Chasing Aesthetic Gains… Worth the risk?

Going to the gym, lifting weights, getting ‘in shape’; it’s all healthy right?

Well, this is a very simplified and loaded assumption. Whilst almost everyone understands that exercise has many health benefits; both physical and mental, what maybe is less discussed is the importance behind the motivation to undertake these behaviours. Whilst the effects of an appropriate amount of exercise are positive from a physical health standpoint, are most people exercising purely with these health benefits in mind?

Well, it would appear not. If you go into a commercial gym and ask everyone their reasons for exercising (especially those who are regular goers), you will very likely have a lot of people say that they are there to change their physique.

What’s the problem with that? Isn’t wanting to change your physique normal? Well, yes unfortunately, in a Westernised society, many people are dissatisfied with their body and are desperate to alter it through exercise and diet, whether that be geared towards gaining muscle or losing fat, or a mixture of the two. And inherently, this isn’t necessarily an issue. However, research shows us that over-evaluating your body shape and weight is a massive risk factor for developing disordered eating, eating disorders and further body dissatisfaction and obsession. Yes, that’s right, wanting to change your body for aesthetic reasons often leads you to being even more dissatisfied and obsessed with it in the first place. This is because the message we are sending ourselves when we try changing our body for an aesthetic gain is that we are not good enough as we are.

The current body ‘ideals’ in a Westernised culture differ between men and women. Typically, women seek a thin body (although becoming slightly muscular and athletic looking is also starting to come into fashion…), whereas for men a muscular body with a low percentage of body fat is seen as ideal. These ideals are dangerous, for a few different reasons. Firstly, they are impossible for most people to achieve. And for anyone who is genetically able to achieve the ideal, a great amount of dedication and sacrifice is required and potentially the use of steroids or the development of disordered eating and exercise patterns.

Secondly, you will gain social approval for reaching or striving to reach these ideals. Recently, society has started placing more and more importance on body appearance. You are seen as a more impressive, dedicated, beautiful and worthy person for having a body that matches the ideal… or at the very least striving to have this. It’s not hard to see the appeal of starting a journey of altering body composition to gain societal and peer approval… after all, we are social creatures and hard-wired to enjoy receiving compliments and respect from others. You won’t find a place where striving to achieve these ideals is more celebrated than within a gym environment. These compliments increase feelings of self-worth both transiently and conditionally – the pressure for yourself to maintain or improve your physique therefore increases.

And thirdly, even when you move towards these ideals, the chances of becoming even more obsessed and dissatisfied with your body increases. It’s as if the goal post moves. Ultimately there will always be someone with a ‘better’ body than you and it’s easy to get caught in the race of competing with others and focussing on the minute details that you are dissatisfied with. The huge rise in the prevalence of eating disorders, body dissatisfaction and obsession (including body dysmorphia and muscle dysmorphia) and exercise addiction is closely mirrored by the rise in importance society places of physical appearance.

So, let’s put this into a scenario. Imagine this…

You live in a physically healthy body – one that is free from any physical illness and your risk for developing disease is also low. But you still have the aim to change your body composition; not for any health benefits – just because you want to ‘improve’ your physique. So, you start going to the gym and lifting some weights and monitoring your calorie and protein intake. You start reading more fitness books and magazines to gain the knowledge you need to ‘optimise’ your aesthetic gains. Slowly, but surely, you start gaining some muscle mass and your physique is morphing closer to the ‘ideal’. You start gaining compliments from friends and family and people in the gym start respecting you more. This is the first time in your life that you’ve gained respect because of your appearance, and it feels good; who wouldn’t want to receive compliments? You start gaining a sense of identity as an exerciser and fitness enthusiast. You do a personal training qualification as your passion grows and start giving advice to other gym goers, who ask you for it as someone who looks like they know what they are doing. Your ego and confidence grows. You start thinking that everyone should be trying their hardest to achieve their best possible physique and you start comparing yourself to others in the gym, critiquing their exercise form and showing more respect to those who look ‘better’ than you, whilst morally looking down on those who don’t. Every morning and every evening you spend 15 minutes in front of the mirror tensing, critiquing your body, and obsessing over what needs to be improved. Sometimes, you feel satisfied with it, but mostly you feel shameful of it and feel an intense desire to improve it. This position you have found yourself in, as common as it is amongst gym goers, is a high-risk position for developing eating disorders, body dysmorphia or exercise addiction.

By the way, this above scenario is a fairly accurate account of my own story…

So, what could be done to prevent this scenario developing? How could this physically healthy person continue living a fulfilling, healthy life where they don’t increase their risk of developing disordered eating, body image problems or exercise dependency? Of course, exercising and a healthy diet can still be an important part of their life, but we want to cultivate an environment where people can develop a positive relationship with their body, food, and exercise. And religiously chasing aesthetic gains towards a societally defined ‘ideal’ body in an endless pursuit of body satisfaction will minimise your chance of this.

The key to this scenario is the development of a positive body image. Now a positive body image (despite popular belief) is not loving your body every minute of every day and thinking you look amazing 24/7 – that’s not realistic or achievable. A positive body image involves a number of different ideas and attitudes. These include, but are not limited to, developing an appreciation or acceptance of your body as it is now, a gratitude for what your body can do for you, looking after your body through exercise, rest and nourishing food, listening to your body and it’s needs, living through your body rather than judging it for its appearance (Self-objectification), rejecting unrealistic media ‘ideals’, living an embodied and fulfilling life reflecting your values, and more. Basically, a positive body image involves self-compassion, appreciation and embodiment and has been shown to be protective of the development of eating disorders and body image problems. Developing a positive body image will help you move towards a place of peace and enjoyment, rather than criticism and shame.

Whilst I could write pages and pages on what a positive body image and how to cultivate one, I recommend reading the ‘Positive Body Image Workbook’ by Nichole Wood-Barcalow, Tracey Tylka and Casey Judge for a more in-depth account.

One of my favourite quotes to summarise body image is this:

‘you can change how your body looks without changing how you feel about it, and you can change how you feel about your body without changing how it looks’

What this essentially means is that whilst it is completely understandable to think that going to the gym purely to chase an aesthetic goal will make you more confident in your body, it is actually associated with an increased risk of eating disorders, increased risk of body dissatisfaction and obsession, and exercise dependency. To get to the body you are happy with will require huge dedication and sacrifice, missing out on important social occasions and not necessarily living a life true to your values. All of this to feel better in your body… even though this is entirely achievable through working on developing a positive body image without any of the risks…

So next time you are tempted to get a 6-pack or chase bigger biceps, ask yourself, is it worth the risk?

Contributed by Matt Davis