Is lockdown fitness culture negatively affecting mental health?

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I consider myself a fairly active individual, so it seems at first to be contradictory of me to criticise workout culture. I abide by all the clichéd mantras that exercise improves my mental health and that, whilst no one will ever convince me burpees weren’t invented by a seriously sick individual, you do in fact feel better for exercising. In light of this, lockdown initially seemed to be the perfect opportunity to get in those extra workouts that I was always too busy for during term time, and to manage the stresses of at-home exams and a national lockdown to boot.

With gyms being closed and the potential for a socially-distanced netball match seeming highly unlikely, like most people, I turned to the internet for guidance. What I found was a plethora of online trainers who have capitalised on the limits imposed by lockdown by creating at-home fitness programmes.

In trialling a few ‘Fitness YouTubers’, and I began to notice a pattern in both the video titles and the instructions themselves that shed a harsher light on the fitness culture that had seemed initially so positive. 

Lockdown initially seemed to be the perfect opportunity to get in those extra workouts that I was always too busy for during term time.

One fitness influencer that has achieved notable success during lockdown is the TikTok and YouTube sensation, Chloe Ting. Boasting 11.8 million subscribers and a subscriber increase of 8.4 million between March 2020 and July 2020 alone, her lockdown fitness videos are arguably the most popular of any to have emerged during the pandemic.

Most interesting to me about Ms. Ting’s success however, is that it feeds into and is fed by an aesthetically-based impetus for exercise. The titles of her videos capitalise on common insecurities, promoting workouts that help you to ‘Lose Thigh Fat’ or help you get a ‘Flat Belly in 30 Days!’, or even encouraging a ‘Tiny Waist & Round Butt Workout’ to achieve an hourglass figure. I myself admit to selecting some of her workouts to work on what I would perceive as my ‘problem areas,’ buying into the reality that I would emerge from lockdown a hench butterfly with abs to die for. 

The titles of Chloe Ting’s videos capitalise on common insecurities.

Whilst I am not denying that these are the results that some seek, the language of these videos seems to feed into the unhealthy side of trying to stay healthy. Instead of maintaining a level of fitness or improving your mood, the focus inextricably becomes redirected to the ‘how many workouts before I look like her’ mentality; the notion that each squat or burpee gets you one step closer to an ideal you.

Having felt the effects of this clickbaiting myself, I spoke with PT Adam Peacock (of Sunday Brunch and Lose Weight & Get Fit with Tom Kerridge) to gauge whether aesthetically-based training programs are something he encounters regularly. Asking him whether he believes the language of videos such as Ms. Ting’s can be damaging, he says: “I think [the language used] matters a great deal as misleading information perpetuates further misunderstanding and confusion.” He went on to note that this “leads to frustration and disappointment when people don’t see the results they were hoping for.”

Having felt the effects of this clickbaiting myself, I spoke with Personal Trainer Adam Peacock.

Interestingly, Mr. Peacock adds that “there’s nothing wrong if a person’s motivation is to look amazing!”. This is a sentiment I agree with for the most part, but it is the perpetuated definition of ‘amazing’ that proves a sticking point.

The intrinsic link between fitness and Instagram-readiness has been undeniably strengthened by lockdown culture; our thumbs are getting as much of a workout scrolling as our abs are during a so-called ‘blast.’ The distinction between ‘fitness for me’ vs. ‘fitness to become a me that does not yet exist’, I have found, can often disappear, dredging up feelings of present inadequacy. This, to be frank, is the last thing we need during a global pandemic in which feelings of fear and uncertainty are already thick in the air. Exercise should be a form of escapism from such feelings, not a means of reinforcing them. Whilst the fitness culture during lockdown may turn out to be a fad, looking after yourself is not.

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