There are two interesting and contradictory trends in fitness I keep seeing. The first is the “leave it on the field” (or workout ’til you vomit) trend and the latter is, seemingly, a backlash, mostly found in more feminist (whether explicitly or not), body-positive spaces that argues training and movement should be additive–they should positively benefit you and support your other activities rather than eclipsing them.
This post was inspired by (among other things) this post about a Spartan race in California that resulted in a dozen people being sent to the hospital, including broken bones and two heart attacks. It’s also inspired by the ongoing conversations about the sustainability of Crossfit as well as the influx of Tough Mudder, Spartan Run, and Mud Run pictures crowding my Facebook timeline. And it’s inspired by my own past all-or-nothing tendencies that saw me doing two hours of cardio a day, running myself ragged in pursuit of…something.
So I want to think about what that something is and why so many of us fall prey to the pursuit of it at the expense of our health, wallets, and time. And I want to think about how it’s probably related to the neoliberal conception of health and fitness. I’m going to be totally gauche and quote myself here:
Both Schee (2008) and Guthman and DuPuis (2006) borrow Foucault’s concept of governmentality to describe the ways that dominant forces shape a self-governing ethic that creates a “hypervigilance about control and deservingness” which then “creates divisions between active citizens, those who can manage their own risks, and ‘targeted populations’, those who require intervention in management of risks” (Guthman & DuPuis, 2006, p. 443). Colls and Evans (2009) argue that even those who are at a ‘normal’ weight are considered at “risk of becoming ‘overweight’ which in turn is a risk for becoming ‘obese’” (p.1013), thus all bodies are subject to that hypervigilance and surveillance. Those currently construed as active citizens are viewed as self-disciplined and rational, while those who fail to achieve the twin duties of eating and thinness are viewed as irrational and lacking discipline (Guthman & DuPuis, 2006). It is in this way that class (and its corollaries race and gender) is performed through the body (Guthman & DuPuis, 2006).
Because I think this idea may be at the root of the popularity of balls-to-the-wall fitness trends.
It is not enough, in our culture, to strive for moderation, something that is hard enough to attain in our current obesogenic environment (a not unproblematic term, certainly, but I haven’t found a better one that attends to the constant availability of hyperpalatable foods, the billions of dollars that go into advertising and lobbying, the agricultural conglomerates that receive subsidies for calorically dense crops while fresh fruits and vegetables are out of reach for many, and the car culture and other forces that encourage sedentary lifestyles). Rather, we divide ourselves between those seeking ritual self-flagellation, couch potatoes, and the growing number just trying to find sanity and health in their food and movement practices.
One thing that strikes me about Crossfit and its ilk is that it may stand in for church in our increasingly secular culture. It is somewhere you go regularly, where you have community, and where you are promised some form of purity–whether that’s in the form of punishment for your sins (try doing a WOD hungover, I promise you’ll feel punished) or in doing something few others can (or want to) do. Of course there are those who just enjoy a CF workout and like hanging out with their friends while they sweat their buns off. And that’s fine. Do what makes you happy and healthy. But let’s not ignore the larger cultural forces at play to avoid stepping on toes.
From Crossfit to SoulCycle, the last few years have seen a rise in exercise-with-the-fervour-of-religion. Which, I think, dovetails nicely with the idea that the good citizen keeps themself under constant surveillance, making sure to both consume and sacrifice at the same time. Crossfit, SoulCycle, and obstacle races like Tough Mudder are populated by primarily middle (to upper) class white 20-40 year olds who are willing to spend boatloads of cash on fitness. They are able to consume (spending money on classes, races, gear, and swag) while remaining slim and self-disciplined. The neoliberal problem of inelastic demand (we can only eat so much, own so many houses, drive so many cars) paired with the failing health of a population that is overworked, overfed, over-stressed, and lacking the basic right to affordable health care (still an issue in the US despite the Affordable Care Act) is fixed by a culture that “returns improvement to the individual” (Guthman & DuPuis, 2006, p. 443).
Rather than looking at systemic issues like how to ensure quality nutrition for all, a healthy work-life balance, adequate and safe housing, safe outdoor spaces, and the systemic barriers facing marginalized people, these exercise cultures focus on the individual and the path to purity through pushing beyond your limits.
And these exercise cultures burn people out because bodies aren’t meant to go 100% 5 (or 6 or 7!) days a week. We aren’t meant to tax our immune systems and nervous systems every day at the gym, pushing harder, harder, harder, until we puke or faint or rupture something. And while some people can keep that intensity up for a surprisingly long time, eventually the body gives. And, in the meantime, we are sacrificing so much for this ritual purity. How many times have you given a workout your all and then found yourself lying on the couch the rest of the day because you were spent? How many times have you pushed too hard, too fast, too far, then limped for four days, cursing every time you sit down on the toilet because your legs are on fire?
That is not sustainable, it is not loving. It is self-flagellation. It is seeking punishment for sins defined by a dysfunctional culture.
Which isn’t to say never go hard. I fully believe a sustainable movement practice can (and, ideally, should!) incorporate hard days. I’ve been incorporating clean-and-presses into my practice lately and you have got to be all in to do them. Every part of your body focused, engaged, working hard. But that can’t be every day. Not just because your body can’t sustain it (ever tried running the day after a heavy deadlift? It’s hell on earth) but your mind and soul can’t either. It wears you down. It strips the joy from movement and thus life.
Movement should be additive. It should enable you to conquer the massive floating log at Wreck Beach with ease (SO MUCH FUN) and then walk up the one million stairs to get back to the road. It should enable you to help your friend move with ease (seriously, moving is so much easier when you deadlift!), it should shore up your resources for times of high stress. In short, it should let you do the hard work of living–it shouldn’t be the hard work.