We all know what a fad diet is. It promises quick results for [insert health benefit of choice, usually weight loss], but it proves impractical for any human being to follow in the long-term. We try it, we crash and burn, we give up. That’s why you’ll never hear anyone say, “This cabbage soup diet is ace, innit?” In recent years, experts have conducted more and more research to prove that fad diets don’t work. Many fitness professionals today look back in horror at their early years, when they were obsessed with the likes of Paleo or the Atkins diet.
What we don’t hear about as often is a less obvious craze, which affects our lives just
as much. I call this phenomenon “fad fitness”.
What’s fad fitness?
Here is what I think is the most accurate definition of “fad fitness”, courtesy of Brosciencey
McBroscienceface: “No pain, no gain.” Sounds familiar? If you’re a woman, you may have
heard of the age old saying: “Beauty is pain.” Different words to express the same concept.
Fad fitness is the idea that longer, harder and, let’s face it, more dreadful workouts
will make us look good naked. The ultimate goal of this type of fitness is the forever sought-
after “beach body”.
What’s the problem with it?
Much like a fad diet, fad fitness doesn’t work. Again, we try it, we crash and burn, we give
up. There is, however, a crucial difference. No matter how many times we crash and burn, we
are quick to jump on the next fad diet train, thinking this will be the one fad diet to end all fad
diets. It’s a gruelling roundabout.
On the other hand, fad fitness is a one-way street with a bifurcation at the end that
looks like this:
Turn right for the bad outcome: We build up so much hate towards our current
workout programme that we vow never to set foot in a gym again… and often we
stick to this promise for months or years on end.
Turn left for the worse outcome: Not only do we build up hate, we also end up
getting hurt. Talk about adding insult to injury, or rather the reverse. Once recovered,
we vow never to set foot in a gym again for fear of a repeat.
Either way, it often takes us a lot longer to get back into working out than into dieting.
However, while in many cases dieting is arguably unnecessary, a plethora of researchers have
found that working out decreases mortality rates, lowers the risk of developing cardiovascular
diseases and osteoporosis, and improves mental health, among other benefits.
For these reasons, fad fitness is potentially more dangerous than fad diets because it
discourages us from pursuing long-term health.
What is real fitness?
Unless you’re studying to become a personal trainer, chances are you’ve never come across
this definition by the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): “Physical
fitness. The ability to carry out daily tasks with vigour and alertness, without undue fatigue,
and with ample energy to enjoy leisure-time pursuits and respond to emergencies.” The British Department of Health also provides national guidelines to maintain general health. They recommend a minimum of five 30-minute walks a week or three 25-minute more vigorous sessions, plus two strength training workouts. Some studies have also demonstrated that working out less frequently can still provide some health benefits. On the other hand, overtraining – that is, training above and beyond your ability to recover – causes your progress to stop and even decline.
If fad fitness is all you’ve ever known, the prospect of trying something different can
be daunting. The CDC definition of fitness can look like a mouthful of vague terms.
Fortunately, unlike fad fitness, real fitness doesn’t have to be difficult to implement and stick
Here are three key principles to keep in mind:
Sustainability. This means you should feel sore – some muscle soreness is to be
expected – but not totally knackered after a workout. Whether you have been
exercising for a while or you want to get started, choose a time and intensity you
think is good for you. For example, if you’re busy, but you can fit in three workouts
of 10 minutes per week, that’s great! You can set yourself a goal to work up to 15 or
20 minutes at the same intensity. You can also switch up the intensity and keep the
workout short and sweet. Only you can decide what’s sustainable for you. There is
no right or wrong!
Fun. This principle goes hand in hand with sustainability. If you like it, you’ll keep
at it. As a rule of thumb, if you think of your workouts as “a necessary evil”, then
you should consider doing something else. For example, join a sports society or try a
new fitness class at the university gym. Bonus: you get to make new friends! If the
gym doesn’t appeal to you or you don’t have the time, you can also find great home
workouts on YouTube.
Balance. You may be spending hours every week on a treadmill or elliptical,
throwing in the odd toning session with light weights. Alternatively, you may be
killing it under a barbell every day, but the word “cardio” makes your knees wobble.
Incorporating both strength training and cardio into your programme is a great way
to develop overall fitness. You don’t get to overdo it with a single exercise modality
and you also never get bored.
Real fitness is about longevity, health, and happiness. As a welcome side-effect, you also get
to look good naked. So what are you waiting for?