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Fit versus big

A graphic from the Fit versus big blog post by Julien Bertherat.

The following topic is particularly contemporary and concerns what is popularly termed as "bigorexia".

Bigorexia can be characterised as being the opposite of anorexia, in that it describes people who strive to be bigger. It is a form of body dysmorphia, which is seen as a mental health condition where a person spends time worrying about flaws in their appearance that are often unnoticeable to others.

As a young man, I felt confident and happy playing rugby, so when I first stepped into my local gym in my early twenties, that smile of mine faded from my face as a result of what I found. The first thing I remember from that day was that there were mirrors everywhere in the gym, which in itself can be a problem for some people if you are not confident in yourself (though I was, physically speaking, as a rugby player).

Nonetheless, it was at the gym that I witnessed up close big guys and their focus on their body-image. I was impressed by those new body forms, even though I had started playing rugby very early (around 6 years old) and was always by instinct a sporty guy, which I think helps to balance the right and the wrong where training the body is concerned.

But what happens if you are a newbie when it comes to physical activity, particularly if you have body image issues; a skinny frame, concern about fat or obesity, etc. and you step onto a gym floor and experience the shock I felt that day? The answer is that you can find yourself in trouble over how you see yourself and your body.

During the past few decades, we have heard a lot, particularly on social media, about “fitness”. But this word and the concept it sits on top of has been used in so many different ways and mixed up with other, apparently similar words (bodybuilding, body fat, HIIT, CrossFit etc.), to the point that it has lost some of its meaning.

So, consider the following definition of being medically fit:

"Medically Fit, essentially means, ‘A person has reached a state of clinical or physiological stability that is unlikely to be associated with the need for further inpatient hospital care in the near future.“

I appreciate that this definition sounds generic, but I have quoted it because I think gyms should be seen as part of the school of life, rather than simply being fitness factories. After all, sport helps a lot of young people to channel their natural energies and to express themselves, so why can't gyms do the same?

In this context, medically fit can be interpreted as referring to a state of being that allows us to breathe, walk and be "good to go". You might laugh at this interpretation, but in my experience, most people (certainly those that I train) are not that unfit. Over the years, I have trained clients who are 80 years old + and this has taught me that simple movements, such as standing from a sitting position can be a challenge to execute after a certain age.

Against this backdrop, being good to go means simply having access to your full body capacity and, if that is the case, then most people are in a strong starting position to begin physically training (something I remind my clients of when we start training together).

To be physically fit involves musculation activity (lifting weights), stretching and cardiovascular training. This is another general approach to the topic of fitness (though we do tend to narrow our understanding of underlying principles to three things, so this is probably as good as any other definition as any).

As far as defining fitness in the sports world is concerned, let me share with you my own experience of this. When I joined a professional rugby team, I had to pass a medical evaluation to test my fitness levels and expected this to be a challenge.

Here is what the doctor asked me to do in the evaluation:

He first confirmed my normal frequency pulse, recorded this and asked me to perform 20 air squats. Then he checked my pulse, recorded this, before checking my pulse again after a short pause to ensure it had returned to its normal resting rate.

What this demonstrated to me is that being fit as seen through a sports prism means confirming your capacity to quickly return to your resting heart rate following physical activity (your capacity to recover and to reproduce that effort in a short period).

Which is the other thing I was surprised about when I started gym training; people taking long periods to lift a barbell. Of course, the barbell in question may have been so heavy that the person lifting it needs such long breaks between repetitions, while to lift it requires hard work to begin with. Certainly, if you want to get bigger you have to increase the weight on the bar (as well as eating more, etc.) and it also takes time to reach growth goals.

But this brings me back to the subject of bigorexia, which can often start on the gym floor in this confusion over getting bigger versus growing fitter.

The fitness industry can certainly be rewarding for those people who work within it. But is this equally true for those who train with fitness professionals? This Hussle article encouraged me to question whether this is actually the case.

Modern fitness culture (or rather subculture) and the industry that supports it can actually intimidate people, as it is built on constantly measuring progress and/or checking their body fat, which adds additional weight onto peoples shoulders in place of offering genuine rewards and positivity. In turn, these normalised approaches to exercise can nurture unhealthy physical comparisons, feelings of insecurity, inadequacy and even guilt on the part of those who train. At the extremes, this approach can also nurture dysfunctional relationships with exercise and nutrition, none of which is healthy for anyone.

To challenge the potential damage that can be caused by bigorexia is to fight a certain view of modern aesthetic standards and what they mean. It is to reaffirm basic medical statements over popular subculture dogma.

It is also true to say, I think, that being yourself is the real challenge we all face in our modern society, where we are surrounded by stereotypes and commercial advertising that encourages us to think and feel in-line with other people and consumers. The answer to this kind of social pressure, I would argue, is to aim to be a well-balanced person, to take a confident approach to life and fitness, to be independent and to be an authentic individual.

A philosopher once said that a good day should be structured around four events: social interaction, work interaction, moments of solitude (meditation) and physical activity. I agree with this and, to my mind, the best way to exercise is to train for yourself, not to impress or to make comparisons with others, but to do it for you alone.

Or, to put it another way, to own your fitness.


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