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The toxicity of aesthetic fitness

A trainer's perspective

A photo showing well developed muscles in the newest 'high tech' gym gear. Accompanied by a Churchill quote about getting up seven times after being knocked down six. Or was that Rocky? Who cares. Hashtag rise and grind. The message is clear: looking like this is a choice, and it’s awesome. If you’ve ever spent more than two minutes on social media, then I’m pretty sure you have seen your fill of these kinds of advertisements. Also, if you’re a bit like me, then you have probably struggled with what to think of this.

photo by @wearebru
"And then he said I could be anything I wanted."

The fitness industry is growing, which is a good thing. Obesity has become an epidemic, and degenerative lifestyle diseases are slowly taking a hold of the western world. Daily life used to be exercise, but not anymore. So we need to waste that excessive energy and artificially move in order to stay healthy. And that is okay. But what strikes me is that whenever I ask a new gym member or client about their motivation, health is hardly ever the first thing to come up. Usually it's something along the lines of:

"I want bigger shoulders"

"I want to have more defined legs"

"I want to get rid of my belly"


Only after the bread-and-butter top 10 of aesthetic goals I'll maybe hear something about disease, general health, or even performance. And many gyms and personal trainers happily tune in to this perceived need by sharing photo's of the most spectacular before-and-after transformations you've ever seen:

'This is 47 year old Richard, and despite having fathered 9 children and being the CEO of 3 start-ups he has committed to our program and lost 12kg of fat while building 6kg of muscle in just three months. And he feels totally awesome. So what the fuck is your excuse?'

Err, let's pump the brakes for a second here. I am sure that little Richard did his stinking best trying to tick that Men's Health cover look off his bucket list. But did you also mention him refusing to eat a slice of his 5 year old daughter's birthday cake because he now believes that eating refined sugar will make China invade Europe? Training (and eating) to look perfect is a day job. And it doesn't give a shit about the rest of your life.

"Training and eating to look perfect is a day job. And it doesn't give a shit about the rest of your life."

What these people conveniently forget to mention is that for every spectacular result there were two others who left the body fat measurement room in tears because the charts said they hadn't lost any fat after weeks of abstinence from sugar, salt, caffeine, or any other substance that is impossible to completely cut out of your life without becoming a total asshole to yourself and those around you.

Training for aesthetics rewards two very problematic things: total control and outcome goals. Total control over a life that is impossible to narrow down to a few measured calories or reps, in light of being a human being with unpredictable emotions, stressors, and relationships. And the only thing that counts is how your abs looks when you lift your shirt. There is no attention for enjoying the process of learning new movement skills, or having those ole' feel-good neurotransmitters calm your mind through exercise. Nothing about nourishing your body through balanced nutrition. Just punishment through neurotic tunnel vision with complete dependence on one arbitrary outcome.

What is left is one binary option: winning or losing. But the winning doesn't last, because there is always some body part that didn't have definition before. And the losers? They don't even get that single second of relief: they have no option but to conclude that it's their own fault they didn't succeed. Even if mother nature simply didn't cook them up to look like that, or if their otherwise very reasonable lifestyles prohibited them from obsessing over the healthiest food choices all day (or from being able to afford them) in the first place.

"There is always some body part that didn't have definition before."

There are a thousand reasons why most of us don't look like professional athletes. Probably because we aren't professional athletes in the first place. We have a different genetic makeup. And probably we also have a life that does not revolve around training and eating to fuel that training. But it is a shame that so many are falling off the wagon, ridden with guilt, because they don't manage to live up to unrealistic and elitist fitness ideals. Especially because this way they may miss out on the enjoyment of being active and positively challenging themselves through exercise. Funny thing is, if you add a little sustainable nutrition to that mix, the lack of muscle and excess of fat usually take care of themselves. But it won't matter, because it was without the emptiness of the chase.

So, yeah. Fuck your abs.

Bryan Wolters

MSc. Human Movement Sciences, former powerlifter, and current trainer at Vondelgym Amsterdam.

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