Why Are We Still Obsessed With Shrinking Ourselves When It Comes to Exercise?

Getty / Olha Khorimarko

Nobody who grew up in the 90s and lived through the toxic diet culture of that time has really ever believed that body positivity was a magic fix that could save us all. Maybe some of us hoped, or were cheered by green shoots of things seeming different for a younger generation. But in our heart of hearts, if we were still looking in the mirror and finding it hard to quiet certain negative thoughts, it would likely not be long until society regressed. And sadly, following the rise of Ozempic the insipid creep of super-skinny feels like it’s back. And if you were feeling it, sadly there’s now evidence too.

A new study by Asics, out today, found that online searches for “weight loss exercises” have increased 552% in the last year, with searches for “quick weight loss” increasing by 581% year-on-year. The number of videos solely focused on “exercise + weight loss” has increased by 204%, 33% more than videos focused on exercise and mental health. The multitude of benefits of exercise are being completely lost in an all-consuming pursuit of shrinking.

And while it’s of course your prerogative how you spend your time and life, the fact is the study also found that in fact, the content isn’t always beneficial and in fact 42% said the volume of “quick weight loss” content has made them feel worse about themselves and less motivated to exercise.

Related: Forget Paige Thorne’s “Punisher Day” – Long Live the Rise of the Ridiculous Workout

To try and combat this, Asics have launched an “alternative weight loss message”, meaning that when people search for online weight loss content, they will be directed to content that reminds people of the other benefits of exercise. The campaign includes a series of videos that instead highlight that just 15 minutes of exercise can take the weight off our minds.

One of those involved in the campaign is influencer and body positivity campaigner, Emily Clarkson. The podcast host said that she was “disappointed, but not surprised” by the outcome of the survey.

“We are truly seeing a resurgence of diet culture,” she told PS UK. “And in lots of ways it feels as if the brilliant body confidence movement has been parked, and as often happens with trend cycles, the ‘thinspiration’ of my own teenage life is back in.

“I’d beg you please to remember that you weren’t put here on this earth just to make yourself small.”

“It frightens me honestly, as I know the hugely detrimental effects that that time had on my own mental health and relationship with exercise and my body, and I feel that young people’s exposure to it now, with the pervasive and relentless nature of the internet, is going to be hugely damaging. Whilst for us it was written on the walls; in the magazines and on the lips of our mothers, now it really is everywhere, and the genius of the algorithm will make it almost impossible to escape.

“I’m always disappointed to think that those profiting in the fitness industry are still so happy to play to people’s insecurities in order to make their success, but it’s hardly surprising when you look to the success of that formula across the beauty industry. I suppose it’s harder to sell a warm fuzzy feeling, and much easier to sell a transformation, at least whilst we live in a world that says thin is good, thin is beautiful, thin is successful. It’s such an easy thing to manipulate, the relationship between thinness and exercise and so it’s hardly surprising huge sectors of the fitness industry are happy to do it. And even less surprising that we, as the customers, are falling for it.”

Related: I Got Strong Instead of Skinny, and I’ve Never Been Happier

While 72% of people believe society’s obsession with the perfect body image is bad for people’s mental health, what can we actually do to make a shift? The fact is, the mindset of shrinking continues to be pervasive, behind the positive instagrams they post, in the searches they’re making.

“First and foremost I’d beg you please to remember that you weren’t put here on this earth just to make yourself small,” says Clarkson. “There IS more to your life than that. And I don’t want you to look up in 50 years time and wonder why all your energy went on shrinking yourself, on taking up less space, when you could have been out there living, big and bold, as you deserve.

“Exercise can be so great. But it can be horrible too. The difference, is mindset. When I exercised because I hated myself, it was awful. Obviously. How could it not have been? How could anything positive have come from hate? When I started exercising for other reasons; because I wanted (needed) to escape my head, because I thought trying climbing, pole dancing or spinning might be fun, because my friend asked me to try something new, because I wanted to see what I could do, because I wanted to show up for myself and be proud of myself and do something cool, for myself? Well that’s when it started being great. The exercise stayed the same, but the way I thought about it changed. And that’s the magic.”

Psychologist Dr Tara Quinn-Cirillo explained how the mindset of exercise just for weight loss can be so damaging. “Evidence suggests that quick-fix weight loss, through diet and exercise fads, often leads to only short-term gains and negative long-term consequences,” she says. “The desire to lose weight quickly, perpetuated by societal norms and pervasive digital weight loss content, can be damaging to self-esteem and self-worth, as people strive for an ideal that society has cultivated.

“The result can cause people to obsess over using exercise only as a way to change appearances. What often gets overlooked is the power of movement to support better overall health.

“Everything I thought I knew about exercise changed, I realised that in order to really do it well I needed to eat properly to fuel myself.”

“Therefore, reframing our relationship with exercise is crucial. Moving our bodies releases dopamine which boosts mood, reduces stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline and has long-term benefits for anxiety reduction. And we don’t always need to engage in ‘formal’ exercise for these benefits. Activities such as running, playing games in a park or even going up and down the stairs are all movements that can contribute to overall improved wellbeing.”

It sounds great, but as many of us who have tried to make the shift know, it can be a lifelong trial. Look at the example recently of former Love Island contestant Paige Thorne feeling comfortable to tell her thousands of fans she needed a “punisher” exercise and eating day. The messages are everywhere and hard to block out, before you even attempt an internal struggle.

For Emily, she said that mindset change took time – but is possible. “It was an accumulation of things; I was doing a lot of work to heal my relationship with my body and with myself, I was really trying to learn how to love myself, in every sense of the word, and at the right time, someone asked if I wanted to run a marathon,” she says.

Related: What Has Looking Constantly at Our Faces For the Past Decade Done To Our Minds?

“Whilst I was training for that I watched all the old patterns, the old thought processes, the old way of exercising, fall apart. And it was great. Everything I thought I knew about exercise changed, I realised that in order to really do it well I needed to eat properly to fuel myself, I realised that how far I got that day was so much cooler and more important than how much I weighed that day, I realised in those long and lonely training runs that thoughts of ‘Yes Em, you can do this, you’re amazing, look how far you’ve come, look how well you’re doing, this is so badass’ were so much more effective than ‘Come on you massive lump, you’re a loser who everyone hates, you can’t do this, just give up’.

“When you set yourself a challenge like that, you have to be a cheerleader, because otherwise you can’t do it. And when you start cheering for yourself, you start wanting the best for yourself, and when you start wanting that, you realise that you’ll no longer accept horrible exercises and skipping meals and feeling like shit about everything you do, because it isn’t conducive to your won success. So for me it was a marathon, but I’d say it just needs to be something that requires you to get behind yourself.”

To find out more about ASICS’ alternative weight loss message, go to www.asics.com/15minuteweightloss

Rhiannon Evans is the interim content director at PS UK. Rhiannon has been a journalist for 17 years, starting at local newspapers before moving to work for Heat magazine and Grazia. As a senior editor at Grazia, she helped launch parenting brand The Juggle, worked across brand partnerships, and launched the “Grazia Life Advice” podcast. An NCE-qualified journalist (yes, with a 120-words-per-minute shorthand), she has written for The Guardian, Vice and Refinery29.

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