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Socially Fit

News & Features | March 25, 2013

Obesity rates in the U.S. continue to skyrocket; more than a third of Americans are considered clinically obese, and our national waistline keeps on growing. But with these statistics come nationwide changes in fitness trends—perhaps the only positive result of the highest obesity rate we’ve seen yet. More and more people are dedicating their lives to physical fitness education; at the rate we’re going, the number of American fitness instructors and trainers is expected to increase by 24% in the next decade. Gyms, fitness centers, and health clubs are popping up across the country, becoming more prevalent than they’ve ever been.

As well as hitting the gym more, American adults are consuming fewer calories. In the last ten years, the average number of calories consumed by Americans has decreased by 74, a 3% drop. This calorie decrease is mostly likely due to a greater national awareness of detrimental sugars and fats. Of course, we cannot generalize a standard fitness trend in a country whose health is somewhat dependent on income and poverty levels. Although wage disparities seem to be closing with time, annual income is inversely related to obesity rates and BMI:the lower the wages, the higher the chances of becoming obese. In any case, our country seems to be working towards a fitter and healthier lifestyle. Through multi-media advertisements, global campaigns—such as Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move!—and whatever else is catching our attention, increased awareness is doing the trick; we’re fat, but we’re doing something about it. Or trying.

It seems that our new outlook on healthy lifestyles is a result of something greater than health awareness alone. Are “healthy lifestyles” becoming “normal lifestyles”—the only ones accepted by our evolving society—at least by those who can afford it? Nowadays, it’s more than simply feeling in shape and looking fit to others. The fitness culture is one that relies on the process as much as it does on the ending result: going to the gym with the squad, sporting the newly trending apparel, eating the same vitamin K-rich greens as fellow dinner-goers. In other words, being physically fit is the primary incentive for maintaining a healthy lifestyle, but social fitness adds another layer to the motivation behind stepping on the treadmill. It’s no secret that health-obsessed Americans have been financially fueling the fitness and weight loss industries for quite some time. The weight loss market is expected to reach a 66 billion dollar value this year—a number that is probably based more on consumerism than anything else. The industries call for a social investment in the process of becoming fit, and our society obliges.

These social motivations extend further than financially, though. Remember those yellow bracelets that everyone had when we were about 10-years-old? Sold for one dollar each, Livestrong wristbands were created in 2004 as fundraising items for the Lance Armstrong foundation. They put money towards a good cause, they represented a healthy lifestyle maintained by Armstrong himself, and they were cool to wear. The wristband started as a singular design, but alongside its success grew into a multi-million dollar franchise; the bracelet is now sold in several colors and has inspired knock-offs that are completely unrelated to the foundation. A decade later, we have athletic wristbands—such as the Power Balance bracelets—that have become similarly successful. Power Balance bands might simply be a fad with some arguable physical benefits, but we like them anyway. Whether they are sold as fundraising items or “balance enhancers,” the bracelets ultimately manifest their owners’ association with physical fitness: an indication of being fit, in some sense.

Along the same vein are fitness brands such as Nike, Under Armour, and Lululemon. As well as selling rather standard work out clothing for a high price – take any pair of Lululemon leggings—companies such as Nike are incorporating elements of social media into their repertoires. With Nike’s new product, Nike+ FuelBand, users can keep track of how much physical exercise they exert in a day. The band uses an accelerometer to measure movement in “NikeFuel;” users can set daily NikeFuel goals and track their progress using the FuelBand app. On the Nike website, the sell of the product is its “Connect and Go” feature: “See your activity history, stay motivated, and connect with your friends.” The app is linked to Facebook, so users can post how many miles they ran that day to their profiles. Here, “stay[ing] motivated” relies on where users fall on the social media map. Daily exercise inevitably becomes a statement about how fit you are, and how much NikeFuel you exerted in a single day. These consumer products all fall under the same category of social fitness, each fueling a socially approved lifestyle through an association with physical health.

Through a narrower lens, Tufts University students are embracing the country’s trend towards a physically fitter standard. Of course, our highly affluent, liberal campus is not an ideal sample pool for national health or fitness. At Tufts, though, the social culture of being in shape takes on a unique persona. A college campus is ultimately a high concentration of young, active, easily-influenced beings in an isolated community. Thus, we tend not to rely on outside sources such as pricey health clubs or Whole Foods Markets to maintain our health—neither physically nor socially. Instead, we rely on each other. Surrounded by our peers at all hours of the day, we naturally influence each other’s food selections, clothing styles, work out choices, sleeping habits, etc. Due to an inevitable social influence on our lifestyle choices, are young college students such as ourselves fundamentally changing fitness in America?

