The Way the Fitness Industry Hurts Women the Most (and what I suggest can help)

The fitness industry comes under heavy criticism for the way it feeds off women's insecurities. The fitness media machine makes women feel inadequate as if there is something defective about their bodies that needs to be fixed.  It preys on the way women tie their self esteem to how they look. It sets up and reinforces and impossible beauty standards.  We know all of this.

I have another beef with the fitness industry.  I don't like the way it hits women in the wallet.  Fitness program marketers set up expectations for what women can do about their bodies.  Then it finds a hundred new ways to make them pay for it.

Let's imagine a woman, just an ordinary American woman, whom I'll call Sally.

Sally needs a lifestyle update.  She has become a couch potato.  She orders takeout for dinner most nights and it's not the kind of takeout that provides optimal nutrition.  She notices she has been gaining weight lately, but isn't motivated to do too much about it.

One night she is crashed out on the couch with a glass of wine in one hand and the TV remote in the other.  As she mindlessly channel surfs, she stops on a station where the preview says, "Get a Killer Body."  Intrigued, she decides to keep watching.

The infomercial is for a revolutionary new exercise program called Balloga Kick-o-Rama.  This program was specially designed by the perky fitness guru hawking it on camera.  These scientifically engineered moves provide the exact amount of fat burning and muscle building and it torches hundred of calories per workout.  Do this program and you will reshape you body.  There are testimonials from regular users of the program to prove it.  (Oh yes, there is a fine print saying the results aren't typical and the participants all had to alter their diets, but we won't worry about that.)

Sally decides it's time to get in shape and she buys system.  It comes with an eating plan that she tries to follow.  The first month is torture.  The program is new to her, so she has trouble keeping up at first.  She is out of shape and daily exercise takes a toll on her body.  She is often stiff and sore.  She knows it's important to stay in shape, so she perseveres.  After another month she becomes fitter and more adept.  She has lost a noticeable amount of weight and people comment.  She looks and feels better.  By the third month her feelings change.  She has been doing the program almost daily and has practically memorized each workout.  Her body has adapted so well, it all feels quite easy.  Her weight loss progress slows.

Sally comes to the end of the 90-day program.  She's bored with it and she's no longer losing weight or looking fitter.  She doesn't want to do the whole 90 day program over again.  She has had enough of it.  She is just so over Balloga Kick-o-Rama.  Discouraged, she goes back to being a couch potato and gains the weight back. Six months down the road, she sees an infomercial for Turbo Booty Zumlates.  The cycle starts all over again.

Women are the main target of every "revolutionary" new fitness program that comes along.  They may occasionally be led by token men.  Sometimes men will give testimonials in fitness infomercials.  There is always a man in every workout video.  Still the trendiest exercise classes are always aimed and women and it is mostly women who attend them and buy the videos.  Most women will eagerly start a new program hoping this one will solve all her weight woes (and fix her poor body image once and for all), but after she spends a few months, and hundreds (possibly thousands) of dollars, she finds out the current exercise fad is no better than the last one.  The magic solution to a leaner body wasn't so magic after all.  She moves onto the next big thing.

Exercise programs aimed at women are heavily branded.  Like any advertised product, they promise to sell not just fitness, but happiness and personal fulfillment.  Each program, no matter what type of class or video it is, has a rigorous formula that is clearly defined.  Every teacher has to follow a certain pattern of movement, and that pattern is sold as the solution.  The programs also comes with branded merchandise.  Some of it is optional, and some of it is required.  The companies that sell these products and the specialized gyms who offer these programs do their best to milk as much as possible from their students. It's not just about taking the classes.  You need to buy a certain type of weights, wear special shoes and socks, look cute in the class-themed t-shirts and leggings, and maybe even buy supplements and shakes.

Fitness shouldn't have to be this expensive, or this complicated.  Fitness is simple.  It's not easy, but it is simple.  All your body needs is some strength training for muscle development, cardiovascular training, and flexibility training.  None of these requires a branded program.

The strength aspect of fitness is the one where I feel most women are led astray.  Even though the stigma of women in the weight room is mostly gone, the myth still persists in some pockets of the industry that women who lift too heavy will look bulky (and even if that were true, what's wrong with being bulky?)  A good strength training program needs little equipment and a fairly small time investment.  All you need is a strong routine.

A basic routine consists of a quad dominant lower body exercise (squat, lunge, split squat, and their variations), a hip dominant lower body exercise (deadlift, kettlebell swing, glute bridge, hip thruster), an upper body push exercise (pushup, press, flye, crossovers), a lower body pull exercise (rows, lat pulldowns, reverse rows, pullups), anti spinal flexion exercise (plank, ball rollouts) and and anti spinal rotation (wood chops, paloff press, single arm rows - bonus that's also a pull exercise so you kill two birds with one stone).  Do three sets of each type of exercise with weights that will challenge you within no more than fifteen reps and preferably within about ten reps.  For more challenge, go even heavier and reduce the reps to range of 6-8 reps and increase the number of sets.  The routine should take no more than 40 minutes.  Isn't that better than spending an hour doing 100 reps with tiny weights working small muscle groups?

If it's so simple and effective, why don't more women do it?  It's because the industry doesn't want you to think it's simple.  The companies that sell videos and run branded classes want you to believe it takes some magical routine, one geared especially to women, to effectively change your body.  Men are already doing the basics in the weight room.  It's hard to market to them because the supposed effects of strength training are not considered a negative for them. There is a finite amount of money to be made in weight training because there are only so many ways you can brand and repackage the same exercises.   There is nothing stopping women from doing the same types of workouts other than the industry telling them that if they work out like men, their bodies will look like men's bodies.  The industry doesn't want women to just buy some weights, learn some exercises, and never need much in the way of gear or classes again.  The industry wants women to keep trying every new class that comes along.

