The gym: An aspirational addiction?

I’ve wanted to resume writing blogs for awhile now and it has been impressed upon me recently that from a purely nuts and bolts sense, this is something I should be doing more of. I don’t like writing something just for the sake of creating content though, so I have been struggling to find something to opine on.

Luckily for me, and maybe for you if you are reading this, when you devote more than about 30 seconds to scrolling through your timeline, there will be something that niggles or triggers come up on your screen. So it was with the above caption, which was posted as a well meaning quote, captioned “motivation”. This isn’t a thesis so I will try to be concise with all the things I find troubling about this sentiment.

Let’s break it down piece by piece and look at it in a bit more depth than perhaps the creator did when they printed it out of their meme factory (we will ignore the irritating syntax errors as well).


1) “At first you do it for FITNESS”
Maybe. But not in the way it was intended in this caption. To begin an exercise program, to fundamentally change your habits is a big undertaking and it is not easy to maintain, nor is it particularly fun or rewarding straight out the gate. Humans are resistant to change. Just as a rocket needs to maintain a certain speed to escape earth’s orbit, so too does a human need to reach a certain consistency and engagement to cement a new habit and a new normal. The carrot to do this has to be pretty big, just as the rocket has to have a lot of fuel to get out of the drag.

Sadly, for most of us, the carrot is actually a stick. We want to stop the pain of something. We can dig deep into what this is. What really helps trainers, and the clients themselves, is understanding what is the root cause of this. It has manifested in you sitting in my office telling me you want to tone up, but where did it come from. To find the root cause, it could (and has in many cases) go something like this:
“I want to get fit and tone up”…why?
“I want to feel fit and strong again”….why?
“I don’t want to feel so jiggly anymore, I hate that my arms wiggle when I move”…why?
“It makes me feel self conscious, I don’t like feeling fat”…why? (at this point it can be hard for people to open up)
“I feel ugly. I don’t like looking at myself”…why?
“Because I look gross. I hate the way clothes look on me, I need to lose weight”…why?
“I compare myself to others and I feel ashamed of how my body is”…why?
“Because I’m not happy in my skin”…let’s change that.

I have had the equivalent of this conversation so many times. Most people I work with don’t come to me to get fit because they want to sweat and exert themselves for no visible reward for a bunch of time each week. They come because they are looking for a solution to something deeply personal and vulnerable. The solution isn’t in the exercise. The solution is in the relationship with the trainer, themselves and the community they enter into. The confidence becoming adept and owning a skill confers. The sense of control they earn through the science of consistent effort changing their physical capabilities and appearance. Being heard, being accepted, being loved and being given control back where before there was none. In that order, that is how we help people go from a place of pain to a place of contentment with their lives and their bodies. “At first you do it for FITNESS” is an incredibly blase description of such an intimate and important path to helping people realise potential they didn’t even think was possible.


2) “Then you do it for PASSION”
True, for about 2% of the population of gym goers. At some point, I expect through clever marketing, the gym has been transformed from its intended purpose – a supplement to your life – to this destination akin to Mecca. It has been conferred almost a religious status. People define their lives by the gym. Gym has become a personality trait. Why are you even a trainer and run a gym if you hate on it so much? I hear you ask. At this point it’s a very valid question, and the answer is complicated.

To simplify it as much as I can (I struggle to limit my words, could you tell?) the answer is that if you don’t like how something is you have three options: Get over it, complain about it, or do something about it. Anyone who knows me understands how much I love a good complain and a good pity party, but I feel in order to earn that amount of self indulgence it’s important to at least give the third option a crack. I fundamentally disagree with the way that the gym is positioned. It is marketed through guilt, shame and false promise as a passion you are incomplete without. The fitness industry would have you believe that gym is somewhere on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You have to go to the gym, you have to be seen to go to the gym, you have to get gains, you have to enjoy it and smile, you have to look good while doing it, you have to wear the right clothes, you have to revolve your life around perfecting gym. From the clothes you wear, the food you eat and the hours you keep, if you do not engage in this lifestyle, you are doing it wrong. You are selling yourself short of what living well and correctly looks like and we will withhold our praise and appreciation, but not our subtle shaming of you until you see the light and bend knee to the altar of gym and fitness. It’s a passion.

