In the last two years, fitness has become the most fashionable trend to hit my Instagram feed. I’ve seen the best brunch-goers of my generation changing their Sunday morning plans, as bacon sandwiches and Bloody Marys are eschewed for Lyrca, hikes, and classes with “intensity” in the title. I’ve liked their pictures, longed for the trainers and found myself making a bit more of an effort to go to the gym. So I was shocked to hear that the British Heart Foundation have published new findings showing 20 million of us are considered physically inactive, and at a greater risk of heart disease. I thought we were doing more sport than ever before! Didn’t everyone watch the This Girl Can adverts and think “Hooray! I am no longer scared of PE”?
I write with my tongue in my cheek, but I do think that the Sports England campaign made significant strides by promoting exercise as an activity for everyone. However, I think the BHF figures show that millions of us don’t think that fitness is something we’re able to factor into our lives. We hear that it’s a problem we urgently need to address, but are we asking why this is happening? When health, fitness and lifestyle issues are discussed, we often talk in moral terms. A news story about the UK obesity crisis is usually illustrated with a picture of a big bottom in a tracksuit, maybe carrying a fast food container. Being “fat” is associated with being “lazy”, the implication always being that if obese people could just be bothered to get up and do some exercise, the problem would be solved.
Still, I don’t think 20 million of us are inactive because we’d rather sit on the sofa with a KFC bucket. People know exercise is good for them, and it’s important to do it. If they’re not exercising, it might be because they’ve only ever had bad experiences with exercise, or they’re frightened. Or because they have jobs and families and countless demands on their time, and they simply don’t have 150 minutes a week to themselves, in order to get the recommended amount. Or because they’ve seen too many pictures of Kendall Jenner on her way to a workout in $94 leggings, and started to wonder whether exercise really is for everyone, or if it’s been co-opted by the young, famous and wealthy.
Most of us will never run a marathon – we’re just trying to work up the courage to run around the block
Not that long ago, it was common to be encouraged to do some light cardio – you might have been invited to come to your friend's Legs, Bums and Tums class, or try a little lunch yoga, and although you'd encounter the odd expert, everyone was broadly at the same sporting level. However, in the last few years a shift has occurred – I can't be the only one who feels like they're sponsoring fewer friends to do 5K fun runs, yet every seriously sporty pal seems to be training for a triathlon. There's been a growth in the number of big-name, high-profile, results-focused gyms, with classes to help you get an “A-lister” body. Of course, this comes with a matching A-lister price tag.
Exercise is meant to enhance your lifestyle, but we're under pressure to base our lifestyle around it entirely, even though very few of us have the time or money to do this. There's a growing gap between the ultra-fit, and the large group whose health is at risk. If you're already a high achiever, you'll have the confidence and resources to take fitness extremely seriously. However, if you don't have those resources, it's harder to find a realistic entry point. You might be inspired to hear about the Ernst and Young senior partner, Josephine Bush, who ran six marathons in seven days in the Sahara desert - or you might feel so daunted by the prospect that you feel discouraged and set back.
The point of the This Girl Can campaign is that is shows a wide range of women exercising. There’s a real breadth of ages, faces and bodies being represented. It’s enormously powerful to see someone like you doing something you’d like to do, especially when you’re a little nervous about doing it. At the moment, we’re under more pressure than ever to do some exercise, and to do it in an expensive and fashionable way. While the aspirational aspect has encouraged people to embrace fitness, I think it has also constructed barriers to entry. We’re currently dealing with a toxic culture of comparison, and it’s implied that we’re not enough unless we have a certain body shape, dress a certain way and go to certain places. Fitness fashion contributes to this. We need to hear more messages about how to exercise for ourselves, on our own terms. I’m thrilled that an elite group of women are achieving so many exciting sports goals. However, most of us will never run a marathon – we’re just trying to work up the courage to run around the block. We need proper motivation, and we’re not getting it when we’re made to feel that we’re lazy, uncoordinated, and lacking the relevant lifestyle credentials. We need to hear that people like us can do it, and enjoy it.