A new ethos is helping make fitness more attainable, and less toxic

A new ethos is helping make fitness more attainable, and less toxic
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Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Kitchener, Ont.

I occupy a unique sphere in the personal training world. The majority of my clients are adults like myself, regular people who appreciate the value of exercise but feel at odds with fitness culture as a whole. Like me, they tried keeping an open mind in the face of what is clearly idiotic ideology (”No pain, no gain”? Really?). They spent hours in the gym every week, all the while wishing they could be outside instead. In short, they sipped on the steroid-laced Kool-Aid until it became too sour to stomach, and then went looking for a more palatable option.

The approach I use when working with these intrepid souls is the same as the one I use to keep my own training/life demons at bay. Rather than chasing after big, audacious fitness goals, goals that typically take up a ton of time and emotional energy, our focus is on achieving a very attainable yet equally challenging standard I like to call “reasonably fit.”

The “reasonably fit” ethos sits 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 inhabit. This means if you’re a middle-aged office worker, you likely don’t need to train for a 600-pound squat. For most people in that demographic, just being able to get up off the floor in one fluid motion is a more productive – and attainable – goal.

It was a long road that led me toward this niche. I’ve been immersed in the fitness world for about as far back as I can remember. Grade school gym class led to high school weight training, and from there I made the jump to boxing and martial arts; and while I was never all that good at these athletic endeavors, they became the cornerstone of my burgeoning masculine identity. The gym became my home away from home. Men’s Health, Muscle & Fitness, Flex – these glossy magazines provided 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 posturing; the self-centered attitude; the misguided notions of what it means to be a man – it all felt bogus because, well, it was. But real men don’t concern themselves with this sort of navel-gazing. Real men lift weights. So that’s what I kept on doing.

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Is it any wonder my twenties were such a mess?

Thankfully, after a decade lost in the phony airbrushed wilderness native to this particular subculture, I began to see the light. My “aha moment” came as I was tending to the shoulder pain that had been nagging me for God only knows how long. It hit all at once, an existential gut-punch that left me feeling deflated and embarrassed, but also emboldened.

It became clear that my relationship with fitness – and my body – was toxic and dysfunctional to say the least. I had never asked what it is, exactly, that I’m striving for when I commit to an eight-week training plan. I had never pondered the performance or aesthetic standards I’d been pursuing or who even set these standards in the first place. I simply nodded along with the rest of the Gym Bros and hit my next set.

But you can’t unsee the light. My faith had been shaken, and the questions kept coming. Why am I so concerned about muscle mass and body fat? Is it because I put such a premium on health and vitality that I bust my butt on a regular basis? Or is it because of a deeply-rooted inferiority complex that manifests as a constant and desperate quest for approval from others?

These are the sorts of questions the Fitness Industrial Complex would rather we didn’t contemplate, for these are the sorts of questions that lead to people canceling their gym memberships. But I know they are being asked because, on top of voicing them myself, 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 cop-out. You still need to work hard, still need to show up and put in effort on a regular basis. It simply means there are other aspects of life that are more important than benching twice your own bodyweight. Leave the hours-long workouts to the so-called Alpha. For us reasonably fit folks, we train to live rather than the other way around.

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