Are you fit to compete?
There is always that certain someone in a gym or fitness centre who does it better than you. But must you pit yourself against them?
A few years ago, as I turned 30, I joined a yoga class, hoping to transform my life. I wasn't new to the practice, but had never really graduated to its rigorous forms. This time, however, I wanted to make it my life's mission. My first class was barely memorable, and the next one was outright embarrassing as I struggled to hold even basic poses. My only comfort was in watching a fellow student, who had begun her fitness journey a month earlier, struggle with me. Without ever exchanging so much as a 'hello', she became a co-passenger in my journey to becoming fit and fabulous.
As days turned into months, cracks began to develop in this imagined friendship. While I continued to struggle to stay in the tree pose for 10 seconds, she'd hold her own for 30. I began to feel lonely in a class full of women who, it seemed, had elastic bodies. However, watching her achieve the #fitnessgoals also made me strive to do better. So, while a part of me admired her perseverance, another competed with it.
In the demanding lives that we lead today, fitness is not an indulgence, it's a physical and psychological necessity. The irony is that while the journey to getting fit is a personal one, often - if not always - there is that certain someone who we are secretly competing with. Speaking with Janine Roach, a trainer at Grit DXB, I am a bit relieved to know I'm not alone in feeling so. She tells me that she sees people competing all the time, some going as far as to cheat in order to stay ahead. The problem, she says, is that the drive comes from the wrong source. "As trainers, we constantly have to remind people of their main goal or motivation, as it's easy to get sidetracked and easier to let the ego take over."
A Dubai-based communications professional, Rishi Talwalker decided to put his sedentary lifestyle to rest when he began attending high intensity interval training (HIIT) sessions at Grit this April. As someone who did not have a prior experience of working out, HIIT came with its own challenges. Seven months later, Rishi finds himself at ease. "From being the most unhealthy person in the group, I am now able to hold my own. Occasionally, I find myself working harder to keep up with the class. So, it's usually not one person; I benchmark myself against two or three people in the group."
Rishi says that it's easier to work out with someone who is better than you. While it helps to have a coach, he adds that being realistic about one's fitness goals also comes in handy.
That doesn't come easily to most (PS: the writer is guilty of the same). "Most people hate the truth," adds Janine. "They prefer quick-fixes, and, at times, even opt for a trainer who will feed them lies. But we need to be transparent about timelines. Also, you cannot compare your Day 1 with someone else's Month 1."
The rivalries do not start and end with beginners. Olivia McCubbin, co-founder and head coach at Best Body Co, says that in certain environments, "especially at the elite level of competitive athletes or more hardcore gym-goers", competition can become toxic. "I have seen clients overtrain to exhaustion, causing fatigue and injury and also damage their mental and emotional well-being."
The purpose of exercising, at the end of the day, is to feel good about oneself. "Challenging yourself is one thing, but you should never leave a workout feeling like you cannot continue to function optimally for the rest of the work day, for example," says Olivia. "You need to focus on the technique first, then the strength and heavier weights will come with time. They need to be earned. Don't ego lift!"
Competition is not new in the world of fitness and wellness. If the students experience it, the teachers too have felt it at some point. When she started out in the fitness industry, Olivia competed in body-building and fitness modelling competitions. "It was all based on how you looked, a lot of it was also very political and based on your social circle, the size of your social media following and who you knew in the industry," she says. She remembers feeling uncomfortable and developing a negative body image in the process. The realisation only compelled her to move away from competitive sports. "I shifted to powerlifting competitions, where you're surrounded by like-minded people and it's about competing with yourself, to perform better than you did the last time in terms of overall weights in the squat, bench and deadlift. I find this so much more empowering and uplifting than being judged against others."
Sadiq Saleem headed gym-wards when he was 20. A couple of sessions later, he realised weight training had to wait. Not because he didn't like exercising, but because working out in a gym also meant being around people with well-sculpted bodies, who often wouldn't leave any stone unturned to flaunt it (including staring at themselves in the gym mirror for what felt like an eternity). "It became a demotivating factor. In the gym, you're as good as your last set and how many dumbbells you lift and how long you can hold the plank. There are numbers involved every time," says the Dubai-based finance professional. "My aim has been to maintain a certain BMI and fat composition so I never attempted that extra set or wished to add another plate on the rod."
Saleem then turned to his other passion - sports. He started playing tennis, and later squash, and views it as his bid to keep fit. But doesn't the competitive spirit enter in sports as well? "We all have fallen into that trap where we ended up with a swollen muscle or a cramp. Yes, in a gym, it helps to consult the trainer till you have perfected a posture. Sadly, these days coaches are often hired based on their bicep sizes and who knows what supplements they've taken to bulk up! Which is why it's important to watch and learn from right people and, by that, I mean online as well."
Today, many are documenting their fit-to-fab journeys on social media. The reasons vary from keeping a diary-of-sorts of one's transformation to putting oneself at the centre of that experience and hence, enjoying the means more than the end. Talwalker, who regularly posts workout videos as Insta stories on his page, admits that it can be hugely uplifting. "People tend to encourage you and, in many cases, are pleasantly surprised. That always has a great effect on one's motivation." Talk about the joys of competing with oneself!