Some Cal Poly students feel pressured to balance food with exercise, making themselves work out to offset their meals. | Photo illustration by Joseph Pack/Mustang News

Sam Gilbert
Special to Mustang News

Whether it’s hiking Bishop Peak or participating in a workout class at the Recreation Center, Cal Poly students have plenty of ways to stay fit. In fact, it’s a main feature that sets this community apart.

But at what point does the goal to become fit go from healthy to obsessive?

Cal Poly alumna Katy Lackey noticed Cal Poly students’ focus on exercise three years ago.

“Just walking across campus, you can see that the majority of students are not overweight,” Lackey said.

The campus norm, she said, is beautiful, in-shape individuals and a culture that endorses healthy living.

“I’m not judging whether it’s a bad or good thing,” Lackey said. “I just know that myself and my peers are very aware that Cal Poly students, especially women, are expected to be healthy and fit.”

Lauren Meers, who instructs the Recreation Center Breakaway class, also sees this pressure but says she loves the energy of the students on campus.

“Specifically at Cal Poly, everyone is very athletic,” Meers said. “I like seeing people who look like they take care of and nourish themselves.”

In about eight years’ experience as a spin instructor, Meers has observed a change in what “healthy” looks like now compared to years past. The attractive image has become slimmer and more athletic.

“From what I see, I like that there is a good range of people willing to motivate themselves,” Meers said.

The pressure to keep up with this lifestyle, however, creates blurred lines between a healthy amount of exercise and excess. Meers said she understands what it’s like when everyone around you is going to the gym, making you feel pressured to go as well.

As a result, Lackey developed an eating disorder during her time at Cal Poly. She called it “exercise bulimia,” where exercise became a requirement — or a punishment — for eating.

Lackey recounted a time when she would push herself to work out to burn off a certain amount of calories or weigh a certain amount.

“I think this is different for every person,” Lackey said. “I’ve known people who over-exercised and really struggled with their body image and measuring their worth in terms of a number on a scale or the calories burned on a treadmill. I noticed my friend had an issue with exercise when she only talked about exercise, reduced her calorie intake drastically, and was in the gym more often than not.”

Cal Poly has a unique population of students who focus on being active and fit, which creates the pressure to uphold a certain standard.

Cal Poly psychology professor Shawn Burn said compulsive exercising and obsession with appearances occur as a result of self-objectification, which stems from sexual objectification.

“We self-objectify when we internalize those messages from society and we start to judge ourselves based on how well we fit these idolized body images for our gender,” Burn said.

From birth, she said, men are exposed to messages about masculinity via video games, television and action figures that embody the “ideal” man: one with a small waist, muscles and six-pack abs. As men grow older, there’s even more pressure to conform.

“If a man is in a culture with other men — his friends, sports team, fraternity brothers — that judgment, based on how well they conform to those idolized body images, causes him to self-objectify as well,” Burn said. “This can lead to over-exercising and steroid abuse.”

Women, she said, turn to self-objectification primarily from society’s obsession with fattism, or prejudice against those who are overweight. As a result of Burn’s research, it’s been found that if a woman’s friend group is centered on appearance, even talking about appearance or weight can inadvertently lead to self-objectification.

At Cal Poly, where exercise is constantly a topic of interest, the obsession with looks is prevalent.

Lackey said the point at which someone is “overdoing” a workout varies between individuals. To figure out whether they have reached that point, people need to assess why they work out so hard.

“A person needs to consider why they exercise and the thoughts they have about themselves before, during and after,” Lackey said. “The issue is the self-talk, and I think a major problem is when the exercise becomes a means to validate a person’s worth.”

The healing process occurs from intrinsic motivation; the person must be motivated to get help and make a change.

“I think over-exercising is a behavior where the treatment depends on the severity and the level of insight the person has; one must also consider if it’s a stand-alone issue or a part of a bigger problem,” Lackey said. “I believe that therapy, a strong support system and a willingness to change are key to healing.”

Correction: A previous version of this article used incorrect pronouns for Shawn Burn. It has been updated.

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