If you live in London or Manchester, there’s a chance that you’ve seen a poster for the London School of Business & Finance’s new campaign, Beat Phil. Phil, we’re unsubtly informed, is the Platonic ideal of an office shit: he takes credit for other people’s ideas, uses the word ‘synergy’ a lot, and – unforgivably, according to the LSBF – has a ponytail. Less obviously, he also keeps himself in shape: he does situps in the office, refuses to eat biscuits (mentioned on the website’s cookie disclaimer), and – according to his spoof Twitter feed – makes all his meetings standing-only for ‘increased productivity and glute definition.’ What a fucking nerve.
For the moment, let’s ignore the fact that situps are counter-productive compared to, say, planks and ab wheel rollouts, because that doesn’t seem to be the point. The point, according to the LSBF, is that worrying about fitness is the mark of a five-star arsehole – just like wearing sunglasses indoors, having a soul patch or liking Nickleback. Does this seem insignificant? It shouldn’t. In the UK, 64% of people are now classified as being overweight or obese (though, admittedly, that’s only according to the archaic BMI system), while – according to an accelerometer study, rather than self-reporting – only 6% of men and 4% of women meet the government guidelines for daily physical activity. This isn’t just about seeing your abs, being able to run up an escalator or even avoiding an early heart attack – there’s significant evidence that exercise can help to prevent everything from osteoporosis to Alzheimer’s disease. It raises serotonin levels, and can help to combat depression. Physical activity and proper eating will drastically improve the quality of your life, as well as its length. And most people aren’t getting enough of it.
Thankfully, I’m lucky enough to have a job where this isn’t much of a problem. Every lunchtime, most of the magazine head to a gym or the park, then eat a cooked-from-scratch meal with a decent hunk of veg in it. We snack on a communal tub of almonds. We have a cupboard just for protein powder. We suffer the gentle mockery of other departments – it’s impossible to participate in charity cake sales without fielding some awkward questions, for instance, and we’ve had complaints about cooking broccoli in the microwave – but, thanks to the environment we cultivate, we’re a healthy, happy team. This hasn’t been the case in other jobs, where eating out of Tupperware, turning down biscuits or going to the gym (as opposed to, say, the pub) on a Friday lunchtime were met with everything from bemusement to outright derision. And this happens everywhere: Maria Kang, a mother of three who posted her post-pregnancy abs online with the slogan ‘What’s Your Excuse?’ was hounded by the Huffington post and temporarily banned from Facebook for ‘hate speech.’ Even the language of the media is faintly judgemental – consider, for instance, how frequently the term ‘fitness freak/fanatic’ (or the slightly less aggressive ‘gym bunny’) are used to describe someone who goes running three times a week (for bonus points, contrast with how rarely a moderate drinker is called an ‘alcohol fanatic’). This is fit-shaming, and if it puts one person off increasing their activity levels or tackling their addiction to sugar, it has made that person’s life worse.
Over the last year or so, the most important trend in fitness has been compliance: not inventing new exercises or kit or foodstuffs, just getting people to do the stuff we already know works. In Precision Nutrition, one of the world’s best-regarded nutrition qualifications, it makes up literally half of the programme – after learning about macronutrients and the Krebs cycle, students spend the rest of the course working out how to get people to actually follow the diet they’re given. Roy F. Baumeister, professor of psychology at Florida state university and author of the bestselling Willpower, suggests that self-control is largely a matter of habits – developing good ones in place of bad ones. Little and often is more important, to more people, than a big push – it’s about saying no to sugar or doing a handful of pressups before the shower is better than doing a two-hour gym session once a month. Habit formation is key, but it’s also difficult: and everyone nudging you to just have a biscuit or skip the gym and have a pint only makes matters worse.
Here’s a final point to consider: fit-shaming largely doesn’t matter to the people it’s aimed at. Men whose Twitter profile is a black-and-white shot of their abs aren’t going to skip chest day because of a bit of gentle heckling. I wouldn’t stop training if my office unleashed a chorus of boos every time I grabbed my gym bag, because I know that being strong and healthy makes me feel better in every single way that counts. The people fit-shaming hurts are those just starting out on the path to a healthier lifestyle – the ones who are just trying to eat a bit better, sit down a bit less, and move a bit more. Snide remarks, nasty Tweets and the exercise-equals-irritant stereotype don’t help them at all. Oh, and neither do situps – if you really want to train your abs at work, do the office-chair rollout. If you’re really going to #BeatPhil, you should probably be stronger than him.
HOMEWORK: Do some pressups in your office this week. Tell anyone who heckles you that they’re representative of everything that’s wrong with Western society.