Fitness: Are We Encouraging or Shaming?

by Kristen Abell

In student affairs it seems that this year has been one of focusing on health and wellness (at least in the online world of student affairs). We’ve seen the rise of the #safit hashtag, the Student Affairs Runners group on Facebook, and at a recent regional conference, our participation in the fun run/walk jumped from four last year to over 70 this year. With student affairs being a notoriously unhealthy field – especially in terms of balance – this seems like a welcome change.

And yet.

From the beginning, there has been something about the whole focus on fitness that has bothered me, and it took me awhile to put my finger on it – and even longer to write about it. It feels like when we talk about health and wellness, all we are talking about is physical health and wellness – and for many, what we are also talking about is size. Pictures and stories abound of weight loss, fitting into clothes, being the smallest we’ve been. To me it feels as though some have turned the focus from health to size, and those folks have turned from being supportive of all sizes to being supportive only of those who are making an effort to be a smaller size. I don’t believe anybody has done this intentionally, but it stings, nonetheless. For a field that is supposed to be supportive of all shapes and sizes, we’re acquiring a tendency to shame those of larger sizes because they’re not doing anything about it.

Perhaps part of this is my frustration with my own health issues. I’ve been fighting to breathe easy for so long that physical fitness still sometimes feels like a bit of a luxury to me. So to be told I need to be focusing on running harder or lifting more or losing weight just feels like a small part of the bigger health picture, and it feels out of focus.

And when we keep the focus on physical health, we have lost a large part of that picture. I know I’m sensitive to this because of my own struggles, but it is just as important to me – if not more so – that my mental health is good. And this can take more than just seeking balance. Sometimes it requires doctors, and therapy, and medication. Sometimes it requires that our physical health isn’t just fit, but that we are actually healthy – that we aren’t suffering from other types of illnesses. If we only focus on physical fitness, we’re excluding those who are fighting for even a baseline of health – physical or mental.

This has been a hard post to write – not least because I have several friends who I feel have benefited from the #safit movement. And I want to be clear that I don’t think it’s a bad movement at all. I myself love the encouragement that I get when I post a workout or something positive about my journey to better health. I’ve had several people who also have voiced how much they have been encouraged both from my posts and from this movement. I just think we have to be careful about crossing the border between what is good about this movement toward fitness to becoming more exclusive than encouraging. It’s a fine line, but it’s one that we should be particularly cognizant of as student affairs professionals.

What are your thoughts about the movement toward health and wellness in student affairs?

Fitness: Are We Encouraging or Shaming?

15 thoughts on “Fitness: Are We Encouraging or Shaming?

  1. Anne says:

    I’ve definitely felt left out of the movement and there’s some shame about that, mostly my own doing. It helps me to know there are others who aren’t runners and are struggling for that baseline. I think this is just the encouragement I needed to start jumping into the conversation even though I’m nowhere near the smallest I’ve ever been.

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  2. lmendersby says:

    Great post Kristen, and much needed. I’ve been thinking about my mental health a lot more these days – both in how physical activity helps me feel stronger ‘on the inside’ but also how I need to manage my own expectations in the face of such spectacular #safit highlight reels. Don’t get me wrong, I’m beyond proud of my friends’ accomplishments but it’s very (read: VERY) easy to compare against and up instead of across.

    It also hurts my heart a little to see people post things like “This probably isn’t a big deal to most of you” or “It isn’t much but” in reference to their unique #safit accomplishments. We seem to be creating a standard that is unattainable – and only one ‘standard’ to measure against.

    As an aside, I especially love your prompt on discussing mental health. There really is no health without mental health, so perhaps #safit needs to be a discussion around what we’re doing to take care of our whole selves, not just what happens in the gym or on the race course.

    Thanks for writing this Kristen. The world needs more of you.

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    1. Thanks so much for reading, commenting and sharing, Lisa. You rock! I do think that some of this judgment lies within ourselves – why I acknowledged that I’m fighting different battles than some. But I think as a community we need to acknowledge that we’re all fighting different battles or climbing different mountains and need to run at our own pace, as a wise person once said ;-).

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  3. Kevin says:

    Kristen,

    Fantastic post. I think it is easy to shift the focus from running for health/fitness, to running for weight loss. I’ve definitely seen that happen a bit with this movement. I will be the first one to say that I definitely am not losing weight. So, I definitely agree with you that there is a lot of focus now on folks who are losing weight and getting smaller, vs. those who are getting fit for overall health. This definitely gets frustrating.

