Reflecting on Fitness Narratives
This past Wednesday at 6AM, I went to a spin class for the first time with a friend of mine. At this point in my life I’ve graduated college, become fully independent, left a job at a demanding startup and finally have the time and resources to invest in my health. I have been consistently exercising for the last 7 months. My usual activities are hot yoga and aerial acrobatics, but I occasionally try things that my friends who workout do, and invite them to try my “thing” too.
Spin class was a little intimidating — I walked in to a studio full of people with minimal body fat and complicated equipment. But the desk attendant welcomed me as a first-timer, and the instructor helped me set up my bike. I had to wear these special shoes they provided to clip into the bike. I was used to working out with pretty much just my body — plus some fabric hanging from the ceiling in the case of aerial acrobatics. I thought I knew how to ride a bike, but within the first 5 minutes I would realize that I did not. A large portion of time in spin classes are spent pedaling-while-standing, and ideally matching the pace of the instructor. The room was dark, the music was loud, and the lights were neon. I watched cautiously the first few rounds of this standing-pedaling before trying it a few times and finally getting the hang of it — it feels a bit different on a stationary clip-in bike than it does when I am casually biking outside.
I got a little too confident in my stability while Drake was playing and fell halfway off the bike. Somehow, even with my shoes clipped in, I tweaked my heel to the side enough that I detached and my whole left side collapsed (must be because I was kinda dancing to the music). I’m currently still nursing a bruise on my knee from this incident. At least, I thought, I have enough of a sense of humor to try new things.
What I noticed most of all, though, was the way the instructor led the class. It was more similar to traditional fitness or workout videos, where a peppy instructor pushes you to push yourself, and her energy matched the upbeat music. I watched a synchronized row of what I presumed were regular attendees aggressively pedaling, and I saw how this activity could be quite intimidating for beginners. I thought, instinctively, that had I not been regularly working out for the last 7 months, after performing such a gaffe as falling off of a stationary bicycle, I might have hid in shame and never returned to that studio again. Or maybe I would have never tried standing on the bike in the first place.
What I mean to say here is something that I understand more in my body and my heart more than my head. What I mean is, after doing two relatively less mainstream sports — aerial acrobatics and circus arts are definitely not mainstream; yoga is now but sometimes still not considered “hardcore” or a “real workout” — I had almost forgotten what most traditional fitness narratives were like. In yoga, you are encouraged to push yourself — but slowly. There is an understanding that the body works on its own time, that no matter how much you wish it would, nothing can happen overnight. What is important is creating a practice. What is important is showing up, every day, for yourself. What is important is using exercise not only as a means to the end of weight loss or even physical benefits, but also to better handle yourself mentally and psychologically. If I fall out of a pose in yoga class, the instructor will often mention something about trying being enough, or that we just all have to laugh at ourselves and try again. It is with that mindset that I entered the spin class.
In aerial acrobatics, the danger of injury is quite high, and so there is a similar focus on training slowly and steadily, even if what you are working on is still very challenging. I will say that aerial acrobatics is less like a fitness class and more like a lesson, with much smaller (and more expensive) classes and a more individually-attentive coach.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with hard-driving instructors or coaches, or that “tough love” mentality that’s often found in fitness culture. But at the same time, the culture around sports, fitness, and exercise is a huge factor in how people see and participate in it, maybe more than is realized. There is a reason that gyms and weight rooms and classes can be intimidating, particularly if they already have a “hardcore” narrative around them. It cannot be divorced from the broader cultural narrative around those who are fat or don’t exercise, the narrative that they are lazy and weak and full of moral failures. Of course someone first beginning an exercise regimen is relatively “weak” — are we expected to be born into our abilities? We talk about a lack of willpower and shame people often, yet rarely talk about the drastic differences in health outcomes and socioeconomic status. Like I said, I only became more active myself when I had time and resources. We call these “excuses”, but rarely acknowledge how significant those barriers can be.
It is particularly difficult to begin a physical regimen for those already in this cultural category of ‘unfit’ people, people who might have low self esteem and body acceptance issues and general self-hatred. Even without anyone saying or doing anything, you feel judged when you walk into a room of those lighter and leaner bodies.
Following my spin class and jokingly repeating my story of falling off my bike, I had conversations with friends who talked about other even more “hardcore” classes, ones where individuals are even called out by name and told to push themselves harder. Once again, this might work for some people, but don’t those who are struggling know they are struggling already? Is there a need to call attention to them? Maybe some people thrive with that kind of coaching, after I spent a miserable 11 years on a girls’ recreational soccer team as a child, religiously attending practice with a hard-driving coach and almost no overall improvement, I can say for sure that I do not.
I had forgotten that mainstream fitness and coaching narratives were like that. I had forgotten that the emphasis on a slow pace, on exercise for its own sake or for the sake of your mind rather than your body, was not the norm. I had not realized how fortunate I was that my yoga instructors reminded me quite often that just showing up, on its own, was enough. Because over the long term, it is showing up regularly that will help you and be healthy for you, no matter how slow you go or how incrementally you improve.
Once again, this is not to say that I didn’t like the spin class — I have two classes left in my “newcomer special” pass and I intend to use them all. It is simply to say that, I wish there was more space for these more welcoming narratives around physical activities. It is what drew me to yoga and then to circus, and ultimately the spin class too. And I have hope — as narratives around body positivity have gained traction and louder platforms, I think the way we talk about and engage with fitness will also change. Exercise is so much more than weight loss, more than appearances, more beneficial than any physician’s prescription. Physical activity makes you strong and healthy inside, regardless of how you or others might feel about appearances outside.
What is important is that you take care of yourself and your health, no matter what size or shape you are, and even if you are pretty much the same size or shape indefinitely.
You must love and care for that shape, now and not later, because now is all that really exists.