It’s still relatively early in the new year and that means one thing: everyone is trying to improve themselves. The silly season of debauchery, over-consumption of alcohol, neglect for nutritious foods, and an inclination for terrible health decisions is drawing to an end. Resolutions are in full swing and we’re all trying to make some positive changes to improve our overall physical and mental health (or to impress our shallow and judgemental co-workers on our first weeks back at work).
One of the more common resolutions we see is weight loss. Fitness instructors, personal trainers and diet-shake charlatan’s are aware of the immense desire we have in the new year to drop those extra kilo’s that we may have gained from the Christmas turkey, chocolate pudding and 30,000 rum and coke’s we had in the holidays. This is why we might see a huge increase in the promotion and release of fitness challenges, promising immediate weight loss in a short period of time. These challenges often range from just as little as four weeks, all the way up to twelve weeks. They often provide an accompanying generic meal plan requiring you to eat more protein that in an abattoir, and consume more water than what’s in the pacific ocean. Daily.
All hyperbole aside, I believe there are some key benefits and disadvantages of fitness challenges that are worth exploring before you spend $100.00 on a program that you may not complete.
Pro 1: they can create good fitness habits
In my personal experience, buying a fitness plan was one of the best decisions I made in 2020 because of the beneficial habits that were instilled in me after completion of the challenge. Whilst I have always enjoyed playing sport and I have been attending the gym for several years, I never really developed a consistent and considered gym routine. The repetitive exercises of pure strength training in the gym was also growing a little tiresome, and I needed some source of motivation to be the drive of considerable change.
Just before covid became a massive problem in Australia, I decided to purchase a six week gym and home workout challenge. I was skeptical at first because being six weeks, the challenge was relatively short and I had spent a fair amount of money on this plan. Nevertheless, I decided I may as well give it a shot because, hey, what did i have to lose (besides 5 kilos ahem)? It was only a couple of days into the challenge and all the gyms had temporarily closed because of the pandemic. I raced to the nearest K-Mart to purchase a dumbbell set, fitness mat, and one of those booty bands that allegedly make your buttocks grow into the size of a couch. The program commenced and I immediately began thriving. The exercises were fantastic, exhausting and actually enjoyable. I began to work out six times a week at home, becoming motivated not to finish the challenge or look a certain way, but by the way the workouts made me feel.
It wasn’t just the exercises provided in the program that the challenge motivated me to do. I began engaging in more exercise outside, like running and walking, because it became such an enjoyable and important experience for me. I have now been running consistently for over a year now, and I credit this to the fitness program I bought. It wasn’t because the plan itself prescribed running and cardio within the challenge, but rather the exercises gave me such a positive feeling that it motivated me to exercise even more and encouraged me to build upon what I was already doing and create a consistent routine centred around exercise.
The challenge I participated in also provided me with a food plan, which I adhered to perfectly for six weeks with absolutely no slip-ups, no chocolate bars and not a single drop of alcohol. HA, kidding I am by no means disciplined nor a psychopath. However, the food plan was helpful because it provided me with some sort of scaffold in which I should base my daily food habits around, and provided me with a solid foundation to form a good nutrition routine. It also allowed me to be more mindful with what I was eating, as previously I would barely pay attention to what food I was consuming and how it would affect me physically and mentally. Eating consistently healthy is still an on-going challenge for me, however the fitness program provided me with excellent meal ideas that I continue to use as part of my daily routine, despite having completed this challenge over a year ago.
Pro 2: they can provide solid education on fitness etc
Whilst you don’t want to base your education of nutrition and physical health solely on an instagram influencer with no qualifications and a suspicious association with a certain supplement company, these challenges can often be a good source of information and education. The most recent fitness challenge I signed up for provided an abundance of education about nutrition, exercise and just routines in general. At the beginning of the challenge, I was provided with a food plan with the macronutrients of each meal outlined. This gave me an understanding of how much protein, fat and carbohydrates I should be eating to be losing fat and then (hopefully) gaining lean muscle. I was particularly surprised with how much protein I was required to eat, but I quickly learnt the art of cooking with protein powder.
