Is Exercise The New Humblebrag?

This originally appeared on The Daily Life. Republished here with permission.

What used to be a mundane part of our lives has become the source of constant conversation, comparison and one-upmanship.

Being a workaholic isn’t cool anymore.

Once upon a time overachievers would casually, on purpose, drop into water cooler conversations how late they worked. If they were playing for bonus points they’d tell you how they’ve been so busy they haven’t seen their kids for a week. And if they were going all-out, they’d let slip they’d missed their partner’s birthday/anniversary/divorce proceedings.

But now the tables have turned. While many employers still expect, and even cultivate, a culture of overwork, it’s no longer acceptable for their employees to admit to it. Working all weekend now makes you appear hopelessly disorganized, just plain ineffective, or a bit of a loser with nothing better to do.

This has forced overachievers to find another way of separating themselves from the pack. Over-exercising has become the new thing.

Instead of leaving Sunday brunch early because they have to go into the office, people are arriving late because they’d “die” if they missed their morning 10k run. What used to be a mundane part of our lives has become the source of constant conversation, comparison and one-upmanship.

Until recently I had no idea how far and fast my friends or colleagues ran, rode, or swam. How much they lifted and how many reps they could do was as unremarkable as whether or not they flossed after brushing.

But now, each morning I’m greeted with daily Facebook updates of training schedules, presumably so I can marvel at people’s dedication to do so much and so early.

My personal favorite was a photo of a friend lifting enormous weights with a caption below stating, “What were you doing at 6am this morning?”

Ummmm…sleeping. Thanks for asking.

This barrage of information about exercise is rarely about the fun of it or even the health benefits. Instead it’s framed within a series of corporate metaphors about metrics, goals, milestones, deadlines, and winning.

It’s often hard to separate boasts about exercise from the boaster’s work ethic and moral superiority. New appointee to the Human Right Commission, Tim Wilson, demonstrated this recently in a profile in the Good Weekend.

Wilson told journalist Tim Elliott that he runs the popular running track that circles Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens, the Tan, counter-clockwise.

“Ninety-five percent of people run the Tan clockwise, which is the easy way,” Wilson explained to Elliott. “I do it counter-clockwise, which is much harder, because it’s uphill nearly all the way.”

This was supposed to be a guide to his approach to life: He’s a non-conformist who bucks the trend and isn’t afraid of hard work.

What’s the point of exercising if you can’t boast about it and make your friends and colleagues feel inferior?

And for the overachieving overachiever, there’s even a movement for this kind of thing. It’s called the “Quantified Self,” and it’s about obsessively documenting every minute of your life including your sleep patterns. Yes, overachievers can now even win at sleeping.

Add charity to the overtraining mix and there are even more status points to be gained. People can pretend their obsessive training regimes are more about raising money in fun runs for sick kids instead of an unmet need in their own lives.

But let’s be honest, if raising money for the sick and disadvantaged was a greater priority than reaching a personal exercise goal, then the 600 bucks spent on shoes and wet weather gear and the 200 hours of training time would be better spent going directly to those in need.

More disturbingly, overtraining and exercise addiction are often seen as a source of pride and accomplishment rather than a cry for help. Not dissimilar to thinspiration—but bizarrely, not condemned in the same way—people are obsessively pushing their bodies to dangerous extremes.

Words like “Rhabdomyolysis,” a potentially fatal condition caused by overtraining—or Rhabdo for those in the know—are no longer buried in medical journals but have made it into mainstream media and conversation. And just like drunk driving used to be, if you die of Rhabdo, you’re a bloody idiot. If you survive it, you’re a bloody legend.

I’m not suggesting that exercise goals are bad. Just like eating well, sleeping, and maintaining functional relationships, exercise is critical to our physical and emotional well-being.

And for some people, overtraining may be about beating back the clock. There’s nothing like approaching 40 to motivate somebody to start training for a marathon. It is, after all, a more dignified way of proving to yourself and the world that you’ve still got it than buying a convertible or shagging the intern.

But no matter how you dress it up or justify it, overtraining is just as dysfunctional as overwork if it’s an addiction. And boasting about it is just as annoying.

Kasey Edwards is a writer based in Australia and author of 30-Something And Over It. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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