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Coronavirus: The pressure to perform during lockdown is stopping us from achieving our goals

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Is the pressure to join an Instagram Live workout every day getting to you? Tired of being nominated to run 5k? You’re not the only one. We explore the impact online fitness is having on our mental health. 

If your Instagram is anything like mine, your Stories will have been taken over by hundreds of Instagram Live workouts every morning since lockdown began.

Gone are the days of people uploading photos of candlelit suppers at our favourite restaurants and travel adventures around the globe – now we’re inundated with “workout ideas” from mates who never seemed into fitness before coronavirus, and HIIT workouts from our favourite studios and influencers encouraging us to re-purpose household items as weights. For many of us, these links to the fitness community are a lifesaver. During a time of social isolation, knowing that you’re part of something bigger is incredible. But the pressure to keep up with the pace and enthusiasm of fitness on social media is also enormous. 

On several mornings over the past few weeks, I’ve dragged myself out of bed to do a HIIT workout or go for a run when I could have probably done with a rest. But when everyone seems to be so enthusiastic about moving and exercising, it’s hard to recognise your own needs. Instead, my better judgement was drowned out in the daily encouragement to join in on the action. It’s odd because those of us who are already into fitness know full well that we should listen to our bodies first. However, under these strange circumstances when we can’t even remember whether it’s a Tuesday or Saturday, rest days are as easily forgotten.

The lockdown pressure to perform is all part of a bigger obsession with perfectionism. You might log in to social media to check out what your mates have been up to but instead, you’re bombarded with photos of someone baking up the perfect sourdough or achieving an incredible twisting split headstand.

“Fitness, particularly when shared online, often seems to be accompanied by an unspoken competitive edge – it seems that everyone is constantly hitting personal bests and making huge strength and fitness improvements every day,” personal trainer Hannah Lewin tells Stylist.

A woman on Instagram
Coronavirus: we’re constantly reminded of all the things we don’t have quite right

“Rarely do we see the runs that felt tough or when strength felt lacking on a particular day. That can add to the pressure we place on ourselves to be at our best during each workout we complete.”

For many of us, exercise makes us feel good. It aids our mental health by pumping us with endorphins, getting us out of the house and helping us to see our bodies as amazing machines – rather than things to be starved or despised. But being bombarded with ideas of perfection – even in fitness – can really have a negative impact on your mental health and wellbeing.

Even personal trainers are feeling the pressure, according to trainer Nadine Calvert. “People who aren’t certified are jumping on the bandwagon. I’m a personal trainer and I’ve stopped posting fitness content to focus more on mindfulness – reiterating that it’s OK not to be OK.”

And that’s also the case for Instagram influencer Flora Beverley. Her social media is largely dedicated to her running and workout ideas, but she tells Stylist that she’s “felt pushed to create exercise/fitness content” during the lockdown. “I don’t really like doing workout videos because I’m not a personal trainer, but I was being asked so much that now I am (coach/physio-approved, of course).”

Given the uncertainty of the economy and our job security during this time, many of us are feeling worried about money at the moment – it’s incredible that there are options available online to get fit for free if we want to take part. We know that exercise can play a massive role in reducing anxiety, depression and negative mood – as well as improving self-esteem and cognitive function. Now more than ever, we need movement in our lives. 

And Hannah agrees – the increase in people discovering or rediscovering exercise is “absolutely a good thing. As a personal trainer, I believe that regular exercise is important for a myriad of reasons. The uptick in home fitness during this pandemic shows the importance that fitness plays in so many people’s lives and also the reliance people place on it to manage their mental health. For me, my daily runs are without question a way that I manage anxiety around being away from my usual routine.”

She points out, however, that this workout surge might add additional pressure on top of what is already a very stressful situation. “The pressure to come out of lockdown with a changed aesthetic (as if you’ve ‘failed’ at lockdown if you don’t look ‘fitter’) feels as if this unprecedented situation is meant to be viewed as a wellness retreat, not a global pandemic.”

It’s crucial that everyone has access to ideas for moving their bodies at a time of great stress. But where is the line drawn between feeling encouragement to move for our health and exercising excessively out of guilt?

Fuschia Sirois is a Reader in Social and Health Psychology at the University of Sheffield and she says that perfection isn’t just about striving to be your best. In many cases, it’s about being prone to thoughts about achieving ideal standards and relentlessly trying to reach unrealistic goals. That can manifest itself in negative thoughts about our own behaviour and overly obsessing over how other people view our achievements. Even if we do accomplish a headstand, will it ever be as straight or strong as our mate’s? Then there are those perfectionists who care less about what other people think, but who struggle to appreciate their own efforts. They’re the ones who might be secretly wishing that lockdown lasted a bit longer so that they have more time to nail that handstand.

“It’s natural for people to compare themselves to others for direction when they experience uncertainty. These social comparisons help us evaluate our performance and motivate self-improvement,” Dr Sirois writes in The Conversation.

But constantly checking social media to see how other people are spending lockdown can lead to a cycle of repetitive negative thoughts, which in turn can elevate the risk of distress. The more we watch these workouts on social media, the more inadequate we feel.

When we fall into that kind of comparison trap, we either abandon our own workout regime because it’ll never be as intense or effective or correct as what we’re watching – or we go into overdrive. We try to get fitter than the personal trainers on screen, putting ourselves at risk of burnout, injury or disordered behaviour. That’s something you might recognise outside of lockdown anyway. There’s always a risk of taking things too far when it comes to fitness because there are so many inspiring people involved in the industry; we want to emulate what we see…or exceed it.

So what’s the solution?

“My advice would be to avoid comparisons with others as much as humanly possible,” Hannah advises.“We all do it, but we also only see highlights of people’s lives on social media – it’s vital to find forms of exercise that are enjoyable, sustainable and in line with your own lifestyle and goals. Sticking to what is best for you is a great way to stay grounded through your fitness journey and it could ease a lot of self-imposed pressure.”

We should show ourselves the same kindness that we show to our mates. If a pal told you that they were running ten miles every single day or were smashing HIIT classes seven days a week, we’d probably suggest that they take it down a notch to ensure they give their body time to recover and to avoid getting injured. We’re really good at recognising when our friends are going overboard, but it’s hard to acknowledge when it’s happening to us.

It’s also probably worth logging off once in a while – giving ourselves a chance to actually listen to our own bodies rather than being influenced or inspired by people we see online. Lockdown isn’t an opportunity for a ‘glow up’ - it’s a public safety measure to curb the numbers of people dying from a pandemic. Move for your mind and to feel good – and if it doesn’t make you feel great, stay in bed.

Images: Unsplash, Instagram

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.

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