Within the challenge there were six weeks worth of home and gym exercises, all with accompanying videos on how to perform the technique correctly, and often with written addendums below to provide further clues and tips. The recommended weight for each exercises was also provided based on whether you were at a beginner, intermediate or advanced level, and there were pages of information provided on a whole range of topics such as the importance of rest days, muscle soreness and muscle recovery. There was even a section on mindfulness and journalling, which I have found extremely beneficial and which sparked my interest in meditation , intuitive eating and gratitude journalling.
Pro 3: you can form part of a community with corresponding goals
When I joined my first fitness challenge, I was granted access to a Facebook group with past and present fitness challenge participants. The group contained hundreds of posts with various questions, funny memes, helpful tips and explanations, and anything in between. I also created a separate instagram account (tarzi.fit) and followed others who were also completing the challenge. We would all post videos of us doing the workouts, pictures of meal ideas, and comment words of encouragement on each other posts.
I have always been an incredibly embarrassed person, lacking confidence and hyper-concerned with what others thought of me. So to create a fitness instagram account where I post content about my fitness journey was a huge thing for me and something I was initially apprehensive about. It turned about to be such a good decision for me for a multitude of reasons. It gave me a fun hobby to work on – trying to capture and edit fitness related content – whilst simultaneously maintaining a sense of authenticity. It also provided me with a sense of clarity on what my passions and purposes are in life, which is something i’ve always been particularly confused about. Above all, it connected me with supportive people all around the world with similar goals and interests of mine. The words of encouragement, recipe ideas and helpful fitness videos have provided me with a continuous source of motivation since the day I started the challenge, and I would argue it’s one of the key benefits of many of the challenges I see on social media.
As you can see, I personally found there to be significant advantages with signing up to my first fitness challenge. Most notably was the relationship I formed with exercise and love of moving my body, as well as the community of similar people who were also completing the challenge. But, it’s not all giggles, weight-loss and meditation here in challenge-land. There are certainly some disadvantages that need to be taken into account before deciding whether to purchase a challenge, and let’s take a look at them now.
Con 1: you may form unhealthy habits and relationships with food and training
One of the more dangerous and long-lasting implications of intense fitness challenges is that they may create, or enhance, poor habits and perceptions of nutrition and exercise. Most fitness challenges often go for about 6 – 12 weeks. In this short period of time, people expect significant results. They may be trying to drop a few kilos because of their wedding, or just simply desire effective results as quickly as possible. The creator’s of these challenges are obviously aware of these goals of quick weight loss (or muscle gain), so they often combine ridiculous training with extremely low-calorie diet plans to achieve rapid weight loss. After all, they are merely trying to sustain a business, and you’re much likely to purchase another challenge from a fitness trainer if they helped you lose eight kilos as opposed to two.
The combination of strict dieting and severe training can foster a poor relationship with food, as those undertaking the challenge will often be forced to eat chicken breast, protein shakes and sweet potato all day every day. Because they are eating in such an extreme calorie deficit, they often experience intense hunger which can lead to irritableness, low energy and reduced quality of the workout. This restrictive eating can lead to binge eating later on either during or after the challenge, causing participants to feel guilty or immensely disappointed in themselves as if it wasn’t inevitable. The restriction of certain food groups often leads to intense cravings, again causing binging.
Moreover, the obsessive nature of these challenges also creates unhealthy habits and mindsets. Often challenges require you to eat a certain amount of calories, and adhere to strict macronutrient guidelines. They often require you to count whatever calories you are consuming on a daily basis. This can be incredibly time-consuming, confusing and simply exhausting especially if you are used to enjoying a vast array of foods and meals. This type of obsessiveness is particularly concerning in the context of eating disorders and other mental health problems, and is something that needs to be explored further in the literature.
