Risk Aversion and Fear Avoidance in the Fitness Industry

Posted on 14 Apr 2016 23:22

I was reading a long and engaging article the other day by a fitness trainer who was reacting to what she saw as hypocrisy in the fitness industry. I very much appreciate the article and I let her know as much in my comments.

But as much as I appreciated the central statements being made about the specific instance of hypocrisy the article was discussing, I was equally dismayed by the hard-line and quite judgmental stance on any fitness goal that was not absolutely moderate, with no emphasis that could be remotely seen as "seeking validation from others." I saw this as ironic since this author was complaining about judging others for their appearance, while actually judging others because they chose to change their body-shape more than an amount the author would approve and see as healthy.

Along the way, in the discussion that took place in the comments, I found out that she was quite entrenched in this viewpoint, to the point of seeing any and all 'non-moderate' goals as destructive and unhealthy: A slippery slope. This would include training for strength and training for anything other than "losing a few pounds" or something to that effect.

I tried to explain that there are many reasons people may seek certain performance goals or aesthetic goals, and that behavioral determination was a bit more complex than she seemed to be assuming. In doing so I began to fixate on the notion of a "healthy" goal and it made me think of one very important cultural trend in the fitness industry.

Yes, there is a culture in the fitness industry. There are both mainstream and minority cultures, in fact. This particular trend is quite pervasive. It has, I think, become a central shared value of the culture.

For lack of a better term, and in keeping with the language of psychologists, I will call this trend, or value, risk aversion.

So, what is risk? Risk can be defined as exposure to jeopardy or danger. I probably don't have to tell you that the risk most people think of in terms of exercise or physical training is the risk of injury. The aversion to such risk, of course, is nothing new. We could, I think, see the invention of certain extreme sports or events as a backlash to this risk aversion. There are now sports that seem high-risk and dangerous by design! What is true of the fitness culture is true of culture at large and some people want to escape from this overly "safe" and therefore boring and mundane culture. They do so in quite extraordinary and dangerous ways. In fact, this is one of theories regarding why people participate in such activities.


Image by Håkon Thingstad via FlickrImage Credit

Still, many people believe that human beings are inherently risk averse. According to this view, people will only take a risk when the stakes are very high, and they have something very important to lose.

Think of a person training to lift a very heavy weight. In order to achieve this, some risk is involved. According to the viewpoint expressed above, the person will only seek the extremes of their lifting ability if they think they will lose something very important if they do not. The author of the article I wrote about above would probably say that the loss the lifter imagined was the approval of others. If they fail to lift a certain weight, others would not see them as strong or accomplished. They would lose the approval they sought.

A competitive lifter, of course, may be an easier example. The loss is failure to win at their sport.

The question, then, is not just whether the risk is worth taking, but whether the risk taking is unhealthy or even pathological. This is why I brought up extreme sports. The truth is that, regardless of how some people may see it, heavy weight lifting is not extreme at all compared to activities like BASE jumping. Many people would say that a BASE jumper has a death wish. Yet, despite the very real possibility of death, it can not be stated, based on psychological evidence, that BASE jumpers and other extreme sports participants have a death wish, or suffer from any psychological problems. This is not to say, however, that there are not real psychological reasons they choose to do these activities.

As much as I would like to go into the the several psychological theories pertaining to this, it is beyond the scope of this article. While most of these theories have focused on risk-taking, it may be that what drives participation in extreme sports has little to do with risk at all. While risk is an accepted part of the activity, seeking out risk may not be what motivates the participants.

In even the most extreme activities, the risks are calculated risks. But what are the rewards?

Something that athletes may understand that the author of the above-mentioned piece may never understand is that there are a great many rewards gained from engaging in physical challenges. These rewards go far beyond the validation or approval of others. One of those rewards is in the challenge itself. Some would go so far to say that a life worth living is a life with risk.

You cannot achieve any significant performance or even an aesthetic goal without exposing yourself to risk.

I would like you to stop for a moment and re-read the last sentence. Think about the implications of what I just wrote, and pay attention to the words I chose to use. It is a fairly bold statement.

One implication of the statement, perhaps, is that if you achieve a certain level of performance or a certain change in body condition without any exposure to risk, that level of performance or change is probably not significant.

It is fair to ask why we need to measure ourselves against others and suppose that our results are not significant compared to them. However, I am not saying that the results would not be significant compared to others. I am saying they would not be significant compared to your own potential.

Nothing of great significance can be achieved without some risk!

I would even go so far as to say that not much at all can be accomplished without some risk.

Think about anything that you've ever done that didn't have some risk attached to it. You've probably pulled an all-nighter cramming for an exam before. You did so to make sure you would pass the test. But you took a risk. The risk was lack of sleep, and the cognitive loss that results from it. Perhaps you weighed the potential risk and potential gain. It could be that your risk-benefit analysis was incorrect. Regardless, you made a choice and took a risk. If you had chosen to turn in early and not study, the risk was in being less prepared than you otherwise may have been.

Most of us do not realize how many conscious decisions we make each day, and how often we actually weigh the risks versus the rewards of those decisions. It is quite possible that just today you've made 50 to 70 conscious decisions and weighed the relative risks of at least some of them. These may not be major risks that require a great deal of cognitive effort but they are risks nonetheless. Thus, it stands to reason that you've taken a few risks this very day.

What's more, you've taken an even greater number of known risks as part of everyday life. If you drove to work, you took a risk. If you even crossed the road, you took a risk, albeit a managed risk.

If we cannot even get through one day without taking a risk, then how are we to engage in a purposeful activity and eliminate all risk? It is not possible to eliminate risk in physical activity even if your goals are moderate such as "losing a few pounds and feeling better."

Certainly, the greater the (fitness) rewards are, the greater the risk involved. This does not mean that we have to randomly "jump out of our comfort zone" and take on unreasonable risks, but effective training is training that extends our comfort zone, which at times involves skirting the edge. We simply have to learn to recognize "the edge." We then have to learn whether the reward is worth going over the edge a bit.

Unfortunately, most risk-averse fitness marketers see going over the edge as jumping face first over the edge. You may have seen videos of a liter piling ridiculous numbers of plates on a barbell and having a catastrophic failure, leading to injury. These examples are held up as if they represent all risk. The dramatic nature of these incidents makes it seem like all risk is similar and that no risk is acceptable, a notion that is quite ridiculous!

If your only reason for exercising is to "feel a bit better" and lose a few pounds, then it is possible for you to do this with a minimum of risk. If you have broader and more challenging goals than this, you WILL have to face some risks in order to achieve them. The more difficult the goal, the greater the risks involved. You can and should work to minimize those risks. You should not take risks that are greater than the potential reward.

Suppose you want to go for a new PR on deadlifts. It is always a risk. However, it is also an OPPORTUNITY. Very few good opportunities come without a risk trade-off, including performance opportunities. As you progress in your training and fitness, you should learn how to gauge the cost of each opportunity, and decide realistically if it is one you want to take. Never let a culture of fear keep you from reaching your goals!

This page created 14 Apr 2016 23:22
Last updated 19 Jan 2017 17:59

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