Is 'exercise' a bad word now?
Our efforts to reject diet culture might be giving it more power.
This line from my post, “Why are ‘fitness’ people so annoying?” best nails down why I, an annoying fitness person, exercise:
“A big-brain friend of mine said it elegantly: ‘Exercise is the medicine we take for the disease of modernity.’ I’ll say it bluntly: I exercise to fix my fucked-up life.”
I’ve been thinking more about this as I work on a piece that might be published in another newsletter soon. In it, I elaborate:
“My exercise advocacy isn’t meant to sell a workout plan or help people get a six pack; it’s grounded in the fact that exercise helped me recover from an eating disorder, mitigated my anxiety and depression, and in some ways saved my life.”
Phew! Bold claims! So when I saw a piece in the Burnt Toast newsletter titled, “The Myth of ‘Regular’ Exercise,” I wanted to respond here.
I’ve written a piece (“Is ‘healthy’ a bad word now?”) in response to Burnt Toast before. I hope my thoughts are received as I intend them: Not as a takedown — I’m a paid subscriber to Burnt Toast, I’m interested in and have learned from what Virginia writes, and I respect her and the community she’s cultivated with her publication — but as an example of the nuanced, multi-perspective, sometimes thorny discussions we need to have about body image, eating, and exercise.
First, what is “regular” exercise? Per the World Health Organization, the CDC, and the Department of Health and Human Services:
Adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week (brisk walking, biking, swimming), or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week (running, aerobic dancing, “heavy yard work,” which I guess means pruning the absolute shit out of your hedges), plus strength training at least twice a week. Fifty-three percent of U.S. adults meet the aerobic guidelines, but only 23 percent meet the aerobic and strength training guidelines. Alas.
Virginia writes of the benefits of even a little exercise:
“Exercising just once or twice a week reduced people’s risk of dying by 30 percent in this 18-year study on almost 64,000 people. Even ten minutes of exercise improves brain function.”
Rejoice, for you don’t have to hit even the minimum guidelines to get the goods!
Many people, though, exercise erratically or in an all-or-nothing manner, she says: “You do an hour of cardio five days a week, or you don’t get off the couch because anything less than that gold standard workout isn’t worth doing.” I know the feeling, so I advocate for a “half-assed” approach to exercise when life calls for it.
But even if we’re only doing some “half-assed” exercise, the benefits come from doing it routinely. Virginia’s post is “in defense of working out seasonally or not at all.” We can grant ourselves grace for neglecting exercise, we can accept the choice to take a seasonal or not-at-all approach, but I don’t think forgoing regular exercise — at least 10 daily minutes of exercising however your body allows — can be defended when it comes to the wellness of our physical bodies, not who we are as people.
The “myth” of regular exercise, Virginia says, is this:
“You don’t need to workout to have a good body; that’s a myth rooted deep in ableism, healthism, and privilege of many kinds.”
You don’t need to exercise to have a good body — one that deserves acceptance and respect and keeps you alive — or to be a good person, yes. I’m exasperated, though, by the idea that no one thing is “bad” or “good” in terms of how it can affect aspects of our lived experience just because no one thing defines our value as mortal beings.
I’ve written about the idea that there are no “bad” foods — yes, spinach doesn’t get you into heaven and Cheetos don’t send you to hell, but some foods are more nutrient-dense than others. My body is not morally superior now that it has more muscle mass than it used to, but it has stronger bones, less injury risk, and less back pain. This is just data. I’m a certified Feelings Person™, but perhaps we’d do better to focus a little less on the emotions of exercise and eating and more on the … I’m not sure I’m permitted to type this as someone with an English degree … science.
Forgoing regular exercise doesn’t make you a bad person. It just means your body and mind might not feel as good or function as well as they could. No one’s inherent value is predicated on how well or how often they move, but to be able to move well to the best of your physical ability is a valuable thing.
When Virginia writes, “I always believe, on some level, that I am not meant to be a body in motion,” I first go into “what about” mode — What about how our brains have evolved to reward prolonged physical activity? What about how exercise can stave off age-related cognitive decline!? What about how our “metabolic engines [our VO2max and metabolism] have evolved to accommodate increased activity”!?! Aren’t we all physiologically predisposed to motion?!??
But when I settle down, I can consider more deeply Virginia’s statements that the exercise she does — walking through the woods, which I co-sign as a blessed experience — feels like “playing pretend,” that our society has created the labels of People Who Exercise and People Who Do Not Exercise, and she’s the latter. People Who Exercise are a certain type of person, after all (annoying, yes, I’ve covered that).
I work in the fitness industry and recognize the intimidating exclusivity it can breed. If you’re not fully and literally bought in with the “right” clothes, memberships, gear, knowledge, and language, you might feel like an imposter if you only participate sometimes. That’s why I push for gyms to be more welcoming to beginners and critique the marketing around fitness formats.
