Fitness is a multipurpose tool that helps us to maintain our overall well-being; it also serves as therapy to help us tackle our mental and emotional problems and chronic conditions.
By: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti
Main image: Rishikesh Yogpeeth – unsplash
Popular culture has always promoted a one-dimensional view of fitness; which is often about accumulating a lean and toned physique. As a result, fitness can be seen as a form of vanity instead of a spiritual activity that can help us heal and find balance in our lives.
Through numerous researches, it has been found that fitness serves as medicine and therapy. According to researchers, K.Perdesen & B. Saltin, there is evidence that shows that fitness can be prescribed as medicine in treatment of 26 diseases: “psychiatric diseases (depression, anxiety, stress, schizophrenia); neurological diseases (dementia, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis); metabolic diseases (obesity, hyperlipidaemia, metabolic syndrome, polycystic ovarian syndrome, type 2 diabetes, type 1 diabetes); cardiovascular diseases (hypertension, coronary heart disease, heart failure, cerebral apoplexy, and claudication intermittent); pulmonary diseases (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, cystic fibrosis); musculoskeletal disorders (osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, back pain, rheumatoid arthritis); and cancer.”
Nqobile Chirwa, 29, a sports science graduate and a fitness trainer at Virgin Active, is one of the local fitness trainers that aim to use the science of exercise as a tool to help many boost their well-being. He says the current culture has created so many misconceptions around fitness, as a result, people find it intermediating.
“There are various factors that contribute to use having an unhealthy relationship with fitness, like low self-esteem, lack of self-confidence and unhealthy comparisons. All of us want to fit in. The slim person might desire to be thicker, and the thicker person might desire to be slimmer because of what they perceive as acceptable in society.
“Our society has an unrealistic idea of what sexy is and the media (more especially Twitter & Instagram) constantly show us this linear view of what is considered to be sexy. This has turned us into people who are not comfortable in our bodies, and as a result, we are always trying to change how we look. We are in constant battle of belonging, and everyone wants to fit into that idea of sexy, instead of striving for health,” explains Chirwa.
The fitness trainer says people approach fitness experts not just for body transformations but also for mental care and to help treat ailments and diseases. The current pandemic also further inspired legions of people to prioritise their health.
“People don’t have similar goals. Not everyone is on a mission to bulk up or to lose weight – we have diseases, disorders and sicknesses that force people to adopt a healthy lifestyle, as a way to manage their health,” explains Chirwa.
The rise of social media has been revolutionary, but it also comes with severe social pressures. It has seen many eagerly scrutinise their appearance in efforts to amass likes and followers. Fitness is often used as clickbait. “People are constantly being bombarded with images of half-naked people advertising their bodies and performing advanced exercises, and people just emulate without taking into consideration the safety factors. It’s very dangerous because most of the fitness enthusiast that people follow don’t show their full journey (the highs & lows) and the gruelling process it takes to achieve fitness results.
“There are also many false advertisements that make people believe that they can achieve fitness results in a few weeks, like the six-week challenges etc, whereas, realistically, it may take one 6 to 12 months to achieve fitness goals the right way. This is promoting a culture of taking shortcuts, but we must remember: “easy come, easy go”. In life, you don’t achieve beautiful results overnight; it’s a journey.”
Chirwa also believes that the over-sexualising of fitness has resulted in many undermining the fitness profession. This short-sited perspective is the reason why many people do not realise that fitness is a form of therapy – a medicine for the mind and body.
“Fitness is vital for our well-being. I have read some researches that suggest that sometimes exercise can be more effective for our mental health than psychotherapy. Some people love running and aerobics because of the runners high, a feeling of euphoria, which is great for killing stress and elevating one’s mood. Exercise also helps with change of environment and being outside in nature. With weights and other intensive training, the pain that comes with the process motivates other people to face whatever pain they may be facing in their lives.”
The trainer reveals that he has had a lot of clients who adopt a fitness lifestyle due to mental health issues. Fitness then serves as a form of therapy for clients who are dealing with some forms of depression and anxiety, or other emotional problems. However, he does stress that with more severe mental cases, professional mental care may be the only option.
