Fitness gear as a holiday gift?

Remember the controversial Peloton ad that came out around this time a couple of years ago? In it, a woman is given a Peloton by her husband for Christmas. The ad shows her getting up early to ride and coming home from work late and jumping on her Peloton. She really likes her gift and the “me time” it affords. Not altogether different, many people I know love their Pelotons, and many people I know would love a Peloton for the holidays — arguably a generous gift. But the ad managed to strike the wrong chord and caused Peloton stock to tumble.

The first time I saw the Peloton ad, I knew there was something not quite right about it. And yet, I couldn’t initially articulate what the problem was. If my husband bought me a Peloton, would I think he was trying to send me a signal to exercise more? That I needed to lose weight? That he wasn’t happy with me? Would he be telling me that I needed “me time,” and that that time should be dedicated to physical self-improvement?

My answer to all of those questions is “no” — and yet, I don’t want him to buy me a Peloton or any fitness gear for Christmas. I’d rather not have any part of my brain considering those questions.

Many called the Peloton ad sexist, but the boys and men in your life may be just as likely to express interest in fitness equipment or gear of some sort as are the girls and women. A Fitbit, free weights, a year’s supply of protein powder — all seemingly practical gifts. My recommendation: Don’t do it.

[ Read: 9 Tips for Beginning Weight Training. ]

The Negative Side of Fitness Gear

Some fitness gear and tracking devices may facilitate good health habits, but not all of it. According to Lauren Muhlheim, a clinical psychologist who works with patients with eating disorders, tracking cuts people off from their bodies and their own regulatory systems. “People who track become reliant on objective measures and data for making decisions about how much to eat and how hard to exercise. They lose awareness of their own bodies’ signals. Fitness becomes focused on achieving results versus other things like the joy of moving our bodies.”

Peloton called itself “the gift that gives back,” but losing touch with your body because you’re reliant on external indicators of when to exercise and how much or when to eat and how much is hardly a gift. Research indicates that it’s healthy for people to attend to their physiological cues when it comes to both eating and fitness. For example, if you’re always tired, it’s possible you’re eating too little and exercising too much and your body is trying to get you to slow down.

In my process of doing research for my forthcoming book, “Being You: The Body Image Book for Boys,” I found that activity trackers typically do not have the desired effect. Although a fancy watch or other wearable device may look cool, studies that consider weight loss, cholesterol level and blood pressure suggest that these devices have little to no benefit.

Fitness gear does have the potential to encourage compulsive health habits and when given as a gift sends the tacit message to the recipient that you feel they could stand to be improved in some way. Even if you’re not trying to send your partner, friend or child any sort of message (“maybe you should consider exercising more?”), there’s always the risk that your gift could be perceived this way.

[ See: Best Kitchen Gadget Gifts. ]

Healthy Gifts

As Alli Spotts-De Lazzer, a psychotherapist based in Studio City, California, reminds us, “we live in a society that prizes thinness and health. We don’t know what struggles a person may be going through regarding their diet, weight and exercise. By giving a person fitness gear as a gift, you could be unintentionally implying that you think their body needs fitness. Additionally, people don’t typically know when someone has an eating disorder, and a gift of fitness gear can enable harmful behaviors.”

Diet and fitness culture are so opportunistic, always pouncing on an opportunity to take advantage of our insecurities. Bake too much bread in the early days of the pandemic? Eat too many cookies this holiday season? Want 2022 to be “your year”? Messages that we need to get our acts together and get our bodies under control abound. Everyone on our gift list is overwhelmed by these messages, but we can choose to not contribute to the appearance and fitness-focused craziness that blossoms as the new year approaches.

Of course, if there’s someone who’s explicitly asks for fitness gear for a holiday gift, you can always give them a gift card and let them make their own choice.

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