Laying my mat on the ground, I look left and right observing those around me. I take a seat as I try to adjust to the hot temperature of the room. The instructor walks in and motions for us to begin in child’s pose. As I slide in, I can’t help but look at the woman in front of me. Is my butt supposed to be as low to the ground as hers? We begin to hold long balancing poses, and I shake trying to hold mine longer than those behind me so they can see how talented I am. We reach the end of class in corpse pose, where you literally do nothing but lie on your mat, and my instructor reminds us that “you are exactly where you are supposed to be.” I repeat this in my head as I struggle to stay still for the next 5 minutes.

In yoga classes, on my own at the gym or walking in heavy foot traffic to my 10 a.m. class, I struggle to fight the competition and comparison I create between myself, friends and complete strangers. Recently, after overcoming my fear of the gym, I realized these settings have a competitive atmosphere due to the way your workout is measured on the machines and the way people present themselves in the weight room. And overall, I have found this competitive energy and this mindset makes these physical activities extremely unenjoyable.

Now, I wouldn’t say I am the competitive type. My parents always tell stories of me playing middle school basketball where instead of focusing on the ball going down the court, I was preoccupied with playing with my hair. Looking back, all I remember was the joy of playing with my friends and physically feeling good after a practice. So, how come I really enjoyed myself in a competitive setting then, but when exercising today, I find this competition so unbearable?

In the past, when I used to go to work out, there was always an underlying goal to get as fit as possible or to lose weight. There were periods of time when I took my exercise very seriously, and looking back, I would say it was particularly harmful. I hated the entire process of working out and how I felt before going to do these activities. During and even after, I never felt the endorphins rush the way others around me experienced it. Usually, I would do a particular physical activity every day for a few months and then fall out of it from injury, lack of interest or lack of results I wanted. There was no sustainability in the expectations I had for myself because they were so unattainable with this mindset.

I think I developed this way of thinking from how our society glorifies fitness, health and being athletic. We are socialized from a young age in physical activities and in school gym classes that to be healthy and fit, we should be active. But when particular children feel discouraged, targeted and uncomfortable in these programs, it should be a clear public concern. Last semester, when researching for a project on fatphobia, I found out when physical education teachers have a bias toward against fat students, these individuals begin avoiding physical activities, and this can impact their relationship with their bodies and ultimately their mental and physical health.

So, we receive messages from a young age that the only way to be fit and healthy is to work out, be active and do this as much as possible until we get the expected results of what healthy looks like. But what if we never get the results we dream of because healthy looks different for each body? I think the influence of this education is where the comparison game begins and where we develop this competition between ourselves and those around us. And this happens especially in environments like the gym or workout classes, where some become super fit and get the results they expect while others struggle to fit this norm because their bodies may not be able to get to the same point.

This competitive, comparison mindset in physical exercise is toxic and leads to people pushing themselves too far, thus hurting themselves physically, or avoiding these activities in general, which hinders them from gaining the actual benefits from physical activity. Last semester, with my busy schedule, I rarely found time to be physically active and did not think much about it until I found myself extremely stressed out. Close to finals, one of my friends encouraged me to go to the gym with her to just sweat out all of our stress. I recognized, probably for the first time, how good it felt to sweat and feel the rush of endorphins.

From that point on, I decided I will not allow this competitive, comparison mindset to influence the way I engage in physical activity. It does not benefit my lifestyle because it turns out I actually like moving my body and the way it makes me feel. This means I am actively deciding to not care about what others are doing or think of me in an exercise setting. It has already been a challenge, but I have noticed that everyone is truly focused on themselves and do not care about what I am doing at all.

The people around me are not my competition. I try to find joy in physical activity because, ultimately, isn’t its purpose to make me feel better? Whether moving my body will make me fit or healthy, it makes me feel happy and gives me space to relieve myself from stress and clear my mind. I think we should all challenge ourselves to be kind, goofy and silly with one another and ourselves at the gym, in workout classes or on a quick walk running late to class. Because most of us are not training to become serious athletes and would benefit from the fun and joy of just moving our bodies as we please.

Ellery Rosenzweig can be reached at erosenz@umich.edu.

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