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!]

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