A new ethos helps make fitness more accessible and less toxic

Paul Landinic is a personal trainer and health educator in Kitchener, Ont.

I occupy a unique area in the personal training world. The majority of my clients are adults like me, regular people who appreciate the value of exercise but feel at odds with the fitness culture as a whole. Like me, they tried to be open to what is obviously idiotic ideology (“No pain, no gain”? Really?). They spent hours every week at the gym, wishing they could be outside instead. Basically, they sipped the steroid-laced Kool-Aid until it got too sour to digest, then went looking for a more palatable option.

The approach I use when working with these fearless souls is the same as the one I use to keep my own training/life demons at bay. Rather than chasing big, daring fitness goals, goals that typically require a lot of time and emotional energy, our focus is on reaching a highly achievable yet equally challenging standard that I like to call “fairly fit.”

The “fairly fit” ethos is in stark contrast to the typical hardcore training attitude. We prioritize quality of movement over quantity of reps and sets. Our performance standards are based on what our actual bodies can do in the real world we live in. This means that if you’re a middle-aged office worker, you probably don’t need to train for a 600-pound squat. For most people in that demographic, just being able to get off the floor in one smooth motion is a more productive — and achievable — goal.

It was a long road that led me to this niche. I have been immersed in the fitness world for as long as I can remember. Gym class in elementary school led to strength training in high school, and from there I made the jump to boxing and martial arts; and while I was never very good at these athletic endeavors, they became the cornerstone of my nascent masculine identity. The gym became my home away from home. Men’s Health, Muscle & Fitness, Flex – these glossy magazines were the filter through which I began to see the world.

I can remember feeling a disconnect between my true self and this character I had created. The aggressive, take-no-prisoners pose; the egocentric attitude; the misguided ideas of what it means to be a man – it all felt fake because, well, it was. But real men don’t engage in this kind of navel-gazing. Real men lift weights. So I kept doing that.

Is it any wonder my twenties were such a mess?

Thankfully, after a decade of being lost in the fake airbrushed wilderness native to this particular subculture, I started to see the light. My “aha moment” came as I defended the shoulder pain that had been nagging me because God knows how long. It struck all at once, an existential gut that left me feeling deflated and ashamed, but also encouraged.

It became clear that my relationship with fitness – and my body – was toxic and dysfunctional to say the least. I never would have asked what it is exactly that I aim for when I commit to an eight-week training plan. I had never thought about the performance or aesthetic standards I aspired to or who set those standards in the first place. I just nodded along with the rest of the Gym Bros and hit my next set.

But you cannot unseen the light. My faith was shaken and the questions kept coming. Why am I so concerned about muscle mass and body fat? Is it because I value health and vitality so much that I break down regularly? Or is it because of a deep-seated inferiority complex that manifests itself as a constant and desperate search for approval from others?

These are the kinds of questions that the Fitness Industrial Complex prefers not to think about, because these are the kinds of questions that lead people to cancel their gym memberships. But I know they get asked because I don’t just pronounce them myself, but as a trainer I hear them all the time from the people I work with.

Wanting to be reasonably fit is not a compromise or a way out. You still have to work hard, you still have to show up and make regular effort. It just means that there are other aspects of life that are more important than twice your own body weight on the couch. Leave the hour-long workouts to the so-called Alpha. For us reasonably fit people, we train to live rather than the other way around.

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