Rethinking Fitness, Rationally

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Counting calories, measuring steps, tallying our reps and adding up our daily intake of carbs: these are all actions people take to achieve their fitness goals, their dream body; perhaps the ideal of what many in society hope to attain.

The concept itself is grand and gets a good number of people going, but it doesn’t exactly account for the vast diversity of human physic and mentality. Some people just don’t think so concisely and calculatedly about their fitness or dietary habits—hell, some people don’t bother incorporating any type of health regime into their lives. And yet, we’re still inundated with new gadgets and eating plans that promise, if we dedicate everything we can to them, to give us the results we so desperately desire.

Kelsey Miller went through the cycle for years before she revamped her thinking: What if exercise was something done in enjoyment, not dread? What if calories were something to be understood, not counted? This is what led her to begin using the term “rational fitness” in her column “The Anti-Diet Project,” and writing about the idea that fitness has no cookie-cutter mold for every person. And it can actually be fun and beneficial at the same time.

BTRtoday spoke with Miller about how rational fitness has impacted her life and how the idea is just beginning to break the superficial, cultural ideals of fitness and health our society abides.

BTRtoday (BTR): To start, what is rational fitness?

Kelsey Miller (KM): It’s exercising in a way that is sustainable and not crazy. It’s like the difference between being a gym junkie and an active person. It recognizes that exercise doesn’t look any one particular way, nor does a fit person look any one particular way. It’s really about building it into your life, and I think for me it’s a priority, but it’s not a mandatory sentence. That’s the way I always used to think of exercise.

BTR: When did you begin writing about and practicing rational fitness in your own life?

KM: This is something I started writing about and using that term about three years ago when I launched “The Anti-Diet Project,” the column in which that story ran. Essentially that whole column is just about rational fitness, intuitive eating, and body positivity. I started it because I had been like many people, in the dieting cycle for most of my life, and my rally sort of bottomed out with it. I hit a bottom when I was 29, and I decided that I had to learn a new way.

A big part of that was re-learning my relationship with exercise, so I started working with a trainer, and basically, the same way I was doing with food, I was deprogramming all my old ideas about fitness, which were all about weight and calorie burn and this idea that it doesn’t really count unless you hate it. Really learning how to exercise in a sustainable way. That’s really where it began, and essentially it’s just what it sounds like.

BTR: Do you think that the extremity of certain workout programs and classes bogs people down over time?

KM: I don’t put the blame on any one particular class, or even style. I really think it’s a much bigger cultural issue that’s part and parcel with our diet culture and our culture that says we are a problem to be fixed. No matter what they look like, no matter what shape they’re in, they always are a problem to be fixed, and you could always be doing it harder, and no excuses, and so on.

I think there are certainly a lot of fitness environments that emphasize that more than others. I’ve definitely been in certain classes where I’ve realized this is not about anybody’s health or even enjoyment, it’s just about changing my body and fixing all the problems all over my body. That’s pervasive—just look at the way fitness is advertised and talked about and exemplified. There’s nobody walking around saying you can actually enjoy this. Swimming in the ocean, playing a game with your friends, that’s exercise. We’re made to think it’s not exercise unless you’re in a sports bra, sweating your brains out, and kind of hating every second of it.

BTR: How difficult do you think it is to break down those societal dispositions about what exercise and bodies should and shouldn’t be?

KM: It takes individual effort. For example, there are calorie counters on fitness machines, and we all know rationally in the back of our head that they’re not really giving us real numbers. And also if we sit down and think about it, I think we understand that exercise is about more than just burning calories. And yet, when you have that in front of your face all the time, it becomes easy to focus on that. The more you focus on it, the more you think about it, and it just perpetuates the cycle. So I have to deliberately change my thinking on that and put a towel over that part of the machine, or not hook it to the thought that that is what I’m doing this for. I had to really re-frame my thinking about calories and just start to think about them as a neutral entity, as fuel. They’re just a unity of energy, not heretics to be burned. They’re just a part of life, and they’re not something we have to be constantly fighting to get rid of.

BTR: Counting calories, steps, miles, and everything in between has been a really profitable model for the fitness industry. Can you imagine a world in which everyone eschews common beliefs about exercise standards, accepts themselves, and exercises accordingly?

KM: I hope so, but as you say, just as with dieting, this is a very profitable industry, and nobody’s making money off the concept that you have autonomy and you don’t have to come to a class every single day, or you can shake up your workouts and do some in the gym, some out of the gym, or maybe no gym at all. So there are always going to be people that try to sell us on the idea that there is a solution and they have it, and we should pay for it.

I think it’s a struggle, but I think it all comes down to individual practicing and individual desires. It depends on what happens in future generations. I’m not a sports person, but I know there are plenty of people who have grown up with a very healthy engagement in sports, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, that kind of competitiveness.

I recognize that people have different goals within fitness, and there has to be room for that. I just think culture-wide, we just have far too much of this emphasis on “no pain, no gain,” and we apply it to everybody and everything.