Con 2: the results are often unsustainable
My friend completed a fitness challenge once and lost ten kilos in six weeks. It was an awesome achievement and I was obviously really proud of her. Most challenges require a significant reduction in calorie intake whilst also requiring you to undergo vigorous training. I think I got three days into one particularly tough challenge and was on the verge of a mental breakdown because I was so hungry that I just said “stuff it” and ate some bread. So the fact that my friend completed a whole challenge without slipping up once is bloody commendable.
But once she completed the challenge, she felt like her work was done and she didn’t continue the healthy eating or vigorous exercise. She increased her calorie intake back to what it previously was before the challenge, and after a few weeks she had gained most of the weight back on. This story is far too common for those who purchase fitness challenges. Arguably, it is inevitable that people will re-gain the weight they had lost because most challenges require them to eat in such a calorie deficit that it is completely unsustainable.
Whilst it is clear that you do need to reduce the amount of calories you consume if you want to lose body fat, I would argue that most fitness challenges prescribe far too great of a calorie deficit, purely to achieve better results in such a short space of time. If you are eating such low amounts of energy, chances are you are going to feel hungry, tired and low on energy. You might even spend the whole six weeks feeling like this . As soon as it’s over, you’ll feel relieved and accomplished, but you’ll also feel as though you can eat whatever you can get your hands on because the challenge is complete. This yoyo dieting approach can have negative affects on mental and physical health, and can create poor perceptions towards nutrition and exercise in general.
Con 3: they provide quick fixes and not long-term education
Fitness challenges provide exercise programs and restrictive diets for short-term results. As I mentioned earlier, they often do provide fitness and nutrition education and can be a great tool for individuals to broaden their knowledge on these areas. However, arguably the information is merely centred on things like how to perform the exercise correctly, how many macronutrients client’s should be consuming, muscle recovery, and what supplements should be taken. After all, these programs are designed to provide quick results, which is exactly what they can achieve. Importantly, however, they often don’t provide holistic education that can help client’s in the long-run achieve sustainable results and optimal physical and mental health overall.
Ideally, if you are trying to achieve sustainable weight-loss, you should firstly be informed about the multiple factors that cause an individual to be overweight. It is a far more complex explanation than simply “this person ate too much and they gained body fat”. Undesired weight gain can be the result of a combination of socioeconomic, biological, and psychological factors, all interacting with one another in various ways. To oversimplify it can cause client’s to feel disheartened and frustrated, particularly when their results differ substantially from another person’s. Moreover, these challenges often fail to provide education about what foods we should be consuming and what foods we should be avoiding. They often focus far too heavily on caloric and protein intake, and ignore the importance of consuming a well-balanced diet high in fibre, vegetables and legumes.
A big part of the problem is that these challenges are often designed by personal trainers who may be extremely knowledgeable, but do not have nutritional or dietetic qualifications to form the basis of their programs. Nutrition is a complex area to be providing advice on, and the deleterious impacts of poor nutrition can be significant on an individual’s physical and mental health. The challenges often provide cookie-cutter nutrition programs and are not individualised to a particular client’s needs and circumstances. Arguably these programs do not provide advice on long-term and sustainable nutrition plans, and this is where a registered dietician or nutritionist may have a role in advising client’s on whether the program supports their overall health, or whether changes need to be considered.
For me personally, signing up for a six week fitness challenge was a great decision and it had long-term positive impacts on my life. However, I think it’s vital that we take into account the potential downsides of these challenges and weigh these up before we decide to purchase them. Another thing worth nothing is that often these challenges can be quite expensive, requiring a gym membership or expensive equipment at home. Therefore, they may not be accessible to socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals who are also more likely to be overweight or obese. Ultimately, I feel as the the good outweighs the bad in this instance, and if it motivates people to exercise more and eat healthier than that’s certainly a good start.