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Why Is Talking About Exercise So Uncomfortable?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

“Hot Bod” is an exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.

Of all my casual hobbies (painting art forgeries, cooking vinegar-doused greens), there’s not one I avoid mentioning to strangers quite like I never talk about exercise. The moment I start to mention a new buzzy fitness class, I imagine myself as Brad Pitt’s gym-rat character in Burn After Reading, all dopey smile and innocent arm muscles and puppyish enthusiasm for getting swoll. I imagine that John Malkovich’s character will yell at me: “You represent the idiocy of today! You are part of a league of morons!” I won’t argue with that, but also I don’t want a complete stranger to think this about me right away.

The gym jock proselytizing at you about CrossFit is a staple cultural stereotype: part braggart, part evangelist, part sentient muscle. This cliché is so entrenched that my closest friend who does CrossFit vowed the other night to never mention the gym again among strangers, because she doesn’t want people to keep thinking that’s her entire personality. A disapproving reaction is so common that, among my friends who love to exercise, not one of them talks about it in a small-talk scenario. Fitness is an unremarkable habit that seems to induce both defensiveness and aggressiveness from strangers. These are two primary moods I’d love to never see! And yet, you mention you go to a party-girl fitness class and someone will tell you “that’s not real cycling” and then ask if you’ve ever done an Iron Man, because they have; or they’ll look deeply bummed out, like you’re the one pushing Iron Man on them, like you’re just hunting for an ego boost, while you were actually just trying to talk about your crush on your spin instructor.

Incredible how a short interaction with a stranger can teem with so much loaded baggage! “I look at the structures of conversations a lot,” explains Dr. Kaitlin Cannava, a social scientist who studies interpersonal and health communication at San Jose State University. She sees a few pitfalls in talking about exercise. “In small talk, people who are experience-swapping [telling each other stories] can try to top each other: ‘You went on a two-mile bike ride? I went on a four-mile bike ride! Have you climbed up this mountain?’” In an insecure environment — at sea, socially, among strangers — it’s too easy to start a dynamic of one-upping each other, as people desperately establish their own worth.

Outré bragging, unfortunately, also seems to come in the form of saying absolutely nothing at all. During some wedding celebrations in coastal Maine, my friend reported going to great lengths to obscure that she went running every morning that weekend. She wasn’t sure why she was being so secretive until an acquaintance caught her coming in sweaty, holding her sneakers and said, “‘Oh, you’re better than me.’ And that’s exactly why I wanted to keep it a secret! I was like, No, I need to run for my mental health, it’s really important to me,” my friend told me. “But I didn’t say that because I didn’t want to get into it.”

People who work in fitness professionally, like Natasha Wong, the co-founder of wellness and movement brand Before Noon, vehemently avoids getting into it too. Wong has seen that a dynamic of comparison gets ignited — intentionally or not — perhaps because our early-childhood interactions with movement were often through sports. This social arrangement, where everyone feels like they’re competing for a ranking, persists. Wong grew up in this world, and for a long time, when people talked about working out, she focused only on her perceived shortcomings. “I know what that feels like. I’ve had exercise guilt! I don’t want anyone to feel that way,” she says.

And for every person who projects your superiority, there’s someone who suggests your inferiority. “It’s something about the topic of exercise that people get really sloppy with their boundaries,” says Anna Toonk, co-founder of online wellness emporium the SoulUnity. “My weight fluctuates a lot. I’ve spent time in smaller bodies and in larger bodies, and it’s amazing that when you bring up exercise, it turns people into real assholes,” she says. “Nine times out of ten with strangers, it just doesn’t go well.” She’s stopped bringing up exercise because she doesn’t care to get an unprompted lecture about what she’s doing wrong. “So many take it in this moralizing place — and your fatphobia is showing.” Exercise seems to rival other infamous conversation subjects to avoid — politics, religion — for revealing the bold cruelty and casual bigotry of a stranger turned party nemesis.

As Dr. Cannava points out, maybe exercise is a tricky small-talk topic “just because it’s about our bodies, and when you talk about exercise, people might judge your body.” Exercise is an activity, but it’s also weirdly something that seems to be carried around in the form of physical proof. People might look for the manifest signs: popping muscles and a fast pace and a sweaty brow.

And so, at risk of not knowing whether someone has rude opinions or a judgmental leer, silence on the subject seems like the safest option. “Self-regulating is an inside job, and not everything needs to be talked about,” says Taryn Toomey, founder of the wisdom-heavy movement program the Class. “I think it’s important to be discerning as to whom you share with.”

But if you feel like continuing to interact with your new party nemesis, there are some shortcuts to having the conversation you want to have. Feel free to mess with all the values projected onto your hobby!

“It’s difficult to disengage from the body fascism that’s associated with fitness,” says Dr. Devon Price, a social psychologist and author of Laziness Does Not Exist. “Talking about fitness is a moment you challenge that assumption. You can talk about joyful movement for its own sake,” Dr. Price suggests. “Like: ‘No, I don’t keep track of how many miles I ran or how fast, I just do it because I like it.’ You can tell a story, like: ‘I took a bike around along the lake, and I saw the sunrise, and this song kicked in and I felt alive and powerful!’ There are little things we can do to disrupt thinking about fitness. They are small but they can be quietly revolutionary.”

The dopey, smiling, joyful jock taking innocent pleasure in moving — this trait I was so afraid to reveal — is quietly revolutionary and an asset in the grand fight against bigotry? I’m thrilled to hear it. I didn’t go into any of this wanting an ego boost, but now that it’s here, I’d love to take it.

Why Is Talking About Exercise So Uncomfortable?