Feeling nostalgic looking at old photos at the gym

Haunted by your formerly ‘fit’ body? How to make peace with a changing physique

Posted by for Wellbeing

Ever catch yourself looking at old gym photos and wishing that you still looked as fit or strong as you did years ago? Then, friend, you’re suffering from ‘negative fitness nostalgia’, as writer Victoria Stokes explains.

I feel a sting of shame when Facebook Memories throws up a photo of me from five years ago. In one of them, I’m standing in front of a mirror at the gym, and when it comes up, I can’t help but ogle my thighs. “Were they really that toned?” “Was I actually that… slim?” “Could I really bench that much and run that far without feeling like the walking dead for three days afterwards?”

I used to be a committed gym-goer, diligently completing five to six sessions a week and committed to continuous progress. But like thousands of people over the pandemic, I’ve really let those efforts slide, and now my gym attendance could be described as sporadic at best. Those hard-won gains have long since vanished, and thanks to my old fitspo posts and progress pics, I feel like a failure.

I’m calling it ‘negative fitness nostalgia’: the experience of looking back and feeling ashamed of just how far you’ve regressed. Maybe you could squat double your bodyweight or were able to run a 10k with ease prior to the pandemic but now struggle to complete a warm-up without getting out of puff. 

I can’t be the only formerly fit person feeling personally victimised by Instagram archives at the moment, right?

Ruth Micallef, an MBACP registered psychotherapist and eating disorder specialist, reckons the trap of perfectionism could be to blame for our past body comparisons. “That feeling of ‘defectiveness’, being embarrassed and ashamed of your ‘not-enough-ness’ is so incredibly common for those of us always seeking a level of perfection in one way or another,” she points out.

Perfection is sabotaging our body image

On Instagram and other social platforms, we’re inundated with images of perfection. “When perfection is all we see, often it becomes the goal in one way or another. This can become dangerous. We can use the image of perfection as a way to cope, a tool to ensure we feel ‘safe’. But it doesn’t work,” Micallef adds. Instead, it can compound feelings of failure.

For many of us, our self-worth is tied up in what we’re able to achieve. That can mean we feel great when we’re accomplishing all of our fitness goals, but awful when we’re falling short. “I have often worked with retired athletes who struggle with what they perceive as a ‘decrease’ in their physical abilities and they feel such a sense of shame and embarrassment because the world has said ‘This is what makes you worthy’,” Micallef muses.

“They feel like they have lost or are losing what made them ‘them’, but they aren’t. Part of their recovery process will be recognising themselves as a whole person, not an attribute. This happens to non-athletes too. When we can’t lift the same weights or run the same distance, that sense of shame and embarrassment kicks in.”

How to beat negative fitness nostalgia for good

So, what can you do in these moments of negative fitness nostalgia to regain a healthy perspective and stop the trap of self-comparison in its tracks? For Micallef, body neutrality is key. “Body neutrality is different from body positivity as it isn’t the need to foster ‘love’ for your body, but simply noticing and recognising all that it can do for you,” she explains.

“If we can acknowledge the simple power of what our bodies can do, from lifting and holding a child, to navigating our wheelchair, to simply putting our clothes on with ease in the morning, we can foster contentment – abs or not!”

Remembering that your body doesn’t have to be in peak physical condition to be valid can go a long way too. Micallef says: “It’s so important in these moments to step back and recognise that just because your body is always changing and adapting, it doesn’t make it any less worthy of love.”

Chances are our memories are skewed anyway. After all, the thing about nostalgia is that we often view the past with rose-tinted glasses. We’re comparing ourselves to our own highlight reel: photos taken in good light when our muscles were flush from exercise or in the morning before we’ve eaten a full day of food.

These photos, Micallef points out, don’t show how content or happy we felt or how well our bodies were actually feeling at the time. It can be helpful to keep this in mind.

To conquer fitness nostalgia, I’ve been embracing a new version of ‘fit’ me at the gym. She doesn’t resemble the diligent gym-goer of five years ago but she’s a strong woman nonetheless. A woman who has set new goals for herself and is striving to recognise the progress she is making, rather than being disappointed when she falls short.

’Progress not perfection’ has become a bit of a cliché in the world of fitness, but as we navigate changing physiques, perhaps it’s what we should aspire to.

I invite you to join me in celebrating the small wins. Three cheers to Becca for lacing up her running shoes today for the first time in six months. Well done to Abi who just added another 5kg to her squat, and a round of applause for Faima who, for the first time, looked in the mirror today and appreciated her body for what it can do, instead of bashing it for all the ways it doesn’t measure up. Who needs nostalgia anyway? 

For more first-person features, exercise tips and nutrition pieces, visit the Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Getty

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