We exercise amongst our peers, we sleep amongst our peers, and, of course, we eat amongst our peers. Especially for freshmen and sophomores—the lucky ones who only need a swipe to eat—most meals become social events. Dining at Dewick is as much a time to impress as any other, as far as a Tufts freshman is concerned. Any two people across the dining hall table are united by the food that lies between them. Thus, decisions about what to put on those plates might very well vary according to the relationship between meal-goers. “Social eating has a huge impact on the choices students make in the dining halls,” said student manager at Carmichael dining center Paige Lucas. “It’s like anything in life; it’s usually easier to go along with what others are doing.” Of course, students might not think twice about the foods they’re eating amongst good friends. But how many students want to be the only one without something green in front of his or her plate? “There is definitely a big health culture at Tufts, and it shows in the dining halls,” said Lucas. “I see kids taking vegetables and salads all the time.” That’s exactly what it is: the ability to see our peers making the choices that ultimately characterize the way they are living. The fishbowl that is college—especially during its early years—inevitably affects the nature of the decisions as basic as what to have for lunch.

Sweaty faces and swinging ponytails are ubiquitous across the Tufts campus on any given day. Now more than ever, the Tufts campus is crawling with gym-rats. The fall opening of the new gym, The Steve Tisch Sports and Fitness Center, has undeniably ignited students’ motivation to hit the gym more. There has been a recent increase of participation in the health programs offered by the fitness center. One such program is Tufts Personalized Performance Program (TP3), created to strengthen the awareness of health and fitness on campus. The program offers one-on-one training sessions to students and faculty by undergraduate and postgraduate trainers. The program was implemented long before the new gym opened, but it has recently been soaring with popularity—for both trainers and clients. The “waiting list” to meet with the trainers gets longer as more people sign up to participate, creating a need for more trainers. According to sophomore Abigail Cohen, a trainer for TP3, more and more students become interested in the program when they have friends who are TP3 trainers. “It’s through a social circle that people hear about the program,” Cohen said, “and I think that social circle is only going to grow. When I applied as a freshman, none of my friends knew about it. Now, everyone knows about the program and wants to become a trainer.”

This “social circle” is one that is expanding beyond the TP3 program. The gym is a social circle of its own, a hub of some of the fittest students at the university. According to Dan Kopcso, the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach and manager of TP3, the busiest times at the gym are the middle of the afternoon and the early evening. During those times, the lines are longer for the machines, but the space is filled to the brim with familiar athletes and gym-goers. They might not be your friends, but they see you every day at the next bench over; the relationship creates a camaraderie unique to the gym culture. And, during the period of interim between treadmill and elliptical, there’s even a moment to catch up—to socialize, to be in the same boat of being momentarily denied the ability to exercise.

Kopcso noted clothing trends he’s seen in recent years at the gym: “The major trends in apparel are the lack of cotton tees which have been replaced by ‘tech tees’ and the appearance in the last year of fluorescence.” Kopcso alludes to the neon colors speckling the gym, vibrant shades of yellow and blue that dominate its dress code. This eye-catching apparel has always been loosely associated with exercise (we can thank the 80s for that). The vibrant work out gear is visually bold, standing out in a sea of brown and blue sweatshirts. It makes an overt statement: I’m going to the gym! Gym clothes scream gym, and gym screams fitness. Our clothing choices on campus work like our NikeFuel trackers on Facebook—publically and loudly identifying us as physically fit human beings.

Ultimately, students want to appear to be making healthy choices as well as actually making those choices. They want to fully embrace the lifestyle that is becoming a societal norm. The social implications of maintaining healthy lifestyles do wonders for individual motivation, especially in a small community such as Tufts. There is no denying that our relationships with our peers drive us in a way that nothing else can. But being recognized for maintaining a healthy way of life detracts nothing from the lifestyle itself—especially when that recognition fuels the fire to keep going. But relying so heavily on each other to influence our lifestyles comes with consequences; we begin to solidify our social circles even further through common activity and common lifestyle. On a national level, judgments of those who aren’t physically fit increase as the country becomes more health conscious. In a concentrated community like Tufts, differences in lifestyle are highlighted by the close quarters in which we live; those disparities manifest themselves in the dining halls, at the gym, at parties on the weekends. As much as health and fitness unite our community, they inevitably divide the student body both physically and socially. Our health habits are heading in a productive direction, but keeping our minds open to a variety of lifestyles is the healthiest of tendencies in our microcosm.