Lessons from Rio 2016: Focusing on Function over Form

Photo Credit: Creative Commons by pixabay (Gellinger)

Every two years we get the chance to cheer on our country and our amazing athletes at the Olympic arena. The Olympics are a chance to bring countries together and are a celebration of what a body can do.

Competing athletes have worked for countless hours to maximize the efficiency and performance of their bodies.  And though the popular and narrow conception of “thin as beautiful” has taken a firm grasp of Western culture in the last century, it is clear from the array of body types represented in Rio that variety exists even at an elite performance level and is, in fact, necessary to meet the demands of different sports.

What makes for an amazing gymnast does not make for the best volleyball player; within-sport variability is evident as well.  Simply put, not all runners, basketball or soccer players are built the same. Physique is a product of biology (i.e., genetics) as well as the skillset required for a particular type of performance (e.g., sprinting v. distance running) or position on the field.

Although we cannot and need not be Olympic athletes, we might take a cue from Olympians who celebrate the function of their bodies rather than just their form. This can be accomplished in a few ways:

  1. Evaluate whether or not the way you are exercising – your exercise pattern – is healthy for you or not using these guidelines. When you are certain that you have a reasonable physical activity plan in place, begin to pay close attention to what your body is doing as you move instead of how it looks before and after.
  2. Notice all that your body does for you as you go about your everyday routine too. Your breath can keep you calm and centered. Your feet can get you from Point A to Point B. Your spine can help stand tall. Your arms can help you reach for things or maintain your balance. And your heart rate can convey information about your emotions, telling you when you’re excited, or scared, or relaxed. For more techniques on shifting your focus, see this related post.
  3. Make room for positivity when it comes to body image beliefs. As the National Eating Disorder Association explains in their 10 Steps to Positive Body Image, “Appreciate all that your body can do.  Every day your body carries you closer to your dreams.  Celebrate all of the amazing things your body does for you—running, dancing, breathing, laughing, dreaming, etc.”
  4. Practice tuning out negativity from external sources. This idea was recently made explicit here in our NYC subway system, when My Body Does, an organization founded by two New Yorker yoga instructors launched an initiative to change the body dialogue being pressed by media on passive observers by placing body affirmation stickers on body shaming subway ads.

Last but not least, as we head into the final week of the 2016 Summer Olympics, try to watch the Games with a special focus on what the body and the mind can accomplish when they work together with intention and practice.

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