Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Opting out of exercise

There are plenty of hardcore exercisers writing for this blog, sometimes myself included, and I’m sure plenty of readers, too.  We've posted exercise tips in the past, and likely will in the future, because exercise is a part of our and many of our readers' lives.  I understand the power of exercise, and the excitement surrounding it, and the benefits for one’s health.  That said, amid this chorus of “wheee, exercise,” I want to take some time to offer a different perspective: you don’t have to do it.

I say this because when obesity, and the health problems surrounding it (note that these are often drastically overstated), are so often in the news, it's easy for us to get caught up in a culture of healthy eating and fitness to such an extent that we begin to associate a value judgment with something that is, at its core, self care.  We don't tend to associate values with getting a manicure or not, but deciding to go to the gym or not can determine whether we feel "good" or feel "bad."  The same way marketers describe desserts as "sinful," we feel that lying on our couch catching up on Lost instead of hitting the treadmill is "lazy," "indulgent," or just plain "bad."

Worse still, exercise is like a drug.  The more you do it, the more you think about how good you could look if you did more of it, and thus the more you do it.  It's not the endorphins, or whatever the fashion mags are always telling us, it's the addictive nature of attractiveness.  You go to the gym, you see all the women who are more fit than you (ignoring those who are less) and you start wondering what they do to look like that.  They must exercise more, you think.  And so you do, too.  You picture your sculpted arms, your tight abs.  You start to feel noble, going for a run in the 30-degree weather.  You run toward skinny you, fit you, in your mind.  You go faster.  You begin to fall in love with this imaginary version of yourself—so much so that you begin to love her more than the real you, the one who’s strapping on gym shoes at five-o’clock in the pitch dark because you “love it so much.” 

This might not be you, but we all know someone who has started exercising to "try to get in shape a little bit," and then suddenly seems to be doing it all the time, and talking about it all the time, and freaking out if they are going to miss their exercise session because of dinner, homework, or a trip to the movies.  Again, you might not have been there, but I know I have.  And so then I have to ask a question, are the health benefits of exercise (which are less conclusive than you might think, because it is difficult to randomly assign people to lifetime exercise regimes and assess their outcomes) worth the accompanying self-loathing, cycle of superficiality, and irrationality that over-exercise can sometimes bring?

Sure, it seems natural to believe that doing some exercise is better than not.  Humans probably aren’t designed to be stationary creatures.  But the amount of exercise likely needed to see health effects is probably less than the amount needed to look like Jessica Alba.  The notion that you, a working person with a life full of hobbies, passions, responsibilities, and entanglements can have six pack abs is insane, and like most insane things in fashion, will probably go out of style.  But the insidious thing about exercise is that it allows us to pursue this unrealistic ideal while couching our effort in terms of our health.  As feminists, we always question just how much effort one should be willing to put into looking good (god bless Mo'Nique and her unshaven legs), but many of us don't question exercise because it's good for us

The reality is, we have little control over how long we live or how healthy we are.  Many factors determining later-life health are decided before we're even born.  And yet, we exercise like our lives right now, not our future 80-year-old lives, depended on it.  In fact, I'm probably not the only one who has continued a form of exercise that was giving me a chronic injury (I ran for years despite recurring shin splints that sometimes made it hurt to walk).  So if we consider health as something we can consume right now, not just later in life, I was exercising despite it having a negative health impact.  And I think I know why: because we want to look good.  Everyone does.  But if exercise is primarily about trying to look nice, and having some marginal impact on one's health, it doesn't carry quite the same gravity people like MeMe Roth are always trying to convince us it does.

If exercise is a form of self-care, like getting a haircut or a facial, you don't have to do it.  Or, you can do it, but in reasonable doses that you enjoy, and without attaching any guilt to not doing it.  You can do it without the 5 am wake-up calls, the fiend-like anxiety when you miss your fix, the constant specter of expanding thighs when you choose the couch instead.  It’s one thing to love ourselves with exercise; it’s another thing to punish ourselves with it.

So let's make a brand-new feminist commitment as a society to put exercise back in perspective, and fight back against those who have made us feel like it's a moral choice, rather than an aesthetic one.  Let's exercise, or not, with joy rather than shame.  Let's to be more like the girl in the picture, who's just playing soccer, not trying to prevent heart disease while simultaneously lifting and toning.  If you’ll try, so will I.


  1. nice post! The commercialization of "fitness" has a part in contributing to this obsession!

  2. Great post! I do have my moments of exercising like a fiend (and I'm okay with it usually!) But I am trying this year to simply lead a more active lifestyle. To play tennis with my mom because it is fun and we like it, to go for walks with friends simply to soak in the summer sun, and to chase the kids around at the family reunion because they love it. This in the long run I think will make a healthier me and so I appreciate this post today! (Even if I'm a work in progress when it comes to the exercise obsession!)

  3. Well, there's also the macho ("macha"?) aspect of wanting to be able to say you're strong. That was what kept me going back when I was on a strict weight lifting regimen--appearance and health concerns ranking a distant second and third. It's also that competitiveness that made me practice basketball nonstop in junior high and high school, when I was on the team. None of that stuff gave me a "bikini body", the only thing that did that was regular exercise plus a very very restricted diet--not fun. Weightlifting did make my body feel harder and stronger, which I loved, although not enough to keep up with the super-strict program I was on. Right now I often go to the gym after work to swim--strictly for relaxation purposes. Sometimes I also lift weights so I don't feel like I'm atrophying strength-wise, and to test where I'm at.

    Just wanted to put that out there--weight and looks aren't the only reasons people get obsessed with exercise. For a lot of us it's more about beating your time, or amount of reps, or weight--numbers you can build on and control and feel competent about in a world that doesn't offer much in the way of opportunities to feel competent about simple things.

  4. Oh, for the love of God, thank you! If I read one more Facebook post regarding how many miles someone ran, etc,...always women,...as if obsession is some sort of female badge of honor. Using exercise to attain control in a world that cannot be controlled is a slippery slope.


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