Over coffee, a friend and I were discussing what it is to go to a gym, to workout, as a woman. She had made the mistake of looking online for inspiration to get more fit, which led to a nearly endless stream of "how to lose weight" messages. She observed that even some of the seemingly empowering messages have weight-related messages lurking: "I feel more confident (now that I'm a size four)", "I finally feel like I can wear a bathing suit (because large women shouldn't wear bathing suits)", "I feel so good about myself (as long as I keep the weight off)". She bemoaned the fact that even if she doesn't care about losing weight, just getting healthier and more fit, she's going to appear to be participating in this larger dialogue that somehow smaller is better.
Even if you are actively trying to lose weight, resist the messages that tell you that losing weight is the only way to become attractive and healthy. There are healthy, confident, attractive people of all sizes.
Almost a year ago, I started a new gym routine which did result in some loss of weight and inches and considerable increase in strength, stamina, and overall fitness. Through the process, I've been actively trying to resist weight-loss and appearance-focused messages (with mixed results). Thus:Advice for women about how to go to the gym without buying into the dominant paradigm surrounding weight lossChoose an appropriate goal measurement:
If your goal is to get more fit, define "fit" first: lose the unhealthy belly fat, get stronger, improve your cardiovascular health, have less joint pain, whatever. Then choose a way of measuring your results that corresponds to your goal. Don't default to using a scale; your weight often isn't meaningful as a measure of fitness. Alternatives to the scale includes taking body measurements
, figuring out your one rep maximum
, checking your resting heart rate
or your heart rate recovery rate
, calculating your body fat percentage
, or track your pain in a journal.
Choose a reasonable schedule for tracking your changes and an appropriate way to measure your progress.Lift weights:
You won't bulk up (unless you really try to), but you will increase your strength, improve your fitness, boost your metabolism, and prevent bone loss. And the messages around lifting aren't focused on weight loss. Go to a coed gym:
I went to a Curves
women-only gym for years and only switched to a co-ed gym last year. Though Curves tries to focus on a nebulous concept of "empowerment", there were always people around discussing their weight loss (or lack thereof), there were weight-loss support groups run in the gym, and the business' magazine was full of ads for diet foods. In contrast, my new gym, a Steve Nash Fitness World
, has DotFit
, which is always advertised as a way to "support your fitness goals" and never exclusively as a weight-loss product. Advertising to get to both men and women is less likely to feed into "skinny is better" message, and going to a co-ed gym means fewer ads aimed just at women.
Unfortunately, the above might be changing. I wrote the paragraph above, then remembered a new series of poster ads in my new gym, featuring weight loss success stories, both men and women, from Fitness World locations around the country. Still, men don't talk about their weight loss on the treadmill and women seem to talk about it less when men are around.Workout early:
Maybe it's just at my gym, but I've found that working out early in the morning means working out with a different group of people than going to the gym during the day or after work. The early morning group (at our gym, that's 5:30 to 7 AM) are dedicated. They are the hardcore fitness people, including lots of amateur body builders. I find working out with them inspiring and non-intimidating: you can learn a lot about lifting and using the machines by watching them, but they are entirely focused on what they are doing and don't care what you are up to. In contrast, the weight area is busier after work, but seems cluttered with people who are more interested in socializing than in lifting.Do lots of different things:
By incorporating a lot of different activities, including some in the gym and some outside of it, into your week, you make getting healthier part of your daily life. The prevailing messages around weight continue to keep "losing weight" and "dieting" as a category of activity separate from everything else – something you do for a limited time until you reach a magic number – so making physical activity just another part of life counters that story perfectly.
Trying different physical activities gives you lots of choices if something isn't working for you. Life is too short to do things you don't enjoy. For a while, I pushed myself to run on the treadmill even though I disliked it, but I found that the recumbent bike and elliptical machine are both more enjoyable for getting my cardio. Also, I tried a step class last week... never again! On the other hand, I've discovered several fitness classes I do enjoy and have added them to my weekly schedule.
I also pick and choose my classes at the gym based on the instructors. I prefer ones who push you to your personal best over ones who just yell orders. The second one – barking out "go faster", "get your knees higher", "squat deeper" – often makes me feel inadequate, where a teacher who says "go as fast as you can" and "if you can, go deeper on these last five reps" encourages me to try a bit harder, but without the damaging messages.Get two for one:
Learn self-defence techniques or how to dance, and get your fitness needs met while focusing on learning, not losing.Don't buy all new clothes:
When your body starts changing, especially if you do lose inches, don't run out and buy a whole new wardrobe. Replace items that don't fit anymore as needed, but keep wearing what does still work. Buying all new clothes is part of the story that you will workout until you reach a certain size, then stop. Instead, know that your body will always be changing, so you'll always be adjusting your wardrobe to suit you now. Also, if you purchase all new clothes all of a sudden, you are more likely to get comments about weight loss, which tends to reinforce that as being the most valuable result of the process, instead of whatever your goal actually is.Choose who to talk to:
Avoid sharing your fitness efforts, especially when they are new and fragile, with people who want to talk about dieting and losing weight. Talk to people who also have health goals. Talk to people who also want to get fitter, stronger, healthier, more flexible. Talk to people who are already living the kind of healthy, active life you are aiming for. Choose how to talk about it:
Beliefs become words, and words become beliefs. Your subconscious thoughts about what you are doing will be expressed in what you say about it, and what you say will shape your subconscious in turn. Reinforce the beliefs you want with the words you choose when talking about your workouts and your goals.No guilt:
Probably the hardest of all, but most important to getting free of the trap, is to refuse to guilt yourself and to stop "should-ing" yourself. Workout because you want to, because it feels good, because you want the results, because it feels good when you stop, but not because you should.