What Is "Rational Fitness" & Why Should You Try It?

Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.
This article was originally published on May 9, 2016.

About four years ago, I found myself speed-walking across my neighborhood at 6:30 a.m., bleary and barely awake, but nonetheless frazzled. I had to get to yoga before 6:55 a.m., or else the door would be closed, class would start without me, and my entire day would be ruined. It wasn't that yoga left me centered and mentally prepared to take on the day. Please, I didn't haul ass across town at dawn for centered. I did it for the Points. An hour of yoga gave me four Activity Points and the 35 minutes of speed-walking gave me three (regular walking was only two), meaning that if I made it to yoga, I could eat a piece of pizza at my friend's birthday later. Not pepperoni pizza, but I could do plain! Oh god, what if all the plain was eaten before I got there? How much more walking would I need to secure the Points necessary for a pepperoni contingency plan? Could I squeeze in another yoga class between work and the party? Maybe if I left early. And speed-walked home. OMG, then I'd have wine Points, too!

This is what I now call irrational fitness.

Irrational fitness has nothing to do with the benefits of fitness and everything to do with punishment and fear. It's based on bogus rules and calculations, with no consideration for things like, you know, health. I was a big fan of this workout until I quit the manic cycle of dieting and the exercise mentality that went along with it. That's when I learned about rational fitness.

People often ask me what rational fitness is, as if I've mentioned a hot new trend they need to google. In truth, it's exactly what it sounds like: exercising, but not like a maniac. Exercising with common sense and without all this rabid score-keeping to determine whether or not you're a total failure based on how many times you got to Zumba this week. Because that's crazy, right? But does it sound oddly familiar?

Don't worry, I was a longtime member of that psycho gym myself. Here's how I got out.
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The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, sustainable fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller, or right here on Facebook. Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here.
Special thanks to Equinox Printing House.
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Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.
1. Thou shalt ignore that dumb-ass calorie counter, because it's not real, anyway.

Take calorie-burn out of the equation, period. First of all, we all know that number on the elliptical is a wildly inaccurate estimate at best. The elliptical doesn't know your body composition, cardiovascular capacity, or how often you do this particular exercise — all of which are major factors into how many calories you're burning.

Second (and most important) of all: Calories are not heretics to be burned. On some level, we all know this, but with all the calorie talk out there, it's hard to remember what a calorie even is. Last year, I was interviewing fitness pro Cadence Dubus about the mysteries of cardio and calories, when she cut to the chase: "Calories are just a unit of energy." That's it. Not so mysterious, after all.

When you remember that calories are nothing more than the fuel our bodies need to function (and to exercise), you can stressing over getting rid of them. If you have the energy to exercise, you're probably good on calories. If you're hungry and sluggish, maybe you need some calories. When it comes to the gym, that's all you need to know about calories. Exercise is not about burning off fuel.

Of course, the elliptical will never understand that, either. So, do yourself a favor and throw a towel over the display before you start. That's my number-one workout tip. I call it the clock-blocker.


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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
2. It's still a workout, even if you like it. (And it's not a better workout if you hate it.)

Sometimes, we push ourselves out of the comfort zone. That's great. Getting comfortable with a degree of discomfort is healthy. That's why I sometimes go for an extra 10 reps just to see if I can do it. It's pretty cool when I discover I can! It's also pretty cool when I discover that, nope, the reps I'm doing will suffice for now, and pushing further will only hurt my body — not strengthen it. That's healthy, too.

Another healthy activity? Taking a few days of rest if I did happen to go too far in the weight room one day.

Rational fitness doesn't mean pushing yourself so hard every damn day that you feel like a lazy piece of shit when you don't. It means supporting and caring for your own body (which includes your brain, by the way, so support and care for that part, too).

When you take it easy, that counts. When you go hard, that counts. It all counts.
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Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.
3. There's a difference between being a gym junkie and being an active person.

Here are some other things that count: Playing pool volleyball with friends, chasing your crazy dog around the park, going for a long meditative walk (on or off the treadmill).

