Is it Finally Time We Changed our Relationship with Exercise?

To train or not to train, that is the question, writes our style columnist Christopher Riley.

Article by Christopher Riley

Working out is so passé. Going for a run, hitting the gym, swimming laps – all this used to come under the banner of exercise. We used to fit our workouts in around our work schedule or family life, and just got it done. These days, things are very different. Now, we train. In the age of social media, exercise has gone from something we did, to something we talk about.

For someone who grew up playing sport – always on the run from one practice to another – this suited me just fine. Once I entered the world of work and weekends were no longer dedicated to competition, I replaced sport with training. Every session was the same. I’d turn up at the gym with my head down and my attention focussed. I’d find a spot in the corner with plenty of space, put on my headphones and begin. If anyone approached, I’d give off just enough stink eye to let them know this was no social visit. (After all, I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to train.) A protein shake would follow before I’d do it all over again, sometimes on the same day.

Having just spent three months in which I have had to rethink my daily pilgrimage to the gym, I’ve begun asking myself why I do this – for what exactly am I training? Athletes – and by that I mean those of us whose job it is to play pro sport – they train. And the reason is simple: they do so in order to perform the best they can when game day comes around. What about the rest of us? There are no legions of fans waiting to watch our every move, no commentators obsessing over our mistakes. Without the outlet of game day, many of us find ourselves in a perpetual cycle of training: dressed constantly in activewear, we walk around with aches and pains, either en route to the gym or coming from it. We have all these muscles and nothing to do with them.

And there’s obviously nothing inherently wrong with this. If that’s what you enjoy, do you. But I suspect the cult of training and the rise of muscle dysmorphia, particularly among men, over the past decade is not a coincidence. Defined as unhealthy obsession with gaining weight and muscularity, a recent study found that muscle dysmorphia affects 22 per cent of men aged 18-24. In light of this alarming trend, training becomes less about self improvement and more about self flagellation.

With the constant comparison provided by social media, it’s easy to see why. But in order to avoid such a path, I’d encourage us all to switch off the auto pilot for a second and ask ourselves why we do the things we do. This could mean exercise or anything else that occupies our time and energy. Is it about the thing itself – the training – or is it about something else – the game?

For me, it’s the latter. It’s about preserving my mental health and finding joy in mastering new skills. So, if that’s the case, the next logical question would be, is my mental health improved or impinged by spending daily hours in such a punishing environment? To find out, I replaced my serious sweat sessions with something a little less restrictive. To start with, I went outside. Making the park my gym, I ran, did pull ups and practised yoga in the sun. I swapped timing my rest periods with aimless wandering around the park until I was ready for my next set.

If I didn’t feel like training – sorry exercising – I simply didn’t. And guess what… nothing happened. I didn’t suddenly put on 30 pounds or grow horns. Who knew?

This is the ideal time to be asking these types of questions. Because, if there is anything good to come of the pandemic it’s that it has afforded us the opportunity to rethink our priorities. Let’s not waste it. After all, there is a time and a place to train; when life calls for it, switch on the tunnel vision and dial up the focus. But, that day does not come every day. Sometimes, the braver act might be not training at all.