It may seem bizarre that, as a fitness company, we are criticising the exercise industry- but Rabble was founded because there is a lot wrong with the exercise industry and nothing much is being done to change it.
At a time when obesity is a key concern, it is certainly baffling that the exercise industry seems willing to do so painfully little to understand why such a low percentage of the population is engaged with their product. If you consider gyms and exercise classes a product, you would have thought that they would have been designed to attract, engage, excite and delight people. It has become normal to blame those not participating in exercise products for being lazy individuals. But why do we not question the product itself? Why is it normal to dread your workout regime, rather to look forward to it? Why is the message of the exercise industry based around aesthetics and not health? Why are you made to feel guilty for not showing up instead of being encouraged to come? Why are the contracts designed to tie you in for 12 months instead of fitting around your lifestyle? Why do exercise professionals promote the idea that if you are not hurting for every second of the workout it’s not worth doing?
The health of our nation has been deteriorating for many years; obesity is at an all-time high and fitness at an all-time low as our “busy” lives become more focused on convenience and plagued by pressure which has little release. And yet exercise, a natural endorphin-stimulating relaxant, is still not being promoted as a way of making ourselves happier. Leisure time was a concept popularised by the Victorians as a pleasurable non-working time; but now, in our modern age, leisure centres and gyms are rarely viewed as a pleasurable use of time. Instead we spend our precious free time doing more activities that feel like chores. It is possible for exercise to be a pleasurable experience and we would like to re-associate working out with positive emotions. So, here goes- seven things that we at Rabble believe are really wrong with the exercise industry (the Seven Deadly Sins, if you will…)
1. It is a myth that no pain = no gain.
Doing something is always better than doing nothing. And, actually, consistency is the key. Doing something small everyday is far better for your long term health than killing yourself once a month when you find the motivation and courage- then quitting after a few months. Exercise needs to fit into your lifestyle. The common “all or nothing” mentality is hugely destructive, as well as being totally unsustainable in the long term. Pushing people to the point of no return in exercise classes is not enjoyable and, when the entire focus of the exercise is simply getting the session over with, workouts become something to dread. And that dread will be the reason you stop your regime in the near future. That smug, virtuous glow that comes with aching muscles and a brow drenched in sweat can make you feel good in the short term, but it’s potentially dangerous if you’re not used to it. And if it should happen- god forbid- that one of us mere mortals somehow accidentally wanders into a class full of hard-bodied gym-bunnies, forget about the glow; all you’ll feel is the crushing humiliation of your inadequacy in being unable to feel keep up with the regular repetitive iron-pumpers.
2. It’s mindnumbing.
Why do people pay for an experience they hate? It’s not a good sign when you’re doing everything you can to distract yourself from your monotonous gym activity (music/ TVs etc). It’s also not a good sign when you try to squeeze your workout into a corner of your day so it doesn’t interrupt the activities you actually want to do. There is no need to think during most workouts. Which gives you plenty of time to think about how much discomfort you are in and how many seconds of the workout you have left. The movements are very repetitive and often work an isolated set of muscles, often muscles which have no practical real life function. It’s boring. Many people say they love their workout, but very few can describe much about the workout that they liked and instead focus on the post workout feeling. It’s depressing to acknowledge that the best thing about an experience is it ending. This is your life we are talking about, you don’t get those seconds back. Instructors are often found counting down reps and seconds, encouraging people to focus on the end and participants wish it to be over. And some people do it every day. It’s hard not to feel sorry for these people, who every day wish some of their valuable life would finish quicker. Quite frankly, life’s too short and these exercise products are poor. Ironically in the industry exercise can rarely be considered… fun. Take a look at kids. They run around with their mates all the time, motivated by sheer joy and excitement instead of society’s aesthetic expectations and health obligations. And, play is the strongest motivator for activity- i.e. if you like doing something, you will keep doing it. It is possible to enjoy your workout!
3. It’s bad for your health.
It’s terrible for your mental health and wellbeing to feel constantly guilty for not showing up, for not pushing yourself hard enough in your workouts, for not looking as good or being as strong as the others in the gym, being slower or heavier than you were in the past, to be constantly fed disheartening messages about the “perfect” look. Fitness companies should be encouraging you to come for you, for your own happiness, and they should view the fact that you don’t as a failing of their product- and change their approach to entice you into wanting to come again. Sadly, for now, this isn’t the case, but if you want to try exercise without mental pressure, why not have a go at finding some fun, relaxed team games to get your blood pumping? Team games are perfect for relaxed, enjoyable exercise as- while they still have the capacity to be a regular workout- they have fewer rigid goals and targets whilst still getting you fit and feeling the social benefits of working out with friends. And they don’t tie you to precise, niggling stats and numbers every time you show up.
