Episode 02: The Pornification of Fitness

In Episode 02: The Pornification of Fitness, Geof and Todd share their thoughts on the sexualization of fitness, how striving for an “ideal” body images tends to do us more harm than good, and why finding your “fitness sweet spot” is so important to your happiness.

Call it immoral, unsavory or disgusting, pornography represents peoples’ most primitive, basic underlying drives for pleasure.  In popular culture “porn” no longer just means sexual intercourse, it represents anything and everything that people derive pleasure from that is excessive in nature.  There is food porn, home & gardening porn, gaming porn, vehicle porn, vacation home porn, travel porn, home furnishing porn, and yes, fitness porn.  One could say that “porn” exists in any market where there are excessively high end products that are out of most people’s reach.  Just as the pornography stars’ bodies (body parts) are overly perfect and unattainable for the vast majority of us, so are most of the products in a high end luxury market.  I’d love to own a 5 million dollar beach front property but that’s only a fantasy.

The fitness world has become infected by sexualization (traditional pornography) AND fantastical, unattainable thinking.  First on the sexualization.  To some extent, there has always been a sexual element to the fitness industry but as our culture evolves (degrades) and our attention spans shorten the sexualization has gone from subtle (i.e. flyers you get from gyms in the mail) to a little outrageous (three quarters naked “fitness models” on Instagram).  Shirtless men and spandex/crop top tank wearing women are now the norm to visually represent fitness.  By definition, fitness is the ability to repeatedly perform work without undue fatigue.  I guess I am having trouble seeing how partial nudity represents the ability to perform work?

Fitness models are beautiful people with great bodies.  And if they want to show off a little extra skin to further their careers/brand, so be it.  The problem that Geof and I have about The pornification of fitness is that you are being lied to.  You are being sold a false bill of goods that if you follow the fitness model’s program that you can be like them.  And that inherently there is something a little bit wrong with you and that you need to change your body and achieve a certain look.  But you can’t be a fitness model and you never will be.  They are a fitness model and you are you.  The fitness model’s body is an excessively high end luxury good that is likely far different from your body and there are a number of reasons why:

  1. Twenty Somethings in Their Prime: I’m 38 years old and nowhere close to being as strong/fit as I was when I was in my mid-twenties nor could I handle the workouts that I used to. That’s not to say that you can’t be really fit in your 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s or 70s but it is just more difficult.  Most fitness models are of the younger flavor.
  2. Genetically Gifted: I’ll go out on a limb and venture to guess that the vast majority of fitness models have never been overly overweight or out of shape with few exceptions. The basal (baseline) level of fitness/physique that people can maintain with little to no exercise is drastically different between individuals.  I have more fully illustrated this point before in a blog post that I wrote, Anything Fitness Nut Tries Will Work for Him/Her but Will It Work for You?  It doesn’t really matter if fitness nut eats low-carb or low-fat or lifts heavy weights or focuses on lighter weights and volume, they are going to look great due to their genetic predisposition and their extreme dedication to their programming.
  3. Lighting, Filters, and Best Pictures: When you post a picture to social media do you take just one and post it? Or do you take picture after picture after picture, choose the best one (and in some cases filter it) before posting?  You can do a pretty striking before and after shot of yourself in 10 minutes by drooping your shoulders and sticking out your stomach in the first shot and then doing a set of push-ups to exhaustion and flexing in the second shot.  Nothing has changed about you but the pictures will be very different.  It goes without saying that you only see the best shots on social media.
  4. This is Their Job: If your only job was to look good in pictures, you could do it. Not only are fitness models young and genetically gifted and use their best pictures: working out and eating right is their job!  There are not only countless hours working out but countless hours spent meal planning and prepping.  Most people have about 1000 other responsibilities that prevent them from solely focusing on fitness.

