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She May Look Healthy But…Why Fitness Models Aren’t Models of Health

ShayAs our regular readers will know already, both Sam and I prefer athletic values and performance goals to aesthetic goals, even when the aesthetic goals include “looking fit” instead of the old ideal of being stick thin.  It’s not because there isn’t something admirable about looking fit, not even because there is no accomplishment in looking that way. It’s because we distinguish between looking fit and actually being fit. And there’s a real range of body types among those who count as fit and healthy.

One less well known fact is that fitness models and people who compete in the figure category in fitness competitions aren’t actually at the height of healthy when they compete. By the time “game day” comes, they’ve followed a regime that no one recommending a healthy approach to fitness and diet would recommend.  They’ve eaten too few calories for the intensity of workouts they’ve been doing. And they’ve reached a weight that they have no intention of maintaining.

In short, their bodies, admired as models of fitness by so many, are unrealistic even for them!

Here’s a super article about a fitness instructor who decided to enter a figure competition.

Here’s what the competitor, Kelly Booth, has to say about her diet leading up to the day of competition:

Three months before competition, I stopped eating bread. I limited myself to 1,400 calories a day. I would only eat oatmeal (in the morning), eggs, chicken, protein shakes, sweet potatoes, more chicken, broccoli, some almond butter or avocado (for healthy fats), tuna or fish and salads (spinach, bell peppers, broccoli, and fat-free dressing with less than 6 grams of sugar). I ate like this for 6 weeks straight. You are not supposed to cheat at all—no going out to eat. No sugar. Very few carbs—oatmeal, sweet potato, brown rice—that’s it.

It gets worse. Six weeks out, I followed a stricter diet, which was basically no carbs, except on a “carb-load day” twice a week, when I’d have a banana, sweet potato, oatmeal, almond butter, and green beans. The purpose of carb-loading is to give yourself energy until you can carb load again. This is when I saw my body fat start to drop.

Here is what happened to her during this phase of her preparation, when she was on a very restricted diet (1400 calories a day) and working out intensively:

I felt really out of it (my brain needs carbs). Once, I lost my phone for 2 hours, and I was talking to myself, looking everywhere for it, and it was right in front of me. I wasn’t tired, but I got a lot of sleep. I did drink some black coffee or green tea for energy (and for something other than water, which I drank a gallon of each day). I was really carb-depleted. I felt weak and couldn’t work out as hard. And I was moody! Sometimes I wouldn’t want to talk to anyone. I could only stand talking to certain people, like my workout partner and my trainer—because they were the only ones who understood how I felt and what I was going through.

As a personal trainer, Kelly says she would never recommend this approach to a client. She says:

The first week I was on this diet, I felt like I was going into shock. I felt like my brain was trembling in my skull! I worked with a trainer who is a bodybuilder who could help supervise me, and help me know when it was OK or not.

But to look like that and have that definition and such low body fat, there is no other way than to restrict your diet and work out.

What I get from this article is: you can’t have the fitness model’s body if you don’t engage in this extreme dieting and training.  The diet and training are decidedly NOT healthy. Therefore, in order to sustain the look that so many people desire for themselves (hence the popularity of fitspo for inspiration — I have blogged about why I’m opposed to fitspo) it is necessary to do something that is not recommended if you are interested in health.

This is not to say that there is no accomplishment in achieving this body. Just like climbing Mount Everest or running a marathon, it’s not something you do every day. It takes a certain sort of physical and mental toughness.  As Kelly says, “Well, it’s looked at like a sport. It’s not something you can maintain.”

Philosophy professor Shay Welch competes in figure competitions as well. When I emailed her about her experience, here’s what she responded:

I usually am at 1200-1400 calories during off season just to maintain (which is about 25 lbs over what I should be on stage) and then at about 800 calories in the final stretch, working out twice a day for around 4 hours.  everyday.  I do a lot of crying and very little sleeping.  Off season is relatively healthy but your body will change weight super easy because the metabolism crashes to nothing.  But the final stretch is super duper uper unhealthy.  But I can’t do any other sports and I love being athletically competitive so I deal.  Most people I know who do this cannot maintain a real job.  They are almost always fitness trainers because they’re the only ones who can really endure this.  I’ve known more than a few people who had to quit their regular job because they became obsessed with dieting and being on stage.  I throw all my trophies away because I am always trying to remember that this is just a hobby.  And no one maintains except professional fitness people and they get paid to starve year round. 

