It’s early October, which means that my summer of waiting for professional basketball to start again is over, and the NBA’s activities for the new season have begun. In the flurry of team media days and preseason games, I came across a Deadspin piece that features five pictures of Denver Nuggets star center Nikola Jokic from a team photo shoot. Some of the captions in the piece, as well as many of the comments, drew attention to Jokic’s body.
Jokic, despite standing at 7 feet tall, does not resemble many NBA players in physique – namely, he seems to have more body fat and less muscular definition than his peers. His weight has caused some to doubt his fitness and on-court production capabilities. Jokic, however, is one of the best basketball players in the league. In the 2018-19 season, he ranked third in the NBA in the advanced metric of Value Over Replacement Player and finished fourth in a vote for the league’s Most Valuable Player. In a testament to his fitness, Jokic also logged 65 highly-productive minutes in a quadruple-overtime playoff game in May, the most played in a single game by any NBA player since 1984.
Most of us will never play professional basketball, but many of us find other ways to get exercise. There is often a body image aspect to physical activity – that is, the way we believe others view our physique, which is commonly formed from the way we view how others look. Many strive to achieve what is considered the ideal body type for their gender and exercise accordingly. However, as Jokic demonstrates, one does not have to look conventional to be in excellent shape. In order to benefit in the long run, we should focus on exercising for functionality, longevity and fun.
Concepts of favorable bodies are often perpetuated by inescapable media-driven ideals, which influence social standards and make shifting one’s focus away from ideal physiques challenging. The checkout line at every other store is decked with magazines with slim women on the covers and bold headlines that promise flatter abs and accentuated curves in a matter of days or weeks, insinuating that these are the results that women should want to achieve. Ideals are also clearly defined for men – Zac Efron in “Baywatch” illustrates an exaggeration of a “desirable” male physique: ripped musculature with impossibly low body fat. Given the ubiquity of these images in American culture, we often mentally impose these ideals on others and believe others expect them from us. Breaking from this mindset is understandably difficult.
The way male and female physiques have changed and vary around the world shows that these ideals are socially-constructed rather than innate. The perceived optimal body type in America, in theory, displays good health bred from a wholesome diet and plenty of exercise. The issue with chasing these prototypes in real life is that people often achieve them in a way that is often unhealthy and unsustainable. Diet and exercise regimens that offer timelines of weeks instead of months or years may provide rapid results, but they lead to relapse and do not foster long-term habits that promote good health. To garner truly excellent health, fitness routines should be centered around improving the body’s functionality and longevity, and visible results that are sustainable will inevitably come.
A focus on body image also has the potential to harm the self-esteem of those who exercise. A 2005 study of college students showed that a large number of both men and women who exercise place emphasis on body image, and that this focus is associated with reduced self-esteem, particularly in younger and female-identifying participants in the study. One consequence of this emphasis on body image is that many people who exercise focus on performing activities that focus on physique rather than those who contribute to better overall health.
There is, however, significant importance in exercising for functional benefits, such as increased strength, flexibility and stamina. The long-term benefits may be even more essential. As young adults, we have the ability to establish not only habits but also physiological changes that can benefit us in the future. A 2014 study on adult men showed that men who regularly participate in high-impact exercise in adolescence and young adulthood had increased bone density when compared to those who did not, even when neither of these groups participated in significant exercise in later adulthood. Establishing significant bone density in early adulthood helps prevent structural issues in later adulthood, especially the negative effects of osteoporosis. Additionally, maintenance of a healthy body mass index throughout life reduces the likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease.
We can motivate ourselves to exercise for these purposes by keeping activities enjoyable and setting goals. Those who participate in exercises they enjoy tend to have more positive feelings following these activities and are more likely to repeat them in the near future. As such, we should seek physical activities that make us happy. These activities don’t have to be restricted to using gym equipmen: Team sports, hiking and dancing are all excellent ways of establishing and maintaining overall fitness. Conversely, when one’s primary motivator is body image, lack of progress toward an ideal may lead to the development of negative self-concept and discourage continued activity.
Setting goals for improvements in fitness and body composition can be great motivators for exercise, but it is best to focus on making progress and setting realistic expectations. If our aim is to lose weight, we should celebrate incremental successes in reaching our goals. It is common to see plateaus in progress in any exercise plan, so it is essential to remember that fitness improvements are made even during plateaus and that we are still benefiting our bodies in the short and long term.
The important thing is to maintain happiness. Self-worth and fitness go far beyond one’s physique. By being comfortable in our own bodies, we can focus on exercising for health benefits, keeping activities enjoyable and not getting bogged down by minute issues. This can be challenging when businesses seem to do all they can to push certain ideals to drive consumer behaviors that reinforce these ideals. If we can continue to remember that, ultimately, the shapes of others’ bodies should not matter to us, then we can convince ourselves that what we look like should not matter to the people who care about us most. Once we do this, we can accept that appearance is not the same as fitness and strive to focus on the latter.
Dipra Debnath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.