April 5, 2019 | Feature
working out working out
navigating fitness in university
Content Warning: Mentions of over-exercise, eating disorders, body insecurity
It’s 7:55 a.m. on a Saturday, and I’m sliding weights onto a barbell in the corner of Studio 1 of the Nelson, fidgeting with the metal clamps that keep them in place. Fitness Instructor Kay Rutherford tests the sound system while other students and community members chat and grab multicolored weights from the side of the room. “Good morning, Saturday BodyPumpers,” Kay greets us, smiling widely. “This Is What You Came For” by Calvin Harris ft. Rihanna fades in. I stand and stifle a yawn, smiling at a few of the regulars. “Pick up your bars.” I follow her command and shrug my shoulders back, checking my form in one of the mirrors. Let’s get going.
I began going to Saturday morning BodyPump classes during the first week of my freshman year and I’ve missed only a handful of classes in the three years since. My mom had attended BodyPump classes back home in Minnesota for years, but I had never gone with her. It was only after I traveled more than a thousand miles away from home that I finally decided to try it. The class is taught all over the world and focuses on “light to moderate weights with lots of repetition,” according to its official website. I only used five-pound weights during my first class, but the next day I was so sore I could barely move.
I began to exercise regularly on my own the summer before college. Stressed about my impending move across the country, I needed an outlet. I knew that physical activity had improved my mood in the past, and studies like “The association between exercise participation and well-being” in the journal Preventive Medicine had found that regular exercise correlates significantly with increased happiness and lower stress levels. Coincidentally, I’d also begun to watch action TV shows like Arrow and Continuum, which both kept me entertained on the treadmill and motivated me to steel myself for the dangers of “big-city living” (Providence, at the time, was incredibly daunting this Midwestern small-town woman). Moreover, exercise was one of my first moves to independence; I was entirely in charge of when I exercised and what I did. Every little physical change, like being able to do another bicep curl or jog for 20 minutes straight, was a personal milestone, and I was determined not to lose my progress to the bustle of college. So the moment I learned of the Nelson’s group fitness pass during orientation, I signed up, attending my first BodyPump class a few days later. I had a great albeit exhausting time, and left inspired by the friendly instructor and my fellow participants.
Along with BodyPump, I began attending cardio kickboxing, barre, and yoga classes. I ran on the treadmills on the second floor of the Nelson and lifted weights on the days I didn’t take classes. Despite some struggles in the first few weeks, my fitness began to improve exponentially. I increased my weights, stretched farther, and ran for longer distances. More than that, I found a community of students and instructors who were equally excited to see my progress. It was a welcome break from the pressure of academics and extracurriculars, a place where I was defined by nothing but my enthusiasm. It was also just plain fun. By the end of my first year, Studio 1 was my second home, and with a little push from an instructor, I decided it could also be a workplace. I obtained my certification in group fitness instruction from the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America over the summer and began teaching my own cardio kickboxing classes during my sophomore fall, adding strength and conditioning classes in the spring. Currently, I teach three classes a week on Wednesday and Friday evenings, while also attending other instructors’ classes on the days I don’t teach.
My exercise routine has brought countless benefits—improved sleep (take that, dorm party across the hall) and increased confidence, to name a couple. I share these benefits with many other students. A study of 14,804 undergraduate students conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health found that students who exercised for at least 20 minutes three times a week reported better moods and lower stress, and that socializing mediated some part of these benefits. Charlene Gamaldo, medical director of the John Hopkins Center for Sleep asserts that “exercise does, in fact, help you fall asleep more quickly and improves sleep quality.” A study from North Carolina State University even found that students who exercised regularly had higher GPAs and graduation rates. Of course, none of this means that exercise is a cure-all, or that I waltz around campus stress-free, but I know that college would be a lot harder for me without it. More than that, exercise has allowed me to connect with others, to learn about myself, and to grow.
However, it’s important to note that exercise can also present an opportunity for dangerous, toxic mindsets to kick in. During my sophomore year, exercise became more than a fun, empowering activity; it became an obsession. Deep down, there was another reason I had wanted to exercise regularly: to look fit and to be more fit than those around me. Despite playing two varsity sports in high school, I had lagged behind most of my peers in all things physical, from strength to cardio endurance. As the chubbier member of my family and friends, I received regular, unsolicited advice on dieting, training, hiding my double chin. Exercising and getting fit in college slowly moved beyond health; it became my vengeance, as well as an attempt to permanently rid myself of my insecurities. When academic classes got harder and a family tragedy struck, exercise became the only thing I wasn’t insecure about. I began exercising more than two-and-a-half hours a day. This alone wouldn’t have been terrible—I currently exercise around an hour and 45 minutes a day, and I know many athletes work out for much longer. However, I also started intensely reducing my diet, rigorously counting my calories, and planning my meals. At my worst, I ate fewer than 1200 calories a day, compared to the 2000 calories recommended for a sedentary woman between 19 and 20 by the USDA (2400 for an active woman). In my head, I had to appear “fit”—but by fit, I really meant unhealthily toned and skinny.