    I cannot tell you how much I agree with your point about the lack of focus on mental wellness in the movement. I believe that a lot of this is due to the fact that our profession lends itself to professionals not being balanced. With professionals working full 40-hour weeks, plus late-night meetings multiple nights/week, pluse weekend events, we find ourselves talking to students about balance and mental wellness, but are unable to practice it. In fact, I would call it the elephant in the room that nobody likes to talk about in our profession. It’s actually what drives people OUT of our profession. It’s a catch-22 of how can I give fully of myself to others and my job when I can’t take care of myself vs. how can I take care of myself when I need to be giving myself fully to others and my job? The work student affairs professionals comes at a cost, that many, especially those with families, are not able to undertake, and that leads many out of the profession. It’s a harsh reality that I don’t think we talk about enough. Anyhow, I will step off my little box now. As I said, fantastic post!

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    1. Thanks for reading and for your comments, Kevin. I think the issue of balance or congruity between roles is going to continue to be a topic of concern for some time, especially as technology allows us to blur those more.
      As for the running, keep on moving, my friend – that’s the part that’s important!

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  4. Liz Gross says:

    I’ve been thinking about this post since I read it yesterday. I’ve been thankful for this movement. I needed people to be posting about their workouts and races, and adding me to running groups when I wasn’t a runner, to slowly but surely condition me to believe that I could do it. All of that conditioning, combined with a blunt conversation with a newly-converted running colleague ensuring me that I could do it, had a hand in my decision to train for a 5K. I was already engaged in a weight loss program, so I hope my running assists with that, but I’m really doing it so that I’m able to live a more active lifestyle.

    I want to understand more about the thoughts behind this post. Does me posting my stats after each run make some people uncomfortable in some way? I never felt that way when I wasn’t part of the running crowd….I was proud of the people that were doing something. Many of us are overweight, and I think we should be proud of our progress if we decide to lose it. At the same time, we shouldn’t judge those who haven’t made the choice to lose it, or are encountering extreme difficulty in doing so.

    Everyone is at a different place. I’m proud of the people that are running marathons and rocking out P90X, but I’m still striving to run 5K without stopping. I rejoice in my victories as well as theirs, and I’ve benefited greatly from the support others have given through likes, comments and tweets.

    I agree we should talk about mental health….but are you saying we should talk LESS about physical fitness? You said, “I just think we have to be careful about crossing the border between what is good about this movement toward fitness to becoming more exclusive than encouraging. It’s a fine line, but it’s one that we should be particularly cognizant of as student affairs professionals.”

    What does that line look like? Has it been crossed? I guess I struggle with seeing too much of a good thing here.

    I’m truly seeking to understand a different point of view on this. Thanks for writing the post.

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    1. Liz – first of all, thanks so much for reading and commenting. I debated a long time about posting this, especially because I do think overall that the movement toward even physical health is a positive one. I think it’s great when people post their updates – you’ve probably even seen me post mine. And I think the encouragement that comes from those is worth it – I also think those don’t carry judgment.
      But when people talk more about weight loss than they do about the health benefits of fitness, or when they judge others for not being healthy based on their size, this is when I think we cross the line – and I have seen this line crossed by some of our colleagues. Not all, but by enough that I felt it was worth mentioning.
      And no, I don’t think we focus on mental health to the exclusion of physical health, I’m just saying that until now, it has not been a topic in the overall discussion of wellness and health in our community.
      Keep on rocking the 5k training – I’m impressed and proud of you for doing it!

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  5. Becca Obergefell says:

    While you may be sensitive to this because of your own experiences with mental health – it’s absolutely relevant and true. We don’t talk about mental health – not on #safit, not in person, not win a box, with a fox…. and this needs to change. There is a stigma around mental health in general and it seeps into our lives and our work too – unless we are preaching it to students. I hope that this changes and that those with the expertise and strength to start the conversations will help us change the direction of the wind. I hope that you will continue to be one of these champions – through sharing your personal experiences and pushing where you see issues and absences. Thank you.

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  6. ericakthompson says:

    I appreciate your thoughts, as always, Kristen. Much like when I found the #sachat community of pros on Twitter, connecting with folks through #safit has been really empowering for me. As someone who struggles with anxiety, running has truly provided a mental calm – meditation through movement. BUT, I post my miles and my physical accomplishments on the HT, not the peace that movement often provides me. There’s a great conversation happening on Twitter today about how to be more inclusive of all aspects of wellness on the #safit HT, and I believe that mental health needs to be a big part of that. To me, being “fit” is about being healthy – connecting with my body so that it carries me well into old age, caring for my mind and soul so that I can continue to do this work, carving out time to dedicate to appreciating what I am capable of. In the midst of that, it is awesome to connect with others who are similarly embracing this kind of journey. I can easily see how that can also intersect with others feeling left out and/or shamed. My celebrations are my own, and I try to help others celebrate their journey – whatever it looks like – as well. It’s a tough mix, for sure. And it needs to be all of our responsibility to share more pieces of wellness to reflect the wholeness of our collective journeys.

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