“I finally ditched fitness challenges and it immediately improved my attitude to exercise”

We love a fitness challenge here at the Strong Women Training Club, but having forgone weight-based body transformation plans that promise instant results, writer Lottie McGrath reveals why she’s now a convert to going it alone.

Weight loss-based body transformation challenges are everywhere. Plastered over social media, they promise results in minutely short periods of time. Their appeal is understandable, especially  during cold winter months when you can’t even bear to think about a run in a park or the walk to the gym. 

Enticed by this prospect of short-term pain for (supposedly) long-term gain, I have often committed myself to these plans, dedicating my time – and sometimes considerable amounts of money –to completing challenges that measured my fitness levels in nothing more than the arbitrarily decided 14 days that it would take to get washboard abs. 

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It was only after one week of non-stop planking, the result of which was nothing more than a resolution to better clean my floor, that the realisation sank in just how negatively narrow my approach to fitness had become. Not only was I fuelling my own harmful idealisations around body image, but I was also fundamentally unmotivated by the monotony of these toning workouts, which more often than not neglected my cardio fitness. 

Determined to shake up my routine and simultaneously resentful at the levels of control these challenges had over my life, I decided to temporarily break-up with the fitness challenge and find new ways to work out. 

Trying new fitness things helps us to enjoy exercise

A 2020 report, published in Frontiers In Psychology, revealed that the introduction of novel and interesting forms of exercise not only increases enjoyment of the exercise itself but also positively contributes to engagement and adherence over time, perhaps explaining the apathy I felt about the tedious repetition of the same workout day in day out.

Dr Josephine Perry, a sports psychologist and founder of Performance in Mind, attests to this and the importance of varied exercise. “I talk about blue-green exercise. You want some exercise outside, preferably near a river or greenery, because that’s really good for mental health, and also in a gym where there is great equipment.” 

Dr Perry also highlights the importance of working out with others, which are often the very antithesis of the ‘Seven day squat challenge to look just like Kim Kardashian’ (the names alone are red flags to just how uninspiring and narrowly focused they are) that so many of us end up doing alone in our living rooms. “Fitness challenges worry me because you often end up doing those alone. One of the lovely things we see from exercise with other people is the buzz and motivation you get from being in a community, which is really positive for mental health.”

Distanced from a weekly monotony of abs, abs and even more abs, and now enjoying a varied routine of hip-hop cardio, barre (both courtesy of YouTube) and running with friends, I realised that I was feeling both an increased sense of enjoyment and determination when I worked out. More importantly too, I had shifted my approach to exercise from ‘have to’ to ‘want to’. I was no longer moving my body out of a sense of financial obligation or feeling that I should, but rather because I wanted to. Sessions gazing in the mirror and obsessing over when my six pack would emerge (spoiler alert: it never did) were replaced by a simple sense of achievement in having done something that made me feel good. 

Getting rid of plans can be freeing

Through body transformation fitness challenges, we are hemmed into a workout schedule that dictates exactly which parts of our bodies we move each day and on which days, if any, we are allowed to rest. Commenting on this, Dr Perry tells Stylist that self-determination and autonomy are key pillars for exercise motivation. “You need to feel like it’s your choice and that you have a voice over what you are doing. If you have some random piece of technology messaging you then there’s no autonomy.”

I myself found immense liberation in detaching myself from the constraints of the fitness challenge and embraced my ability to do workouts on the days that I wanted, or when my work schedule allowed. Moreover, it was the absence of the annoying workout prompt notifications, which always seemed to crop up just as I headed out to the pub or satiated my hangover with a Big Mac, that I appreciated the most. These alerts that shamed me for doing anything other than an hourglass sculpting session ate away at me and – conversely to their intention – only made me feel more reluctant to get my body moving. 

A University College London study revealed that it takes approximately 66 days to form a habit. “Doing a fitness app that tells you that something is going to happen in two weeks, even if it does, doesn’t work because you will stop after 14 days and there is no habit there,” says Dr Perry. “Things need to be long term for us to stick to them habitually,” explaining why I, like so many others, completed short-term fitness challenges but ultimately lacked the incentive to keep up an exercise routine after they ended.

Having broken up with the body transformation challenge, I not only feel fitter and more healthy but also more eager to exercise. Having regained control over my routine (and my bank balance), I have entirely changed my attitude to fitness and explored new activities I never thought I would. I no longer see exercise as a short-term means to an end but as a valuable process to enjoy within itself. 

Looking for a more sustainable fitness plan? Check out our range of training plans for all levels on the Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Getty

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