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Tuesday, May 2, 2017

An Exercise in Health Thought

Ok, most of us at some point have probably talked about how we “need” to go to the gym, often disparaging our bodies in the process. There’s this cultural notion around exercise, around eating, around anything to do with our bodies that tells us that we need this, need that, and often with a tone that implies that we won’t enjoy it (and let’s be real, often times we won’t). We’re told doing these things is what it means to be healthy from the very start with grueling PE classes where teachers critique our movement based on times and fitness exam standards. We center movement around two main ideas;

One, that it has to meet a number, whether that’s a goal weight, a mile time, ect.
Two, that it’s about the result, not the process, and certainly not how it feels for us.

For some people, goal setting like that totally works, and that’s great for them. For a lot of us that’s just not the reality. When we make movement into something we only do to lose weight we take away so much from the experience of it- including the fact that your movement and your health- its for you. As a culture we’re particularly bad about this for women. Health is a broad concept and can vary widely from person to person- you can be healthy regardless of what your body type is. When we cheapen movement to something we only use to lose weight, we’re often focusing on its ability to shape our bodies to appeal to others. Honestly though, is that really what we want to make our discussions of personal health and wellness center on? What it does for someone else, for the gaze of other people on our bodies?

Here’s an alternate view- Maybe it’s about the process instead. Finding movement that feels good for us. We have a cultural sense that what’s honorable or valued is what we struggle with and push ourselves for, and that somehow what feels good is not worth as much. Not only is that a draining way of looking at things, but it means that for a lot of us, we’re less likely to keep coming back to the behavior of exercising. When I was younger, I hated PE- and by extension, I used to think I just plain didn’t like exercise. It was a setting where I only ever felt like I was failing. The thing is, if you’re doing the activity, you’re already winning- you don’t fail at running a mile just because you didn’t do it fast enough. The exercise you got doing half of a mile doesn’t disappear if you don’t make it to the end. Judging it that way is absurd. In the end, the movement that is successful in terms of health is not the one that burns the most extreme amount of calories, it’s the one that the person continues to do. And we tend to do what’s pleasurable.

One more important note on this topic- When people talk about this topic of health, it’s often to tell others what to do with their bodies on the basis of how they perceive the other person's health. Firstly, not really any of that first person’s business, right? Additionally, not only can you not tell a person’s health status based only on their body type, but if you’re truly concerned about health, then let’s talk about mental and emotional health. Health of the body doesn’t exist in some bubble outside of the cultural contexts that affect the health of our minds. What does it do to the mental and emotional health of our young women to have this emphasis placed on losing weight? Even just in terms of thinking about exercise, it makes their efforts and their bodies essentially about someone else, an all too common trend that crops up in many social issues.

All in all, our thoughts on health and exercise are often strikingly unhealthy, and  I would deeply encourage others, especially in my field of health, to re-think the way we frame exercise. 

Written by Dana Lund, Trans Program Intern

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