The Cargo Cult of Fitness
A cargo cult is a belief system among members of an underdeveloped society in which superstitious rituals are used in the hope of bringing modern material goods supplied by a more technologically advanced society. These cults were first described in Melanesia in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Melanesians built a runway expecting that it would produce material wealth in the form of airplanes bringing them Western goods. The Melanesians obviously lacked a deeper understanding of the system of trade and resource distribution; just because you build a runway, doesn’t mean airplanes filled with goodies will come.
The cargo cult of fitness is that everyone wants to build a fit body that looks good (the airplane with material goods), but they want to use a get-fit-quick scheme to do it, such as a crash diet or a new fitness fad (the runway). Instead of changing their lifestyle, they use an approach that is oversimplified, inconsistent, and lacks an understanding of the body as a system. For example, fasting for 20 hours a day and then eating junk food for the other 4 hours is not a sustainable habit, nor is it a nutritionally sound diet. As a second example, taking a high intensity fitness class 5 days a week when you only sleep 5 hours a night actually works against a weight loss or muscle gain goal. When people inevitably fail to achieve their goal this way, because they are approaching their health in a superficial way, they think it’s just not possible for them to be healthy and fit.
(It's worth noting that aesthetics are the easiest, most visual representation of what people believe fitness to be, however, having a six pack does not mean you are healthy, or even that your core muscles are strong. The aesthetic that is believed to be the best is based on a societal standard that has nothing to do with fitness or health. Tell me what’s healthy about getting breast or butt implants, sucking in your stomach at all times to look leaner, or having giant muscles that cause you to move poorly?)
Many people assume they should work out at a high intensity and with high frequency because that’s what they see fit people do. They're not wrong in believing exercise is beneficial; getting your sweat on IS one of the lowest hanging fruit. Exercise has been shown to have numerous positive effects on health, body composition, brain function, stress levels, sleep, mood, and nutritional choices. However, like anything, exercise should progress slowly and build on a stable base.
If you sees a friend or role model doing a certain type of exercise at a specific intensity, it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s “the way” to get fit. In fact, that could be the opposite of the right thing to do because everyone is an individual and has different needs. There is no ONE way or quick way to getting in shape. Simply looking at one small piece of the puzzle as the solution to everything (i.e. a particular form of exercise) lacks understanding of the entire system: the connection of body, brain, nervous system, environment, relationships, stress, sleep, emotions, toxins, nutrition, thoughts, and energy. This is like thinking that building an airplane runway will bring you goods instead of taking into account an understanding of the entire system of trade around the world and becoming involved in it.
Many people -- perhaps you are one of them -- are already feeling the consequences of trying a get-fit-quick solution instead of approaching fitness holistically and with all of the factors in mind. The consequences may come in the form of aches and pains, weight gain, increased stiffness, high stress levels, fatigue and demotivation, or injuries that people brush off as “normal”. Many people say a decline in health and increase in pain is simply “part of getting older”... I don’t buy it. Take this with a grain of salt if you like (since I’m a young lady of 28 years old), but I don’t believe you should accept a life of pain and/or ill health. If you’ve accepted the idea that getting old means being hurt and in pain, you are contributing to your own suffering.
Sounds pretty complicated, right? Yep, the human body is incredibly complex and tough to manage and it’s what keeps people employed in the health and fitness industry. In order to be or look fit (whatever that really means), there has to be an understanding of all of the factors that go into being healthy. While exercise can contribute, most of us know that it’s not a guaranteed way to lose weight or make any body composition changes. For many people, focusing on reducing stress levels, increasing sleep quality, or having a better outlook on life may be necessary before exercise can have a positive effect on the body. And while I'm not a huge proponent of focusing on what you look like, you will generally look better if you take better care of yourself in all of the areas listed above.
In summary, the cargo cult of fitness is that everyone wants to build a fit body that looks good, but they want to use a get-fit-quick scheme to do it, such as a crash diet or a new fitness fad. This ideology is the reason so many people fail when it comes to their fitness and health goals -- they are trying oversimplified solutions that lack a deeper understanding of what is required to become fit.
So how can you avoid being part of the cargo cult of fitness, and reap the benefits -- physically, mentally, aesthetically -- of living a healthy lifestyle?
Educate yourself. This book is a great place to start.
Learn about your body by trying things and reflecting on whether they actually work for you.
Find health and wellness practitioners that teach you how to take care of yourself, mentally and physically (hi!).
Stop listening to each and every random person on the internet (also hi, but hopefully I'm not random).
Create a long-term plan to adjust your lifestyle in a healthy way that makes sense for YOU, whether or not it’s in line with everyone else’s ideas about fitness (see my offer below...).
If you need help creating a plan, please email me at email@example.com to set up an online consultation.