I admit it: a big reason I get into a gym several times a week is because I want to look good. I want to feel confident on the beach. I want to get likes from a shirtless Instagram photo.
If that makes me shallow, then: call me shallow.
But looking good shouldn't be the number one reason you exercise. And it is for a lot of people. It was for me, for many years. Back in those days I remember once describing working out as "the joyless pursuit of a goal I'll never achieve". (Turns out I'm shallow and dramatic.) I was in the gym basically every day, but it wasn't fun, I didn't feel good — physically or mentally.
Exercise should not make you feel less healthy.
Look good, feel good?
The prime reason anyone should exercise is to feel better — to get stronger, fitter, healthier. As a result of those things, you might even end up looking pretty decent too. But training just to look good is a different beast, according to Coogee-based personal trainer and former bodybuilding champion Martin Silva.
To feel good — to check off those strong/fit/healthy boxes — Silva says the average Joe can get away with two full-body workouts in the gym each week, plus a few other sessions focused on cardio, mobility, having fun. Pretty manageable.
But exercising with looks as your prime goal demands more dedication and discipline. A ton more. Says Silva: "For someone who's looking to aesthetically get in the shape of their life, they'd need to do five or six weight-training sessions a week."
It's only worth investing that kind of time if you gain actual money from the way your body looks.
Otherwise the cost is too high: you're always sore and tired. Your workout schedule takes over your social life. Your cardio fitness, mobility and flexibility probably suck.
It's a pretty terrible way to live.
"It's not sustainable in any way, shape or form," warns Silva. He adds that it's why some bodybuilders — whose training is laser-focused on comparing themselves to others and picking over their body's perceived weak spots — get sucked down a "rabbit hole" of aesthetics.
"It is dysmorphia," says Silva, who hosts the podcast Optimise Your Body. "There's a dark side to a lot of people who compete — they end up 10 times more insecure."
Checking your progress
The moral of that story is that if you exercise strictly for looks, you risk never being happy with how you look. Your arms could always be a little bigger. Your chest rounder. Your abs flatter.
It'd be awesome if we could all magically decide to love our bodies exactly as they are and exercise only to boost our health, rather than trying to meet some impossible aesthetic ideal. But Silva agrees that's a tough message to sell —not only in an image-focused city like Sydney, but in an Instagram-focused world.
"It's very rare as a trainer to get people who come to me and say, 'I want to be really healthy and that's pretty much it,'" he says. "Normally they want to work on certain parts of their body which they're insecure about and don't like."
Silva adds there are far better checkmarks for progress in the gym than just what you see in the mirror.
"'How's my mood? How's my energy? Do I wake up feeling refreshed in the mornings? How's my libido? My skin?'" he suggests. "All these things are indications of good health."
According to Sam Downing, the secret to good health and wellbeing is pretty simple: keep it simple. A qualified personal trainer, fitness instructor and nutrition coach, Sam is also editor at 9Honey's health site Coach.
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The Butterfly Foundation offers support for eating disorders and body image issues.