A roundup of demotivating exercise advice that just makes you feel guilty
We all need a good motto or mantra to keep us going. But hard-core, over-simplified fitness advice very often skips over the hard part: getting to and taking the very first step onto the mat or out of the door and then repeating that first step until it becomes a normal thing to do. It makes it sound so easy. It can leave you thinking that nobody gets you or understands how hard it is.
Companies and influencers are often behind those hacky slogans and campaigns that tell you how easy it is to get fit. They just leave me feeling guilty and lazy.
Here are 5 ways that campaigns that claim to be encouraging often miss the mark for those of us who exercise to live rather than the other way around.
They say you can hack your way to an ideal body
How often have you had that nagging feeling in the back of your mind that you need to start getting fitter? Then maybe you read something like: “6 easy steps to a flat stomach/pert bottom/thigh gap in no time!”?
How often have you thought: “Yes! I should do that. I can do that! I should start now”?
And how many times have you actually got a flat stomach in 6 easy steps? Or a bikini body in 6 weeks? How many times have you felt guilty that you haven’t taken those steps? After all, they’re easy? And they take no time! It’s down to you to just do it!
Now, maybe you start taking those steps to getting fitter and life gets in the way. Maybe you don’t. Either way, your stomach isn’t any flatter than before. You feel guilty. You’ve failed.
Cue disappointment and disillusionment.
Well, you haven’t failed, you shouldn’t feel guilty and it isn’t on you.
Hacks like this really are not suitable for most people, because they go against every principle for long lasting success in getting fitter and healthier.
Firstly, having a flat stomach or a thigh gap is an unrealistic aim for the vast majority of us, whether because of our lived experiences or our genetics, or a combination of both. So tempting us with an unreachable goal already misleads us before we’ve even started and leaves us obsessing over something we don’t really need.
Next, changing our bodies in a positive way is never easy. Simple, yes. Straightforward - sometimes, if we’re really lucky. Easy: just no. Never. There are so many things that can interfere with our commitments to getting healthier that it really isn’t easy. Family commitments, work, mental health downturns, hormones - the list goes on.
Thirdly, under no circumstances will you see positive changes to your health in no time! You will only see changes over time. If you’re starting to exercise from scratch, you may feel a difference very early on, but pretty soon you can find yourself taking it on trust that you are actually making progress, because you sure ain’t seeing much.
So that’s each element of the hack debunked: the goal of the hack, the manner in which it will be achieved, and the timescale.
There’s also a reason why the hack as a whole completely misses the point. The carrot it dangles before you is that you can get things over with quickly and that’s that.
Go for goal, reach goal, all live happily ever after.
No. Even if you do actually reach this kind of goal in this way on this timescale, that isn’t the end. You then need to maintain your flat stomach/pert bum/thigh gap. Well, either that or rid yourself of the need to get a flat stomach/pert bum/thigh gap once and for all. You could have saved yourself some time by doing that in the first place.
When it comes to health and exercise, hacks don’t work for anyone in the long term. They work for hardly anyone in the short term.
They use unrealistic before-and-after pictures
I bet if you closed your eyes now you could see any number of before-and-after selfie montages you’ve come across on Instagram, Pinterest or wherever.
Too many are from celebrities or wannabes who have looks that conform to an ideal beauty standard in the before picture and a more extreme version of those looks in the after photo. If you can actually tell the difference at all.
People passing off a picture of a well-exercised body in the before picture, then “improving” on it in the after picture (“Look how dreadful I used to look with that teeny-weeny layer of fat over my six pack! See how perfect I am now!”) are not helping any one. Except maybe shady plastic surgeons.
“Before” and “after” bypass “middle”. They suggest that there’s an end point to everything. In these pictures, you don’t see all the effort - be it physical or in staging the photos - that really makes the difference. Also, that end point reinforces and conforms to values that seem to be important in our society, but really aren’t.
The whole thing about keeping fitter and staying healthier is that life is one long middle. And if you respect your own health, you need to be in the middle for the long haul.