To put it mildly, Shay’s experience shows the disconnect between fitness/health and the aesthetic ideal that has come to represent fitness.  It’s a misleading representation that sets a lot of ordinary people up to feel as if they are not succeeding in their pursuit of fitness unless they are trending towards a super lean, muscular body.

Nicole Nichols’ interview with Kelly Booth  and Shay Welsh’s candid comments are excellent reminders of the reality of what it takes to get that body and how impossible it is to keep it.

And that’s another reason to keep the focus on athletic values and performance goals if fitness and heath matter to you.

[photo: The woman in the centre of the photo is philosophy professor and figure competitor, Shay Welch. Also a good friend of Sam’s. The photo is from the “Looks Philosophical” Blog. Thanks, Shay!]

50 thoughts on “She May Look Healthy But…Why Fitness Models Aren’t Models of Health

  1. OMG I HAVE SO MANY THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS. I may springboard off of this post for a post of my own, but basically I find it really disturbing that fitness models who put themselves through some pretty torturous dietary restrictions are held us as models for us to emulate. (See also: Adriana Lima’s liquid diet ahead of the Victoria’s Secret fashion show.) I think about that every time I’m scrolling through tumblr and I see a teenage girl bemoaning the fact that her belly is never perfectly flat.

    The other day I was reading yet another post about why women shouldn’t run, and it talked about how fitness competitors who did hours a day of steady-state cardio wound up wrecking their metabolism. The author was like, “And that is why you shouldn’t do steady-state cardio.” Meanwhile, I’m like, “No, this is why the culture of fitness competition is scary.”

    1. I agree with you 100%. The culture is frightening!

      Also, speaking of running, the ‘professional’ who called it ‘steady-state cardio’ has no idea what he or she is talking about. It is actually NOT steady-state cardio unless you run on a completely flat surface and never adjust your pace at all, which is rare for runners. When I run up a hill, my heart rate goes up. When I pick up the pace a bit, my heart rate goes up. When I run intervals at the track, my heart rate is up during the interval and comes back down during the recovery lap. NOT steady state cardio! 🙂

  2. This is a fascinating topic for so many reasons. I know people who bodybuild, and everything you say is true. They gain weight in the off-season to gain strength and bet bigger in a proportional symmetrical manner, eating in a relatively healthy manner, and they limit their cardio to perhaps 20 minutes, while working out twice a day for in excess of 5 hours per day. To get into game shape, they then starve themselves while still still training intensely (usually 2 workouts a day, 2 plus hours each workout) and they increase their cardio alot – alot of them do a alot of incline walking on the treadmill for 1 1/2 hours. They are also very strict about their diets at almost all times throughout the year. Their body fat percentage drops significantly well below a healthy range in order to look as they do, for competition, or for photo shoots, and it is not sustainable. Many of these people still look quite amazing by everyday standards, even at their heaviest in the off-season. Others I know though actually do get just a little pudgy-looking in the off-season. And then there’s the steroids and other illegal substances….elite bodybuilders and professional athletes all (okay, maybe only 90-95%) take such illegal drugs. There’s also the issues surrounding concussions in professional sports, and living with other injuries for years – taking drugs to deal with the pain and to play through it. It may very well be that many professional athletes are fit but perhaps are doing a great number of unhealthy things to their bodies (and heads), as well. And of course, it is almost impossible or at least difficult for them to hold regular jobs. Many professional athletes don’t have to do – they get paid enough; bodybuilders are for the most part not as lucky. What lesson should we we normal folk who strive to be fit and healthy take from all of this? I think it might differ significantly from person to person for alot of different reasons. But the biggest thing is as Tracy says – not to care as much about looks and to care more about being fit and healthy. Everyone knows how hard it is not to care about looks in our society, especially when you start getting complimented and held in high regard for how you look (and start receiving alot of attention from the other sex), and especially if that starts to fade, how do you not look down on yourself?. When it gets to the point of bulimia and anorexia, that’s when actual tragedy takes place – when you can’t even hear other people, who you shouldn’t be listening to so much in the first place!. Also tragic is what happens on a physical level to many professional athletes later in life. And the consequences of other complications and behaviours less serious than the above, can still be serious. So to my thinking, there’s very good reasons to care most of all about just being fit, healthy and HAPPY. Happiness seems to me so under-rated a goal in all of this!

    1. One of the things I’d like to blog about are all the sports that have ‘making weight’ as a component. There are quite a few sports where your competition weight is different from your off season weight. I’m thinking of boxing, martial arts, rowing etc. I was shocked to read a guide to ‘weighing down’ for rowers that included some not very healthy ways to make the weight cut off for light weight. (I liked the joking t-shirt, ‘friends don’t let friends row lightweight.’) There’s been an interesting discussion in the sports ethics literature about weight categories and health. Tough issues, not just for these sorts of competitions.

