As a trainer I encounter many responses to this question. Some are casual and non-specific – “Oh, to be fit”; some are deep and personal – “I want to grow stronger after battling cancer”; some express an absolute determination – “I want to be able to run a marathon!”
But there is a constant stream of people who come because they want to lose weight. It's never-ending and I’m sure it’s because they feel they absolutely have to – as if society has decided that this is what they need to be: skinny, fit, toned.
It might be what people think they want, but far too often it is more detrimental to their mental wellbeing than they would believe.
The beauty industry is very good at making us all think thin=beautiful. But there is a problem with this, and we see it in statistics such as 90 percent of women are unhappy with their body, and the fact that eating disorders and body concerns are growing in both young women and men.
People are told to eat less and train more to achieve the appearance they believe to be socially acceptable. There are two problems with this:
• It doesn’t make you happy because you’ll never reach a stage where you feel you are ‘perfect’, because beauty is subjective
• It is damaging your health to train just to be skinny.
Okay, so what do I mean by ‘beauty is subjective’? Well, it’s in the eye of the beholder. As the saying goes: you could be the juiciest peach in the room but there is always someone who doesn't like peaches. You can strive to be ‘perfect’ but people will always have a different opinion so it’s really hard to try to look a certain way based on what you think people what to look like. It can be hard, but you should try to ignore what other people think.
The people I train who are happy are generally training to reach some sort of specific goal, such as be able to do a pull up or row 500 metres in under two minutes. These types of goals are very motivating and in my experience, once people start focusing on this the body takes care of itself. These people aren’t worried about what other people think of them and they look great because they are looking after their bodies to train better and be healthier.
Why might it be damaging to your health to train to be skinny?
Training on a high calorie deficit and to extremes can be very detrimental to your body. If you take it too far you might have lasting impacts such as a slow metabolism – which is very hard to reverse and can lead to higher levels of weight gain on fewer calories.
It can also be very taxing on your mental wellbeing, which in the end is a very important aspect of your health. At the extreme of calorific intake control are potential medical problems such as anorexia and bulimia. But merely being obsessed by food and being miserable can still mess with your mental health. You should enjoy good nutrition without depriving the body and train hard without torturing yourself. Most people train hard, eat well and enjoy it rather than being miserable depriving themselves of food and slogging it out in the gym.
If you start working towards specific training goals and making yourself feel good about your achievements, you’re more likely to stick to the training and eat well – which ultimately will take care of how your body looks anyway.