Anyone who knows me or has read much of anything I write knows one thing – I am not a fan of the fitness industry. Despite my entire livelihood coming from working in the fitness industry I do not believe that we are on the right track. When sixty percent of adults in the Western World are overweight or obese, yet the numbers of personal trainers is higher than ever, you’d be hard pressed to say that the fitness industry is actually doing its job and helping make people fitter.
There are numerous problems within the fitness industry but I am going to take aim at one – the direction of the industry is largely given by those who manufacture expensive pieces of equipment and supplements. If you don’t believe me then go to a big fitness convention. There you’ll see that nearly a third of the booths relate to big ticket equipment sales, and another third to supplements, with the final third being actual things that may work. But when two thirds of the representation at an event is based on gadgets and goop, what hope is there of anything of value making it out to the public? And because these money sucking companies are in bed with the groups that are supposed to represent the fitness industry, such as Fitness Australia in our country, you’ll struggle to find any real help if you’re looking to get in shape.
If you roll the clock back about a hundred years to the early 1900s you’d find evidence of these things called Turner Halls. If you look you’ll see something that looks like an old high school gymnasium. You’ll see rings, pommel and vaulting horses, climbing ropes, Indian clubs, and nothing at all that looks like a leg press. “Poor primitive fools” some of you may be thinking to themselves, “They don’t even have a bench press”. Yet gyms like this helped develop the physiques of guys like Sandow, Hackenschmidt, and Saxon – and all without a pec deck, cable crossover, or lat pulldown machine. In fact, it’s only if you track the development of gyms over decades that you start to see the decline. Slowly the floor starts to get filled with more and more stuff, and there’s less and less room to move. Slowly the exercises of choice become ones that require little to no instruction, and it becomes more about how you look than what you can do.
And suddenly our world is filled with obese people stuck in their own bodies, unable to perform basic tasks, just like the people in Wall E.
As an industry we started to lose people exactly at the time when we told them that they needed technology to stay in shape. That without fancy equipment and access to our million dollar clubs there was no way they could get fitter. And as we started to rely on technology as our sole means to helping people get in shape our skills at actually knowing how to get people in shape have faded away.
The difference between the Turner Halls and our current crop of gyms is simple – we no longer engage people. Sure, there’s some skinny, smarmy sales guy who looks like he’s never worked out in his life telling you how he’s just like you, trying to create rapport and become your friend, but the training itself is boring. Even if you’re the most motivated person in the world if the training isn’t engaging to your brain sooner or later you’ll quit out of boredom. The Turner Halls focus was on physical education, on teaching new movements, enhancing skill, and overall athleticism.
The fitness industry fails because your body is bored.
I’ve fallen prey to this myself. It’s hard not to. Clients come in wanting to train, but their only concept of fitness is what they see on TV with shows like Biggest Loser. (Possibly the worst example of training no matter which version of the show you watch). They want to squat more, they want fast times for WODs – but they don’t want to earn them. Movement quality must come before movement quantity. And for many people their movement education stopped about the same time they entered the school system. Up until age six they were free to run, play, and explore their environment by movement. Then we strapped them into a chair so they could “learn”. We fill their heads with useless information, but we stopped worrying about continuing to teach them how to move effectively. In many cases we outright discourage it. How many times have you heard a parent say that their child is unathletic so they push them towards books, music, or other indoor pursuits instead of realising that by doing so they’re actually making it worse long term? How many of you reading this were told by teachers that you were clumsy or unskilled, and so, out of shame, you stopped trying? How many of you have a Masters degree but you’ve got the movement education of a six year old? The big problem here is that you were six over thirty years ago and the lessons you learnt back then are forgotten.
Fitness will be easy to gain if it’s an enjoyable process, no? But when you walk into a big gym what do you see? Rows and rows of treadmills, usually placed so you can see outside. How funny is that? That they place a piece of equipment that simulates running outside so you can see outside but you can’t actually go outside and run around. If the gym was a woman you know what they’d be called, right?
Fitness professionals are starting to get it. That’s why we see more and more people attending events that we run like the RKC, Integrated Strength, FMS, and many more. A smart gym is actually a big open space that allows freedom of movement. A smart gym is not one that smashes people for the sake of it, but actually educates them and makes them better as human animals that can run, jump, play, and move freely.
The notion of play may seem like it is out of place in a “workout” but it has far more relevance than you’d think. We are designed to be social, interactive, communal creatures. The tribe would gather to hunt together, feast together, and then we’d rehearse how to hunt by playing games, and teaching skills to our younger tribe members. Where has that gone? As my friend Anurag Gill says, “When did it become about keeping people interested? When did it become about using technology as a crutch?” The machine makers know you’re bored – that’s why they put TVs in treadmills in the hope that they can keep you interested. But you’re not. Well, your lizard brain isn’t anyway. It’s bored and ready to slit your wrists if you subject it to one more Pump class with an instructor yelling at you to “feel the burn” at exactly the same point in the sing that every other instructor does. Yes, that’s right, the fitness industry has even dumbed down aerobics – the thing that was already a dumbed down version of dancing – so much that you don’t need to move anymore and nothing an instructor says is in the remotest bit individual. The weird noise you hear as you enter an aerobics room is the collective sigh of despair of everyone’s souls.
People are overweight because the fitness industry has failed. They stopped worrying about your health and fitness and, like all industries, worried only about their profits. While everyone needs to make money, surely at some point you, the consumer, will realise that you’re not getting what you paid for, and demand that they change their business practice to ensure you actually get the service you are paying for?
Movement comes before everything. Especially if you’re past forty. If it’s not already starting to get hard to get up and down from a chair it will be soon. If you don’t have a back that plays up you likely will soon. The way to stop that slow, gradual slide into being immobile is to mobilise now – a pre-emptive strike against old age. You’re old when you make those grandpa noises getting up and down from the ground. But, if you work at it now maybe you avoid it for another decade.
And, maybe, just maybe, the focus on skill, quality of movement will keep you interested enough to actually get you in shape. Hopefully then we can do away with all the phony fitspo pictures on social media, all the hokey slogans and all the falsehoods that the industry relies on to sell you gym memberships (that don’t work). If you are interested, because the training is a moving experience, then you’ll get in shape because you’ll be keen to keep coming back. Not to see how fast you can lift a weight, but so that you can learn the next piece of the puzzle.
And for God’s sake, get off the treadmill.