  3. Great article. I couldn’t agree more. Fitness and health are not mutually exclusive. And science experiments like the sport of body building give fit consumers the wrong image of what happens in the gym setting. I am loving your blog. Check out mine at I have been a strength and lifestyle coach for 7 years. I was into body building in my early 20s until I smartened up and lost all desire to look like a freak. I am also a masters student at western in health promotion studying fitness consumer beliefs. Again, love your blog!

    1. Nice to meet you Shawn! And I’ll definitely have a look at your blog. Tracy is on holiday at the moment, sailing in the British Virgin Islands. Cheers! Sam

  4. I agree about the 1200 to 1400 calories a day in the off-season restriction. Most bodybuilders I know take in an enormous amount of calories in the offseason – you need to,to get bigger and stronger – although they starve themselves afterward – to get the definition.

  5. I think it depends on the competitor or the model and where they’re getting their information. Some people get put on crap diets where you feel awful because they are not being advised by certified experts.

    I’ve been competing/modeling since 2008 and tinkered with different methods. Ultimately, most show preps should only last 12-16 weeks max and most people don’t cut out cheat meals until they’re about 4-6 weeks out. It would be too restrictive otherwise. Additionally, a good nutritionist would not make the diet quite that restrictive for the entire prep because it’s too hard on your body and is a VERY tough pill to swallow emotionally. You have to adjust gradually and shift your food list as the weeks pass. Where you deplete carbs, you generally up your fats so you have an energy source.

    As for me, I eat 1400-1600 calories (6 meals per day) when I’m closer to a show. When I first start out to cut bodyfat, I’m closer to the 1800 range and feel very powerful in my training. I lift during my lunch hour and do 30-45 minutes of cardio after work. Home by 6:30 or 7, and I have the night off in front of the TV. I feel great. It took a few years of experimenting but I look and feel healthy. The last month of a show is more restrictive but I definitely don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything in terms of fast food or anything at the moment.

    1200-1400 cals in an offseason is ridiculous (unless she’s like 4’10). You can’t build muscle in your offseason if you aren’t eating, especially if you don’t put carbs back in the mix. Additionally her base metabolic rate is likely in the 1200-1400 calorie range as-is– so the reason she feels like crap is she’s in full-blown ketosis (she’s eating less than she burns naturally + with exercise.) Keto diets, while effective, make you feel fuzzy in the head and weak.

    If you do a bad show prep plan, you’re at the risk for adrenal fatigue, hypothyroidism, sleeplessness, constipation, missed periods, low energy, headaches, dizziness, etc. I’m sure it’s different for body builders but as far as bikini and figure competitors, you shouldn’t feel bad. You should feel good. A little physically tired towards the end, maybe, but good. Miserable shouldnt be in in your lexicon. I think that the competitor interviewed had a terrible coach. I have my 13th show in 3.5 weeks and I feel fabulous.

    Just my two cents!

    1. I have to agree with you Abby. I personally think that this post is really discouraging for those who actually want to become involved in this sport. I have been training since Novemebr for a show that I competed in my first show May and place 2nd. I am now training for a show on August 17, 2013. I have really enjoyed my journey, and look forward to taking this level of fitness as far as I can.

      My couch always says “It’s all mental”, and it’s a “life-style” change. So if someone if telling you that it’s hard, and miserable, then that’s what you’re going to set your mind to believe. I would like to say that it’s an awesome and life-changing experience, just to know that you can transform your body into looking fit and feeling great without fad-diets and surgery, is a reward in itself. I’m actually going to look into becoming a personal trainer, to “motivate” all who want to have a life of health and reach their fitness goals.

      My friends and family are so supportive and encourge me to keep up the good work. I have inspried many of my friends and family to change their life-styles as well. So I see nothing bad about this journey.

      In short this is an AMAZING experience!!!!

      1. Thanks for posting an alternative perspective and good to know that you are able to do this without harming your body and metabolism. Good luck in your competition!

    2. Good to hear that it’s possible to do this and feel fabulous. But I guess the caution is that not everyone is made for this and that a good coach and plan is essential. Thanks for posting about your experience.

    3. Thank you for this! Im beginning to start my first show next month and Ive already been on a program with tons of calories and I feel great! Im not missing anything! Thanks for the inspiration and everything you said that makes sense!

