Oonagh Duncan is a writer and trainer. Her new book is Healthy as F*ck: The Habits You Need to Get Lean, Stay Healthy and Generally Kick Ass at Life.
It took me about 22 years to work up the nerve to walk into a gym.
As I was taking a tour of the facility, the lively membership sales guy was gushing about the possibilities of my new healthy life as he pointed out the equipment and services that would make all my fitness dreams come true.
But I was distracted. I wasn’t interested in the group exercise schedule or the towel service because I was busy scanning the hallways for anyone who was at least as overweight as me. I was looking for corners of the change room where I could theoretically get undressed without anyone seeing the results of years of physical neglect.
The tour ended in a high-pressure “consultation” that made me sweat more than any workout and, in a panic, I signed some form that committed me to a monthly membership.
To that sales person’s credit, signing on the dotted line really did change my life – just as he enthused it would. In an extremely unlikely turn of fate, I am now a trainer and fitness expert.
But there’s no way I would have been brave enough to butt out my cigarette and walk my Spice Girl platform boots into that gym if Instagram had been around in those days.
When I was in my 20s, the gym was just a vaguely menacing mystery. I think my only cultural reference would have been John Candy getting smashed in the head with a squash ball in Splash. If I was in my 20s today, I would do an Instagram search for #gym and get a very clear (and totally freaking terrifying) idea of what happens at the gym: Beautiful people in crop tops sculpt already perfect bodies in front of a million mirrors. A new mum’s “fitness journey” is chronicled daily and scrutinized by a million eyes. A man shaped like an inverted triangle tells us all to go heavy – or go home.
I would have gone home.
I get that this stuff is posted with the intention of being inspiring and thus labelled #fitspo – a cutesy buzzword combining “fitness” and “inspiration.”
But I believe that the images labelled as #fitspo can actually be debilitating #fitimidation for the self-conscious first-time exerciser.
Imagining yourself, a mere mortal, suddenly immersed in the #fitspo world can feel like the classic nightmare of showing up to school naked … except this time you’re in gym class and only the most popular girls and the jocks are in the class with you, and you aren’t quite naked – you are allowed to wear a sports bra and booty shorts, which actually makes you feel worse than being naked because they are the wrong brand.
It’s a nightmare that would make any newbie exerciser wake up in a sweat (the unhealthy kind) – and then roll over and go back to sleep with fitness aspirations firmly parked in the “do not disturb” area of your brain.
Or maybe not. I know that often the idea is to scroll and gaze at all the taut body parts until the discomfort of comparing yourself to all the #fitspo shames you into behaving as those beautiful fit people do.
This kind of “pain and shame” motivation is actually a pretty effective way to get people off the couch.
This is why a frenzy of resolutions happens this time each year right after a season of puff pastries and cocktails that involve Baileys. When people wake up with a soul-crushing hangover and swear they will never drink (or eat like that) again, they mean it.
For a while.
A whopping 80 per cent of us have bailed on our fervent New Year’s resolutions by February.
Behaviour change that is instigated by pain and shame doesn’t last. The motivation will go away as soon as the pain is lessened. And, consciously or unconsciously, we will do anything to lessen our pain. Like, for example, eat more puff pastries and have another cocktail.
Do you see why this system doesn’t work?
If consuming #fitspo is making you feel bad enough to start a new diet and then you “fall off the wagon” after a couple of weeks, I’m going to suggest that you Marie Kondo your account. If #fitspo doesn’t spark joy, ditch it.
And if you want to install some healthy habits that are going to stick around well into the New Year, you need to shift away from shame toward a new identity.
Saying “I am eating healthy” is very different than “I am a healthy eater.” If someone identifies as a healthy eater, they will find a way to eat healthy, no matter what. The person who says they are “eating healthy” will do so when it’s convenient (that is, for about two weeks, before their motivation runs out).
Which brings me to my second problem with #fitspo.
Many of my clients have trouble claiming their (well-earned) identity as a fit person. Because the cultural image of a fit person is what you see when you search #fitspo: young, able-bodied, white and slightly porn-y images.
We don’t see the real health and fitness inspiration, which is utterly un-Instagrammable: The mum who prioritizes a 20-minute workout before the kids wake up – even though the room is messy and she had to dodge Lego pieces on the floor the whole time. The boomer with bad knees who unapologetically shows up for Crossfit class every week. The Bay Street dude who takes three deep breaths instead of reaching for the Scotch after a hard day.
The best before-and-after transformation is the one that happens during a single workout – when you transform from a stressed-out jerk (before) to a red-faced, frizzy-haired person (after) who is so high on exercise endorphins that you consider high-fiving strangers along your jogging route.
I am proud to say that I now make this transformation daily. Twenty years after I searched for a secret changing corner at the gym, I now have an identity as someone who is fit and healthy, and this shift in self-perception has vastly improved my health and happiness. The new identity didn’t happen in a sudden blaze of photogenic glory. I don’t have any pictures where I incredulously hold out the waistband of the pants that used to fit me. My fit self was constructed one workout at a time.
The moment it felt possible was when I anxiously toured that gym and saw that it was full of imperfect people of all ages, shapes and sizes, huffing and puffing away and doing the best that they can. You won’t see many images like that on Instagram, but it’s the best kind of #fitspo.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.