As I mentioned in my last post, I feel it is time that I address the word FIT!
Actually, in doing so I will mostly be referring to the noun ‘fitness’- the condition of being ‘fit’, questioning if we really even know what this word means, or whether it has become a flexible and ever changing concept? In addition, I will look at the possible detrimental effects this could pose to individual agency in personal wellbeing.
Talking to a friend of mine a few weeks ago, they asked me about my research. I got really excited, as I often do when discussing the subject of body image, and we got on to the topic of fitness after they spotted a copy of a popular male orientated glossy ‘fitness’ magazine I was carrying with me.
Looking at the cover and contents of this magazine, it would be easy to assume that fitness is equivalent to completing strenuous workouts with the use of heavy weights, eating a high protein diet and having bulging biceps. In addition to this, it would also seem that having (or at least working towards) a built torso and abdomen to rival even Ben Affleck in the latest version of his Batsuit, are also part and parcel of what ‘fitness’ is all about!
So what is fitness?
I would like you to take a moment to close your eyes and think about how you would define ‘fitness’……
Does a simple definition immediately come to mind, or were you perhaps met with several words and/or visual images relating to what fitness means to you?
It is likely that in thinking about fitness, you experienced the latter of the above – this is called a concept. In psychology, concepts are understood as the way in which we organise similar or relatable information into categories. In doing so, this allows us to bring to mind several connected pieces of information at the same time, and works as a mental shortcut to retrieve rich and detailed information.
To explain this, take the word ‘school’ as a concept. When you think of school, does a dictionary definition come to mind, or do you think of several different things which relate to school? For me, when I think of school I think of my friends, the uniform I used to wear, the walk to the train station every day, the drama studio, and many other things.
I would imagine that your list varied from mine in some ways. In fact, I am sure that it did, because none of you will have had the same friends as me, you probably didn’t have the same uniform, walk my same route to the same train station, have the same drama studio (or perhaps even like drama), and so on. My point is, whilst concepts are often useful to us, they are subjectively constructed. This means that they are created within your own head, influenced by our own perceptions and interpretations, as well as access to experiences. As a result, concepts will vary between people and our understanding of things will differ.
If we return to fitness – the state of being ‘fit’; defined as ‘Of a suitable quality, standard, or type to meet the required purpose.’ (English Oxford Living Dictionaries, 2017), and baring in mind that depending upon our age, ambitions, location, and a whole host of other things (for example, whether or not we have a long term health condition), it would make sense that the concept ‘fitness’ will vary accordingly.
For example, as I discussed in this previous post, if it is your job to be a body double in superhero action movies and your income relies upon this, the state of being fit for purpose will vary dramatically to that of an individual who works in some other industry. Indeed, if we take a pilot as an example, whilst there would be nothing wrong with a muscular build, I would prefer whoever was flying me to have excellent vision.
This is not to say that the pilot should only have good vision, forsaking all other factors related to their health. Certainly, there is ample evidence that a general fitness is achieved holistically, involving good health both physically and mentally, and should be something which we aim for. However, this does not necessarily require a muscular physique in proportion to that of those adorning the covers of glossy magazines. In fact, for many people this is entirely unobtainable for varying reasons (of which I will discuss in a future post).
So why is it that the gym and these images of hyper muscularity appear to construct so many of our concepts of fitness, despite our varying purposes and required fitness levels?
Something to buy!
Within the UK the total market value of the fitness industry boasts an impressive £4.7 billion, with around 9.7 million members attending the almost 7,000 fitness facilities (LeisureDB, 2017). In addition to this, we have a thriving health food business (Armstrong, 2016), sportswear stores, fitness food cookbooks, the aforementioned glossy magazines, and a whole host of other ‘health-related’ businesses which rely upon sales and making money.
What all of these have in common is not that they relate to fitness (as discussed, they may or may not – I am fit, but I do not, nor do I need to go to a fitness facility in order to remain this way), but that sales rely on the ability to sell an idea. An idea (or concept), as I have previously explained, will be largely influenced by our individual perceptions and interpretations. However, that is not to say that these internal mental processes work independently to the external world. Indeed, these are informed by internalised representations of meaning which are available to us in the social world. This means that our personal understanding is reliant upon what is ‘out there’, with representations (such as an ideal body shape) which are presented favourably and most frequently, likely to become the standard upon which we build our own concepts.
Therefore, by continually relating ‘fitness’ to pictures of a specific body type, gym membership, food diet, and so on, our concepts and the way in which we construct them, are influenced by these, without us even realising it. Particularly harmful in relation to fitness, is that in order to continue to sell products and services, these industries rely on us not yet meeting the ideals we have come to see as representational of ‘fitness’ – hence hyper muscular, hard to achieve front covers. This is also why we see fitness ‘trends’ come and go, as well as changing ideal body shapes. Worse still is that whilst fitness requires both physical and mental health, it is rare that the concept is represented in this way.
Of course, as I have already said, it is important to pertain to achieve and maintain ‘fitness’, but I say this in the medical sense, in which an individual is healthy. This does not necessarily require the diet and fitness regime of a superhero stunt double, and it may not require the gym. For example, before I returned to education, I was a performer. Sometimes I was in dance classes all day and then performing at night. There was no way that I needed to do any extra physical activity outside of this, in fact there was probably no way that I could have. However, I did need to take time to look after my mental health and ensure that I was ‘fit’ in that respect. Now that I spend a lot of time at a desk, I do need to exercise outside of my working hours, but I don’t go to the gym, I find other ways to ensure my fitness – like dance classes, which I really enjoy.
The point that I am trying to make is that there appears to be a concept of ‘fitness’ that is being sold to us, some of it may be beneficial, some of it may not. It is up to us to challenge this concept and build our own, remembering that the magazines and advertisements are presenting an image they wish to sell for financial gain.
Fitness is individual, lets remember that and take care of ourselves both physically and mentally, using the most reliable information – impartial health advice (e.g, the doctor) and listening to our own bodies!