William is a fellow academic and a fitness instructor at GoodLife Fitness where they offer Les Mills programs. We happened to talk about a work shop that he recently attended and, intrigued by his observations, I asked to him to share his experience.

Not too long ago I attended a daylong conference for people who work in the fitness industry. As I left a particularly challenging yoga-inspired workshop that day I overheard one attendee say to another: “That was especially fun…when it was over.” They both laughed and then wandered off. I, however, couldn’t help but think about the relationship between pleasure and exercise. Why do we exercise if it’s only fun when it's over?

While the two attendees had likely been at least half-joking, it struck me as peculiar that their idea of enjoyment seemed to be associated with completion. I couldn’t recall the instructor making any mention of “fun,” “enjoyment,” or “pleasure” during the class as we went through the different postures. It made me think about how I have often heard participants in my own classes relate enjoyment to exercise in a similar way. And all this thinking brought me back to an idea that emerged in my doctoral dissertation on pain and pleasure in Ironman triathlons. The idea that completing a workout acts as a greater source of pleasure than the workout itself came up in most of my interviews. Perhaps one of my interviewees sums this up best: “The pleasure would happen if the discomfort [related to exercise] goes away…. The discomfort itself is not pleasurable; the pleasure happens afterwards”.

In her analysis of the exercise and fitness industry in the United States, sociologist Jennifer Smith Maguire also suggests that exercise is a kind of “necessary task” during which pleasure comes from being done, not from doing. In addition, the fitness industry produces marketing and training materials where an enjoyment of exercise derives from “new and better bodies,” “six pack abs,” “bikini-friendly” bodies that are sexually appealing in a specific way. I have heard group exercise instructors and personal trainers also use such promises as motivation to encourage their clients to exercise. Sociologists Pirkko Markula and Margaret Duncan use the expression ‘looking good, feeling good’ to describe this type attitude to exercise. Because we are often evaluated based on how we look, sculpting a better looking body through exercise can be a source of great pleasure. It is, nevertheless, a difficult task to achieve or maintain a lean, sexy body and many of us accept that this requires hard work. We also accept that such results cannot be gained without pain. For example, one exerciser in Markula’s study explained: “Every day I go to aerobics and it’s painful, but then the other 12 hours a day I feel really confident in my jeans because they are looser…you look better, you feel better…you look skinnier, you feel more confident about your body.” The pleasure of exercise is in its outcome: the better looking body but also in improved self-confidence provided by the looks of the body.

So, what’s the problem with all of this? Some sociological research suggests that the majority of gym members who stop coming to the gym do so because they do not see the results — the better looking body—promoted everywhere in the gym environment (i.e., posters, advertisements, other members, and instructors and personal trainers). Other research has highlighted the connection between the promotion of an ideal body as the motivation to exercise and increased instances of disordered eating. While this research has mostly investigated women, it is a growing concern amongst men as well. Finally, my own research showed that when pleasure was connected to completion rather than how participants feel during physically activity, there was a greater chance of becoming injured and having to deal with the short and long-term health impacts that injury can have.

If participants in group exercise classes are encouraged to think more about the sensuous pleasure during exercise, gyms and health clubs might enjoy greater member retention. Perhaps more importantly from my perspective, if the fitness industry could adopt a more playful—a word I use quite intentionally—attitude toward exercise, participants might begin to understand their moving bodies in completely different ways. Not only might this transform thinking of exercise as a necessary task (or even as drudgery) but could decrease exercise-related injuries and possibly reduce stress levels further. Finally, more focus on playfulness and sensuous pleasure in exercise might result in less body image concerns. I don’t want to understate the relationship between exercise and pleasure related to the achievement of a “better looking body,” but if the message becomes less about striving to attain the kind of ideal body heavily promoted in the fitness industry and more about enjoying the process of exercising the connection between exercise only as a tool for body shaping may begin to lose some of its capital. This might then reduce the sometimes unhealthy practices that accompany attempts to lose weight and form one’s body in accordance with socially constructed ideals.

Might you think about exercise a bit differently the next time you’re at the gym? How about having some fun?

Works cited:

Bridel, W. (2010). “Finish…whatever it takes.” Considering pain and pleasure in the Ironman triathlon: A socio-cultural analysis. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada.

Duncan, M. C. (1994). The politics of women’s body images and practices: Foucault, Panopticon and Shape magazine. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 18, 48-65.

Markula, P. (1993). Looking good, feeling good: Strengthening mind and body in aerobics. In L. Laine (Ed.), On the fringes of sport (pp. 93-99). Sankt Augustin: Academia.

Smith Maguire, J. (2008). Fit for consumption. Sociology and the business of fitness. London: Routledge.

Copyright William Bridel, Ph.D.

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