When you hear the word “fitness” what image comes to mind? Time was when the dominant images were the big muscles of action stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Women were peddled the ‘size zero’ look of anorexic supermodels. These days, the desired image has shifted to that of the lean, muscular body for men, and an hourglass, bikini body for women.
However, what hasn’t changed is the media obsession with “the look”. Millions of men and women are influenced by idealized images of celebrities with perfect bodies that have nothing to do with real-world health and fitness. “The look” functions purely as a set of projected body aesthetics, and it’s increasingly clear that it does more harm than good.
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Now, achieving a certain look can a big motivating factor for people to adopt and stick to certain behavioural and physiological changes. This includes eating, sleeping and exercising according to a set plan, say fitness coaches, nutritionists and mental health professionals. A goal based purely on aesthetics can help you to make specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound goals, says Gagan Arora, lifestyle coach and founder of Delhi’s Kosmic Fitness. However, having body aesthetics as the primary goal can be de-motivating, adds Sonal Anand, psychiatrist at Wockhardt Hospital, Mumbai.
Aspects of body image
There are four aspects of body image, explains Samudrika Patil, clinical endocrinologist and CEO, Vedicure Healthcare and Wellness, Mumbai. “The way you see yourself (perceptual),the way you feel about the way you look (affective), the thoughts and beliefs you have about your body (cognitive) and the things you do in relation to the way you look (behavioural). Wrong perceptions and ideas influence how you behave towards your own being. Just because your favourite celebrity wears a size 1 dress or your idol has washboard abs does not mean you need to achieve the same to stay fit,” he says.
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So consumed can we become about looking a certain way that we often ignore the health risks involved in the blind pursuit of our body goals. Experts warn that in the long run, focusing just on the body’s symmetry and size can be overwhelming, leading to stress and, ultimately, deferred goals.
“If you only keep a distant idea of body shape, weight, fat percentage or inch loss and you keep measuring yourself, it can be very troublesome for the mind and can make you unhappy when you don’t see much changes,” says Arora. He adds that body aesthetics should come as a side effect of months and years of dedicated, progressive training and a healthy lifestyle. It shouldn’t be the goal. Studies have also shown that aesthetic goals are a clear pitfall. A 1999 paper, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, called Cardiorespiratory Fitness, Body Composition, And All-cause And Cardiovascular Disease Mortality In Men made this clear. It found that unfit, lean men have a higher risk of all-cause and cardiovascular disease mortality than did men who were fit but carried weight.
An unhealthy obsession
Eating too little or working out too much to achieve your perfect body have a negative impact on overall health and well-being, says Arora. “It could lead to hormonal imbalances, muscle and bone loss, loss of sleep and higher levels of anxiety that can eventually lead to mild to severe depression,” he adds.
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Such an obsession could also lead to the more serious Body Dysmorphic Disorder, cautions Patil. “This is a mental health condition where you see minor flaws in your body to be bigger than they actually are. They are probably not even visible to anyone else. People with Body Dysmorphic Disorder could get obsessed with cosmetic corrections and end up getting operated on for minor things,” she says.
Crash diets might also result in hair fall, dull skin due to reduced collagen and lack of nutrition and a compromised immunity, among other severe complications. Eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia are also very common among those who concentrate solely on body aesthetics.
Focus on overall health
Instead of being totally consumed by body aesthetics, people ought to make educated choices and choose overall health. If you choose health over looks, then not only would it ensure your mental and physical wellbeing, but also, ultimately, move you closer to your desired look. As the 1999 paper quoted above stated, “leanness” as a goal is only suited to men who are already fit. And it’s only by being fit can you reduce the hazards of obesity.
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Psychiatrist Anand suggests an approach of self love and self compassion as a healthy way to start. “Trying to look at fitness as a complete package can help. Set small weekly goals and don’t focus on just symmetry and power,” she says. Small measurable goals such as a 1-mile run test, a plank time test, the maximum push-up test or the one-rep-max-squat test could be used as a tool to check your progress every 6-8 weeks suggests Arora. “It’s normal to hit a plateau for a while but don’t lose momentum. When it becomes hard to progress and pull back a little, remodel your perspective, methods and sometimes even goals,” he adds. Apart from exercise, eating healthy and sleeping well should be given equal importance.
At a time when body aesthetics dominate the fitness narrative, thanks in part to our social media lives, make a conscious decision to aim for a balanced lifestyle instead. Approaching fitness as a form of self love can make all the difference between a harmful obsession and an enjoyable, healthy life.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.