Exercise Is About More Than A Pretty Body

October 28, 2015

My husband was out for the night and I always have trouble sleeping when he’s gone. It was approaching 12am, well past my regular bedtime of 10pm, when I caught myself mesmerized by an infomercial for a fitness program.

With highly energetic speakers, flashy graphics, and enticing claims, I could totally see why one would be interested in their product. I was interested too, but a recurring message really turned me off. That message was that exercises’ primary intended purpose is to change the way you look.

Phrases like, “…fat-burning exercises help carve out a leaner, stronger physique.” and “do it during the last three days of (enter product name here) for mind-blowing “after” pictures.” plagued the infomercial. Never mind the other million benefits of exercise.

Wouldn’t It Be Great to Read Headlines Like This Too?

This appearance focused marketing approach is all over the fitness industry. A quick online search of popular women’s health and fitness magazines article titles rendered results like, “The Surfer Body Workout” and “This Move Will Make Your Legs Look Sexier In Skirts”. The actual content of each article had great share worthy information but the underlying message, similar to the infomercial, suggested yet again that the primary intended purpose of exercise is to change the way you look.

Even a group exercise class I used to teach had a name that implied this same message. “Body Sculpt”. Where members come to sculpt their body, yea? I suppose “Resistance Training for People Who Want to Prevent Osteoporosis and Improve Mood” doesn’t roll off the tongue as nicely, although that’s what it was. Nonetheless, it was a great class. (Of course it was, I taught it. Wink, wink.)

What Drives You?

Aspiring to change your appearance is what often drives many individuals to partake in a routine in the first place. In fact, that’s exactly what drove me back into the gym after a year long hiatus. I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with using exercise to chase sculpted shoulders, or drop weight so you can fit into a favorite pair of jeans as I too once wanted to lose weight and improve my body composition. But the hugely disproportionate manner in which the fitness industry and media values exercises’ ability to change our appearance as opposed to our health, leaves me unsettled.

The message seems to be that exercise, is intended to make you look like (enter preferred body type here). Whether you’re an aspiring bodybuilder or someone who just wants thinner thighs, there is an exercise program out there promising they can change your body. In fact, you might be hard pressed to find an exercise program that doesn’t use an idealized body type as a cornerstone of their marketing. After all, fit-looking, toned bodies seem to be what sells.


I Can’t Help But Feel Where We Place Value is Out of Balance

What happens if you take up exercising and don’t see any physical changes? Or if an individual never reaches similar proportions of the idealized body? That’s typically when disappointment sets in, as many individuals often feel like their efforts in the gym have been for nothing thus leaving them feeling like a failure.

But it’s not for nothing as change and progress aren’t always visible to the eye.

When we only value exercises’ ability to change how we look and use appearance as the measuring stick we do a huge disservice to the other numerous health benefits exercise offers. The benefits of exercise shouldn’t play second fiddle to appearance, especially in a country where diseases like Type II diabetes, depression and high blood pressure are commonplace.

Regular exercise helps improves the quality and quantity of life, decreases likelihood of developing various diseases, and aids in supporting mental health. Chances are if you’ve been participating in regular activity, of any kind, for awhile you’ve likely experienced one or more of the many benefits of exercise listed below. (Note NONE of these have anything to do with physical appearance)

  • Improves your chances of living longer and living healthier
  • Helps protect you from developing heart disease and stroke or its precursors, high blood pressure and undesirable blood lipid patterns
  • Helps protect you from developing certain cancers, including colon and breast cancer, and possibly lung and endometrial (uterine lining) cancer
  • Helps prevent type 2 diabetes
  • Helps prevent osteoporosis
  • Reduces the risk of falling among older adults
  • Improves cognitive function among older adults
  • Relieves symptoms of depression and
  • Relieves symptoms of anxiety
  • Improves mood
  • Improves heart-lung and muscle fitness
  • Improves sleep

Bragging about improved sleep and lowered blood pressure may not be perceived as sexy of a tag line as a photo of someone who dropped 10% body fat, but it should be. Before and after photos highlighting defined muscles and lean limbs is fine but I would be more impressed with a before and after of improved blood lab results or photo showing how increased activity has elevated their quality of life. That’s the stuff that really matters. Isn’t it?

Wouldn’t it be great to live in a culture where improvements in health were celebrated as much, if not more than improvements in appearance?

Regardless if it’s a six pack, better sleep (or both) that’s motivating you to move, remember there is more to health than what meets the eye.

I don’t expect to see magazine headlines and infomercials ceasing all mention of appearances completely, although that would be totally awesome. But, I would love to hear about how you have benefited from exercise in ways that have nothing to do with your looks. Leave a comment below!