Thursday, 14 June 2012

The fitness paradox

It’s never been easier to get fit and lose weight, and yet it’s never been harder. There exists countless diets and fitness programmes, new classes and sports appear every day, mobile apps track your progress and encourage you, personal trainers do all the planning for you... yet obesity and bad physical shape are rampant.

Nothing could be simpler than keeping fit though: you apply a small set of common sense principles (burn more than you eat ; overload the muscles then rest and recover ; carry out 30% of your training at or above your lactate threshold pace) and you cannot fail to see improvements. So why is it that so very few people manage to achieve their goals and sustain their efforts for extended periods of time? 

 According to Medical News, 80% of Americans who buy gym memberships end up not using them (a fact which gym owners have sometimes exploited in the past through the publicity generated by selling lifetime memberships that were seldom used). The fitness and dieting industries are constantly trying to reinvent themselves and to come up with new fads to catch the public's imagination and remain competitive. But what they fail to deliver are avenues for long term commitment. What it boils down to, essentially, is patience and motivation.

It was during a trip to China last year that I realized how skewed Western attitudes to fitness have become. Take a walk around the parks in Beijing in the evening, and you see ordinary people doing gentle calisthenics and arm movements. Older citizens are commonly seen performing feats of flexibility that only come from a lifetime of maintenance and development. In the streets, Chinese businessmen jog back home after a day at the office, still wearing their work clothes. What they all share though, is tremendous patience and the understanding that fitness is a life pursuit, not a quick remedy to getting that bikini body ready for the summer. 
 And this understanding is something the fitness industry by and large fails to deliver: it is not a product, and therefore it does not sell.

Essentially, there are three main components behind our wish and desires to remain in shape:
1. Vanity fitness: the desire to improve our physical appearance. And whilst the term ‘vanity’ may have a negative connotation, this is as valid a reason as any other to keep fit.
2. Health and fitness: fitness purely as a health pursuit.
3.  Performance fitness: fitness as a means to improve performance in a chosen sport, or to simply to maximize your body’s potential.

Of course, the three cross over and are interlinked in many different ways. Functional fitness for instance – the ability to perform everyday physical tasks- lies firmly between performance fitness and health. And the more your prime motivations cross over, the more likely you are to stick to a fitness programme. People usually give up, or slack back if you remove their prime motivation: at the end of the summer, once the bikini is packed away, the effort to remain in shape suddenly seems far less worthwhile ; sportsmen often let their training go once their career is over, etc. And health and fitness programmes which are highly targeted and specific tend to compound this phenomenon.

It’s only by making fitness itself-under all its guises- a primary goal, that a lifetime commitment can be achieved. Once you do, gizmos, fads, and exclusive gym memberships start losing their appeal as quick remedies: a park and a pair of trainers become all you need.


  1. In addition to your three main components, I also do it for a forth main reason. My brain! Being physically fit means my brain gets more blood and nutrients and reduces the risk of dementia! I'm in it for the long haul :) I never have foggie brain days anymore, ever since I've created my new fitness lifestyle.

  2. Wow Thanks for the addition! My grandma just passed from dementia, nursing home have repeated infection which ended up taking her. Dementia is so unknown, and possibly hereditary as far as I know, I've been concerned for my own future in this regard.i don't want to lose the memories I've spent a lifetime making, living in fear and confusion. So Thank you. This will be one more reason, maybe the strongest for me, to continue to push through those days when working out isnt so enticing.