Something a little bit different today… I have allowed my friend and colleague Mr Ben Allen to take the reins for a post. This should be interesting…
Now this is a lengthy read but it is worthwhile. I want to prepare you though. Ben is NOT a gym rat. He is NOT a clean eater. He is NOT a detox fan in any way shape or form. I have seen him eat fruit pastilles for lunch (only a one off after I gave him the death stare for the duration of this “meal”). The important things to take away from this, in my opinion, is the following:
- You don’t have to sacrifice a “normal” day to day existence to be, what the industry deems: “HEALTHY”.
- It is OK to follow the natural ebb and flow of willingness to train and eat all your meals with a side of steamed broccoli. This does not mean you have “fallen off the wagon” or need to sit in the corner with a dunce hat being branded as a failure.
I was going to continue that list but actually I think that sums up my view on this nicely. I have many a conversation with people about the importance of a positive mindset and being happy. Sounds trivial and easy to achieve but actually it isn’t always the case so Ben’s blog post (or as the ever so wise Kate called it: “Glog = guest blog”…just wow) spoke volumes to me. Give it a read and let me know your thoughts. It may take a while to get your head round the real meaning here but I think it is poignant aka. worth considering.
(I WILL JUST ADD A DISCLOSURE THAT THE FOLLOWING DOES NOT IN ANY WAY REPRESENT THE OPINIONS OR THOUGHTS OF FUELLINGTHEFOODIE. I WILL ALSO ADD THAT A LEAN MEAN DEFINED BODY WILL NOT BE ACHIEVED BY FOLLOWING THIS LIFESTYLE. REMEMBER FOLKS: THOSE RIPPED ABS REQUIRE NEAR 24/7 MAINTENANCE AND ATHLETIC FITNESS REQUIRES HARD WORK AND DEDICATION)
Over to you Ben:
Cat asked me for ways to publicise her blog. I jokingly turned to her and said “I’ll write a guest blog trashing the fitness industry”, to my surprise she lifted a thoughtful gaze skyward for a moment, looked back down and replied “I’m not against it…”
I’m not going to trash the fitness industry nor am I going to trash healthy living, quite the opposite. However, the idea of fitness as a lifestyle requires closer inspection. Firstly I’m slightly uncomfortable with “fitness” as a noun but I can’t really work out why. Anyway, I’m going to change it because the bit I have a problem with is probably more accurately termed “fitism”. The criteria for gaining the suffix “ism” (like feminism) being that the term posits a world view; one should not merely be fit, but fitness in and of itself is a life goal which should inform your decision making on almost every level. You know the evangelists for this lifestyle. Lean, cut, Adonis-esque creatures bristling from head to toe with skin-deep pride, oozing aesthetic self-satisfaction for yards around them and probably handing out flyers for whichever establishment is branded across their fluorescent polyester polo-shirts.
I think it’s probably time to state the obvious: being fit and healthy is a good thing. However, our definition of “fit and healthy” doesn’t really butter my parsnip, for a kick-off the existence of the word “fit” in the phrase is tautologous, you can’t be “healthy” without being relatively “fit” so let’s just focus on being healthy?
It seems to me that the culture of fitism has simmered brain mechanisms down into an unhealthy reduction. As is often pointed out your body is designed by evolution for the Palaeolithic era (period between 2.6 million years ago and 10,000 years ago), and the question of how you survive has been completely flipped on its head recently. As a hunter-gatherer the question your body had to ask itself was “do you have enough energy resources?” which resulted in hoarding fat, salt and sugar because these substances were rare in our environment and provide lots of what we need. As a result of this our bodies are built with no upper-limit for how much of these substances to eat because, for millions of years, more = better. Although the Palaeolithic era ended 10,000 years ago this actually continued right up until a few hundred years ago, the reason the British Empire and the Merchant Navy were so successful is because we were able to stay on this rainy rock in the North Atlantic while the tentacles of colonialism brought us the fructose of far flung lands.
