Not too long ago, when Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Salman Khan used to be the pin-up kings of gym locker rooms, fitness was all about big muscles and pumping iron for men while 'size zero' was the default goal for women.
Over the last five years or so, the language of fitness has changed. The rise in popularity of mass participation sports such as running, cycling and triathlons, group workouts, as well as HIIT (high intensity interval training) and functional fitness, has changed the way fitness is conceptualised.
“From beefing up to shredding, from jacked up to lean, from big to functional, from pump to lift and skinny to strong, the narrative has undergone a seismic shift. If (earlier) it was about aesthetics, then it’s more about functionally useful now,” says Vinata Shetty, a Reebok master trainer a CrossFit coach based in Mumbai.
Everyone wants a return on their investment of time and money beyond just looking good. “With technology and social media as huge contributors towards a shift in mindset, not only is there a change in language but also the perception of fitness has changed. Back in the day 6-pack abs used to epitomise fitness, today it’s a consequence and by-product of strength, power and actual physical work capacity,” says Shetty.
We are starting to become much more aware that a wide range of factors influence our health, feels nutritionist and coach Shannon Beer. Binary concepts such as ‘fit/fat’, ‘skinny/strong’ no longer have any relevance. This shift in perception has helped make fitness accessible to everyone, not just athletes. “Everyone has the right to engage in health-seeking behaviour and you don't have to be 'fit' already in order to do that,” says Beer. According to her, it's easy to forget that one’s health cannot be judged by how one looks. “Someone could be in great shape but have poor fitness in terms of their cardiovascular health, or be lacking in certain nutrients in their diet. Beyond that, they could also be miserable because of how much effort their body is to maintain. Health isn't about looking a certain way, it's about taking care of yourself in all aspects of your life. Everyone is entitled to take small steps towards that right now,” says Beer.
Pragya Chopra, a Kolkata-based educationist, has been a regular at her college gym for two years now and she says she has been feeling fitter and better for it. Chopra says that her trainer asks her to focus on this feeling of well-being. “She asks me to not go by the weighing scale. It doesn’t always give you the whole picture. Though my progress on the scale is slow, mentally and physically I feel a lot healthier and my clothes fit me better too,” says Chopra.
The shift in perception has brought about a sea change in the way people like Chopra approach their journeys. More people from all sections, gender, age groups and economic backgrounds are exercising now compared to the late 1990s where it was a more “exclusive” domain of the rich and famous or those in glamour-related industries, says Shetty. “The trend today is taking charge of your health and fitness and what that term means to you. Never have more women lifted weights than today and hence the birth of hashtags like #strongisthenewskinny, where women are not derided for being defined but in fact admired,” he says.
People are now aware that there are varied forms of fitness and plenty of options to choose from. It’s no longer a one-size-fits-all approach; fitness is a more inclusive term these days. For Shetty, “that’s the beauty of the trend.”
Fitness industry experts feel people are also beginning to acknowledge that our mental health is just as important and having strong social relationships plays a crucial part in this. “We’re also starting to recognise that tough love isn't always helpful, we don't need to go to extremes to achieve results and we don't need to be all or nothing either,” says Beer. “I hope we will see more talk of health 'values' as people think more about what's really important to them, and how their fitness goals can help them to live better lives.”
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.