A lot of us are stuck in the idea that exercise only counts when you're wearing a sports bra. That's the gym-junkie mentality, and when it comes down to it, this is the clearest difference between irrational and rational fitness: knowing that being active doesn't only happen in the gym.

Don't get me wrong, I love the gym. I love stepping out of the chaos of the day and into a place where I'm not multitasking (or at least I'm multitasking less). I can just put on Hamilton and go. It gets me out of my head and into my body. Plus, I know I'm going to leave feeling better. But I didn't have that peace of mind back in my junkie days, when the gym was all about punishment and perfection.

Being active is a much bigger-picture mindset. It understands that fitness feels good — and if it doesn't, maybe that's on me. Maybe I need to think about the ways I enjoy moving my body and do more of those things. For you, maybe that means quitting jogging, because it irritates an old injury. Maybe it means inviting a friend to bike with you, because it's more fun that way. Whether you're a gym fan or not, rational fitness means thinking outside whatever box you've put it in.


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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
4. Fitness doesn't look one way — and neither does a fit person.

Just as exercise comes in many different forms, so to does a fit person. I can't believe we still have to teach this kindergarten-style, but: You can't judge a book by its cover. Everyone is different. You can't know someone's health or fitness level by looking at them.

This is true for many reasons. First, different forms of exercise have different effects on the body. Second, different bodies respond differently to exercise. We all have different genetic backgrounds and personal histories that impact the shape and development of our bodies. I was born with the calves of a professional soccer player and whether I do Pilates or cycling or zero deliberate exercise, they don't change. Don't know which jacked-up Viking ancestor they came from, but they're not going anywhere. Neither is my lower abdomen, which has always been the cushiest part of me.

Looking at my body, you could easily assume I do no core work and spend nine hours a day doing calf presses. Neither of those things are true. I exercise both those parts of my body, because I want them to be strong and agile. I know that just because my legs look the part and my midsection doesn't, they both deserve attention.

Some people's bodies (or parts of their bodies) might look a lot like what you envision as "fit," yet they never exercise — and vice versa. Unless you're taking a blood panel, running stress tests, and getting a full history from those bodies, you're not going to know how fit they really are. And unless that's your job, it's really not your business, anyway.
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Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.
5. Exercise is a priority, not a mandatory sentence.

Yes, once upon a time, a workout was the way I bought myself freedom and the liberty to eat pizza. Now, I understand that exercise is not negative pizza; it's not something I do to "make up for" anything. If I miss a scheduled workout, it's a bummer, but it's not a tragedy. I try to do some other kind of exercise — like walking to an appointment instead of taking the subway — because, really, any exercise makes me feel good. (See: being active vs. being a gym junkie.) But some days, it's just not gonna happen. Oh, well.

It's not a bad thing to prioritize exercise, but do so with the understanding that exercise is meant to support and enrich your life — not the other way around. That means your day doesn't revolve around your workout. Maybe it's built-in. Maybe it's extra-important sometimes (like if you're training for a marathon, for example), but it's not the sole factor upon which everything else is contingent. "Contingent" isn't a word that should really apply here.

A good way to know if you're being rational about exercise is to think about all the other things that matter and how you treat them. Going to the dentist is important to me and my health. But if something comes up and I need to push the appointment, I don't feel like a failure, unworthy of dinner. Nurturing my friendships is important to me, too, and friendships aren't as easy to reschedule as dentists appointments — or the gym, for that matter. So, there will be days when I have to choose between working out and something else. Sometimes, it makes more sense to choose the workout. Sometimes, it doesn't. The important thing is that it's always a choice I make — not an order I follow.


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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
6. Fad fitness is exactly what it sounds like.

This is a touchy one. Lord knows, I'm not here to hate on anybody's SoulCycle or CrossFit or that zombie-apocalypse workout I keep hearing about. (Maybe I dreamt it? Oh no, it's real.) Even if I was, I'd keep my mouth shut, because some folks cannot stand to have their favorite fitness trend criticized.