So why is any of this a problem?  Because it sets people up for unrealistic expectations and failure.  Fitness models use their bodies to show you what their program did for them and not only do they imply that you can do the same but also shamelessly tell you so.  It’s one thing to show off a beautiful body, it’s yet another to tell you that by following their program you can have it too.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with striving towards a certain body image but we need to be realistic in our expectations and honest with ourselves about what we can achieve.  If weight loss is your goal and you go on a diet and exercise program, losing more than 10-15% of your initial body mass, will easily put you in the minority.  Most people will lose less than 5% over the course of one year.  This doesn’t mean that you should throw your hands up and not even bother but we need to:

  1. Be Realistic About What We can Achieve and Set Appropriate Goals: this topic requires a more detailed analysis but as a short plug/preview, in our blog series we will be sharing with you what the scientific research has found regarding how much weight you can realistically lose.
  2. Make Fitness/Weight Loss a Top Priority: the bigger your goal, the more of a priority your fitness/weight loss must be. Only you can figure out how much of the other aspects of your life you are willing to sacrifice to become more fit or lose weight.  There is going to be a trade-off and you’ll need to decide how to strike that balance.  There is only so much time in the day and you only have so much energy to go around.  You must be judicious with both.
  3. Understand That It is Going to Be Hard and Be Ready for the Challenge: it goes without saying that losing weight and keeping it off is hard! In our first blog post, What is the Best Diet to Lose Weight Fast?, we outline from a calories in/calories out mathematical perspective just how difficult it is to lose weight.  There are far too many programs claiming that their program is “EASY” and that you will “SHED THE POUNDS”.  These claims are absolutely irresponsible.  There is nothing easy about losing weight and keeping it off.
  4. Ask Yourself What It Will Take to Make You Happy: do you need a low body fat and six pack abs or would a moderate body fat and flat(ter) stomach do the trick? It is really difficult to predict this out because how do you know until you get there but again it’s probably not worth it to have to kill yourself in the gym and eat super “clean” to get that ideal body image.  Exercise, eating, and your body image should all be sources of pleasure, not pain.
  5. Find Acceptance: sometimes no matter how hard we try at something, it’s just not going to work out. In our podcast I mentioned how I was told that I had big arms but a small chest in high school and how I spent the next 10 – 15 years trying to increase my chest size, only to hurt my shoulders.  It took me a long time and multiple signals from my body to realize, that hey, maybe an Arnold Schwarzenegger chest isn’t in the cards for me.
  6. Understand What Drives You: are you eating better and exercising because your doctor or spouse told you that you should? Are you trying to obtain what you see as an ideal body image in our culture?  If so you are doing things for the wrong reasons.  People who are intrinsically motivated (doing it for themselves) tend to be more successful than those who are extrinsically motivated (doing it for others).  It is important to find your why.  Why are you choosing to do what you are doing?  If your why isn’t for you, it probably isn’t going to stick.
  7. Figure Out What You Can Maintain: it’s okay to set audacious goals (i.e. run a marathon, perform a triathlon or figure competition, weigh a certain amount) but it is just as important to develop the habits/lifestyle that will allow you to maintain a certain level of fitness. If you climb to the mountaintop of fitness don’t fall back into the abyss.  Happiness is a fleeting thing that is dependent upon what you can do today, not what you did 5 years ago and not even what you did yesterday.

Just because someone has a nice physique doesn’t mean that a) you need to strive to look like him/her b) that it is even genetically possible for you to look like him/her or c) that they even know what they are talking about.  I have had a number of good looking, athletic students in my classes who are real blockheads.  They talk the talk and are “passionate” about exercise and nutrition but they do terrible on my exams.  I’ve also had students who look like they have no athletic ability that do awesome on my exams.  They really get the material.  So I ask you this.  Who would you rather have as your trainer?  The good looking knucklehead or the less athletic looking, competent professional?  As the saying goes, “you can’t judge a book by its cover”.  And I don’t think you can take the advice of a fitness model based on their looks.  So the next time you see a model/spokesman hyping up a program or diet, realize that it is more than likely just a person perpetuating The Pornification of Fitness.  If you know what you’re doing, you shouldn’t have to advertise your services shirtless.

If you wondering what’s real and what’s not, send Geof and I the article and we’ll give you our thoughts on it.  We hope you enjoyed our second podcast.

Our podcast music was generously provided by Sheridan.

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