4. The social exercise options the industry promotes are awkward and lonely.
It’s weird that people opt to do group classes but never speak to anyone in the class and, despite seeing the same regular faces every week, don’t know anything about them. Instructors in regular gym classes rarely know people’s names (and, in the worst cases, don’t acknowledge their existence!), which obviously makes people feel undervalued and unimportant. Exercise classes and sports that have built a social community around them have much higher retention rates than those that are isolating- because having actual friends in your exercise class gives you another, real, reason to show up.
5. The messaging of the fitness industry is deeply, uselessly negative and often offensive.
Fitness companies are huge culprits of propagating a feeling of guilt or inadequacy in society today: ‘Get your beach body!’, ‘Fit into your birthday suit!’, ‘Overindulged this Easter?’ They imply that you are not good enough or that you deserve to be punished for your behaviour. They also imply that their product presents a magical, quick-fix solution to your problem. They only ever focus on the extremes, those results of an extremely controlled or uncontrolled lifestyle. But what about the rest of us, those who are making good regular sustainable progress. Normal is underrated. It’s great to be healthy, appreciate that!
The route to health is a long term journey, with starting points and aspirations different for us all. There are thousands of other ways of working out and pushing yourself, many of which are positive rather than negative. In reality, these messages only really appeal to a few already fit, boring individuals who prioritise their looks to an unhealthy degree. This attitude is so prevalent amongst the fitness industry that these condescending messages are considered normal and its unacceptable (from a health perspective) and stupid (from a commercial one) not to do more to positively encourage those who don’t normally work out to come and give it a try. But unfortunately the industry is so out of touch with this community it seems unlikely to change soon.
6. You are handcuffed to them for long after you stopped using their service.
Most gyms unscrupulously hook clients in with enforced 12-month contracts. Fortunately, this is starting to change but for all too long the 12-month contract has been standard, and the reason is simple- gyms are well aware that 80% of their users don’t show up. The gyms, however, actively encourage this. Their business models are built off these non-attendees and they very deliberately do nothing to get them through the door. So, why? Well, because if everyone who was a member of the gym showed up, there wouldn’t be enough space for them all. Gyms make most of their money through non-attendees and so their contracts are designed to suit the gyms and not the customers. It is not in their interests to get people to show up and get fit.
7. Most gyms focus on aesthetics rather than health.
Many fitness company websites could easily be selling plastic surgery,
models or escorts. They propagate the message that the most important thing is to look good. The images which make up their entire publicity campaigns are totally aspirational and, largely, not realistic. Even in the case of the miserable, dedicated few who do devote their lives to attaining gym-bunny perfection, most gyms don’t actually help them to achieve their flawless physiques in a sustainable and enjoyable way.
This can be extremely damaging, as many of the models whom we are supposed to idolise live unhealthy, extreme lifestyles littered with brutal, disordered exercise and frankly dangerous eating behaviour. It’s seen in personal trainers too, who yoyo in size and weight as much as the rest of us. Why? Because also they don’t enjoy their own fitness regime enough to hold to it in the long term. There should be a focus on gradually fitting exercises to your lifestyle, leisure and diet in order to see sustainable lifelong results.
Fortunately there have been some recent positive shifts in the industry. Workouts are becoming more functional, even if it’s still largely repetitive and boring there’s more of a focus on the strength built being of practical value. Try something like Parcours, where you learn some impressive skills as well as building strength. There has also been more emphasis on cardio workouts; which is the most important fitness component for long term health. On attitude the #thisgirlcan campaign was a refreshing change, to combat the elite, aggressive mindset, it was actually humourous, relatable and inspiring it touched base with many women and encouraged 150,000 to join in! There’s also been a shift in mindset in terms of expectation, it’s normal to see people running to work, heading out at lunchtime and playing sport after work. We are passionate at Rabble about loving life, we play ourselves fit and see many people each month who were not previously engaged with any form of fitness transform their health through games and that should be the role of the exercise industry. Let’s bring playtime back!