“But”, I hear you cry, “what about the other kind, the uplifting kind? The kind posted by people who’ve made significant life changes and want to celebrate them with before and after pictures? And aren’t you all about trying to get fitter, trying to get healthier? What have you got against them?”
Well, I love seeing these, and I have nothing against them at all. There is clearly no bypassing the middle here. A lot of blood, sweat, tears and changes of mindset goes into these changes. This isn’t my story, though - if I tried to tell my story through before and after pictures, I’d have to stage everything. In my story, changes come so slowly that you wouldn’t notice the difference naturally.
I wish everyone who has genuine, inspiring before-and-after photos all the best - and I hope that the story behind those photos gave them the strength and confidence to set out on a fabulous future.
Because that’s what these are: not before and after photos, but an inspiring, heartwarming reminder of what can happen if you just get started.
They show a constant obsession with being out of your comfort zone
Stepping out of your comfort zone is overrated. It’s the talk of the type As, who are convinced that the only way anyone can make any kind of progress is by constantly “stepping out of their comfort zone”.
Now, if we don’t ever step out of our comfort zones, it stands to reason that we won’t grow.
But there’s just too much emphasis on stepping out of the comfort zone.
Progress doesn’t only come when you “aim high”. It also comes when you feel in control of most of what you’re doing, when you understand in your body what’s going well and what needs more work and when you can visualise the steps that will make up progress over the short-medium term and - most of all - when you look forward to taking them.
Sometimes you might feel ready to challenge yourself to move out of your comfort zone long term but on the whole it’s not something that is vital for most of us. I have done it myself and really benefited from it. But before that came growing my confidence in my comfort zone.
They focus on a hard stop end point, not on the journey itself
So many health and fitness programmes are designed to get you to aim for an end goal. But let’s just think about that for a minute…..
- If you don’t get started in the “right” way, you feel like a failure already.
- You end up putting too much into the getting from start to finish, because you’re not looking past the finish. What happens when you reach that goal, worn out and fed up of making sacrifices?
- In your focus on the finishing line, you forget to enjoy what you’re doing
- To encourage yourself, you promise yourself rewards which are the exact opposite of what you’re doing!
We need to change the whole narrative about this. Most of the experience of feeling better about yourself is in the doing. The rewards for reaching a goal are that you feel more successful, empowered, stronger or that you’re ready to set a new goal - not that you can eat a mountain of ice cream and sit on the sofa for a week because you’ve lost exactly 3kg.
Most things mostly happen slowly, and rarely in a straight line. If you get a big break, though, that’s great. Every now and then something “clicks”, you get it and you might immediately see a genuine improvement in the short term.
Mostly, though, that’s not how it works. There’s quite a lot of two steps forward, 2-3 steps back in getting fitter. Often, we can only measure progress over a year, and even then when we take a wider view of progress and don’t just focus on the numbers.
I’ll give you an example. I take up cross country skiing every winter. It’s my favourite activity, but I don’t have the means of doing it over the summer. Because I use a sports watch, I can see that my times don’t really improve much, even year on year. But my technique does improve. So does my endurance, so these days when I go out on skis I can look around me and enjoy the beautiful nature in which I’m lucky to find myself. Also, I’ve been doing this for nearly 10 years now, which is progress in itself!
They focus on weight to an unhealthy degree
I’m of the school of thinking which holds that weight management is an important part of keeping healthy over time, and I’m uncomfortable with the idea of pushing the idea that being very overweight or underweight is OK, because the chances are very high that it has consequences for long term health.
From the point of image and society, though - any weight is just fine. Nobody, but nobody should be discriminated against in any way for weighing more (or less) than others.
When it comes to health, weighing less (or more) can help with bone and joint health, stamina, strength and range of movement. So I might occasionally slip something in on the benefits of weight management. But really, it should be a consequence of your approach to health and fitness, not a reason for it.
You’re not alone
If you’ve been feeling like an outsider when you read this kind of advice, you’re not alone.
Hopefully after reading this you’ll feel better prepared to look at exercise advice with a cool head and decide whether it fits into your own life.