Whether you were the kid who dreamily picked dandelions on the sidelines or a star athlete who captained every game, you can probably remember an earnest coach telling you “Your only competition is yourself.”
Today, that platitude is as dated as your Myspace page. This is Generation Win, where competition is the biggest motivation. CrossFit arguably paved the way, encouraging you to throw in the soft complimentary towels at your boutique fitness club for a no-frills setting in which you push yourself to your limits in a mob of peers. Now, exercise classes are becoming a battleground.
Take Equinox’s The Pursuit cycling class, available in Canada at the gym’s Yorkville location in Toronto. As you pedal—and it better be furiously—your distance cycled, speed and rank in comparison to your classmates are projected onto a screen.
Fitness chain Orangetheory—which plans to have 50 locations in Canada by the end of 2016—offers the same catch-me-if-you-can incentive. You wear a tracker that records your heart rate, which is then broadcasted on an electronic scoreboard during the combined rowing, treadmill and weight-training workout. Also displayed is the time you spend in the “orange zone”—84 percent or higher of your maximum heart rate. If you stay in the orange zone for 12 to 20 minutes of the hour-long workout, the body will, according to Orangetheory founder Ellen Latham, continue burning calories up to 36 hours later. (This is called “excess post-exercise oxygen consumption.”)
What’s the main benefit? Faster results. “Methods like these give us a data point from which we can get constant feedback and determine if we’re pushing ourselves or if we’re dogging it,” says Dai Manuel, a Vancouver-based trainer and author of Whole Life Fitness Manifesto. It’s also a way of flexing our physical prowess. “We get people in their 50s who beat some of our 30-year-olds and they leave with their chests popped out like crazy,” says Latham, adding that others modify the workout to be lower intensity by jogging or walking instead.
Seeking that external validation is totally legit. It’s the same reason we post Insta workout selfies or share our runs on Facebook. “You want people to see what you’re doing and gain that feedback. That typically leads to feeling more confident, which leads to engaging in exercise more,” says Catherine Sabiston, an associate professor in the University of Toronto’s kinesiology and physical-education faculty.
If you’re the type who prefers to slink in the back of the class unnoticed, these methods can understandably make you feel vulnerable. And Sabiston warns that “every person’s body reacts differently to the same exercise. So if you look at the screen and think ‘I’m doing terribly compared to everybody else,’ that really undermines your enjoyment.” She recommends focusing on yourself and pushing yourself to your own limits, because, she says, that’s where you’ll improve the most.
Perhaps Coach was right after all.