Labels Are Out, Except When It Comes To Fitness. Here's Why

Photo: Christine Hewitt

In the food world, 2017 was the year labels went out the window. Bloggers like Ella Woodward and Jordan Younger, Instagram foodies like Rachel Mansfield, and people in the mindbodygreen office who had previously identified as vegans, vegetarians, paleo dieters, clean eaters—this list goes on—decided that they didn't want to feel confined by these self-imposed labels anymore. Sure, they could avoid gluten and dairy 95 percent of the time because it made them feel better, but did they really want to feel horribly guilty because they had a slice of pizza four times per year? For most people, the answer was no.

So with food labels on their way out, it would seem that fitness labels like yogi, runner, or CrossFitter will soon be yesterday's news too, right? Wrong. While there are some similarities between food and fitness labels, fitness labels come with a different set of connotations. Let's take a look.

Fitness labels and community.

Study after study has found that strong social ties, or feeling like you're part of a group, are key when it comes to happiness. So when you slap on a label like "runner" or "yogi," you're anointing yourself into a community, and that's valuable. "If you see yourself as a 'runner,' you are more likely to interact with other runners—from strangers (striking up a random conversation with another unknown runner) to friends ('we run together every Monday after work')," explains Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D. and author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. "You look out for others in your community. And you feel greater connection, which can lead to a boost in true happiness."

Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D., and medical director at the Center for Healing Neurology, adds that this feeling of community also adds to increased confidence. "The idea that we belong to a larger community with similar ideals and goals leads us to further validate ourselves and allows us to feel more comfortable and confident in who we are and want we think," she explains. "This is because other people in our group think that way too. This confidence feeds the ego, helping us achieve all sorts of wonderful things in our lives. And those accomplishments without a doubt produce endorphins for the reward centers of our brain."

Can't argue with that one.

Hello, oxytocin.

Assuming you exercise regularly, you're probably familiar with how good exercise makes you feel mentally. Whether it's the high you get from a run or the content feeling you have after a yoga class, all of our brain's feel-good chemicals fire up when we exercise. And when you mix labels in with your workout routine, you get an extra hit of oxytocin.

"You look out for others in your community, and you feel greater connection, which can lead to a boost in true happiness," says Dr. Lombardo. "What’s more, oxytocin (the 'feel-good hormone') is released when you spend time with those social connections."

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Let's talk about guilt.

Anyone who has ever declared themselves dairy-free has probably experienced a sizable wave of guilt when they decide to make an exception and get an ice cream cone. Here's the thing: Fitness labels don't work the same way. Say a runner misses her long run because she felt like spending a few days strength training in the weight room, for example—she probably doesn't feel guilty, and she certainly doesn't stop considering herself a runner. In fact, she's more likely to return to running because she has given herself that label.

"Fitness labels are great for perseverance," says Dr. Lombardo. "If you miss a few yoga classes but you've labeled yourself a 'yogi,' you are more likely to resume your yoga classes in the future."

So if you've decided you're going to stop thinking of yourself as a yogi because labels are very 2016, you might want to reconsider. Who wants to give up the friendships, the sense of belonging, or the hamstring-opening downward-facing dogs? Not us.

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