Nowadays, while our body is ready to store sources of energy for leaner times, we face no leaner times, we don’t really have to expend any energy in obtaining sustenance and our food products are laden with fats, salts and sugars. So on top of the question our body is asking we have to layer a conscious question: “have I expended enough energy to get rid of my daily intake?” This much you know, I’m sure. But how this has manifest itself in today’s fitism is unnerving. Your bodily need for fats, salts and sugars are provided for via “cravings”, the “I want” mechanism in your brain. Many of a fitist bent will teach you how to suppress your cravings, the issue I have is when suppressing cravings reaches beyond fats, salts and sugars to anything which gets in the way of “fitness” (by this point the “health” in “health and fitness” has usually been dropped). The evilness of cravings is extended to cravings for watching TV, reading a book, going to the pub, pretty much anything which takes up time that could be spent exercising.
I am sure we all have friends who have said something along the lines of “no, I’m off drink for the next month”, “I’m not working late tonight, it’s legs day” or “I’ve booked myself into yoga early on Saturday to stop myself going out on Friday night. Double win!” you may have even uttered as such yourself. Phrases like these have a really jarring effect on me. “Keeping fit” has reached such dizzying heights in the minds of these folk that other important areas of their life are being sacrificed.
At this point I’m acutely aware that – if Cat publishes this – it’ll be hosted on a blog by someone who exercises every day, pays incredible attention to what she eats and restricts herself from excesses which might hinder her fitness. But herein lies an important caveat to my overall argument. Cat is training for an Ironman, something I find admirable, courageous and bemusing in equal measure. That is qualitatively different to wanton “fitness” as a lifestyle. Cat has a tangible goal that she will reach once this process is complete, she will have achieved something meaningful and genuinely impressive. The types of which I speak are not the Cats’ of this world, the types I speak of are the ones for whom being fit is a goal in and of itself, there is no end, no achievement, no demonstrable finale to what they want to accomplish. Except we all know that really the goal is looking good. (Don’t give me any bollocks about it being for a longer life. As a species we’ve made a lot of progress in being able to live longer but almost no progress in increasing the length of the quality of life. Maybe you will live longer but you’ll just be relying on someone else to wipe your arse for longer.)
And this is the crux of the issue. Society bequeaths us many, many concepts and schema for how to live our lives (almost entirely driven by those who seek to earn from our obedience to their ideas.) You will be happy if you are successful in work, you find someone to marry (you’ll need to look good to do that because apparently your personality doesn’t matter), you have kids, you have plenty of money and… you are fit and healthy. In general I wouldn’t take issue with most of these but it must be recognised that the reason you would try to accomplish any of them is for your general well-being. The moment these become a problem is the moment at which you seek any of these goals as an end in their own right, rather than as a means to a fulfilling, meaningful and happy existence.
So you’ve got your abs and you can run for miles and you can lift really heavy stuff repeatedly. What now? Has your social circle expanded by infinite proportions? Are you showered with unleavened kindness on a daily basis? Were you offered 3 promotions a month while your salary underwent an exponential increase? Do you now find money in every gutter and win competitions you didn’t enter? No. You’ve nailed one aspect of your life, and well done, but what have you sacrificed to achieve that? And is being as fit as you are vital to your long-term happiness? Will you, at 60, still be exercising this much as you are now and will you look back and think “damn, I’m glad I put all that effort in”? Before you answer these questions recall that depression, especially among the reflective middle-aged, is at record levels in Western countries and still climbing.
We also probably all have friends who work too hard, you look at them and think “you don’t see your friends because you work late every night, you spend your weekends doing your chores because you didn’t have time to do them during the week, you eat shit because you come home so late and you never really take any holiday… what for?” The same is true of devoting yourself too entirely to any facet of life, you lose sight of why you’re doing it. People who work too much, earn loads of money but spend so much time working they never get a chance to enjoy any of it. People who settle down with the first person who comes along because it feels secure only to find years later that they never really loved each other and get divorced. The couple who have children in order to fix their marriage. And the people who forego a full and happy social life for squat(s).
