2 personal trainers who have struggled with their health explain why a 'shredded' physique doesn't always mean someone is healthy
- Having a "ripped" physique should not be equated with being fit and healthy, according to two personal trainers.
- In fact, the stereotypical "fitness" image of a six-pack and low body fat levels can often be due to bad health.
- For Hayley Madigan, a "shredded" body came at the cost of her mental health, and she was the least healthy she'd ever been.
- Ben Carpenter, meanwhile, suffers from Crohn's and inflammatory bowel diseases, which makes it hard to put on weight, but people still see his physique as "fitness goals."
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Picture a fit and healthy person, and most people imagine someone with rippling abs, bulging biceps, and defined legs.
But sometimes — often, in fact — the physique we associate with peak health comes through adopting an incredibly unhealthy lifestyle, two personal trainers told Insider.
They told Insider we need to stop equating leanness with health and fitness.
The leanest, most shredded people are often struggling with their mental health
Five years ago, personal trainer Hayley Madigan was the leanest she'd ever been, weighing around 50kg (110lbs). She successfully competed in bikini competitions for three years.
Madigan, now 30, has been in a much healthier place for the past two years (she now weighs around 60kg (132lbs)), but says that many people considered her former body to be "fitness goals," despite her mental health suffering drastically.
"I had a shredded six-pack and you could see all of my muscles, and in the fitness industry this was deemed as achieving good results, but actually I was the unhealthiest I have ever been," she told Insider.
Strict dieting and twice-daily workouts led Madigan to lose her period for three years due to the stress her body was under. She weighed everything she ate and obsessively tracked calories, and she never socialized.
"I wasn't eating enough for my body to function at its full potential and was continuously lethargic, low in mood, low in energy, hungry, and obsessively thinking about when my next meal was," Madigan said.
"I trained because 'I had to' not because I enjoyed it or for health benefits, I trained to look a certain way."
Because Madigan didn't let herself go to restaurants or events where she couldn't control her food, she distanced herself from friends and family and became very isolated, all in the pursuit of physique "perfection."
"It led me to being very depressed and also highly anxious when anything was brought up about food or the way I ate," Madigan said.
"I may have looked like I was 'fit' but I was so unhealthy, my bone health was depleting due to my loss of menstrual cycle, my hair, skin, and nails were affected, and my overall health was reducing due to not feeding my body the nutrients it needed."
A lean body can be the result of underlying health conditions
For some people, having low body fat levels is a reminder that they have an underlying health condition.
One such person is Ben Carpenter, a personal trainer who has suffered from Crohn's and inflammatory bowel diseases for years, and finds it difficult to put on weight as a result.
He's received the most compliments on his physique during his worst flare-ups.
"I was a personal trainer and in 'good shape' by stereotypical cultural standards: fairly muscular and with a six-pack," Carpenter told Insider. "I often had clients hiring me because they said they wanted to look like me."
But when Carpenter, now 33, had his first intense bout of inflammatory bowel disease around the age of 20, he spent six nights in the hospital over a matter of months, and lost around 22kg (48lbs) in body weight.
"I was extremely frail and was so weak that I once fell over on the stairs in the middle of the night and couldn't stand up on my own, even when there was a handrail for me to pull on," Carpenter said.
"I sat there stranded calling for help until my brother came to assist me. It was a far cry from my fittest and healthiest period."
Carpenter faces an ongoing struggle whereby many foods don't agree with him, passing straight through the body, which has led to malnourishment and anemia so severe that his body didn't respond to prescription-strength iron tablets, and he required infusions in the hospital.
"A lot of people see my low levels of body fat and automatically assume I am in very good health," said Carpenter.
"I also receive a lot of comments and messages on social media from people who ask what the 'secret' is to obtain my physique.
"The funny thing is, a lot of people who have much higher body fat levels than me would be much healthier, objectively."
Disordered eating is rife within the fitness industry
Whether you're a personal trainer or an influencer, when fitness is your career and way of paying the bills, there's a real pressure to keep your body in the peak, "perfect" condition.
"In the personal training industry, it's common to hear 'the way you look is your best business card,'" said Carpenter.
Disordered eating is rife within the fitness industry, he said, and a lot of trainers and influencers feel pressure to be lean to get more business.
"The fitness industry places a disproportionately heavy emphasis on how you look rather than on physical or mental health," Carpenter said.
"I have felt this myself and, combined with the desire to rebound after periods of crippling illness, I focused extremely hard on trying to achieve physique goals that I don't think are sensible for most people to strive for."
Like Madigan, in the past Carpenter has pushed his body to extremes in the pursuit of physique goals, developing a binge and restrict mindset and an unhealthy relationship with food.
"Contest prep diets have the possibility to exacerbate eating disorder symptoms and a lot of people won't realize this until they get to that point," he said.
'Assuming someone's health status based on how they look is not reliable'
While it's true that being overweight can lead to a range of health issues — a subject which is at the forefront of many people's minds following research linking obesity with increased risk of death from COVID-19 — being very lean is not necessarily a sign of good health.
Carpenters cites the following example:
A person could be a smoker in a sedentary job, never do any exercise, be highly stressed, regularly drink alcohol, and eat a nutrient-poor diet, but maintain a low weight by keeping their overall calories at maintenance.
Similarly, that person could change their lifestyle drastically by moving more, decreasing their stress levels, cutting back on booze, and eating a nourishing diet, but if their overall calorie intake doesn't change, their weight won't change — though their overall health would.
"You can adopt health-promoting behaviors without changing your body weight," Carpenter said.
"You can also change your body weight with behaviors that are not necessarily healthy. Assuming someone's health status based on how they look is not reliable."
People in larger bodies can be healthier and fitter
Neither Madigan nor Carpenter is as lean as they have been in the past, but they're much healthier and both do still look fit.
But just as there are plenty of slim people who are unfit and weak — and will be the first to admit it — lots of people in larger bodies run marathons and break strength world records.
Take journalist Bryony Gordon and plus-size model Jada Sezer, for example, who ran the London marathon in their underwear to prove that you don't need to be slim to build incredible stamina.
And when it comes to strength, having more flesh on your bones is, if anything, a help not a hindrance. This is why so many champion weightlifters aren't lean like bodybuilders and bikini competitors — that extra body mass helps with their strength.
In fact, officials in Canada recently called for "obesity" to be defined by health, rather than simply weight in relation to height, as Insider's Anna Medaris Miller reported.
"Fitness is not a size or a shape or a look," fitness coach Chrissy King recently wrote on Instagram.
"Quite frankly, I'm tired of the fitness industry's obsession with fat loss. Movement is about so much more than that and chasing leanness doesn't have to be the thing for you or anyone. It doesn't have to be *the* goal. It doesn't have to be *the* reason you exercise.
"No one is inherently better for being in a body with less body fat."
It's wrong to make assumptions about someone's health based on their appearance
While it's possible to have a lean body and be perfectly healthy, both mentally and physically, it's wrong to make the assumption, Madigan says.
"It's easy to look at someone lean with a six-pack and think they are the pinnacle of health when sometimes they really aren't and could be experiencing disordered eating like I did," she said.
"The same works for when people judge bigger people for not 'looking healthy' when actually those individuals could have better cardiovascular fitness and better mental health than the leaner individuals.
"We are brought up in a society that judges people based on what they look like and having body fat is deemed unhealthy when actually it's necessary for survival and optimal health especially in females."