Is gym culture negatively impacting exercise? Regardless of the myriad of life-changing benefits, we, as a society, have an extreme aversion to exercise. But if our bodies are designed to move, and if we produce endorphins and dopamine in response to exercise, why do we so often avoid it like the plague, making every excuse in the book to avoid it?!
Just this past January, a group of Dutch scientists published a study conducted over the course of 15 years on the cardiovascular health of 5,000 participants. They found that, relative to their “normal” weight counterparts, overweight and obese patients who exercised regularly did not have an elevated risk of heart disease. The bottom line: Physical activity provided a protective benefit, regardless of body weight.
So, yes: As if we didn't know it already, regular exercise counteracts health risks. Yet, according to the CDC, only 20.9% of Americans over the age of 18 get the recommended amount of both cardiovascular and strengthening exercise.
According to Sherry Pagoto Ph.D (Associate Professor of Medicine in the Division of Preventive and Behavioral Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School), the innate tendency to avoid discomfort can prevent people from exercising. Even though the incentives to exercise are, theoretically, extremely high, they are frequently not strong enough motivators to outweigh the immediate desire to be, well, comfy. Because let’s face it: Many aspects of exercise, especially when you first start out, are less than pleasant.
But it’s even more complex than that: Have you ever planned to workout, but then felt bombarded by a million reasons as to why that’s a bad idea because other things take precedence? Yeah, pretty much everyone has that experience sometimes--even the most dedicated athletes. Guess what: That’s your brain imagining the potential for future discomfort and pre-emptively striking against it!
Evolutionarily, this makes total sense. Your nervous system encouraging your brain to stop a painful or unpleasant behavior acts as a protective mechanism. Example: You touch something hot, and without even thinking about it consciously, you quickly remove your hand.
If we want people to reap the health rewards of exercise, we have to start approaching it differently, creating incentives powerful enough to overcome internal resistance.
Making exercise more enjoyable
So, what exactly do we fear? Dr. Pagota says that fears range from the physiological, e.g., being too hot or cold, and getting dirty or messy, to the psychological, e.g., feeling self-conscious or embarrassed.
But how do we reduce the sensations of discomfort surrounding exercise to make it more appealing?
First of all, when it comes to exercise, what you wear can make a huge difference in how you feel! Clothing that fits correctly, moves well with the body, helps regulate body temperature, and also flatters one’s figure, can make a workout tremendously more tolerable.
Okay, so wear clothing that makes you feel good. But what about the whole gym situation? That sounds horrible to most non-”gym rats”.
Unfortunately, if you live in a place like New York, there are approximately four days out of the entire year where the weather is ideal for exercising outdoors. So, in order to stay consistent, you would probably benefit from a climate-controlled environment for every other day. We all have different workout preferences, fitness abilities, and schedules, and having a place where anyone can workout at a personally convenient time is an invaluable resource.
However, there is a huge downside: Gyms can intimidate and provoke anxiety!
We need to do a better job of reducing the gym "humiliation factor".
Helping people understand the gym
Exercising in a large open space, where many people can observe you making a fool of yourself as you fumble around trying to figure out how a damn machine works, does not appeal to anyone! We need to help people understand what to do and how to do it, on a basic level sufficient enough so that they can feel confident in some way, shape, or form. Yes, they could hire a personal trainer, but not everyone wants to do that or feels comfortable doing that. Knowledge empowers, so why not educate?
Creating an atmosphere of inclusivity
Fitness centers frequently have signage and advertisements depicting extremely athletic and lean individuals as a sort of selling point, basically saying, “Workout here and you’ll look like THIS!”--the wrong message on all kinds of levels. Most people, realistically, will never look like fitness models, and they certainly need not feel like “failures at exercise” for it.
It’s safe to assume that most gyms believe that potential members join with an aesthetic aspiration. While true for some, this belief reinforces aesthetics as the primary reason to exercise. It also only appeals to the image-obsessed and contributes to a hostile and shallow environment in the gym. One might argue that many gyms actually curate a clientele of narcissists, which can be an extreme turn-off for an average person, or worse--someone who suffers from serious body-image issues. (Even if “narcissists” sounds extreme, do you really want to watch people flaunting their booties and admiring their own biceps? Probably not.)
Can we get some body type variety in here?! Remember that saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words?” We are visual creatures, and we need to see people that look like us in order to feel like we belong somewhere.
After all, don’t we all just want to belong?
Where we go from here
These tactics will not eliminate the sweating or heavy breathing that may accompany exercise, but the more tolerable we can make it for people, the more likely they’ll be to want to do it. Those who operate fitness facilities, who run wellness programs, or who simply make recommendations to patients or clients on exercise, need to consider how to integrate these issues into their planning.
Gym culture will not change overnight. Therefore, in the meantime, we need to arm people to navigate the potential for embarrassment. Perhaps a “pre-training program” to help integrate clients and patients into an exercise regimen, teaching skills to manage performance anxiety, to practice self-compassion (and even the ability to laugh at oneself!), and to deal with judgemental gym-goers.