The Dark Side of an Extreme Fitness and Diet Challenge

Brittany Risher
by Brittany Risher
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The Dark Side of an Extreme Fitness and Diet Challenge

Before you consider one of the popular extreme diet and fitness challenges out there, or simply envy a bodybuilder’s physique, weigh the behind-the-scenes sacrifices that aren’t shared on social media.

“A lot of time people will look at a bodybuilder and think, ‘They are so lean!’” says Julia Falamas, a New York City-based weightlifting and nutrition coach. “But that’s only for a short period of time and for a specific reason. That’s not where they are day to day.” Keep in mind you often don’t see what these people look like 30 days after the end of the challenge or even a few days later when they may be bloated or take a photo in less-than-ideal lighting so their muscles don’t look as defined.

For many of us, it can be far too easy to see the Instagram photos showcasing someone’s chiseled six-pack abs and gloss over the reality of the sacrifices they made to get that. Often these quick-fix, 30-day programs are grueling and require working out almost daily — sometimes twice a day — carefully monitoring macros, boring and repetitive meals, not drinking alcohol, rarely eating out, because it is hard to find foods that fit the plan, and not doing anything social.

We all know that more commonly we only see the results photos without any honest language about what it took to look like that — including how the person had to get the right angle and perfect lighting for the shot.

To be clear, we’re not talking about the fun challenges where you hold planks every day or pack and bring a healthy lunch to work each day. It’s the more extreme programs that call for both intense workout regimens and restrictive diet plans that, while appealing, have potential short- and long-term risks.

COMMON RISKS

For starters, you could fall prey to injury if you do a fitness challenge without proper guidance, especially if you jump right in. You need to scale things so your goal is appropriate to your fitness level and the time you can devote to it Falamas advises. If you haven’t run a mile, start there before taking on a marathon.

There’s also risk to your physical health if you do a strict diet and intense workout regimen. “If you’re not getting the nutrients your body needs, you can be malnourished even at a normal weight,” explains Riley Nickols, PhD, a sport psychologist and director of the Victory Program, an eating disorder treatment program for athletes. “If you’re not getting the appropriate calories for a day or lacking a nutrient, it impacts the body’s ability to repair itself from workout to workout, and this makes you more susceptible to injuries.”

When taken to extremes, this may compromise your heart, bones, gastrointestinal system, endocrine function and even your psychological functioning, leading to changes in mood and an obsession with food and exercising. In women, lack of proper nutrition also leads to abnormal menstrual cycles or causes periods to stop altogether.

However, any program comes with risks and it’s unknown how any individual will respond.

OTHER NOT-SO-OBVIOUS DOWNSIDES

“If the program is really aggressive, depending on the person, there could be medical problems that result from it. That’s why they have a disclaimer. But most of time, we don’t know the risk,” says Dr. Lawrence Cheskin, director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center.

“And this aggressive diet may uncover health problems you didn’t know you had,” he adds, giving the example of the rare person who takes up a running program and has a heart attack.

Additionally, for some, 30 days can spiral into a longer, even more restrictive way of eating and compulsion with exercise. “Taking on something like this can be well-intentioned, but without the support of a trained professional to oversee the drastic changes you are making to your diet, it can be destructive,” Nickols says. “Over time this can become more rigid and, before you know it, you’ve eliminated entire food groups or are planning your day around exercise.”

Although this doesn’t happen to everyone, it can happen, particularly if you like the attention you receive from others.

CONSIDERATIONS TO MAKE

Before you decide to try one of these programs, ask yourself these questions:

1. ASK: WHY AM I DOING THIS?
Are you looking for this goal or just any goal? Also check yourself if you think this will lead to some specific body type or to change your life, such as get a new job or partner. “Sometimes people get obsessed with needing to look a certain way,” Falamas says. “That is an automatic trap. You will never look like somebody else.” If your motivation is to change how you look and change how you feel, “This is the biggest trap people can fall into,” Nickols says. “I’ve known people at the pinnacle of their career or sport who are miserable or who lack confidence.”

2. ASK: DO I REALLY WANT THIS?
Having friends to do a challenge with is a great way to get support. However, if they’re doing a 5K at the end, and you hate running, what are you going to do on days when you’re supposed to run but they can’t meet you, Falamas asks. You can still do that challenge for the social aspect, but maybe you need a different personal goal you will enjoy and stick to no matter what.

3. ASK: HOW MUCH AM I WILLING TO SACRIFICE?
“Know your investment — both the time and resources — so you know if it’s truly worth it,” Falamas says.

4. ASK: WHAT’S MY LONG-TERM PLAN?
What is the cost of doing this extreme challenge? What will you do after 30 days? “Some ways and means of getting physical results can have consequences, not just physically and psychologically but cognitively, too,” Nickols says. “It can quickly be a runaway train of, ‘If I get this result, what if I tighten up the reins more and get more results?’ Then the amount of time spent thinking about food and planning meals and workouts becomes exorbitant.”

THE BOTTOM LINE

If you decide a 30-day challenge is right for you and you struggle, know it’s OK not to see it through.

“There will be hard days and days you question what you’re doing, but those should be few and far between,” Falamas says. “Overall there should be a huge sense of pride and like you’re accomplishing things. If you only feel dread, it may not be the right thing for you.”

Also be aware if you begin rejecting social invites that involve food or feeling anxious in those situations — or if the amount of time you spend thinking about food or exercise noticeably shifts, Nickols says. That may be a warning sign that you are starting to have disordered eating and may need to stop or talk to a registered dietitian or mental health professional.

Lastly, always consult your doctor before starting a program. Challenges can be a vehicle to positively change your diet and exercise habits but only if you do them for the right reasons and don’t let the rigidity hijack your life.

About the Author

Brittany Risher
Brittany Risher

Brittany is a writer, editor and digital strategist specializing in health and lifestyle content. She loves experimenting with new vegan recipes and believes hummus is a food group. To stay sane from working too hard, she turns to yoga, strength training, meditation and scotch. Connect with her on TwitterInstagram, and Google+.

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