Does Going to the Gym Make You Healthy?
A common scene...
She gets up before dawn. Slipping into black tight pants and a sports bra, she makes her way to a large space filled with machines, mats, and weights. For thirty minutes to an hour, she stands in basically one spot- lifting, bending, jumping, and running. When she’s done, she passes by the brightly lit wall mirrors as she wipes her brow. Day in and day out, she passes through this Mecca, hoping that someday- something will look different on her body.
Are the thousands of fitness clubs that dot the US landscape a sign that our world is getting healthier? Or are we as a culture getting sicker? The statistics are staggering. As of 2010, the IRHSA estimates that over 50 million Americans are members of some sort of health club. Profits are racking up in the billions of dollars each year. Perhaps one can argue that in a slumped economy, the rise of revenue from fitness programs indicates that Americans are healthier. It may be that as a nation we are more health conscious, but how can an industry built on the self-hatred of an imperfect body be trusted to define for us what is healthy?
What is healthy?
In the broadest definition, health is defined as a person who is mentally, physically, and emotionally free from illness, disease, or pain. Health is also about the metabolic and functional efficiency of a human being. With this definition, health is only in part about a body free from disease. It is about mental and emotional wellness too.
Do health clubs really make us healthy?
People who tromp off to a fitness center have isolated physical exercise from their daily living. For one hour and in one location, a person moves their body. The result is a fragmented routine- dotted with compartmentalized activities that make up a day. How does this promote an integrated sense of wellness?
Observe young children. They run, play, eat, sleep, rest, think, and live one life. All their activities integrate and overlap. Exercise happens in the midst of relationships and fun. Eating goes hand in hand with relaxation and play. The whole person is engaged, and mental and emotional health is not neglected. The goal is to feed all three-core parts of a human being at the same time.
The majority of Americans exercise at health clubs in order to make their bodies look or feel different. They are not happy with how they look, and are striving for some illusive model of perfection that exists in their minds (or on a photoshopped magazine cover). While the body is getting stronger, the mind and heart may be weakening.
People at gyms are endlessly watching others, comparing themselves to another person on another machine- staring at the mirror to see if muscle is really building or not. In fact, the whole motivation behind going to a gym usually centers on dissatisfaction. The industry has made a hefty profit on the self-hatred of our aging and flawed bodies. The atmosphere of a gym is not conducive to mental and emotional health. There is nothing else to focus on but endlessly judging the effectiveness of your physical body.
Why making EXERCISE the focus is unhealthy
What happens when our primary reason for exercising is to see our body change? Well because eventually, it doesn’t cooperate- and depression sets in. We age, we change, and we fill out- and the sense of failure washes over us. Choosing to do activities that boost our emotional and mental health, provide physical benefits that come naturally. Consider the difference in the mindset of someone who chose to engage in these activities:
Horseback riding- The love of horses promotes emotional health, training an animal strengthens our mental focus, and riding is physically vigorous.
Gardening- We get our hands in the Earth and the beauty of watching things grow feeds the mind and heart. The digging, planting, and hauling of materials works the body.
Dance- Twirling and whirling with a partner or alone, our minds let go of the stress and pass/fail mentality as you let the music take you to a happy place. The natural outcome includes calories burned.
Individual and team sports- A healthy way to engage all three parts of the body through relationships, mental focus, and physical strength.
Hiking- A time to commune with nature, observe the world, build muscle, and get fresh air.
As the body changes, these activities can continue to be enjoyed in lessening intensity. The focus is not on the pass/fail mentality of what your body can or can’t do, but is concentrated on the joy of the task.
The truth about our health
34% of our nation is considered obese. The healthcare system is overrun with health-related diseases and fitness centers every couple of miles aren’t helping. People are still unhealthy, and health clubs only address one third of our “health” and use the other two parts of us to fuel our obsession! What good does it do to capitalize on self-hatred and anxiety about our imperfections in order to motivate people to exercise?
When we focus on the health of the whole person...
physically, emotionally, and mentally...
balance is the natural outflow. Physical activity must become re-integrated into our lifestyle and culture and not relegate it to buildings filled with mindless machines.
Other Related Reading-
Would the World Change if Women Stopped Hating their Bodies?