What I want is to demonstrate that in my gym, I know your life is not about the gym. In fact the gym is what you do so you enjoy the rest of your life more. Whether it’s hiking, sporting, playing with kids, serial dating, philosophising, gaming, traveling or knitting, the gym is there to help you get more out of those things. I want you to be passionate about the relationships you have with people you meet when you come to the gym, I want to fill you with passion to take back to the things you care most about and to make your time at the gym as fun and productive as possible. We all have to brush our teeth too, so let’s at least have a blast doing it.

For 2% of you, the gym is what you care most about and I love and appreciate you for that, but there is no hierarchy of things to be passionate about and if there was, gym certainly wouldn’t be at the top of the list.

For most of us, gym is a supplement to your passion, treat it as such. It’s important, but it’s a piece of the puzzle, don’t get sucked into the vortex of gym becoming the central pillar of your life. Trust me, I’ve been there. More about that in a moment.


3) “And then it becomes an ADDICTION”
Bloody oath it does. The fact that there are people that in any way celebrate this is proof that the fitness industry is sick from the inside. I can speak from personal experience and also having seen firsthand and spoken to many people, there is no way in which this can be construed as a good thing.

It is an addiction, or can be. It has the same properties as other addictive phenomena – dopamine release, staggered rewards, diminishing returns. As our clever marketing team from above have been hard at work, what we are left with is that gym is seen as a socially acceptable, even admirable and desirable addiction. In fact the pinups of the fitness industry (which have somehow morphed and become in large part the pinups of a successful life) are often more likely to be role models of disordered eating and antisocial personality disorder tendencies. Most I talk to (myself included) end up with a laundry list of mental issues – OCD, anxiety, depression and other more pervasive personality disorders are quite common. Not that you’d know from all the perfect pictures that get thrown up on social media.

This is just the effect it has on the person themselves. The barrage of perfect images showing us the life we could and should be living has such a profound and negative effect on people trying to get on with their lives as well. These images come from people who have literally given themselves (in a lot of cases, certainly not all) diagnosable disorders to achieve this look. It’s a full time job to maintain and it is seasonal. People need a break from looking like this all the time. The body can’t sustain it. It isn’t healthy to be “match fit” all the time. But looking normal is hard to sell, so we don’t see that much.

To further this point, what is a full time job to maintain, this perfect life, also contributes nothing of value to society (in fact it is demonstrably harmful as we covered above). Nobodies life will be impacted negatively in any way if fitspo (this is basically a hate word if you ask me) dried up tomorrow. One thing we can take away from the recent pandemic countermeasures is that while we love sports and creeping on bodybuilders and models, they are completely irrelevant to a society’s need to survive. But they sell well. It is unconscionable that we idolise this unsustainable lifestyle as the peak of human existence and there are countless nurses, scientists, teachers, cleaners, drivers and any number of underappreciated workers that feel increasingly worse about themselves because they can’t reach these ridiculous and utterly useless standards. I think it’s far past time to idolise, or at least properly respect and appreciate the people in our lives who actually contribute to it in a meaningful and tangible way.

We need to support each other with acceptance, love and relationship. To be proud and feel respected in our bodies, our jobs and our lives. What we do is important, having the perfect body is not. It’s stupid. It’s an addiction and it is actively harmful to the individual and greater society.

This picture, these words, are awful. Think about what you post. Think about what it is actually motivating and what it will mean to the people who read it. When you share things, you reach an audience and you can impact their lives. I try to make this impact empowering and following blindly along with the fitness industry rhetoric does precisely the opposite, in my humble opinion.

To quote a sage of our time, Nat’s What I Reckon:

“F*ck packet gyms”.