Want in on a secret? I’m not a personal trainer because I wanted to be. *gasp* I KNOW (Monica voice)! I love working out, and I could go on and on about the benefits, but that’s not why I did it. I’m a trainer because I needed to get that certification first to become an ACE-certified Health Coach (in progress). My entire health philosophy is rooted much deeper than exercise alone.
The root of my passion for movement is born from my passion for mental health, so it felt fitting to continue this conversation into Mental Health Awareness Month. Exercise is so rarely promoted as a means to better mental health first and foremost, yet it’s one of the single best things we can do for ourselves regardless of size or current fitness level. I continue to try to bust myths and help us break through barriers to get more physically active, but that’s hard to do when the focus is usually on what we see in the mirror. And with that, I wanted to take some time to talk about why I don’t like public progress photos.
A trainer will tell you that you aren’t likely to see progress in less than 12 weeks (which is accurate), so why are we expecting to see progress in 12 weeks? Why is that the focus at all? I’m not opposed to taking photos to benchmark progress over time because it can be incredibly helpful and rewarding, and if it works for you and makes you feel GOOD about your journey, then please keep at it! But I think we need to be really careful. It’s so easy to let that be THE thing to determine how we feel about our overall health. And it’s so easy to let that be the thing that prevents us from wanting to get started. The truth is we are so much more likely to get or stay on our journey if we aren’t using physical benchmarks as our only motivation.
I suspect there are many people left out of the conversation or turned off by physical activity because of the discomfort that surrounds the visual aspect; people who would love to be more physically active or start a movement program, but are turned off by the vulnerability of a progress photo, don’t want the focus to be on something that they’re already uncomfortable with, or feel like they cannot possibly start the same program as person X, Y, Z they’re seeing also doing it.
We can say the physical doesn’t matter, but if we’re asking people to simply take photos to benchmark progress, do our actions match our words? Is our message welcoming to everyone at every point in their journey? Is focusing on the physical progress in the mirror the best way to stay committed long-term? What if we started taking stock of our stress levels before and after? Our feelings of confidence and self-worth – what if that’s what we were using as benchmarks?
If you were able to look closely at my photos, you’d see there is very little physical difference between weeks 1 and 12. But you know what did happen in that time? I did unmodified push-ups for the first time ever. I was using heavier dumbbells with less soreness afterward. My resting heart rate decreased. I was sleeping better. I felt happier and less stressed. And most importantly, I generally felt like a strong, accomplished rock star. Until I saw the week 12 photos.
None of that seemed to be reflected in the photos though. And that made me feel like crap. Was I doing it all wrong? The messages I was getting were that I needed to see progress for it to be real, for me to be “doing it right”. If not, I need to push harder, right? I continued comparing myself to other peoples’ progress photos wondering why my progress was different if we were doing the same workouts. My disordered eating habits kicked in because I figured it had to be what I was eating and I just wasn’t “doing enough.” There was so much focus on what I was seeing instead of how I was feeling. I was no longer excited about all the other amazing things I listed off. It was like I was competing with people I’d never met for some prize I’d never get. Why?
I did this for about a year where I was working out hard and obsessing about food while simultaneously feeling like crap about myself. Then I had this epiphany: What is the point of this if it DOESN’T MAKE ME FEEL GOOD?! I’m not competing for something; I have no reason to try to alter my body fat or muscle to some particular percentage just to prove I can. Why does this make me feel worse about myself than better? It’s not supposed to be that way.
I realized that if focusing on the physical is just going to cause additional stress, it’s going to end up being counterproductive and negate the work I’m putting in. I finally decided to let it all go and just started focusing on different things. I began to get regimented about increasing the weight I was using, increasing reps, and doing more difficult moves. I tried to just be in the moment when working out, not looking at the clock and worrying about taking too long to get it done. I tried to worry less about the macros, calories, and “good” food, eating what I wanted with a focus on nutritious foods and moderation in mind. I finally felt those positive benefits again; they were no longer being overshadowed by chasing physical goals.
Do I still struggle with this mindset? Of course. Even more so as a trainer, to be honest. It’s easy to feel like I’m supposed to have a “perfect” body to prove that I am qualified at what I do as though the two are related. Here’s the thing: to this day, I don’t look much different from week 1 in this photo, and that was 5 years ago, long before I was a personal trainer. If my entire motivation for the last 5 years were about what I see in the mirror, why would I continue? I wouldn’t, that’s for sure. The internal changes though? Phew. Please ask someone that knew me before and after this part of my journey and they’ll tell you.
I also want to acknowledge that it can be triggering to look at someone who is my shape and size, who is talking about being uncomfortable or a lack of progress, and it’s like, “Are you freaking kidding?!”. I have no idea what it’s like to have my overall health negatively judged by people on a regular basis because of my physical body. I want to acknowledge my privilege in that sense and tell you that if you don’t look like me, I’m not going to pretend to know what you’ve gone through; I’m not going to pretend to be able to relate to that – it would be so incredibly disingenuous. I hesitated to show these photos with my message for that reason, but I hope I’m being clear in saying this isn’t about what is in the mirror, whatever that body shape is.
I also don’t want this to be discouraging. If you’ve been instructed by a physician to reduce body fat for specific health reasons, you’re going to see a difference in photos if you stick with increased physical activity and/or improved food habits. You most definitely will. If you’re already in decent shape and it makes you feel good to focus on building muscle and seeing those gains, I’m all for it! This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t expect to see any progress or that there is anything wrong with wanting to; it just means that I don’t believe it should be the sole focus unless there are very specific fitness goals.
At the end of the day, everyone deserves to feel good and reap the benefits of physical activity. I believe an important step is to change the direction of the conversation away from visual motivation to internal motivation – how we feel. That’s really what it’s all about.
To close, I know I said I was going to talk about the effects of stress on the body this week, but I got too inspired with this message and couldn’t wait. I was thinking about how stress had negatively impacted my physical progress throughout this period as a result of my “healthy” habits, and I was off to the races on this road instead. So next week, I really am going to run through the negative impacts of stress and provide a quiz you can take to assess your own stress levels. THEN we’ll talk about some great (free!) ways to manage stress and why they work.
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