“Fight through the pain.”
“Target your problem zones.”
“Learn her secret weapon!”
Phrases like this are ubiquitous in fitness magazines, television shows, and social media channels, and they probably motivate some of us to lace up our running shoes. But while I’ve been an athlete for much of my life—I played varsity basketball and soccer in high school, and I’m currently training for my first half marathon—I’ve never really connected with fitness magazines or TV shows. Once I started to examine the language more closely, I finally understood why.
Exercise is War
In Metaphors We Live By, cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that language is based on conceptual metaphors that reflect and create our understanding of reality. For example, the metaphor time is money is clear in the statements “You’re wasting my time,” “That flat tire cost me an hour,” and “You need to budget your time.” This metaphor mirrors and constructs how we think about time: as a scarce resource that can be spent, saved and set aside.
When we talk about exercise, I think we too often rely on the metaphor exercise is war. This conceptual metaphor suggests that the body is an enemy that must be disciplined and controlled, encouraging us to feel critical or hateful toward our bodies, or toward specific areas—the enemy is your thighs, your arms, or your stomach. Rather than being fun or empowering, exercise is now an activity that implicitly involves violence or pain, a perception that can cause people to dislike or avoid exercise.
The exercise is war metaphor is everywhere—fitness and fashion magazines, television shows, infomercials, advertisements, social media, and how-to articles. Here are some examples:
…damage control is just a body-shaping undergarment away.
Attack your hidden core muscles.
Crunches target only superficial muscles…
…try this drill…
Combat tight hip flexors…
Stress sabotages your abs…
Get a killer body…
Blast fat with a circuit…
This boot-camp workout…
The Total-Body Blitz…
The battle of the bulge…
It’s true that some aspects of the metaphor seem logical. The military is often associated with fitness, for one thing, and sports have long been tied to war. A fitness “boot camp” may share certain appealing qualities associated with the military—discipline, rigor, precision, toughness, and maybe even a certain cachet. Participants in these programs may enjoy a sense of camaraderie or feel motivated by the presence of others.
In addition, many workouts are designed to be methodical, repetitive and precise like military drills, which carry a positive connotation of exactness and discipline. Exercise may sometimes require, or seem to require, sacrifice or pain, like military service. Many people approach exercise to gain control of their body, much like wars are fought to rule a population or nation. Exercise is war isn’t totally illogical—after all, if the metaphor didn’t make any sense, it wouldn’t be so pervasive. Of course, nobody thinks that having a “killer body” actually means you’re committing murder, so why does it matter how we talk about exercise?
Your Body is Your Enemy?
In sports, you’re usually trying to beat an opponent. When you’re not playing a sport, however, exercise is war typically suggests that the enemy that must be controlled or dominated is your own body.
Feeling pressure to control or overcome your body makes sense in our society, which already judges and polices women’s bodies through what we look like, how we are dressed, what we eat, what we weigh, how many people we sleep with, and how—and whether—we reproduce. Women are constantly reminded that our bodies fall short of some ideal.
Gain Without Pain
“No pain, no gain.” “Pain is weakness leaving your body.” “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Anyone who grew up playing sports is familiar with such platitudes, but there’s a dangerous tendency in sports and exercise to glorify pain and physical sacrifice.
Fox Sports praised players in the women’s World Cup semifinal for continuing to play despite appearing to be concussed and Cross-Fit has been criticized for making light of dangerous overexertion; they allegedly have a mascot for exercise-induced vomiting and a nickname for exertional rhabdomyolysis, a dangerous condition that can cause kidney failure.
Associating exercise with pain is dangerous in two ways: it may encourage people to work out to the point of injury, or it may discourage people from exercising at all.
According to the CDC, some of the most common reasons people say they don’t work out are because they don’t find exercise enjoyable, they find exercise boring, they’re scared of injury, or they don’t have confidence in themselves.
The CDC attempts to address these barriers by encouraging people to choose types of physical activity they enjoy and advising people to exercise at a comfortable intensity level. Working out doesn’t have to be painful or sacrificial. It doesn’t mean you can’t take breaks or rest days or weeks off. In fact, many sports injuries are caused by inadequate rest or overtraining—one study found that overuse causes 50 to 75 percent of all running injuries.
Taking Back Language
It’s nearly impossible to speak or write without relying on metaphors of some kind. Even Susan Sontag, railing against the use of metaphor in medical discourse, begins Illness as Metaphor with a metaphor of “dual citizenship in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.”
But even if we can’t give up metaphorical language entirely, awareness of language matters. As Lakoff and Johnson argue, metaphors in language shape how we think and act. After all, without the time is money metaphor—which didn’t exist before modern industrialized societies—it would hardly make sense to think of time as something you can save, invest, or waste, or to have yearly budgets, hourly wages, or interest on loans.
So if you don’t like the idea of declaring war on your body, try a different metaphor:
- Think of exercise as a journey, a respite, or an adventure.
- Recast the “enemy” as something external: the clock, a competitor, or your own personal best.
Remind yourself how in tune you feel with your body when you’re sweaty and breathing hard and feeling very alive. Remember how the single-minded focus of a good workout can help you forget what’s been stressing you out all day. Think about the peace and calm you feel during a cool-down as your breathing and heart rate slow back to normal.
You can also adjust your habits to help you understand exercise as a means to be stronger, healthier, and happier:
- Avoid fitness or fashion magazines that focus on changing how you look, especially articles that promise to transform a specific part of your body.
- Remember that images you see are heavily manipulated—shot at certain angles in certain lighting and then Photoshopped. Even the models don’t actually look like that.
- Choose exercise you enjoy at an intensity that feels manageable.
- Listen to how your body feels and don’t feel pressured to work out to the point of pain or exhaustion.
- Take rest days.
- Practice whatever self-care helps you feel healthy and whole—eat when you’re hungry, get enough sleep, keep a journal, meditate, listen to music, get a massage, play with your pets, or get a pedicure.
- Focus on goals beyond a certain number on the scale or a specific clothing size.
- Think about what product or lifestyle you are being sold whenever the media makes you feel that your body isn’t good enough. As Brené Brown puts it, ask “Who benefits by my seeing these images and feeling bad about myself?” She points out: “This is ALWAYS about money and/or control.”
Understanding the exercise is war metaphor can help us choose not to approach our bodies from a perspective of violence or control. We don’t have to think of bodies as having “problem zones” or parts that need to be “targeted” or “minimized.” Working out can be an act of self-love, not self-loathing.
In the words of Sonya Renee, the body is not a crime; the body is not an apology. And the body should not be a site of war.