“I have seen how fitness helped some of my clients with mental and emotional issues. I have also worked with people who are genetically depressed or suffer from mood disorders. What we do is work out ways to help them unlock their happy hormones, the endorphins, the serotonin, neurotransmitters.
“When we are stressed, the stress hormone, the cortisol, goes up, and exercise can help decrease those hormones. Scientific researches have proven that if we train consistently for five to six months, we can reduce the symptoms of depression. However, for severe depression, one has to seek professional mental care, but training can help in managing it over time. Fitness can also open up our social network and introduce us to like-minded individuals who can help motivate us. It also forces us to go out and get Vitamin D (The Sun) which can have a positive effect on us, mentally.”
“What we don’t know is that mental issues are costing us billions because we become less productive. This kills the production levels in workspaces. Whether in our homes, social spaces or our working spaces, we should care about mental health because the effects are deeper than we think.”
Chirwa also warns of the dangers of emulating or hiring fitness influencers as personal trainers, as some of them are unqualified. He believes that the fitness influencers’ trend has opened up a space for unqualified trainers to lure people into joining get rich quick schemes, which pose great danger to people.
“This is killing the fitness industry because people are practising without the necessary credentials which enable them to understand the profession and get education on the psychology and anatomy of the human body. We have people practising without even the level-1 (first aid) certification, and they can’t react in emergencies which can often happen in training environments. Every single thing matters when dealing with health, hence, I advise people to check their trainer’s credentials before entrusting them with their well-being.
“I believe that there is a great difference between training for yourself, mastering the techniques and getting your desired results and training other people and helping them achieve their fitness goals. All exercises have a deeper effect, and one needs to be educated and qualified to fully understand how training affects people, individually. Yes, the body sells, but one would also want to train with someone who doesn’t just have the perfect body, but also the experience, knowledge and credentials.”
While social media can be the gateway to meet like-minded individuals and finding motivation for fitness, diet and health, research has also shown that it has further compounded body image disorders. Many browse through social media, mostly Instagram, looking at images of attractive people flaunting their bodies.
According to research by Stuart B. Murray, Isabel Krug, and Siân A. McLean from New Zealand: “Researchers have found evidence to suggest that exposure to social media may cause body dissatisfaction and eating disorders through various theoretical mechanisms, including physical appearance comparisons and self-objectification in this context, maladaptive social media use would include persistent user engagement in these mechanisms of body dissatisfaction and eating disorder development. For example, a user might frequently access, and compare themselves with, objectifying social media imagery containing depictions of very thin bodies or lean and muscular bodies; imagery that some researchers have termed “thinspiration” and “fitspiration,” respectively.”
Chirwa reveals that the issue of body image disorders is a controversial issue that has been swept under the rug. The trainer also acknowledges that this disorder is on the increase with the rise of social media.
“People need to know that many body transformations are not due to just a simple supplement; there is also the use of underground supplements that people don’t talk about. You will find supplement companies who are touting people who look great on social media, only to find that these people are also on illegal supplements, a way to fasten the process to gain following. They will deceive people about their body transformation to be ambassadors of fitness products. This extends to modelling, where people go to extremes to look a certain way to be brand ambassadors. It’s not all picture-perfect. Many people are driven by money and don’t follow the process.”
The trainer advises young people to read and educate themselves before being influenced by the world of social media. This education could help them understand themselves better and to be more kind to their bodies.
“Education can help the youth understand how to utilise their bodies and to know how far their bodies can go. They should also learn to not compare their bodies to that of others because they don’t know their process, what they consume. And they should know why they need a body transformation – is it to look better or is it for health reasons?”
He adds: “Fitness does not always have to be hard or painful, simple movement and physical activities can also count as training. There is research that shows that domestic work can also release endorphins (like mopping the floor). They can also try yoga, meditation, Pilates and dancing. We have to broaden our perspective when we think about fitness because even the little things can prove to be effective in the long run.
“Be content. It’s not a competition; it’s about improving your health. It’s bigger than body change, it’s a holistic transformation. When done right, one reaps the rewards of a more centered life.”