A workout ethic – what have we become?

Blurring lines

For over 25 years I had the privilege of teaching two college courses; one on exercise prescription for fitness and health, and the other on strength and conditioning that focused on athletic populations. New research emerged, ideas and attitudes changed, and the content and style of those two courses changed substantially over my time teaching. The biggest change that I hadn’t anticipated was how much the delineation between these two areas became progressively blurred. Exercise techniques, once considered to be the domain of strength and conditioning, were now being used in fitness classes and being prescribed for weight loss; some of the screening, pedagogical and compliance issues encountered in general fitness, were now also being talked about in strength and conditioning circles. These changes were great and seemed to make a whole lot of sense for both areas.

The bit that snuck up on me and that I’ve been doing some thinking about recently is how it hasn’t just been techniques and methods that have spilled over from sports conditioning, but also the attitudes and ideologies. What has been termed the ‘sport ethic’ seems to have been adopted by the ‘health’ and fitness world, and I’m wondering whether we are now seeing a new (as yet to be described!) ‘workout ethic’?

The sport ethic

Let me explain a bit more. Sociologists Hughes and Coakley, in their 1991 paper ‘Positive deviance among athletes: the implications of overconformity to the sport ethic’, appear to have been the first to coin the phrase ‘sport ethic’. What they meant by that term and ‘overconformity’ was the concept of athletes unconditionally buying into a shared ideal (perhaps too much so) of what it means to be a ‘real athlete’. In their description, a real athlete is someone who makes sacrifices for the game and their sport. A real athlete does not give in to pressure, pain or fear. A real athlete knows about and silently accepts the inherent risk of injury, knowing that their next injury may not be far away. A real athlete knows how to override those signals coming from their bodies and will do whatever it takes to continue to participate and succeed.

Organisationally, this is closely linked to what David Howe (2004) would term the ‘habitus’ of a sport. He used the term to capture the subcultures of specific sports and some of the social norms that go along with being part of a club or organisation. A sport’s habitus provides subtle (and sometimes very explicit) messaging about what it takes to be ‘the right sort of player’ in that sport. Howe (2004 ) describes a valued club person as someone who doesn’t complain, who plays hurt and is able to ignore the pain and discomfort messages emanating from their bodies – so the sporting habitus reinforces the sport ethic. To further consolidate these perceptions, athletes are typically surrounded by people who will inevitably reinforce those points of view. Howard Nixon (1994), one of the first sociologists to delve into the sociology of pain, termed this the athlete’s SportsNet’ – to indicate the social network that surrounds a sports person. When we think about it, when we are involved in sport we tend to have that network of people around us – teammates, coaches, selectors, parents, significant others and often the medical staff – who share a common vision of sports participation and who are likely to uphold a sport’s habitus and the sport ethic.

I can see now that for the sports that I played – rugby mainly – I was heavily into the sport ethic, and very much influenced by the habitus of the rugby club and my SportsNet. Everyone around me had similar views about being a good club player, putting up with discomfort and playing hurt, giving our all for the team, and expecting teammates to behave exactly the same. It was pretty easy to gain the label of being ‘soft’ or ‘injury prone’ by not sticking to the sport ethic. Like so many other weekend athletes, I lived this stuff without giving it a moments thought.

A workout ethic?

I’ve been working on a ‘sociology of pain’ blog as a spin-off from one of our book chapters, and I will post that soon – but for now, I wanted to focus on the parallels that I think that I am seeing in the fitness world. Going back to the early days of bodybuilding and the pioneers of that pursuit, there has long been a subculture that enjoyed pushing one’s body to new limits in the pursuit of more muscularity or ‘fitness’ – but that wasn’t mainstream fitness! My recollections of gyms and fitness centres in the early 80s was that there was an emphasis on participation and exploration, discovering different forms of exercise and enjoying the social aspects of working out together in group classes. Some gyms had back rooms where a few people threw a lot of tin around accompanied by a lot of grunting and yelling – but most of us never ventured into those dark spaces. Today it seems to me that the fitness world has evolved and adopted a ‘workout ethic’ that encourages and endorses a masochistic form of extreme exercise. This ethic implies that if you are not constantly working out and completing a high volume of exercise, you are not pushing yourself to the limit in every session, are not ‘feeling the burn’, ignoring the pain and the hurt to achieve success – then you can’t really be that serious about your fitness, health and wellbeing. Many fitness enthusiasts seem to believe this to be true and are not thinking to question whether all of this is really necessary.

I’m not sure why so many people appear to be buying into what I’m calling the workout ethic. As a physical educator I’m not at all comfortable with the ‘go hard or go home’ ideology being applied to physical activity and fitness, and in some cases physical activity and health. This constant competition to outdo each other with more demanding and physically punishing workouts seems potentially dangerous and nonsensical! I’ve already commented in these blogs about the influence of media portrayals of exercise and celebrity fitness regimes. I’m concerned because I doubt that constantly pushing yourself to physical extremes is that good for your health and wellbeing. I’m also concerned that this workout ethic is being normalised and brainwashing today’s youth into believing that exercise has to be intense and hurt to be of any use.

What can we do?

Clearly, a lot of the population are already sour on the idea of exercise and avoid it at all costs. I’m guessing the extremeness (is that a word?) of the ‘workout ethic’ gives them just another reason to hate on exercise. What does this shift mean for exercise professionals? How do we recalibrate exercise and physical activity in the minds of the general population? Are there ways to re-educate our clients, or are we simply part of the problem? Can we compare how much we enjoyed our workout, rather than how much we lifted, how much our heart rate redlined, or how shattered we feel? I have been heartened by the reemergence of yoga and the use of outdoors activities. Both of these seem to encourage being in the moment and enjoying activity to the best of one’s ability. I see some promise that there is still a space for more moderate conceptions of physical activity and exercise. Maybe I’m just showing my age and crustiness and have this all wrong! What do you think? Tell me please – am I really losing it?

Best, Phil

Selected references

  1. Howe, P.D. (2004) Sport, professionalism and pain : ethnographies of injury and risk. Routledge, London
  2. Hughes, R., Coakley, J. (1991) Positive Deviance Among Athletes: The Implications of Overconformity to the Sport Ethic. Sociology of Sport Journal 8;307–325.
  3. Nixon II, H.L. (1994) Social Pressure, Social Support, And Help Seeking For Pain And Injuries In College Sports Networks Journal of Sport and Social Issues 18: 340 – 355