Diet & fitness – Faking fit: the rise of the gym fraud
THE RISE OFTHE GYM FRAUD
They’re head-to-toe in SPORTSWEAR and have told everyone about the killer WORKOUT they’re about to do, but they have no intention of EXERCISING... Are you one of them?
Walking up to the school gates with her daughters, Mbali, 41, stopped to chat to the other moms. “Off for a run?” asked one, nodding approvingly at her Nike Power Legendary Training Tights, Puma All Eyes On Me Tank Top and Asics Gel Nimbus 19 trainers. “Yes, another 5k this morning,” she replied. But that couldn’t have been further from the truth; instead of pounding the pavements, Mbali was planning nothing more energetic than going home to sort through some overdue paperwork. She’s one of a secret tribe of ‘gym frauds’: women who pretend they work out to make themselves feel better about the money they’re blowing on a costly – and unused – gym membership. Or, increasingly, to be seen to be keeping up with their clean-living-obsessed friends.
These days, it can feel like we’re all expected to be doing something energetic. Is it because of celebrities who post daily workout selfies, as comedienne Tumi Morake does, and, lately, picture posts by the former queen of talk, Noeleen MaholwanaSangqu, of herself heading to the gym? Or, is it because of friends who post details of their 10km weekend runs on Facebook? Everywhere you look, people are working up a sweat.
Most of us know that keeping fit is good for us. There was a time when exercise was seen as a boring pursuit but no longer. Over the past few years, it has become trendy to name-drop the latest gym move you’ve mastered or swop tips on the best yoga studio. Keeping fit isn’t just something to do – it’s something to shout about.
Now, if you just want to sit on the couch watching TV while munching on popcorn, you can’t. The fitness fanatics will make you feel like a social outcast.No surprise, then, that for some of us, it’s easier to pretend to be active than be judged for skipping the gym.
For Mbali, becoming a gym fraud was the only way to survive the school gates. “I work in the city for half the week and do the school run on my days at home. I made the mistake once of taking the kids to school without showering or doing my make-up and got stares from the other moms.” Stung, she came up with a solution.
“The next time I did the school run, I decided to wear my ancient gym kit I haven’t used in years and pretend I hadn’t showered or brushed my hair because I was going for a run afterwards. I talked about it very loudly and got approving looks rather than glares.”
She could be onto something. A study by Northwestern University in the United States found that we undergo psychological changes when we wear certain clothes. This “enclothed cognition” means that by putting on our lycra we may feel more inclined to exercise. “It’s all about the symbolic meaning you associate with a particular item of clothing,” says social psychology researcher Adam Galinsky. “It would make sense that when you wear athletic clothing, you feel more active and are more likely to go to the gym and work out.”
If that’s true, then more people than ever are fooling themselves into feeling fitter, thanks to the ever-growing popularity of athleisure wear. Findings from global consumer market research group NPD shows that Britons spent the staggering equivalent of R75 billion on activewear in the UK in 2014, an increase of 6% on 2013. But, according to the global market research group Mintel, around half of us who are buying sportswear have no intention of actually wearing it for sport. Why would we when it’s so luxe? From Beyoncé’s Ivy Park line to Stella McCartney’s range for Adidas, or super-stylish yoga gear from Shakti Shanti or Lorna Jane, high-street sportswear has never been so fashionable. All of which means it’s never been more fun to fake a fitness habit.
And it could pay off in other ways, too. These days, working out is as much about improving your prospects as your body. It’s rare for a CEO not to evangelise about his or her 5am workouts, or how the first thing they pack for a business trip are their running shoes. A study of more than 1 300 top executives by the University of Georgia in the US found that more than 75%
of them believed exercise was critical for career success.
“People are judged more positively if they seem to be putting more effort into their fitness,” says Dr Jeff Breckon, director of the Centre for Health and Social Care Research at Sheffield Hallam University in England. “They become someone who is perceived to be making a commitment towards change. The problem comes when they lose their motivation and stop going – they don’t want to lose that approval from those around them, which could lead some people to pretend they are still exercising.
“Having your gym kit with you – even if you have no intention of working out – absolves your guilt about not exercising, making you feel better about yourself,” he adds. “It’s the same as having a gym membership; the idea of it makes you feel less guilty about not exercising – at least for a while.”
Breckon warns: “Exercise creates an emotional response of self-worth and competence, which is powerful – arguably more so than the actual health benefits. Which means if you pretend you’re exercising when you’re not, you’re cheating yourself and that’s going to make you feel pretty bad in the end. That you’re not able to take control and motivate yourself to get to the gym can have a negative effect over time.”