The Dark Side Of Workout Challenges

Photographed by Molly Cranna.
Warning: This article contains mentions of weight loss and disordered eating behaviours.
Back in 2019, personal trainer Natalie Gil (disclosure: a former colleague at R29) decided to start her year with an eight-week fitness challenge. The focus was on HIIT workouts, with the goal of fat loss, and participants were encouraged to do as many classes as possible while following a restricted meal plan. It was all framed by before-and-after photos to assess 'progress'.
Natalie followed the challenge to a tee and lost weight but the results fell short. "For much of the eight weeks I had low energy, bad moods, a reduced social life and by the end, my muscles looked flat," she tells R29.
Despite the promise built into the challenge (and others like it), all that exercise and sacrifice ended up being an expensive waste of time that made her feel worse.
Many people will be familiar with the story. You stumble across one of the many challenges that promise to kickstart your fitness, improve your strength or more explicitly change the way you look. They can catch you at any time of year but are particularly prevalent in the new year and the run-up to the summer holidays. Thanks to the duration of these challenges, which is often between six and 12 weeks, they are made to feel accessible. Theoretically, the only thing stopping you is discipline and money (although as many are now 'at-home challenges', they’re more affordable than ever). And so you give it a go.
Whether you reach the end of the challenge, like Natalie, or don't complete it because life gets in the way, the result is often the same: whatever change you experience is hard won and incredibly hard to sustain once you stop. And the impact on your self-esteem when those results fall short or disappear altogether is worse than if you hadn't started the challenge in the first place.

Fitness challenges, whether they mean to be or not, are doomed to fail in the same way as crash diets. Yet we keep buying into them because their promise is enticing.

This is not because of any personal failing. It is because many fitness challenges, whether they mean to be or not, are doomed to fail in the same way as crash diets. Yet we keep buying into them because their promise is enticing.
Shane Collins, founder of Circuit Society, tells R29 that the appeal of these challenges is the promise of a quick fix. "It’s what the majority of people want, and it then creates an opportunity for the fitness industry to sell." He adds that the key to fitness is consistency above anything else but as human beings, we’re not good at consistency. And so "we seek a quick fix to get us ready for holidays, weddings, etc."
Jodie Cariss, therapist and founder of the high street therapy service Self Space, agrees. "If we think about things long term, and the changes we might need to make to our lives, we can become overwhelmed about our ability to stay committed or what those changes might mean to our day-to-day lives." She gives the example of people being more able to imagine taking part in Dry January than cutting down their drinking to twice a week for months, even though the latter would have a much better, long-lasting impact.
The appeal is also bound up in the pervasive diet culture that surrounds us, says Ashley Newburn, an instructor at Boom Cycle. "Diet culture – the pursuit of thinness at any cost – conditions us to believe that our bodies are a 'problem' to be 'fixed'. These challenges perpetuate the fatphobic ideals which dominate in our culture and, in doing so, they are overwhelming in their appeal – so much so, they are extremely difficult to resist. They also allow us to perform our attempts at 'health' and therefore demonstrate our moral superiority."
It’s important to note that there is no universal experience of exercise, and that includes fitness challenges. Finding joy in moving by immersing yourself in a yoga or HIIT challenge could genuinely set you on a new, celebratory path towards fitness. There is a lot to be said about the benefits of being part of a community and knowing you are all working towards the same goal. What's more, framing exercise in this way can bring structure and discipline that is helpful for some people. As Brooke Sharp, Beat’s clinical advice coordinator, tells R29: "It's important to remember that every person is unique and what one person finds unhelpful, another may find helpful."
If your fitness challenge brings you nothing but joy and a new love of movement, that's a wonderful thing. But it is not necessarily the exercise itself that is the issue. What can be a problem is how that exercise is framed.
"Fitness challenges are meant to be about exactly that – a challenge," explains Dee Johnson, a therapist and addiction expert at Priory Hospital Chelmsford. "There is nothing wrong with being competitive, wanting to be the best you can be and deriving pleasure in working towards goals. These are great motivators, providing your self-worth and self-esteem are in a good place."
Problems can arise when a person doesn’t have these things, she says. "If you struggle with low self-worth, self-loathing, deep-rooted insecurities or body image concerns, then fitness challenges can perpetuate these feelings."
Without the safeguard of robust self-worth, fitness challenges can channel our more destructive impulses.
They can become addictive, says Dee, because the release of endorphins and dopamine through exercise can plateau so we work out more and more to reach the same high. Jodi agrees and adds: "We can negate other needs in order to achieve these short-term goals, things like rest, listening to our bodies and minds, and relationships." Even if a challenge replaces a more destructive behaviour, that doesn’t necessarily make it better. "[Exercising this way] can be seen as 'good' or better by the wider world but might be serving us in the same negative way, acting as a defence against feeling or processing what’s really happening in our lives or our feelings."

