Have you ever gone to a local gym and things just didn’t go the way you had planned?
Can you imagine someone telling you to…
“Smile…it burns more calories?”
Anyone who knows me knows that “Smile…it burns more calories” is an example of a statement that I don’t tolerate well. It is the embodiment of twisting something that should be about joy (movement) and making it something about shrinking our bodies.
And yet, as I am going through the process of trying to reclaim my relationship with joyful movement (I used to be a personal trainer and exercise instructor and now that I have more time on my hands, I’m making space to explore this part of my life again), I have found myself again and again confronted with these kinds of messages, “Smile, it burns more calories.” In this instance, it was said to me as I walked out the door of a gym where I was trying to find refuge from diet culture. But instead I found that diet culture has permeated the exercise world, trying to rob us of the opportunity to enjoy moving our bodies both for pleasure and for fitness.
Before I had this unfortunate encounter with a very ignorant trainer, I had another not so great experience at a different gym. I went to this gym knowing that there was going to be quite a bit of diet culture to battle as the program is based on measuring heart rates for anyone who participates. I went anyway, in the hopes that, as a health at every size clinician, strong in her convictions, I could ignore these messages, enjoy moving my body and potentially gain knowledge into how my clients could overcome these messages in their movement spaces as well.
As I walked into the main gym area, I noticed a poster outlining the gym’s goals and ways of operating. Different colored “zones” were assigned to different heart rates, and it seemed that the goal was to get into the “orange zone” for a specific amount of time to “burn the most calories.” There was no discussion about whether everyone needed or wanted to be in the “orange zone,” no notes for special cases or for different kinds of movement goals. There was just one option – an option that not all bodies are capable of or comfortable at. And that… well, that just made my blood boil. So what did I do? I did whatever I damn well pleased with my body, ignored the “zones” and the instructors entirely, and focused on what I wanted to do in the moment.
It worked for some time, and I learned a lot about what my clients face daily, but then they took the diet culture shenanigans too far. Suddenly, this gym was also running a “transformation challenge” in which participants would be consistently weighed and they would be required to do a specific number of workouts per week. Again, no consideration for life getting in the way, differently abled bodies, different fitness goals and abilities, or anything of the kind. And the kicker? The team (participants were broken up into three different groups) with the most weight lost wins.
You can only ignore something that’s being shoved down your throat for so long, and then when they add in a couple more heaps than you can handle…well, you can imagine I had some things to say.
I seriously lost it; I flipped my lid. I had such a negative reaction to this. I don’t weigh myself because I don’t believe that our health or our worth as human beings has anything to do with the number on the scale, and I don’t exercise with the purpose of intentional weight loss because I would much rather move my body because it feels good. Really and truly, this “transformation” challenge was just a weight loss challenge in disguise, and a very dangerous one at that. It is essentially The Biggest Loser – and we all know what happened in THAT contest.
All contestants in the Biggest Loser gained most, if not more of their total weight back after the contest, and in addition, they had significantly reduced metabolic rates. In other words, The Biggest Losers Got Fat **All Over Again.
**SIDE NOTE: You may be uncomfortable with the use of the word FAT in this statement, but I believe that we, as larger-bodied people, have the power to reclaim a word that is so often thrown at us as an insult. Fat is just a descriptor of a body size, not a judgement about someone’s life choices or insinuation about health. In this case, we have research that shows us that the contestants on the Biggest Loser did, in fact, gain all the weight back and, in some cases, more. They permanently damaged their metabolism and their mental health all because we, as a society, can’t seem to respect all body sizes without stigma.
I immediately asked to speak to the manager of the gym. I explained to him that intentional weight loss doesn’t work; I explained that it is far better to be motivated by feeling good in your body and mind. He didn’t understand what I was trying to say. He kept asking me, “Don’t you think you would feel better if you were a few sizes smaller? Why wouldn’t that be a good thing?” This so-called fitness expert had no idea that what he was promoting was not only going to fail in the long run, but it was likely to also push some of his most vulnerable clientele to a disordered, obsessive relationship with their bodies.
It was clear my story was being told to deaf ears. To add insult to injury, I had to endure listening to rhetoric about “earning” my food while I was simultaneously mentally preparing for meal support with not one but two of my clients that day. They were clients with anorexia nervosa who had a hard time eating lunch because they didn’t think they deserved to eat. This really hit a nerve; it was enough diet culture for me. In fact, it bothered me so much that I had to leave mid-class.
Where did I go? I drove over to another gym that was less than ½ a mile away. I drove to this gym to hopefully find a place to move my body, that was not triggering or disordered. I drove to this gym after having a horrible experience at a diet-culture obsessed space. I drove to this gym for refuge; to find a place where my clients could go to reconnect with their bodies. And what did I find? A man who told me to smile because it burned more calories.
I don’t want to end on such a sad note. I want everyone reading to know that there is hope out there. You can find a place to reconnect with your physical body and sometimes the very places riddled with diet culture bullshit also hold some true gems. After this aggravating comment from an ignorant man, I still proceeded to try one of the group exercise classes at this gym. It was taught by a larger-bodied woman who so clearly embodied the joy that I had been searching for. Despite the fact that the face of this establishment is extraordinarily problematic, and clearly needs to change, there are still people out there who “get it.” We just have to work to find them.
Have you ever had any gym experiences like this? We are sharing them on my Facebook Page if you want to join in. Together we can overcome what gym culture is doing to us and share ways to cope.
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Erica Leon is a Registered Dietitian and practices from a Health at Every Size (HAES®) lens. She is certified as an eating disorder specialist and is passionate about helping women at midlife, menopause and beyond to make peace with food and body image.
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