Exercise and the body

I’ve written before about exercise on this blog, last time discussing the relationship and association between exercise and virtue – as in, the idea that to exercise is necessarily always virtuous and how this harms people with a disordered or difficult relationship to it. When I last wrote about exercise I was struggling intensely with over-exercise or ‘exercise addiction’ and attempting to take a break. I wrote that I hated exercise and, at the time, it was true.

What could lead me to hate exercise? I think the modern framing of the term comes into play – a contemporary understanding of exercise is something that one does very deliberately and for a limited time period with a particular goal in mind. I think ‘taking exercise’ has long been a suggestion of physicians but that it has meant different things culturally at different times – whereas in earlier eras it might have meant something like taking a walk or playing a sport (depending on gender, perhaps) in this era it tends to evoke the image of the gym, cycling machines, things designed more deliberately to be ‘exercise’. And why? As I’ve alluded to before there is a relationship between this sort of compressed, deliberate and high intensity exercise and our relationship to capital, our ever increasing work hours balanced against an over-emphasis on self-image.

Exercise feels often about changing ourselves, specifically our bodies. Almost all advertisements for gyms, workouts programs, personal training and similar activities place a high level of emphasis on transformation of the body aka weight loss, occasionally muscle gains. But gaining muscle in this context feels very much like a part of the same continuum as weight loss. There’s a few reasons for this; namely, that if muscle gain is to become visible it usually requires less ‘excess’ fat (i.e. a lower body fat percentage compared to muscle weight). Gaining muscle can be very much part of an aesthetic rather than necessarily an end in and of itself, especially for men, who are more likely to train and exercise for these reasons.

Our relationship with exercise can become very much a part of our self-image, a way of having control over how our body looks and is seen or, at the very least, a way of assuring ourselves that we are ‘working’ for our body to look the way it does. Again, the emphasis on ‘work’ and also on individual agency in how our body works and looks, ignoring all context and oppressions. Do we really simply ‘work’ for a ‘good’ body? How does this type of narrative leave behind disabled people, older people and basically anyone with less than ideal circumstances for this type of ‘work’? This idea is conservative to it’s core and promotes a deep rooted conservative value that if one simply works enough one will be successful. This is self-evidently bogus and, whilst many would deny its validity in other areas such as wealth, they may still buy into it when it comes to the body.

When my primary aim was to lose weight I felt a direct relationship between being able to consume food and how much exercise was required of me to be allowed to consume it. I ran the numbers, the calories burnt vs the calories consumed, and made a calculation of how much exercise I required for the day. This is obviously one of the most joyless ways to exercise that I’ve ever come across. Yet, even for people without an explicit eating disorder, this is kind of how it works. I didn’t pluck the idea from thin air; it permeates everywhere. Do a series of calculations that will help to create your perfect body, stick to them at all costs.

There is a glut of information about exercise based on these types of calculations and ideas around calorie burning. It is, at best, a very inexact science. It is also, ironically, not how weight loss really works at all. Numerous studies have found that exercise has a very limited effect upon significant weight loss, instead tending to assist with maintaining a persons weight and, at best, moving them down a few pounds here or there. This is interesting because exercise is often touted as the way to lose weight and there is a pervasive idea that if everyone just exercised a little more they’d necessarily be thinner. This is basically not true. Exercise is helpful for many other reasons such as heart health, help with muscle pain and dealing with stress and anxiety to name a few. It can also help someone to maintain a comfortable weight for themselves but it is unlikely to lead to weight loss in the ways that many gyms, weight loss programs and even government and NHS advice claims.

Why is that? There is a popular theory with substantial evidence that, essentially, the body’s need to maintain homeostasis (i.e. keep things ticking along in the same balanced way) also applies to body weight and fat storage. This means that your body has a natural tendency to try to maintain a certain weight range for you otherwise known as your ‘set point’ weight. This can vary throughout your life and is a range so fluctuation within about 10lbs is normal. Everyone has a different set point range which depends largely on genetics and some environmental factors, maybe even epigenetics.