If you struggle with low self-worth, self-loathing, deep-rooted insecurities or body image concerns, then fitness challenges can perpetuate these feelings.

Dee Johnson
Then there is the fact that the goals of fitness challenges can, in mirroring diet culture, go hand in hand with obsessive behaviours often found in eating disorders.
"Some fitness challenges focus on seeing visual 'results', such as a change in body shape or size," explains Brooke. "While not every person with an eating disorder will experience issues with body image, encouraging a fixation on physical appearance can contribute to eating disorder thoughts or behaviours such as body checking or weighing." The intensive nature of these programmes can also encourage overexercising, "which can contribute to an eating disorder developing for someone who is already vulnerable, or worsen an existing eating disorder."
Additionally, tracking numbers like exercises or calories can be very harmful for people affected by eating disorders. Even if you aren’t affected by an eating disorder, it can still have a significant impact on your sense of self-worth. Dee explains: "If not channelled correctly, fitness challenges can be a catalyst for serious damage to how we view ourselves in the short and long term [and] can put our self-esteem on an unhealthy downward spiral." In the short term, this can impact your mood, make you feel depressed and build anxiety in settings where you are exercising. In the long term, it can drive you into a damaging cycle of extremes from which it is tough to break free.
There can be physical risks too, Shane explains. "The biggest problem that I see is people diving in the deep end, going from zero to 100 in a really short timeframe and generally back to zero again afterwards. That creates a number of issues, aside from the obvious increase in the risk of injury. The bigger issue it creates is that it works initially, people lose weight, but your body doesn’t react well to sudden change and typically you are back to where you started, or worse, weeks afterwards. That’s not good for our body; it’s also damaging to our self-esteem and our confidence."
In Natalie's experience, rest and stress management aren’t actively encouraged in these challenges. "Our bodies adapt to training during rest and sleep, and life stress can impair our results, so rest days and stress management should be non-negotiable in any training plan," she says. "Challenge participants may acquire injuries from overexercising and under-recovering." Additionally, there is the potential for metabolic damage, muscle loss (depending on the participant's nutrition and recovery), elevated stress hormones and other hormone imbalances, low mood, fatigue, a suppressed immune system, extreme hunger post-challenge, food fixation and/or a problematic relationship with food.
These downsides paint a remarkably unappealing picture but the pull is still there. Ashley says that’s because these challenges follow the same model as diet culture. "Such challenges tie our worth to our bodily output, our looks and our physical ability. They provide the illusion that we are able to control these things, which is simply not accurate. When we inevitably 'fall off the workout wagon' we feel bad and, in this way, fitness challenges mirror the cyclical nature of diets in that they are designed to fail and as such require us to spend more on our next attempt at the trendy new exercise class or workout plan."
For many people they are just not worth it, physically, mentally or financially. So what’s the alternative? There is no solution that will give you the same results that fitness challenges claim to because that quick fix just doesn’t exist. The trainers we spoke to for this piece all say that you should shift your mindset instead. Exercising for joy and giving yourself unconditional permission to rest encourages a sustainable relationship with exercise that is not punishing. Thinking in longer-term goals (12 months, say, instead of 12 weeks) can give a more realistic framework for what you can achieve without falling into destructive thinking or patterns. And life always, always has to take precedence.
Exercise is so lauded as a virtue that it can be hard to unpack when it is helpful and when it is harmful. But by working to make it not a fixation you can avoid the trap of burning out and permanently damaging your view of exercise or, worse, yourself.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with disordered eating, please contact the Butterfly Foundation at 1800 33 4673.

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