Wednesday, December 16, 2020

"In Shape"

Recently, as I was checking off another day of "movement" for the Zooma Holiday Challenge, I found myself reflecting on my fitness. I've never stuck with a workout challenge this long before while feeling this good; I thought to myself, "Am I in the best shape of my life? I'm definitely in better shape than I was in my 20s."

My realization that I'm in "better shape" now than 10 years ago gave me pause. My immediate reaction was, "What does that even mean?"

[Insert overdone "I'm in shape/a circle is a shape" meme here]

The term "in shape" feels a little overused, like it should be retired for people who aren't actively competing in sport. What does being "in shape" mean for us weekend warriors and hobby runners? Especially this year, when races were canceled but many of us kept running, what exactly are we "in shape" for? It feels like a term that doesn't apply to me, and I wonder if the connotations that go with it are detrimental to people who want to start working out.

I think what's suddenly putting me off this phrase is the implied meaning. Anyone who exercises will tell you it's not about what you look like; it's about the physical capabilities you've developed and honed over time. Someone in fighting shape is physically prepared to get into the ring; someone in racing shape is ready to toe the starting line. It doesn't actually have anything to do with our body shape.

But people seem to misconstrue being "in shape" with looking a certain way, and that's not right or accurate. Shape has a connotation of form, something you can see, but it's much more than that.

I weigh more than I did in my 20s, and it's visible; I'm stronger, but you can't see obvious muscle definition in my body. My cardiovascular health is worlds better. When I began running, I couldn't run a half mile without stopping; today, I've completed three marathons and a slew of other races.

And we've all seen professional athletes who don't fit the stereotypical mould but are obviously fierce competitors.

Being "in shape" also connotes an end point, as if there is a final destination in the journey of fitness. But the truth is, there is no destination. Fitness waxes and wanes; there is no final shape to achieve. Even body builders don't stay in physique-competition-form all year round. Actors get fit for certain roles and then let their bodies recover. Singers get into performance shape for intense concerts and then relax after their tours end. 

There are lots of articles about how actors etc gain and lose weight for roles, and it's obvious it's not sustainable longterm. This listicle has a good collection of examples.

No one stays in peak shape forever, and the shape our bodies return to during the off season is perfectly fine and valid. In fact, getting out of shape during off periods is good for us! Our bodies need to recover from the intense exercise and restriction that's necessary for peak performance. It's all about balance.

It's just semantics, and maybe this won't resonate with anyone else, but I am going to retire this mindset for myself. I don't want to think about my shape, whether I'm in or out. I want to let myself continue exploring fitness with flexibility and the understanding that physical shape doesn't have anything to do with it. I'll go through seasons where my body looks and performs in different ways, and that's normal.

For me, being seeking to be in shape feels too much like a dead-end, and I'm here for the journey.



  1. I stopped using that description awhile back--someone can look "in shape" and not be healthy. I use "fit." It seems to lack the, hmmm, "judginess" of of the former description. And also encompasses more than how one looks, but the overall gestalt of healthiness. Chris Pratt sure looked in shape but was peeing all the time. He wasn't "fit." Of course, it's just a matter of time until this term loses it's appropriateness, I suppose.

    1. I agree that "fit" feels more all-encompassing, but who knows if it'll age well.