Last year I put together a Fitspiration photo shoot. The idea behind it was to broaden our perception of fitness by showcasing women of different racial backgrounds, sizes, shapes, fitness levels, and attitudes about what fitness means to them.
“Fitness has transformed my life by giving me permission to stand in my womanhood. […] It has also transformed my belief around what I’m capable of doing.” Kawanza Billy
Many of us have an extreme, singular concept of what fitness is. We limit our idea of what it means to be in-shape to aesthetic flawlessness (i.e. not one inch of fat to pinch). This mental image perpetuates an unrealistic expectation of being healthy, and often alienates people who are looking to become fit, especially people who struggle with obesity or lead extraordinarily sedentary lifestyles.
I admire body builders, athletes, and fitness models. I know firsthand the work ethic one must have in order to achieve the outstanding results we see in fitness magazines. I have nothing but the utmost respect for people who model exemplary standards of fitness. But there’s a bit of a gap between the career-couch potato, and the former high school track star who runs 6 days a week, or the former college football player who needs to hit the weights several times a week. There’s also a pretty wide bridge between constant binge/emotional eating, and eating boiled egg whites with unsweetened oatmeal for breakfast every day. Granted, it is a bridge which can be crossed (I’ve crossed it), but only through a series of steps, not leaps and bounds.
“Fitness has transformed the trust I have in myself. I can leap as high or as far as I can and believe I will land safely and powerfully. And if I fall I will be just fine.” Keomi Tarver
Fitness, in a technical sense, is characterized by muscular strength, cardio respiratory endurance, joint flexibility/range of motion, and an optimal body fat percentage (<31% for women and <24% men) . However, fitness as it relates to each of us on an individual basis has various meanings and degrees of importance. For people who suffer from depression, exercise improves their mood and self-esteem. For dancers, movement is about self-expression, freedom, and joy. Some people value their exercise regimen because it allows them to focus on themselves, clear their thoughts, and connect to their bodies in a way we often don’t in our everyday lives. So there is a psycho-emotional benefit to exercise and eating well which can far outweigh the benefits of having 6 pack abs.
“Fitness is a way for me to have the opportunity to live my life to the fullest. It has not only supported me physically but mentally as well.” Ashley Swagerty
Another misconception we have about fitness involves its execution. When we think of what it takes to be fit, we picture ourselves running or lifting weights. I personally enjoy running and lifting weights; however, there was a time when walking was a laborious task. How did I get from barely being able to walk 5 NYC blocks to running 7 miles? The key has not only been moderation and progression; it has also been finding innovative ways of moving my body, and making the experience rewarding. NEWSFLASH: Exercise can feel rewarding! It does not always have to feel like hard labor.
Some people associate exercise with fierce physical intensity, but I recall dancing to my favorite music playlist for 20 minutes a day, working up a sweat and enjoying every moment of it. If we didn’t worry so much about the elitists who caution, “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you,” we could stop trying to do what we think we are supposed to do in the gym, and actually discover a form of exercise we actually like. This is important because as humans we are motivated by rewarding experiences. For the seasoned gym rat, the reward is in the challenge itself; however, for the beginner, the challenge of exercise is often a deterrent, and is actually the reason there is a 50% drop-out rate for people starting an exercise regimen for the first time.
I have been a witness to some of the nastiest judgments aimed at people who go to the gym regularly yet still don’t “look” fit–as if their efforts are a waste of time. I find this mentality to be extremely elitist and exclusionary. What if the people who don’t meet your standards of fitness are actually happy with their bodies, and simply happy to be moving? This is the prevailing mindset among some fitness enthusiasts who, instead of inspiring others, wind up alienating and intimidating them. It’s the reason people who are overweight are terrified of going to the gym and either being judged, or worse yet, patronized: “Oh, look at that fat person working out. How good for them!” Both approaches can be humiliating.
“There have been times in my life where I have been thinner, stronger and training harder…but my motivation was to punish my body for not being perfect. I was trying to rundown something I would never catch and I was miserable. Now for me exercising is one grand experiment to see what this resilient body is capable of. Where they used to be filled with self criticism, my workouts are filled with joy and so much gratitude. I promise you, I am the happiest damn person in the gym.” Tanya Antonio
For years, exercise was a tool I used to punish myself for having an imperfect body. I used it to try to fix what I deemed broken. Instead of focusing on the healthfulness of foods, I grouped them into two categories: foods that threatened my ability to keep the weight off, and foods that helped me stay slim. I lived in fear of ruining my progress.
This was not how I began my journey. Exercise and eating well was a meaningful and joyful experience. But as I began to put my story out there, I faced a lot of criticism from people who told me I didn’t have the body of a fitness professional. I heard a lot of unsolicited comments and tips on how to “tighten that up” or “get ride of that lump there.” I had allowed these comments to strip my hard work of all its beauty, pride, and triumph. I veered from my initial joyful attitude and approach to health and wellness, and became overwhelmed and perpetually dissatisfied.
“One thing I love about my body are my stretch marks. They tell my story. They tell a journey of birthing and bringing into this world my beautiful daughter. Each one shows my resilience and how far I have come. It’s the one thing I am most proud of. For years I tried to hide them because I felt disgusting. But now, I can actually look at myself in the mirror and love what I see.” Kassandra Juarez
I know a lot of men and women who work out religiously and adhere to stringent diets at the expense of actually feeling happy in their bodies or feeling happy about the way they look. They’re driven by feelings like shame or fear. To me, it is an unbalanced view of health which is, ironically, quite unhealthy. It’s a mindset I adopted for a while and have recently discarded, because it doesn’t work in the long run, and it doesn’t inspire people who are where I was thirteen years ago–over 100 pounds overweight and discouraged by it.
Fitness begins in the mind. A healthy mindset is unlimited in its capacity to inspire change. When the mind and the body are working together harmoniously, it doesn’t matter where one is on their fitness journey–it will feel good. This rewarding feeling is accessible to all of us, regardless of where we stand on the path to fitness: it is for everyone.
What does fitness mean to you?