doing for your body in the long-run.

A widened perception of 'fit' is tricky for me to picture, precisely because it doesn't look like one thing

But more often than not, exercise doesn’t exist in its ideal vacuum, detached from body image and other angsty concerns. Our training is coloured, the endorphins countered, the buzz a little dampened, by broader considerations about why we’re exercising, what we’re expecting from it and, maybe more importantly, what other people are expecting. Even ignoring external pressures, exercise for most of us is, probably rightly and rewardingly so, to some degree about the long-term, about changing or working on our bodies – but I think the ‘Instagram fitness’ culture which surrounds us severely narrows our perceptions of what it means, what it looks like, to be ‘fit’.

When my legs ache after a long stint of lunges, am I happy (as much as I’ll complain walking downstairs) because I know that my quads are getting stronger, or because I know that my thighs will look more toned? Is the pained pleasure in laughing post ab-day to do with a pride in my core strength, or the (vain) hope that I’m on the way to a six-pack? The idea that my body is getting stronger with each squat I hold or weight I lift is really appealing but easily becomes subordinate as an incentive to how muscular my arms or legs look.

I think we’d be surprised by the number of people who we wouldn’t class as ‘built’ or ‘gym-bunnies’ (there is an interesting discussion to be had about the gendered way in which we talk about fitness, based on those two terms alone) who, nonetheless, can lift hundreds of kilograms or run, cycle or swim for impressive lengths of time and distance. There’s a limited (sex-specific) ideal, whether it’s peachy bum and flat tummy or hench arms and good pecs, which reduces the scope of the strong bodies around us to one figure. This is achievable, mostly, only by certain body types, or through one fairly narrow type of training.

Someone’s physique never tells the whole story of what their body is capable of

The problem is that the exercise mentalities which inspire us are so entangled in the often glamourised, often limited, often unhealthy images with which they get paired and promoted. The instant feeling of relief which training gives, and the idea that our bodies are getting stronger, fitter, ‘cleaner’, healthier, on the inside are great motivations to train - but these reasons are incredibly difficult to detach from looking ‘better’ because we so closely attach those internal ideals to specific external body types.

A widened perception of ‘fit’ is tricky for me to picture, precisely because it doesn’t look like one thing. Because valuing the kind of fitness which is acceptable to all would mean accepting that there are an infinite number of training regimes and routines which can produce strength, stamina, speed, and general awesomeness, but never the same body. Not everyone who squats can or will get a ‘good bum’, even if their glutes are hard as rock; no amount of side bends will get an hourglass waist for every girl; running every day will build top-class stamina but, sometimes, with almost no external indicator.


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Especially in the gym but also just out and about, we make instant judgements about people’s level of and attitude towards fitness based on appearance. As someone who trains and still has by no means the ‘perfect’ body, I should know well that someone’s physique never tells the whole story of what their body is capable of when it comes to lifting weights, pounding on a treadmill, sprinting, holding a plank. I should also know that there’s no such thing as the ‘perfect’ body, since perfection really should lie in what we know we can do, what our bodies work towards and work at, and not the final picture.

Our bodies are outlines, and often they’re relatively accurate ones; I’m not suggesting that we scrap working towards certain visible ‘improvements’ as a valid training goal. But if we’re to value fitness for its real manifestation in mental and physical strength, if we’re to use it as a means of calm and confidence, if we’re to enable the most people to get the best out of the big picture of exercise, then there’s a lot we can do to open up our collective perceptions of what ‘fit’ looks like, and think instead about what it feels like.

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