But we can't get rid of these exercise fads altogether.  Even I have to admit women need them.  They need them because sometimes being lured into another branded exercise program is the only way to get them to exercise.  Maybe Serenity Boxing classes are expensive and no more effective than a more traditional workout, but that doesn't matter if a woman has no interest in a traditional workout.  If Serenity Boxing lures her to the studio and gets her moving regularly, does it matter if it's expensive and possibly not permanent?  Maybe she will tire of it.  (Maybe other women will tire of it so the studio stops making money and closes).  Maybe it won't always be as effective as it was in the first few months as her body adapts to the movements.  Maybe she will see better results with a more traditional program.  Does it really matter how one tries to get fit in an increasingly unfit world?  Any exercise at all should be appreciated. The important thing is she is exercising regularly without putting herself at risk of injury.

I do believe that any exercise is better than none at all, and any program that persuades someone off the couch deserves credit.  I don't like the predatory fitness marketing machine that keeps women in an endless cycle of seeking the one program that will make her inadequate (by media standards)body into a body she loves.  I despise the way fitness companies make women empty their wallets over and over again in hopes of finding a program she will want to stick to.

Now that I have had my rant, let's talk about what kinds of things we can do to make exercise habits stick and turn exercise into a permanent habit and not just a temporary fad we indulge in.  Here are my best tips.

Try that trendy class, but have a backup
So you are a couch potato want to try that Booty Bandaid class?  That's great.  You're doing something for your body and taking a step in the right direction.  May I suggest that you don't become dependent on it?  You may grow bored with it.  The trend may fade and the studio will close or the makers of the video will stop producing it.  Try to find another exercise that you think you can do and mix it up.  You'll be bored with Booty Bandaid less quickly and you will stay active if you can no longer do the class.  Your workouts will be more effective if you're not always doing the same moves too.

Do something that requires skill building, or has infinite progression 
How many bodyweight reps can you realistically do?  How many springs can you put on that Pilates reformer?  How much more can you jump around in Zumba? It's best to find activities where progression is built in.  For example, with strength training, you can always add more weight.  In yoga you can always try more challenging poses or try to take the poses you can do to a deeper level (as video fitness instructor Brian Kest said, "Most poses are endless.") If you take up running, you can always try to improve time and distance.

Also, look at activities that focus on skill building.  I ride horses and I dance.  I can always work on doing more complex dance steps and more intricate routines.  I can ride more difficult horses, learn more complex dressage moves, jump bigger fences, or simply continuously work on my horses forward impulsion (a skill that truly takes a lifetime to develop).  Don't do pale imitations of a sport.  Do the sport.  Instead of Barre class, take ballet (or jazz or modern).  Instead of cardio kickboxing, take martial arts or boxing classes.  Instead of Zumba, try salsa dancing.

Stand up!
Years ago a trainer talked me into taking reformer Pilates classes.  I decided to give it a try and see what the fuss was about.  Each class started with lying on the reformer, bending our knees and straightening them.  First we did it with feet apart, and then we did it with feet in first position.  It was exactly how we start dance class with pliĆ©s.  However, in dance class, we stand.  As I bend my legs in a standing plie´I am moving the entire weight of my body against gravity.  I have to stablilize my trunk muscles (the "core" if you must) to hold my upper body erect.  My arm muscles have to work to hold my arm aloft throughout the movement.  I am working my entire body.  In Pilates class the only muscles engaged were my legs.  Everything else lay dormant on the reformer bed.  This was supposed to be a full body class?

Obviously there are times when we are unable to stand while we exercise due to injuries or illness.  But a healthy person should be able to exercise standing up.  Where is the functionality of exercising while lying down?  Throughout the day your body moves through three-dimensional space.  We don't lie on the floor to go about our daily activities. Humans are lazy enough as it is.  We shouldn't be horizontal and then call ourselves active.  If you're going to exercise, then move in real ways.  Move your body through space.  See how much freer your body is when you stand up.  Feel the way gravity makes you stronger.  What daily activities do you do standing up?  You probably do many of them in a vertical position.  Now how many of them require lying on the floor other than sleeping?  (Yes, there is that, but if you only do that lying on your back, then you're missing out on a lot.)  If you exercise lying on your back, you're not preparing yourself for anything other than sleeping or the missionary position. 

Don't forget to play
Are there activities you enjoy?  Things you wish you did more of?  Well, stop putting them off and start doing them.   Do you need to get outside?  Then go for a hike in nature.  Ride your bicycle with the same joy you did as a child.  Are you tired of the winter?  Go ice skating.  If it snows, invest in a sled and hit the hills.  When you take your family on that beach vacation, take your boogie board to the waves, rent a kayak or paddleboard, or view the fish underwater with a snorkel.  Go to a climbing gym or trampoline park.  Run an obstacle race.  Join a local sports league.  Not only will these things help make exercise feel like fun instead of a chore, but many of them require skill-building, which means more physical progress. 

Happy exercising!  I mean that.  Be happy exercising.  Don't buy into short-term solutions.  Buy into long-term pleasure.  Enjoying life and feeling healthy is much more important than a short term solution.  I hope every woman (and every man) learns this.

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