In a way, I did appear “fit.” Indeed, peers said I’d never looked better. When I visited a family friend one weekend, she complimented me on how thin and healthy I appeared. A stranger said she wished she had my “naturally slimmer” figure, unaware of how much excessive effort had been put into it. But to me, “imperfections” remained no matter how many crunches or push-ups I did, like my round arms or the slight bulge of my stomach. I was frustrated that even with my diet and exercise I couldn’t make myself look how I wanted. I was miserable, always counting down to the next time I told myself I could eat or look up diet recipes and nutrition information on the internet.
My issues with body image and over-exercise are not uncommon among women. Several studies (such as a 2000 study in South Australia) have found that, at a point, self-esteem actually decreases with increased exercise for women. This could be explained in part by the findings that working out for weight control and appearance, rather than health or mental improvement, is associated with decreased body satisfaction; and women are statistically more likely to exercise for weight control and appearance compared to men. This motivation has been attributed to Toni-Ann Roberts and Barbara Fredrickson’s Objectification Theory, which argues that women in Western cultures are constantly subjected to bodily objectification, causing them to unconsciously value themselves based on their appearance. This often leads to unhealthy self-surveillance via exercise and diet, as well as body shame. A 2005 study in the journal of Psychology of Sports and Exercise even found that exercising in a fitness center environment, rather than at home, heightens this body dissatisfaction.
On a personal level, I knew my behavior was risky and unhealthy from the start. I had seen the PSAs and studies on eating disorders and body dysmorphia. I’d looked over articles on the dangers of dieting and uselessness of calorie counting. I’d gotten a certification in promoting healthy relationships with physical activity and eating, for crying out loud. But I didn’t look like the women featured in those warnings. I still had fat all over my body, and I still ate semi-regularly. I thought I was approaching a dangerous lifestyle, not already living one.
This stemmed from the popular idea that being fit or unfit is absolutely linked to weight and physical appearance—that is, if your BMI says you’re overweight, you’re unfit—even more so if you look it. However, as reducing obesity has become a national prerogative, many medical professionals and researchers have deemed that this idea is remarkably flawed. According to an article in the Huffington Post, studies have determined “that anywhere from one-third to three-quarters of people classified as obese are metabolically healthy.” Moreover, genetics have a lot to do with predisposing people’s bodies to allocate fat in certain limbs or to burn calories more or less efficiently. In particular, there are also a lot of myths about ideal female anatomy that are nearly impossible to achieve. For example, a woman cannot just “get rid” of cellulite; it exists due to the way that female bodies circulate blood through the body, and is actually theorized to help women survive longer in starvation conditions by storing fat more efficiently. It’s also difficult for women to get a flat stomach (without naturally being born with one), because women are predisposed to store fat in their abdomens to protect their reproductive organs.
I finally stopped my obsessive behaviors after my parents came to visit over Thanksgiving break and my dad told me I looked sick. When classes started back up, I decided to listen to my body, go a little easier during workouts, and make time for rest. I stopped restricting my intake and ate what I wanted when I was hungry. I stopped trying to “fix” the parts of my body that had never needed fixing in the first place. I focused on the things that had made me love exercise in the first place: reducing stress, feeling healthy, and making friends. Over a year later, exercise and teaching fitness classes are just good old-fashioned passions, a happy escape from schoolwork that brightens my day. However, the process of unlearning my restrictive behaviors has been a slow one. It took months to stop skipping lunches, to stop feeling like I had to exercise, to stop comparing my habits with those of others. Even today, I have to constantly fight the urge not to revert, to not feel shamed by eating or defined by how fit or unfit I am. I also have to deal with the residual physical effects of my excessive level of exertion, including knee issues and injuries I didn’t let heal properly. Nonetheless, I try to use my expertise to advise others on how to address fitness in university (for example, please don’t exercise just to get rid of something you don’t like on your body and try to find activities that make you feel empowered instead—if jogging isn’t your thing, don’t do it). And I try to use my experiences to connect with those who have had similar experiences.
It’s 5:15 p.m. on a Friday, and I’m standing in front of my cardio kickboxing class, wearing my favorite gray work shirt and a microphone headset. The Spotify playlist I created blasts “Elevate” from the Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse soundtrack.
I smile and hope to bring all that’s good about fitness into this class. I shrug my shoulders back and announce, “Alright, let’s get going.”