Last week, the Los Angeles Times published a column about the benefits of vanity in exercising, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. Bad enough that I couldn't stop myself from writing up a response.
According to the piece, it's okay if looking good is your primary motivation in exercising, because you'll reap the physiological benefits either way.:
When applied properly, vanity can be great for physical well-being because of the myriad health benefits that come with regular exercise. He also believes it's a common reason why people hit the gym or running trails: "While many people state they are pursuing fitness for health reasons, the truth is that these are often secondary to their desire to look better. In the back of their minds they're killing two birds with one stone."
What's more, it can be a lasting driver, he says: "It will keep us going back to maintain our new look."
I'm not disputing the truthfulness of the first statement -- obviously people are motivated by their looks, particularly when they exercise. But as for the "lasting driver" claim, well, that's one of my issues. Studies have actually proven the exact opposite, that it's actually motivations of health and wellness that keep people coming back to the gym for more. And as countless fitness and nutrition experts have repeated over the years, hitting your "goal weight" is often a hidden danger -- if your main concern was your looks and you got the ones you wanted, your desire to maintain them may actually decrease, leading to weight gain and the yo-yo dieting cycle.
Not to mention, if you take the argument that "people happy with their results will continue with their plan" to its logical extreme, you can end up with some disordered thinking. The article does touch on some of the dangers of this attitude: eating disorders, taking steroids and weight loss supplements or dangerous crash dieting. But it fails to mention some of the less obvious -- yet still damaging -- issues like orthorexia that can affect your emotional well-being.
Our own bloggers here at Healthy Living Fitness have written pieces about why working out for vanity is an unproductive route. Mina Samuels, in her blog "Working Out Shouldn't Be About Getting A Perfect Body," explains that aiming for perfection physically is an unattainable goal, since the definition of physical perfection doesn't exist. She suggests instead seeking personal excellence. And personal excellence has nothing to do with vanity -- I know countless men and women who don't look "perfect" but are faster, tougher, stronger and fitter than some of these more vain (and thinner) exercisers could ever hope to be.
Celebrity trainer Ramona Braganza wrote in her blog "Why You Shouldn't Aim For A Hollywood Body" that even A-list celebs, whose virtual livelihood depends on vanity and attractiveness, still dig deeper for inspiring reasons to exercise (Jessica Alba has a family history of osteoporosis she fights with strength training, and Halle Berry works out to keep her diabetes in check).
While these beautiful women certainly think about the effect exercise has on their appearances, a deeper motivation has to exist -- not just for better, more long-lasting results, but for a happier workout.