    4. Abby,

      I am gearing up to start training for my first show. I have been wanting to do this for forever but have been overwhelmed with everything that I have read. Information overload. My huge question is, how do I go about finding a workout that is legit and a diet as well?

  6. Very interesting. Do you feel that what you do puts any strain on your system in an unhealthy way? Or is there a way of doing this with a good nutritionist whereby the health risks, even over time, are minimal, in your opinion?

  7. I love this!! I have been training for a few years and really wanted to start training hard to enter my first fitness competition to have something to work towards, until I found out the health risks..and the extreme dieting and water retention etc. I am all about complete wellness, and this goes completely against my motive.
    I was thinking about maybe entering one anyways, and training for it my way, healthily and maintainable..and making a statement.
    Do you know if there is anything like a fitness competition out there that is actually HEALTHY?
    love your blog! -Elizabeth

  8. Reblogged this on Jenny Watt and commented:
    It’s so interesting to here the other side of the story and competing from a different perspective! Sometimes people can mask the pain that actually goes into it very well!

  9. Reblogged this on The Healthy Chick Life and commented:
    I loved this article, it’s funny that I used to want to be one of “those girls” with the rock hard visble abs. However, when I found out how much restriction it takes and that you can’t maintain a normal life while doing it, on top of that a couple trainers telling me all the girls who get abs like that do anavar (a steroid) I became content with being fit and not necessarily have it showing majorly esthetically

  10. As a personal trainer, I’m offended by the comment that ‘fitness professionals get paid to starve year round.’ Um…what? If I starved year round, I would suck as a trainer because I would be unhealthy and therefore a piss poor example for my clients. Totally NOT true. I think she has a skewed few of ‘Fitness!’

  11. I was told by my personal trainer in brampton that to stay away from all sugars and have no fat in my diet(except 1 ground beef patty once a week)guys,it”s stupid to listen to advice like that. I was having exceptionally strong cravings for sweets and fast food for some reason after 4 weeks no cards and just chicken,fish,yams,protien shakes and veggies. No fats eithier. I lift heavy weights and I’m a female with16% body fat at 140 lbs and 5 foot 4. I stopped all of that lean stuff a while ago. I now include pork,steak,ground beef,baked goods and white potatos. I had to be nuts listening to him!! Since fat doen’t make you fat. My metabolism is naturally fast anyway. Plus he told me not to do any cardio too!!how wrong he was because another personal trainer said I can have fats and white potatos are great

  12. Reading this gives me the impression most bodybuilders and fitness models suffer from some mental unbalance (so to speak) that drives them to do that to their bodies. And let alone the fact that in bodybuilding you are evaluated merely by your looks which is basically a subjective judging. On stage you are basically viewed and evaluated as you do an object but at th same time you agree on being this objectification. Bodybuilding is kind of dehumanasing from this perspective.

    The psychology behind these people seem very interesting to explore.

  13. Reblogged this on suomeagirl and commented:
    Wow! This is sure an eye opener about what it takes to have that Barbie looking body. Not healthy. Not maintainable. These women who do this must have a will of iron, and even they say it’s not great for you.

    1. I think the information here is being presented incorrectly. Fitness model and fitness competitor are two different things. Also it doesn’t appear to describe what class the woman competes in. With that being said, this is NOT what it takes to have the “fit look”. This is a gross exaggeration of the sacrifices you have to make to reach those goals. Moderation is key in all things. Myself, with a 1600-1800 calorie diet lost 20 lbs and saw muscular definition in months. Yes, months. It was not a quick process by any means. I did not have to take Anavar to accomplish this and it’s unfair for those of us who do put in hard work to have it diminished in that way. You may not get a body that looks like anyone else’s but you can achieve a better version of you. You just have to put in the work.

  14. As someone who has competed and will continue to compete, my diets never looked like that. I worked with a nutritionist and I had 5 meals in a day. They were small meals but I was never hungry. People who train to compete definitely need to find their resources because this type of diet is usually from I see people who do things on their own or someone else who pushed their diet on to them (trainer, YouTube, websites, ig). My point here is that thiis is true for some but not all.

  15. I know this was written a few years ago but thought I would ask because I had just read the article about Kelly and her training. She did go on to say what she did not mention in your article that she enjoyed it and is planning to do another one. She wants to see more definition in her abs and her back. Anyway, I’m not saying I disagree with you. I just wanted to make sure that you added everything from what Kelly said. I think it’s important for your readers to understand that she does plan on doing it again.

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