What does your Instagram feed look like? If you’re active, it’s likely full of slim yogis bent into pretzel poses and shirtless muscle-bound athletes. They’re #fitspiration. They’re aspirational. They’re the literal picture of health. Or are they?
“How we look really isn’t related to fitness.” says James Westphal, M.D., medical director at Beacon Health Partners. “The top athletes in the world, like NFL players, have a shortened life span even though they’re huge and muscular. So it’s really important to disassociate appearance and health.”
The internet is full of 10-minute workouts, “beach bodies,” and YouTube yogis. It’s easy to think that if you eat better and work out hard enough, you’ll finally look like that trainer or model or actor. But Westphal says that what you can achieve is based on genetics. In other words, you probably won’t look like the model and that’s good. You’ll look like you.
Remember that what’s “in” changes over time. The body type that was considered ideal when your parents were growing up isn’t what we see in magazines today. “If you have a figure that fits the current rage, you got lucky. Your genetics gave you that shape or that weight,” says Westphal. “If you don’t, if you start doing unhealthy things to reach the media ideal, that’s where people get in trouble.” Turning to quick fixes like fasting, supplements, and extreme workouts can become a lifelong pattern with tremendous negative long-term effects like eating disorders and injury.
Westphal emphasizes that being fit is a great goal, but what’s important is your motivation. “Working out for appearance is unsustainable because you can get pickier and pickier about how you look,” says Westphal. “Working out for your health is something you can do at any point with lifelong benefits.” If you’re trying to meet unrealistic standards, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment because you’re limited by your genes. If you’re working out for health, the benchmarks look much different.
In fact, the best indicator of health is something you can’t see at all: heart health. It really is what’s inside that matters. Moderate aerobic exercise, like walking, running, or biking, improves circulation and cardiac health. Weight training two days per week improves muscle tone. And don’t forget about stretching and balance, which improve joint and musculoskeletal health. And you don’t need pricey equipment or a gym membership for any of it. “These exercises are good for your heart, good for your brain, and if you don’t overdo it, they’re good for your joints,” says Westphal. “But you have to understand you’re working out for your health — for your longevity and your quality of life.”
If you think you think media images are negatively affecting your body image or that you’ve developed unhealthy habits around food and exercise, reach out to a mental health professional or your primary care provider (PCP). Don’t have a therapist or PCP? We’re here to help you find a doctor.