There is something strange going in the world of exercise. While campaigns such as This Girl Can open up the sheer joy of physical activity for its own sake to women who previously felt under par, or excluded, there is a tranche of classes, trainers and “products” who now sell themselves on – well – pain. Whether it’s Tough Mudders zapping people with 10,000 volts, “hilarious” videos made by the Crossfit community about the inevitability of stress incontinence as the reward for being great at lifting, or classes such as Helle Hammonds’ new “Gym Class” which relishes being one of the “toughest” or “most hardcore” out there, and takes pride in leaving attendees unable to walk for a few days afterwards.
It’s daft. And more importantly, it’s unsustainable.
I’m no stranger to the quicksilver thrill of realising you can do more than you ever imagined. I know that delicious sensation of absolutely knowing you can’t go any further or any faster… and then doing it anyway. One of the purest thrills of exercise is discovering parts of yourself you never dreamt you had – and training for a tangible goal makes that sensation an achievable dream.
But this is different. This end of the market seems to be cherishing exercise as if pain is the goal itself. As individual trainers become mini celebrities through Instagram and other social media, each of them is creating an image or a brand for themselves and their classes. No longer are these fitness gurus the luxe secret of a few celebrities or the stars of glossy exercise videos. They are accessible to us through apps, celebrities’ own sweaty snaps, and Insta stories constantly updated between classes. This proximity, alongside the need to stand out, seems to have bred a particularly unique turn of phrase – it’s the language of extremes. Turning up, breaking a sweat and having a good time doesn't seem to be enough any more. Even feeling the burn is for beginners – these days it seems you’re no one if you’re not close to calling 999.
If you’re being asked to part with a fortune to do some squats just because the instructor has looked “pain” up in a thesaurus, do remind yourself that agony isn’t the entry ticket to gleeful exercise
It isn’t hard to see how it has happened. After all, there is a finite number of exercises one can actually do to get fit (sorry, ripped). Even if rebranded as Scandinavian warrior fitness, or brutal military bootcamps, workouts will almost always be the same selection of lunges, squats, lifts and twists. There are very few (ie probably no) revolutionary new ways to exercise: what makes these trainers or programmes stand out is presentation and personality. Humans get bored easily, we want to do something that feels new and exciting, and we want to have a good time training with someone charismatic who makes us feel understood and inspired. And this is exactly why the aggressive, almost fetishistic language around some programmes makes me feel so uneasy: for as long as we’re associating exercise with pain and misery not pleasure and connection, we’re missing the point… and we’ll probably give up.
I'm all for pushing yourself a bit further than you think you can – you can almost always “give that little bit more”. But exercise-induced urinary leakage is not healthy, nor a cause for celebration. Yes, exercise can flood you with endorphins and make grief, rejection and anxiety easier to cope with in all sorts of majestic ways but swapping emotional pain for physical is an unsustainable solution.
Ultimately, all of us are driven to exercise by other humans, whether they’re inspiring mentors or gleeful classmates. Research consistently shows that it is the social aspect of sport or exercise that will keep those who are not natural or competitive athletes returning to exercise. This understanding of our need for the human connection is why communities such as parkrun or Goodgym are so successful and have proved so durable over the years.
Sure, if you need a kickstart after taking some time away from exercise, or you just can’t face the same old running playlist again this week, there is a certain enlivening charm to some of these concepts. But if you’re being asked to part with a fortune to do some squats just because the instructor has looked “pain” up in a thesaurus, do remind yourself that agony isn’t the entry ticket to gleeful exercise. And often it’s your wallet that ends up hurting the most.