The Fitness Effect

Whether or not we are willing to admit it, we have all felt unsatisfied with how we look at some point in our lives. Maybe you looked in the mirror one day and thought your face was a little too round or maybe you looked down to notice that your thighs were bulging out of your denim shorts more than you remembered. Whatever the situation may be, there are a multitude of different reasons that cause people to be unhappy with how they look, or more specifically, with how their body looks.

Frank Ivanovic, a 23-year-old from Ontario explains his own experiences with body dissatisfaction, “Years ago, I didn’t like the way I looked, the way I felt, so I picked up sports and started going to the gym. As my body changed and became what I thought was ideal, I started to gain more confidence: walk straighter, talk more, just generally [be] happier.”

In a Western culture that’s so focused on body image, being thin and having the ‘perfect body,’ it can be difficult not to judge your own body. While some may argue that we have moved away from a focus on being thin as a society, I disagree. Yes, maybe now we are more aware that thinness does not equate to health than we were 10 years ago, and maybe we’ve normalized the acknowledgment of fat shaming, but there is still an issue. Although it might no longer seem like “everyone” is striving to be thin, society’s overt focus on body shape, size, and weight continues to exist.

Sam Branton, a 24-year-old also from Ontario proves this to be true in the way she feels about going to the gym: “I’m an all or nothing fitness person. I actually go to the gym more when I feel confident and this is [usually] when I weight less. I think I feel this way because a lot of the people in the gym [already look] fit. Unfortunately, I feel confident only when I [correspond to] this standard of people who take fitness…seriously. I try not to worry about what others are thinking about me in the gym, but it’s hard…”

Ivanovic also sees a negative side to obsessing over how your body looks, saying that “your own drive for perfection and knowing that something [is] unattainable [can be] depressing; [for example, I know that] I’ll never look [ a certain way] without enhancing, but I don’t want to break my own moral code and cross that line.”

I’m not trying to demean the progress that has been made towards body positivity, but I am trying to clarify that body image issues, diet-focused mindsets, and the emphasis on losing weight instead of being healthy still exist.

While fitness can be a beneficial addition to someone’s life, it can be an issue if it becomes an obsession that dictates your ability to enjoy certain things like family dinners, travelling, or a night out with friends. It’s important to maintain balance and a healthy mindset.

As a girl who struggled with severe Anorexia for five years, I know first hand the impact that low self-esteem and bad body image, accompanied with the social pressures to be thin, can have on an individual. I did not have a healthy balance in my life and I was unable to enjoy a lot of life experiences because of my fear of food. Of course, an eating disorder is a mental illness and neither society nor media are solely responsible, but both have a substantial influence on us as individuals, and even more so when we are already dealing with unhealthy thoughts of our own.

Society influences how we see fitness as well. Like anything else, some people like it and some people don’t. However, it presents the opportunity to change how we look, which can be enticing.

I have seen both the negative and positive effects of fitness through my eating disorder and my recovery. I grew up as an active child, but once I had damaged my body to a certain extent through my eating disorder I was no longer allowed to exercise. Even during weight restored periods of my illness my exercise was restricted and, in my mind, physical activity merely equated burning calories and losing weight. For someone who is just barely at a healthy weight and struggling with anorexia, this does not typically end well. I ended up on a roller coaster of being underweight, regaining the necessary weight and then losing it all over again.

When I finally reached a state where I actively pursued recovery, I had a negative outlook on fitness and exercise. My eating disorder consumed my mind and was physically manifested through my inability to let myself sit down before 7:30pm. I would do jumping jacks and pace around my room.

In treatment, exercise was taboo. I would get redirected if I seemed to walk “too quickly,” or if I sat too close to the edge of my chair. This led to a skewed perception of exercise in my recovery. I viewed it as something that had the ability to derail all my progress both mentally and physically. While I did go back to cheerleading in grade twelve, I didn’t do much physical activity after high school. I began to pride myself on the ability to maintain a good figure without having to workout or go to the gym. It just wasn’t a part of my lifestyle.

However, in my third year of university, my roommate started taking me to the gym with her and I discovered that despite all my preconceived notions I actually enjoyed myself! It took a bit of getting used to, but once I began to get into a routine and see progress in what my body was able to do, I was hooked. Exercise became a way for me to relieve stress, bettered my mood, and helped improve my lingering negative body image. I realize now that my complete distaste for exercise in my original recovery was not a much healthier outlook than I had when I was in the depths of my disorder. As I have said, life is all about balance, and fitness needs to be integrated as a part of a healthy lifestyle. Luckily, I found a passion in fitness, and I have been able to use it as a means of gaining confidence within myself. Dasia Baker, a 19-year-old from Atlanta, was able to do the same. Baker shared that before she began her fitness journey, she “used to hate wearing tank tops,” and now that’s all she wears.

However, fitness is more than just a way to manipulate your body and improve your health. It teaches you skills that are transferable to so many other parts of your life as well. After growing up the “small guy,” 26-year-old Brad Carr from Wales, found a love for fitness that allowed him to reach a point in his life where he is “truly happy.” Carr explains that, “The setting and completion of both long-term and short-term goals has boosted my self-esteem to unthinkable levels…You have to go beyond failures in order to get somewhere. Progress requires commitment, hard work and patience. Everything is symbolic of how I want to live my life from now on!” His experiences show how fitness can impact the mind as well as the body, and it can also teach you better ways to manage other aspects of your life.

One of my main inspirations for getting involved in fitness originally was seeing how it helped my friend Anna Hise. Hise is a 21-year-old from Utah who had a similar journey to my own; here’s her story:

“For over 10 years I struggled with anorexia nervosa and body dysmorphic disorder. After countless hospital and treatment centre stays I had given up hope that there was ANYTHING that could keep me in recovery. In my eating disorder, my self worth and confidence were dependent on the number I saw on the scale, the size of my clothes and the image I saw in the mirror. I was never satisfied, no matter how small I was. The one thing that broke me out of this destructive cycle was fitness. My unhealthy obsessions were replaced with the desire to become as healthy and strong as I possibly could – physically and mentally. When I [saw] my progress in the gym…in my physique, my self confidence started growing. It was like I started to see myself in the mirror through a different pair of eyes. I was kinder to myself; I was proud of myself. I actually loved myself again. Fitness completely changed the way I view myself and is 100% the reason I am still in recovery to this day.”

Hise has come so far in her ability to find self-confidence and her continued efforts and hard work are truly inspiring. She is a true example of how fitness can be a positive influence in an individuals’ life, truly saving them from the negativity of self criticism.

Despite efforts to change the social idea that how we look defines us as a person, people still relate their self-esteem to their appearance and body. Fitness being the main tactic able to change one’s body is thus deeply intertwined with self-esteem and confidence. The mindset shift to separate self worth and appearance is not something that can occur instantaneously. Furthermore, seeing fitness as a depiction of what your body can do, instead of just how it looks – is another change in mentality. Finding the ability to change negative perceptions to positive ones, not only takes external positive reinforcement, but an inner desire to be happy with oneself as well.

Now let me leave you with some food for thought:

“Fitness/bodybuilding, etc. can help out with your confidence, but if you never truly loved yourself in the beginning, fitness isn’t going to remove that feeling [of self doubt].” – Erwin, 25, Miami

“It is through a sense of accomplishment that we gain confidence. Doing the work, getting the job done, breeds confidence in the little steps due to the constant little victories. The external element is just a visual representation of hard work, which is why we admire great athletes and physiques. They are the physical manifestation of a job well done. And anyone can admire a hard worker.” – Josh, 29, British Columbia

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