Thinking about movement beyond health

Marianne Clark

Two people running on misty outdoor path covered in leaves.

Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash

As the weather shifts (almost imperceptibly if you ask this Canadian) from summer to fall here in Sydney, I find myself embracing new options for outdoor activities. Unlike my home country of Canada, where winter means donning layers (and layers) of fleece and down even for the shortest of walks, opportunities in Australia actually increase in the winter as the heat dissipates. As someone who loves moving, I’ve found getting outside regularly for a walk or dip in the ocean has helped make some days a bit easier over this past year. But, I also appreciate physical activity is not everyone’s cup of tea, nor are enjoyable and safe opportunities available to everyone for a range of reasons. 

I’ve written previously about the drawbacks of our social zeal for fitness and exercise, especially in the context of COVID 19. The widespread enthusiasm for fitness pulsing through our popular culture often overlooks the overlapping economic, physical, social and cultural factors that shape – and constrain –  people’s engagement. It’s also largely underpinned by ableist, classist, racialised and gendered assumptions about what constitutes physical activity, who and what bodies are able to participate, and where and how they do so. In other words, we often assume every/body CAN participate without taking into account how complicated it is. 

At the same time, social dialogue around physical activity makes a lot of assumptions around why people move. It often reduces activity to something that’s done in order ‘be healthy’ or to build an aesthetically pleasing body. In this framing, the ‘healthy’ body is read as the so-called beautiful body (and vice versa) and looking good and feeling good become conflated in one big proverbial mess. This unsatisfying equation overlooks the many other reasons people may or may not engage in different movement practices, and the multiple embodied, emotional and socially meaningful  experiences that might emerge.

Masculine presenting wheelchair user dances with femme presenting ambulatory dancer.
Disability scholars and integrated performance artists Lindsay Eales and Danielle Peers perform in Edmonton Alberta. Photo Credit: Marc J Chalifoux

I was recently reminded of how firmly entrenched these limiting ways of thinking about fitness actually are. Looking for a new physical outlet, I solicited a series of quotes for a personal trainer to design an outdoor program for me to follow on my own. My request, which specified I was NOT interested in setting goals or looking to lose weight, was met with a flurry of canned messages promising to help me ‘be my best self’ and full of generic (and cringeworthy) aspirational sound bytes worthy of their own critique. My original message expressed my interest in building better range of motion, engaging in skilful movement and having ‘fun’ (itself a problematic term but that’s another story), yet these themes were nowhere to be found in the responses I received. Instead, I was subtly reminded I should be striving to be fitter/buffer/slimmer in order to reach my ‘personal potential’. While (extremely) irritated at first, I realise this is a reflection of the broader ecosystem these professionals – all eking out a living in a competitive marketplace –  are working within. Many have likely been rewarded for their promises of helping people build beautiful better selves through exercise. 

But if we dig a little deeper, listen a little more carefully, there are other, important stories to tell. My interest in these ideas prompted my current research study on how Australians moved during COVID. I’m exploring how people re-created physical activity routines during various degrees of ‘lockdown’ and paying specific attention to the spaces, places, and technologies they used to make this happen. People’s movement practices are often connected to specific social and physical spaces such as fitness centres, dance and yoga studios, swimming pools, oceans, walking/running tracks and sports fields. But during COVID, access to these spaces has often been limited or even prohibited. 

In response, digital fitness options exploded, boasting their ability to help anyone move anytime, anywhere. But I was curious. I was curious about how people were using familiar spaces in and beyond the home in new ways to create new fitness routines and the role digital technologies actually played. I was also curious about the meanings these practices – and the spaces in which they were performed – held for people. How did relationships with one’s body and understandings of  ‘health’ change (or not) in these strange and stressful times? What ‘moved’ people to move, and what made it difficult?

A woman holds a phone and looks at digital self-tracking device on wrist.
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

Participants were recruited via social media and invited to participate in an online interview involving a virtual tour of their physical activity space (e.g., lounge room, repurposed garage, favourite walking track). They were also invited to keep digital photo diaries to document any thoughts, reflections and feelings related to these themes. Analysis is still underway and forthcoming in manuscripts currently under review, but in sum, people’s photos and narratives emphasised that movement meant more to them than the pursuit of ‘health – largely understood as a collection of bodily metrics – or a particular bodily aesthetic. Instead, it was intricately related to and intertwined with their emotional and physical experiences of living in and through the pandemic. It also gave way to experiences of escape and connection as well as expressions of mourning and joy. In these stories, people moved not as a ‘healthy’ practice in order to comply with expert advice, but as a creative and improvised form of self-care and care for others during the pandemic. Movement was also a way to create a sense of routine and certainty in a very uncertain and precarious time.

There’s more to say (watch this space or follow me on Twitter!) but I’m hopeful results can offer more expansive ways of thinking about bodies, movement and health. There’s been optimistic murmurings that COVID might help us think differently about many aspects of our everyday lives.  Perhaps this is a great opportunity to challenge some of the instrumental and frankly, fairly uninspiring ways we think about movement and moving bodies. 

Published by Marianne Clark

Marianne is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Vitalities Lab, UNSW Sydney interested in moving bodies, digital bodies and cultures, and all those bodies 'in-between'.

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