But Virginia’s statement, “I will always choose garden puttering over anything diet culture would define as exercise,” gives diet culture even more power, I think. We are in charge of what we consider exercise, not diet culture. It will try to snatch anything and everything away from us to commodify it as something that promises to make us thin. Walking isn’t safe, yoga isn’t safe, gardening isn’t safe — someone, somewhere, is writing about how many calories gardening burns and calling it the Dirt-Digging Detox, I guarantee it.
If there’s a chance you could enjoy and get non-thinness-related benefits from cycling, running, or lifting, but you don’t because diet culture decided those are exercise, all you’re doing is allowing diet culture to continue to rule your life. If I hadn’t gotten into strength training in a gym because the gym is where some thin people on fad diets go, I would have missed out on the very type of exercise that helped me care less about being thin and trying fad diets.
Virginia argues that we need “to find the beauty — or even more, the power — in not doing, in rest … this can only happen if we untangle exercise from weight loss.” This piece, though, with its suggestions that People Who Exercise are necessarily “performing thinness for each other,” that exercise other than “garden puttering” has been claimed by diet culture, that people who train for Ironman or Tough Mudder races “cannot be satisfied with the idea of exercise as a walk around the neighborhood at least in part because they have inextricably linked their value … to their thinness,” neglects that there are people who work out regularly and intensely who already have untangled exercise from weight loss. I competed among such people in a powerlifting meet in February 2020. All we did all day was eat in between lifts! The woman who won first place — to do so requires months of intense gym sessions — weighed 263 pounds. There’s a whole corner of Instagram where women who practically live at the gym are talking about being proud to gain weight and eat lots of food.
Exercise, Virginia writes, should be understood “first as an option, not a mandate.” Respectfully, it already is just an option. The WHO isn’t holding a gun to your head to make you do Zumba. Exercise feels mandated because of the cultural pressure to be People Who Exercise, but only 23 percent of us are actually doing it. I agree with Virginia that the all-or-nothing approach leads to people crashing and burning, and I understand if people are hesitant to get into exercise lest they stumble into the harms of a thinness-first approach. But I offer this: You might need to actually start exercising regularly before you learn to disconnect it from weight loss and thinness.
As author Rabia Chaudry said in my recent Q&A with her, she had to “walk through the door of ‘I just want to lose weight’ to get to the deeper body healing that goes beyond size.” She said she “did not expect that I’m never going to want to stop doing [strength training].” And as Casey Johnston wrote for The Cut: She started going to the gym to lose weight but ended up discovering how gaining pounds of muscle from lifting made her feel “more at home in the body where I lived.” She also said, “I had never felt better in my entire life. I didn’t know I could feel so different.”
Take it from me: Strength training in particular has a way of offering you all that diet culture tries to steal from you.
Finally, we do not have to reject the word “exercise” altogether, as Virginia suggests we might since it can be bound up with ableism and “healthism.” Ask yourself: Do you believe that you, personally, can exercise without being ableist, without being on a diet, without being an elitist “health” freak? Great, then you recognize that the word itself is not the problem and you can exercise without carrying all the Bad Baggage into your practice. As for calling it “movement” or something instead? Just wait until Weight Watchers or whoever starts calling exercise movement, and then we’ll have to come up with yet another euphemism. Let’s just get off this moniker merry-go-round.
You do not have to like exercise. You might just accept that it’s good for your body and do it as a “morally neutral habit.” Virginia calls for that, and so do I. But a morally neutral habit is still a habit — it’s something you do routinely, a couple or more times a week or every day. I do believe, truly, that everyone can fit at least 10 minutes of exercise into their day. Maybe some people will be incensed by that assertion. Cancel me, I guess, for believing in you.
I believe that each of us has immense power over the Big Bad Cultures of Misery — diet, grind, celebrity, whatever. That power comes from making choices aligned with your values. You can exercise solely because you value the experience of moving your body, because you know that regular exercise is the practice of doing something good for yourself, and ignore all the rest.
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I know the culture that she she writes against, as we all do. I see it in my parents who do “75 hard” challenges in a desire to be thinner and then push themselves in sickness and on hurt body parts when what their body (and doctor!) is asking for us some rest.
But I know that thinness isn’t the only reason they exercise. They both live stressful lives and regular exercise, or “movement” really is a good outlet for them and has helped their mental health.
I appreciate the caution to perpetuate “all or nothingness”. I appreciate that reasonable exercise looks different for everyone. I’m so out of shape and I battle chronic pain - if I were to start weight lifting I’d be in bed for days. Walking is how I get myself to exercise again, not to be or remain thin, but because regular, low-impact exercise is the only known pain reducer for fibromyalgia.
I also struggle with eating enough and my younger sister has anorexia. I wish that my parents, and others, would stop excusing their fatphobia and jokes about starving themselves by pointing out that regular exercise / eating fresh foods is just good body practice (it is!).
Overall, it’s a good distinction you make here not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Just because some people co-opt the practice of regular exercise to cover their unhealthy relationship with their bodies, doesn’t mean that regular exercise as a concept is inherently fat-phobic!
I find deadlifts to be immensely satisfying.