Exercise. It’s the buzz word that keeps on buzzing, just at different frequencies throughout time. The pandemic marks a time in which it’s been buzzing a good deal, as people have been limited in their access to physical activity centers this past year. Lockdown has led to a heightened obsession with at-home workouts — just look at the rise of Peloton, whose delivery trucks are popping up everywhere.
Getting in exercise, or increasing physical activity or movement (I prefer to use the latter terms to shed the punitive connotation that diet culture has created around “exercise”), is often hailed as general health advice applicable to all. Most health care professionals will concede that physical activity is good for us — and abundant research supports this — so even more activity must be even better. But this might be a false conclusion.
Encouraging everyone to get more physical activity ignores the reality that this may not be possible for those with disabilities. It also assumes everyone, no matter how much activity they currently engage in, will benefit from more exercise. Finally, this generalized advice also reeks of fatphobia, as it’s usually asserted in the context of the “obesity epidemic” and thus as a key method for losing weight. Physical activity is then framed solely as a means of losing weight or maintaining an “ideal” weight — in both cases, the fear of weight gain is driving one to exercise.
Not only is this “more exercise is great” belief potentially harmful advice, but it is also pointless for people already getting in a comfortable amount of physical activity, as more exercise doesn’t translate directly into more health benefits. In fact, it’s reasonable to believe there is a cutoff where increased exercise no longer has any added benefits, and can actually be harmful. Over-exerting yourself in exercise by doing too much, too fast can lead to injuries, damage your heart and brain and even lead to exercise addiction — and no, this is not the kind of addiction you wish you had. One study found that extreme endurance activities, like ultra-marathons, may lead to heart damage and rhythm disorders. Keep that in mind next time you view all marathon runners as the epitome of health.
Moreover, there are people who should not be exercising for various reasons. Fortunately, these reasons usually apply for a limited period — I say fortunately because our bodies want to move and be active. However, sometimes our use of movement and physical activity turns into abuse, and that’s when it is necessary to take a step back. The estimated prevalence of exercise addiction in the general population is about 3%, but that number jumps to 50% or more among marathon runners and triathletes and 25% among runners in general. The fact that a quarter of recreational runners may be addicted to or battling compulsive exercise demonstrates that you don’t need to be an elite athlete for this to apply to you. These groups of people, who are likely health-conscious if they’re regularly active, don’t need to do more exercise and won’t benefit from it either. Yet they may be the most susceptible to the message that more exercise is always better because they want to act in the best interest of their health, and the promotion of increased physical activity ‘promises’ that.
Aside from those already getting enough exercise, there are also people who are well-intentioned in their efforts to increase physical activity but overlook the importance of eating enough. Increased exercise is often paired with decreased food intake in an attempt to lose weight. Exercising in a caloric deficit can lessen the usual benefits of physical activity, such as improved bone health. One benefit of regular physical activity, often asserted by health care professionals, is that it builds strong bones, but if done persistently while under-eating, the opposite occurs — bones can become smaller and more fragile. This explains why osteoporosis, osteopenia and diminished bone mineral density are seen in individuals with restrictive eating disorders, especially those who over-exercise.
Tying physical activity to weight loss also sets you up for a tumultuous relationship with something that should be very enjoyable. If you’re doing physical activity to lose weight, the implication is that it’s a short-term stint, something you have to do, and that’s never fun. Even after you’ve lost some weight, you’ve permanently succumbed to exercise obsession in order to maintain that weight loss. And when some or all of the weight comes back — as it does for a majority of people — it is discouraging for the individual, who sadly will feel as if it’s their own fault (it’s not) and will see no point in exercising if it doesn’t shrink their body. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Physical activity and movement should be enjoyable, and it’s time to reclaim it. Diet culture’s hijacking of “exercise” has fostered an environment where physical activity is punitive. You’re encouraged to “burn off” or “earn” food and you’re led to believe that through exercise, you can control entirely how your body looks. Throw that bullshit logic out and explore and take part in activities that are simply fun. A major misconception is that physical activity — or “exercise,” if you prefer — is confined to a gym. But aiming to exercise more doesn’t have to mean more time in the gym. Instead, it can mean numerous other, better things. If you can, and it suits your individual needs, get outside, take a walk, ride a bike, play sports with friends or even skip around if you so choose. You may realize that you have been missing out on one of life’s simple pleasures.
Nyla Booras can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.