And that is my one and only problem with fitness fads. Even if the particular exercise style is great, accessible, and enjoyable for many people, it's never a one-size-fits-all workout. That's just not how exercise works and I think even the most zealous devotees would acknowledge that in any rational conversation. But when something becomes a fad, rationality seems to go out the window. Barre becomes the savior instead of an exercise style, and therefore it is irreproachable. If you have not accepted barre as your one true workout, you are simply unenlightened. What? You still do step classes? Surely, ye shall be damned.

I'm up for anything that helps you find real joy in exercise. If you enjoy a super on-trend, buzzy fitness fad, I say, go for it. Sing its praises, even! But don't get sucked into believing that this is the only way to work out. And if you get bored, need a break, or want to try something new, don't waste a moment thinking that you've failed. The step class will welcome you with open arms.
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Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.
7. Everyone's goals are different.

I don't spend a lot of time talking about fitness goals, because (like so many) I used to get too tied up in goal-oriented thinking when it came to exercise. For me, the goal is now rational, regular exercise itself. But I recognize that other people aim for other achievements. And there's nothing inherently wrong with that.

If someone's committed to shaping their body a certain way, lifting a certain weight, or getting their resting heart rate to a certain level — good for them. Seriously. Just because someone's not doing it your way (or vice versa) doesn't mean either of you are doing it wrong. Some folks out there are exercising to lose weight. They're not automatically wrong, either. I believe that we, as a culture, are dangerously obsessed with the concept of fitness as weight-loss method. But we can push for cultural change and respect individual goals. There's room for both and both deserve respect.


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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
8. Don't "compare and despair." You will not be "gymtimidated."

Some people roll their eyes at "gymtimidation," because, frankly, it's a dumb, made-up word. But it's a real concept. How many of us have bought into the counterintuitive argument that we need to get in shape before we go to the gym? I know I'm raising my hand.

It's not easy to overcome gymtimidation, but it's not hard to recognize the cause: compare and despair. Getting hooked into that old cycle is what builds anxiety, backing us into a corner where everyone is better than us and we're an embarrassment for even trying. That is a bullshit belief. So, don't buy it.

If you catch yourself looking around and comparing yourself to others (in or out of the gym), take a pause. In fact, don't wait to catch yourself, because most of us do this automatically. Deliberately check in with yourself to see if and when you're drawing comparisons, then ask yourself: How does this help? What's the point of doing this? If I follow this train of thought, will it lead somewhere I want to go?

Quite often, this mindful approach will break the spell. But if it doesn't, that's okay. Do it anyway. Defy the gymtimidation. Flip the bird at all those nasty, unnecessary voices in your head and get on with your workout. The truth is you can't always control your own thoughts. But whether or not you listen to them is your decision. Your actions are all on you. Pretty cool, huh?
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Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.
9. Ignore the jargon.

Sometimes I find myself in an exercise class, totally digging it (or at least giving it a shot), then the instructor will say something like, "Okay, now we're gonna work on those bikini butts!" And I'm like, Really?

Jargon is everywhere. It's in the branding, the marketing, the very instruction of fitness. Hear enough talk about thigh gaps and you may come to believe that they're important to you. Or you may be sick of hearing thigh-gap chatter and fly off the handle when someone casually tosses it at you. If you want to throw it back in someone's face, go for it. Call bullshit where you see it. But if you want to just ignore it and move on, that's allowed, too. In the end, that's probably better.

Like any fitness trend, jargon changes all the time. If we buy into it and spread the word, it hangs around longer. If you ignore it, it loses power. Whatever you do, just remember: "Bikini butts" are not a thing, so don't believe in them.


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Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
10. Challenge your fitness beliefs.

Rational fitness is about more than just your body. Above all, it means using your noggin and your body. It means taking a step back and looking at what it is you believe about exercise and challenging it regularly. It's so, so easy to fall into a groove and stay there. But you've got to shake it up sometimes or you'll get worn out and bored (any trainer would tell you that).

Many of us are holding on to old beliefs about what our bodies are capable of. Why wouldn't we? We're bombarded by messaging that says we're lame, we're weak, our butts are not bikini butts. When you take a moment to think about it, of course, it's all just ridiculous. So, take that moment to think about it.

There you go. Step one: done. On to the next.
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