Believe it or not the “I want” mechanism in your brain is incredibly important. It needs tempering in modern society because of the sheer level of fats, salts and sugars available, but that’s about it, the rest of time it provides a useful insight into what your subconscious brain recognises to be important stimuli. To help battle cravings the fitists will tell you that you need a regime which you should dedicate yourself to, you can’t simply exercise when you want you must make a plan, in a diary, and stick to it. If you don’t you’ll never beat down the evil, evil cravings. But this has a profoundly negative effect, because if you miss one appointment with physical exertion you’ve then “fallen off the bandwagon” and you think “well while I’m here I might as well have 14 happy meals.” Realistically most people find it incredibly hard to stick to a regime but because of the way gym subscriptions work most of the advice you get in any gym won’t provide you an alternative. Also, the idea that you naturally have cravings which aren’t good for you and you must devote yourself to the fitness industry to cure yourself is uncomfortably close to the Christian idea of Original Sin.
I’m sure at this point many people will be thinking “I may not be training for a marathon or an ironman but I just like exercise.” As a psychology graduate I end up in arguments on these grounds a lot. Because what I know is that the brain is kind of useless at knowing itself, that if someone says they like/enjoy something all that tells you is that a positive emotion is linked to whatever it is they like/enjoy in some way, but not that they necessarily like/enjoy that thing directly. Most of the time (but not always) it’s likely to be an indirect mechanism which feeds their personality traits or social standing (they hope) in some way. But when someone tells you they enjoy something try telling them that actually they don’t – it’s fun. To work out what you enjoy you have to think real deep, I had this experience with my job recently, I have power (let’s not pretend it isn’t important), responsibility, I’m a decision maker, a manager, my opinion is valued… “yeah, I like my job”; but do I actually enjoy the process of sitting at my desk each day and effecting the changes the business requires… my last day is next week.
I smoke (Marlboro Reds, c.12-a-day), I eat a lot (lashings of double cream, plenty of fried stuff and half a block of parmesan on m’pasta, but all made fresh, almost no processed foods or added sugar), I exercise (Walk 5 miles a day Mon-Fri to work and back and I run when I want, sometimes once a week sometimes three times, I run 6k in 27mins and 10k in 52mins – respectable times, if not amazing, even for a non-smoker), I drink (with friends, probably 4-5 nights a week). I am healthy. I’ve only been ill, even mildly, twice in my life. Body shape, I’d say I’m relatively slim, bit of chub, and losing weight fairly steadily. I recognise I’ve probably got quite a strong constitution, I can happily have a couple of pints of beer, a bottle of wine and half a litre of whisky to wake up with only a mild hangover and off to work. But I can’t be the only one who thinks that there are no silver bullets or quick fixes, that all aspects of your life need attention. That you can’t endlessly chase a phantom goal. That if you’re going to enjoy your life you’re going to need to actually enjoy not only the tangible goals you have but also the process of achieving them. That most of the time your cravings are good and to be followed. That random focus on specific aspects of your life is counter-productive. That you can have fish and chips every now and then as part of a balanced diet but a balanced diet can only be had as part of a balanced lifestyle.
I have two phobias, one is boredom and the other is looking back on my life in 30 years to realise I’ve spent an awful lot of time on something which promised so much but has actually just stopped me doing something I really enjoy. I’ve tried exercising according to a plan (e.g. Mon, Weds, Fri or every weekday or weekends plus one weekday) and it usually lasts two-four weeks before I miss a session and think “damn that was good, I should skip the gym more often”. It turns into a chore, an unpleasant process which must be adhered to for future gains. Now I have no plan, I just listen to my cravings… I’ve been running for 6 months.