Why I’m Not Doing My Office Fitness Challenge

This post first appeared at performingwoman.com on May 13, 2015.

I don’t know what happened, but the second we moved into a new office, every one of my coworkers suddenly become obsessed with self improvement and fitness.

You can’t turn a corner without hearing someone talking about how many steps their pedometer recorded or how upset they are that someone left cake in the break area because it’s ruining their diet.

Which is why I wasn’t surprised when we (as an office, not me) decided to do a fitness challenge.

While this fortunately isn’t a “weight loss” challenge, the number of land mines and triggers in this challenge is astounding: meals tracked, workouts logged, and spontaneous jumping jacks.

All with the end goal of building healthier habits.

But I would ask: are these habits really healthier? For some people — people like me — the answer is “no.”

I could crush a fitness challenge like this: I haven’t tracked calories in three years, but I still could approximate the caloric value of every single piece of food I ate if I tried. I could do two-a-day workouts, even through the ankle pain and still take the 8 flights of stairs to and from the office as many times as I could. I already chug enough water to sink a small ship, so the multiple trips to the bathroom wouldn’t phase me one bit. I’d be the girl leading the every-hour-on-the-hour plank breaks.

But I’m not going to.

Why? Because, despite the fact that movement and good nutrition are a good idea, I don’t believe that fitness challenges are healthy.

I know that we’ve been pretty much programmed at this point to believe that we can’t exercise or eat well without some sort of external motivation or competitive spirit (see: fitspo), but I don’t think that continuing to validate that mindset is ultimately healthy.

You see, competitions, by their very nature, have an end point. In order for there to be a winner, these things must end.

Competitions also require extremism. In order for there to be a winner, there has to be a “best” — and if everyone’s already pretty good, you have to take “best” to another level.

Therefore, competitions aren’t sustainable. If you’re heading for an end point in an extreme fashion, you’re eventually going to have to stop. If you try to keep going at competition rate, you’re either going to get hurt or burn out.

And before you try to make the argument that sometimes we need an extreme intervention to get ourselves motivated to change our health, understand that when someone is trying to learn a healthy habit, motivating them to take the most extreme form first doesn’t teach them how to build small, sustainable habits in the long run. It just teaches them how to go straight for the extremes.

And for people like me, who are already competitive about health and fitness to an unhealthy extent, competitions also act like breeding grounds for physical and mental injury.

A good example:

In May of 2011, the Fruit Stand issued a company-wide fitness challenge: using the Nike+ app, we were to log all of our miles run for a couple of months, and the market with the most total miles run would win all sorts of lovely prizes and recognition.

So I bought a new pair of running shoes and hit the pavement.

I ran 4+ miles a day despite not having really run for years, because I wanted to make sure that I could win — I mean, help my market win.

At the end of May, I tweaked my ankle in the middle of a 4 mile run, and my entire life changed.

Look, I get it. Fitness is great. Building healthy new habits while creating a sense of teamwork and community among coworkers or friends is lovely.

Tracking your meals for maybe 2 weeks — at most — can be a useful way to get an idea of what you’re eating and how and when, but you don’t need to track your meals to be healthy.

Tracking your fitness can be a great way to remind you to get up and move, but eventually you should be empowered to get up and move without having to roll your eyes through a workout you feel obligated to perform.

Competition for health can seem like a fun way to bond, but eventually it has to end. And if you are only peeing your brains out while trying to reach your water quota to help your team, not because you’re thirsty, when the competition is over, you’re not going to keep that habit up.

I know that this is going to be an unpopular opinion, especially because every message we’ve received from the media over the past 40 years has basically told us that the only way to do fitness is to turn it into a competition and an obligation, but I honestly don’t think that it’s the best route for creating sustainable, healthy change.

If your motivation isn’t intrinsic, the habits aren’t going to stick. If your motivation is already intrinsic, you’re going to try to overachieve to prove something, and you may end up hurting yourself.

What if the office fitness challenge didn’t require a scoreboard or a conversation about “needing to eat healthier” while picking through the snacks in the office kitchen? What if the fitness challenge built community by just giving us a walk break at 3 pm to go and rest our brains while we moved our feet and our mouths at a leisurely pace?

What if we stopped making fitness and health “challenging” and just admitted that it’s not that hard* and doesn’t need to be made bigger than it is?

I don’t know. I’m probably alone in this sentiment. And I don’t fault anyone who doesn’t agree or who wants to do a fitness challenge. I don’t want to imply any blame or shame. I just want to see our cultural narrative about fitness and health change so that we can start promoting fitness and health. Maybe it’s too much to ask. Until then, I’ll graciously decline participation in the fitness challenge. I’m still healing from the last one.

*It really isn’t that hard. We’ve made it hard, and we live in a culture that makes it feel hard so that marketers and advertisers can sell you things to make it easier. We’re overstimulated and undereducated when it comes to health and fitness — but the basics are thus: move in ways that feel good to you as often as you can. Eat foods that feel right and don’t make you feel sick. Get some sun. Be around people who make you smile. Don’t obsess. That’s it.

For more unpopular opinions, visit performingwoman.com or sign up for the newsletter.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.