This is why dieting often does not work. Your body tends to want to store more fat rather than accept the loss of fat because that’s what makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Historically, food insecurity meant that it was far more prudent to store fat for later rather than let it go to waste. Fat is stored in order for us to have some reserves left for a time of potential famine or less access to food (see my previous post on migration/famine theory of eating disorders). That’s why we burn through it when we eat less – that’s basically what it’s there for. But the body isn’t stupid; if exercise made us burn through fat in the way that is often claimed that wouldn’t be very efficient or helpful from our body’s perspective of trying to maintain and keep us healthy. Similarly, the reason dieting often doesn’t work is because once there is food available again our body really wants to store it away again just in case there’s another shortage. This means that chronic dieters often end up even heavier than they were before, as they put stress on their body meaning it ends up storing even more fat based on previous data that there will likely be a food shortage soon!

This is also why diets seem to work pretty well in the short term. No matter how the different diets try to re-package themselves as some kind of amazing innovation they all boil down to one thing: eating less food. In the short term (as in 6 months up to a year) eating less food usually will make you lose weight. However, your body does learn to adjust to this, or else, you rightly cannot sustain yourself properly on so little food and so the weight goes back on, often and then some.

What’s also intriguing about this in relation to exercise and aesthetics is that it’s also quite difficult to gain muscle – an increasingly common desire even amongst women – without eating plenty. That’s because your body needs the fuel from your food to be able to do the protein synthesising process that builds the muscle in your body. That’s why a lot of bodybuilders and gym bros are so obsessively into protein but, of course, it’s not only protein that’s needed for the process to take place. Your body needs a full compliment of the major foods groups to be able to function well enough to, first of all, do the exercise effectively and, secondly, grow the muscles themselves. Therefore, going on a diet and expecting to gain muscle is a bit like riding a bike and expecting to be able to drive a car. They gesture towards a similar set of goals and processes – getting fit and ‘healthy’ and doing exercise; travelling along roads, getting from A to B – but any sensible look at what is actually required immediately betrays that one cannot beget the other – you can’t actually gain muscle without adequate fuel, you can’t actually drive a car without having lessons more specific to that mode of transport. (Maybe this isn’t a perfect analogy but I hope you understand what I’m getting at).

So why do people on the internet seem to have gain muscle whilst on a diet? One factor is that losing some body fat can cause the muscles underneath to look more defined. When I was very thin people often commented I looked ‘jacked’ because any muscle I did have had no fat to cover it. But I wasn’t ‘jacked’ – in fact, my strength never increased despite all my training and even decreased at points. I couldn’t progress whilst eating so little food and having so little rest. It was physically impossible. This is why an over-emphasis on simply looking ‘jacked’ can have a very negative effect and be deeply unhealthy. Another reason people might appear to gain muscle quickly on a low calorie diet is, to be blunt, that they’re using steroids.

When exercise is geared primarily towards aesthetics – be that looking slim or looking ‘jacked’ or both it tends to be a somewhat miserable experience or, at least, one that is not particularly joyful and always a means to an end. It’s laced with this constant fear and anxiety around the body changing in ways we don’t want it to, or not changing in the ways we wish it would. It’s hard to find a way around this sometimes when it’s so flagrantly in your face. Society is mad and we are in it.

I still care about how exercise makes me look, I’m still afraid of gaining ‘too much’ weight in recovery, I’m still worried about eating ‘too much’ food. But learning all of the information above has been helpful for me to be able to understand and see the problems with this. What I want is to be joyful and free in my attitudes to movement and food. I think that looks a little different for everyone.

These days I’ve been working on weight lifting, specifically powerlifting. What appeals to me about it is that it has the numbers, the data points, the slow progression that feels in some ways analogous to my more twisted weight loss goals. The appeal of seeing the numbers change, the progress as times goes on, the sense of achievement. But rather than heading towards the goal of an impossibly low and dangerous weight I am heading towards the goal of, as I often put it, lifting heavy thing. I feel I get the same sense of achievement out of these numbers, these goals but without the absolute pain and suffering and sickness. In fact, I feel great after sessions these days because I’m eating enough and not over-doing things (most of the time!).

One very important milestone for me recently was actually a session where I kinda sucked. I’m not sure exactly what it was that day, maybe I was too tired, hadn’t eaten enough, the vernal equinox was taking place or something – but I was struggling to make any progress in the way I had been doing in previous sessions. In the past that would’ve destroyed me, I would’ve had to do something else to try and ‘compensate’ for a bad session and I would’ve let it affect my eating. But I didn’t do any of those things. I let it go.

Here’s to kind of sucking sometimes and that being okay. Here’s to exercise being fun and making us feel good. Here’s to accepting our body’s regardless of how they look.

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