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Is fitness creating a problem for you?

So here’s the thing I really like about people who work in the fitness industry – they don’t make a lot of money, they often need to supplement their working hours and income with another career, but they are in it because they’re passionate about what they do. Many of them experienced something really positive within their own fitness and exercise experiences, and they want to share that with others. It’s admirable!

And here’s the thing I love about the fitness industry and people who participate in it – generally speaking, they are all about self-improvement. Nobody joins a gym unless they are looking to become a better version of themselves. Growth and development are among my highest personal values so I really appreciate this about the fitness world.

Yes, I know that if you read my last blog post you could be forgiven for thinking I’m anti-fitness right now, but as I wrote in that piece I really do love the fitness industry – I just find the competitive and comparative side of it quite cringe-worthy. And while some people would argue with me on this one, I think that the advent of “fitspiration” type social media over the past decade has deepened the issues we have around body image and self-worth.

Anyway, I’m actually wanting to discuss another industry today – that of mental health, psychology and counselling. Why have I started off by talking fitness then? There’s a link or two – read on.

While studying my diploma in positive psychology last year, it was pointed out through our history topic that the application of psychology after the Second World War took a turn towards focusing on what’s wrong with people. Before that it had been a field of study focusing on questions like “what motivates people?”, “how are relationships built and nurtured?” and “how do people find meaning in life?”, and was more closely associated with philosophy than it is now. However, after the wide-reaching trauma of war there were so many people affected by mental and emotional turmoil that the main question in psychology became “how do we help suffering people cope better?”. The subsequent focus on trauma management, mental illness and psychological pathology left us with a legacy that has carried over until today – that psychology has negative connotations. Hence there is stigma and shame around seeing a psychologist, an assumption that there must be something ‘wrong’ with you to be having cognitive therapy, and probably worst of all, that once you’re “back on your feet” (ie coping again) you don’t need any more support.

So our reality is that psychology has become focused on problems, rather than self-improvement. The positive psychology movement has been working to change the feel of psychology since 1999, with a focus on what’s right and great and wonderful about people and how they can make the most of that, rather than focusing on what’s wrong with them. Despite what some people assume, positive psychology has nothing to do with positive thinking or creating false hope – it’s about taking us beyond coping and towards flourishing.

This is where we loop back to fitness – with this historical context, all of a sudden I realized where the fitness industry is being led astray! Just like post-war psychology, fitness has become all about what’s wrong with people, and how to fix it! Fitness products and services are all being sold as solutions to problems. But while the problems of war were quite real and unescapable, the “problems” we have now have largely been manufactured by the marketers and racketeers! Problems like you’re still too fat, you’re too thin, you’re not strong enough, you’re not toned enough, you don’t look like her, you don’t press as much as him, blah blah blah… anything to make us feel diminished and inferior enough that we’ll buy the “solution”.

So the question that I have is this – what would the fitness industry look like if we took a leaf out of the positive psychology book, and focused on what’s right with people? What if we celebrated and welcomed anyone who was interested in self-improvement? What if our role in the fitness industry was to identify what kinds of movement people are good at, what they enjoy, what their personal strengths are and how they can apply them to their well-being? What would people achieve if we empowered them rather than flog them into submission? Gave them choice rather than acting as authority figures? What if everyone who walked into a gym was given the opportunity to become an educated, enlightened and knowledgeable authority on their own health, rather than a puppet at the mercy of his/her trainer or instructor?

Yes, there are the people whose lives become enriched through the fitness industry – but I have to say for every one of those, there are a handful who are made to feel ashamed, guilty, ‘not enough’, who will turn away from exercise and movement because they haven’t been properly guided, and are (directly or indirectly) told that it’s their own fault. That they’re not motivated or dedicated enough. (But since that’s a problem for them, they can always pay more for a personal trainer to help motivate them… *cue problem/solution rant here.)

I know that most people in the fitness industry have hearts of gold and are not intentionally setting people up to fail. What I am saying is that the machine of industry is bigger than we are, and many of us have been caught up in it. On the plus side, together we make up and control the machine. So, if each of us decided to get conscious and intentional about the messages we’re giving people, we could have an enormous positive impact on the fitness industry, and the world at large. Fitness centres could become the go-to places for movement innovation and self-development, rather than places of torture, competition and the “war on obesity”. (Why does every worthwhile pursuit have to be turned into a war on something anyway?)

Seriously people, let’s move beyond wars and battles. Let’s realise that strength is more than physical. Let’s recognise that inner strength goes beyond discipline and deprivation. Let’s celebrate what makes each of us unique and wonderful, and help each other do more of that!

Get intentional – what do you want for the world? More Instagram models? Or more fun, kindness, compassion, connection and celebration?

Bek is a fitness instructor and physiotherapist with a background in psychology. She enjoys spending time in the pool and on the dance floor, and welcomes other fitness professionals to join her in a quest to inject inspiration back into exercise!

You can follow Bek on her Facebook page Smith & Wellness, or request to join the group “Permanently Inspired” for health and fitness professionals.

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