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Is exercise even good for you anymore?

Sweat is fat crying,” said the back of the gym shirt of the man in front of me at the grocery store, who was red-faced and drenched in perspiration. He had succeeded, apparently, in reducing his fat to tears, during his recent workout.

I admittedly, at first, found his “motivational” shirt funny. I quickly realized, however, how mean-spirited its message was: You should be hurting your body to lose weight.

That shirt, like many that are currently trending in activewear, was designed to inspire us to push ourselves harder, fitness-wise. These shirts are ironic because they may make us feel bad about ourselves, while their purpose is to be worn during an activity that’s good for us: exercising.

Harsh slogans on clothing, like, “Excuses Don’t Burn Calories,” “If You’re Still Breathing You Can Keep Going”, and “Pain’s Acceptable, Quitting Isn’t,” would intimidate even the least athletic of gym rookies to run another mile — even if it means physically hurting themselves.

Isn’t exercise supposed to help, not hurt, us?

Doctors have always prescribed daily activity to maintain a balanced lifestyle — but we have taken it to a hazardous extreme. Our culture has turned exercise into punishment, even though it’s supposed to be enjoyable. But it’s not enjoyable when your Saturday morning kickbox instructor is screeching things like, “Faster! Don’t you want to earn that dinner out with friends tonight?!” Personally, I don’t think I have to “earn” a good time out with friends.

The standards for fitness have become elevated in such a way that too much focus is placed on what your body can’t do, rather than what it can do. The Nike ad below, for instance, is narrated by several women’s inner voices of self-doubt. One woman  undermines herself while running, sarcastically panting, “No shame in running half of a half marathon.” Another woman, taking a seat at a bike behind some very lean women, reveals her insecurity with, “Oh great. A bunch of models.”

[media url=”youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zzbjEMaDjrk/A&W=415″]

It’s pretty obvious that not a single woman in the ad chose the sport because she loves and has a knack for it — rather, it seems that each of them chose it just because the other women around them did. Though the purpose of the ad is to encourage women to overcome their intimidation at the gym, it introduces a level of competition and self-criticism that shouldn’t have been in the picture in the first place.

Media constantly portrays exercise as a fierce, competitive activity. Because of that, many of us go into an exercise regimen hyperaware of everyone else’s pace, rather than listening to our own bodies.

Don’t get me wrong: I am NOT undermining the potential value of setting challenging fitness goals. Completing a triathlon, scaling a mountain, and perfecting your favorite yoga pose are all admirable things — depending on the motives behind them. If the motivation behind walking 39 miles is because it benefits breast cancer research, for instance, or running a race to provide health education for young women, then GO FOR IT! Even challenging yourself to try a new exercise class you’re curious about is awesomely courageous, as long as you aren’t injuring yourself to keep up with it.

But if your reason behind running the marathon isn’t much more than simply to keep up with the girl you follow on Instagram who posts her weekly 10-mile runs, it’s time to reevaluate and find an alternative way to feel good about your body.

Carina Chiodo, 23, is excited to begin her career as a Nutrition & Food Science graduate student this fall. Yoga is one of her favorite ways to be active, and she hopes to one day hike at least a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. Her plans for this summer include skydiving, mastering a perfectly pan-fried steak, and reading lots of books by Dave Eggers.

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