By Angela Priestley
How much exercise should you do? How fit should you be? What type of movements should you be focusing on?
That will depend on who you talk to. Or rather who is talking to you, at any point of the day.
On TV, in the media, and 24/7 on social media, via the influencers and fitfluencers sharing what’s become an ideal version of arms, legs, abs and buts.
Every day, we’re exposed to a version of what it means to be fit as a woman. To some extent, it can be inspiring and motivating. But to another extent, actually harmful and even toxic.
On the latest installment of the Women’s Health Project, our podcast series supported by Organon, we’re diving into the world of fitness and body image, particularly how pressures to be a certain kind of “healthy” have evolved with social media.
We ask how “women’s health” became synonymous with fitness and dieting, and how “healthy” one appears on the outside.
Pressures around exercise are a load that many women carry on top of other loads: like the load of paid and unpaid work, of caring responsibilities, of sexism and so much more.
But this load is a little more complex. In some cases, women simply have no capacity to carry it, meaning they don’t have the opportunity to participate in regular physical activity.
In other cases, it can be an added stress in the lives of women. You’re only ever one click away from an endless range of exercise programs, as well as individuals who’ll be telling you how to exercise and how to achieve the body and version of “health” they have, via the fifluencers and influencers on Instagram.
Fitfluencers have the aesthetics and therefore (we’re led to believe) the answers. But they don’t always have the qualifications. Regardless, they’ll have the program to follow: the 20 minute body transformation, the Abs Explosion or something else. Just follow their lead (and in many cases their diets) and you’ll achieve their results.
The problem, of course, is that we don’t all respond to exercise in the same way. Nor do we share the same abilities for recreating the movements being asked of us.
And we don’t all have the time.
The impossibility and the complexity behind the messaging put out around the perfect way to exercise and what it means to be fit as a woman, can lead some to simply tune out altogether.
In this episode, heart surgeon Dr Nikki Stamp shares more on her own journey with exercise, including how it was well into her thirties before she recovered from the extreme exercise and goals she was chasing as a younger woman.
She says there are problems in perceptions of what it means to be “healthy”.
“It is sold in the form of Instagram influencers, some of who have millions and millions of followers, and millions and millions of dollars to match, who have built empires based on what their body or other’s bodies look like,” she says.
“At the moment, we’re told that to be healthy, we need to look healthy by fitting into the current cultural ideal, which is to have very low body fat, large backside and large breasts with the tiniest waist that you have ever seen, which is very, very difficult to attain, if not impossible for a lot of us.
“To be “healthy”, we also need to have this perfect adherence to a diet that might be called clean or another kind of popular dietary pattern. We need to participate in workouts that are on-trend, HIIT, boot camps. Those kinds of things are very popular right now, and once we attain all of this, then we’re told that we’re healthy. “
Social media has a huge part to play evolving pressures on girls ad women around aesthetics. In the episode, we explore more on the role of Instagram and the influence it’s injecting in women’s lives, especially following revelations from a whistleblower and former Facebook employee Frances Haugen, who revealed Facebook’s own research that 32% of teenage girls say Instagram makes them “feel worse”
We also hear from Clinical psychologist Madeleine Althaus, who has seen the impact social media can have on mental health.
As Madeleine says, the pressures placed on girls and women to look a certain way are certainly not new — think about all those magazine covers and cover lines you’ve seen over the years. But she says that the exposure to certain “ideals” has kicked up a notch in recent years.
“One thing we need to be really careful and maintain a really critical stance is in anything that becomes an absolute or a binary way of looking at something,” she says.
“So for example, when I work with adolescents, we know it’s already a tricky time for identity building and this goes into a our early 20s as well. It can be a really tricky mechanism in social media where we are seeing anything that is an absolute. It can rack up extreme ideas about a body and what functions it should be serving, wrapped in a highly curated and glamorized way.”
How fit is enough?
There are so many benefits in fitness for women. Physical activity is associated with healthy aging and mental wellbeing.
But it doesn’t need to be as complex – or as extreme – as we can be led to believe.
As Professor Cassandra Szoeke notes from a 30 year study of hundreds of women on their activity levels, it’s those who did some form of exercise every day that saw benefits associated with healthy aging. That something changes over the years, but it’s the consistency and daily effort that really matters.
Meanwhile, there are great benefits in healthy relationships with exercises and routines. On Instagram, where Dr Nikki Stamp mostly shares information on heart health, she also shares positive information on her personal journey with strength training and the goals and friendships she’s achieved with it.
Exercise and different forms of physical activity can build confidence, resilience, discipline, it can lead to more friendships and life satisfaction, more connections and relationships with others.
Psychologist Madeleine Althaus’ advice is to consider a balanced view on exercise and to aim to be a lighthouse for others. Fitness and health is so beneficial, but if it’s interfering with other aspects of your life – particularly your physical or mental health – then it could be at an extreme level, that may require some compassion and flexibility to move out of rigid ideals.