There is an old saying that “a healthy mind lives in a healthy body”. By the same token, a healthy body (and by extension a healthy mind) can only live in a healthy natural environment. Owing to its stunning Mediterranean location, Malta is becoming a hotspot for exciting outdoor fitness and recreational activities. Yet, how fit are we actually if we continue to work only on our visible exteriors, and how healthy can we ever actually become if we continue to neglect the health and beauty of our country’s natural surroundings?
Every summer, it begins again. We lift. We run. We pull. We nervously measure our thighs, arms and stomachs. We rush to sign up for sunset yoga to calm our nervous systems and make us feel fresh and invigorated again. We try beach Pilates on sultry summer evenings. We enthusiastically share pictures of ourselves struggling on stand-up paddle boards in deep blue waters nestled in breath-taking island bays. Every day, the unique natural beauty of Malta inspires us to work harder and make ourselves into objects of beauty suitable to share such a beautiful space.
Due to this abundance of fun and exotic choices at our disposal, and certainly also due to the societal pressures that go along with achieving a certain physical look, we have become highly selective when it comes to our bodies. We agonize over how we will be perceived. We agonize over the foods we eat. We agonize over the clothes we wear. We choose state of the art equipment and facilities to realize our fitness goals. Some of us even opt for qualified professionals such as fitness trainers and life coaches to assist us in our journeys to health and bodily perfection, as we agonize for our own sake in the summer heat.
However, do we here on the island of Malta extend the same courtesy to our environment? Do we extend even a small amount of our attention to our air, seas and land that provide a unique platform for our exotic and pleasurable fitness and recreational experiences? Let us therefore take an honest look at our current perceptions of fitness starting with our (irrational) obsessions with bodily “perfection” and slowly expand so we can re-evaluate and adjust our concepts of individual fitness to promote achievable and lasting fitness – not just for ourselves individually but for the general less “healthy” and wealthy population of Malta and the island itself.
Today, fitness in Malta is overwhelmingly driven by social media and the pressure it exerts. Images of washboard abs and sun-kissed, chiseled bodies flood social media sites. Smiling fitness enthusiasts clad in hip, varicolored outfits flaunt their “successes” on Facebook and Instagram. With magnificent Mediterranean sunrises and sunsets in the background, flattering photos of sculpted bodies demand to be “liked”. Cultish fitness marks emerge to separate “insiders” from “outsiders”. Advertisers pick up on these images and reinforce them everywhere one looks. Yet, is this really a true picture of what it means to be fit or is it instead an illusion created by social media hype enhanced by smartphone filters?
In reality, people in Malta are struggling to become more fit, but most still report that despite their striving and toiling their results are only marginal at best. Many experience dissatisfaction in the form of increasing failure, boredom and growing resentment as they try to attain the seemingly unattainable weight and body shape that “society” considers desirable. In addition to work, family responsibilities and feelings of perpetual exhaustion, a fitness regimen can become yet another excruciating chore producing much work and minimal results. Therefore, aside from the few deeply passionate ones who also happen to have the spare time, achieving better fitness often becomes an ever more elusive dream.
There are countless other examples of vexation and discontent. Yet, maybe instead of feeding into the general negativity and exacerbating the problem while not providing any viable solutions, we should instead take an honest look at our individual definitions of fitness and what fitness actually means and entails. In order to better understand our ingrained perceptions of what “fitness” means to us individually, let us ask ourselves a simple question:
Is the purpose of fitness to achieve a certain type of appearance that promises to give a person social advantages over others or is it instead to produce tangible health improvements in our lives?
Most people today will immediately and dutifully chime in by saying “of course it’s for the way you feel … you know, the health benefits“. That view, however, rings hollow. No doubt some of us were health-conscious or health-concerned at the outset, yet how many of us can in all honesty say that we started a fitness program primarily for its health benefits? Who among us still really thinks about heart health, circulation or respiratory improvements when working out? By the same token, plenty of us started fitness because we hated our own guts (no pun intended). Considering a “thigh gap” the pinnacle of fitness success and desirability, we hated our thighs. When we were told our arms had to look like magazine arms, we hated our arms; and so it proceeded until we hated nearly every one of our body parts and, ultimately, hated ourselves.
Such a narrow and negative fitness perspective focusing solely on bodily alterations (most of which are unattainable without surgeries) is problematic, as it defines fitness primarily as a cosmetic fix, which unbeknownst to us can easily lead to addiction and the distortion of our God-given bodies where a certain defined (and sometimes even ridiculous) look becomes the sole barometer of value and desirability. In so doing, fitness can become an enemy and a constant source of frustration should we “fail” to achieve and continuously maintain the societally and industrially determined fitness standards. This endless struggle fuels a multi-billion Euro industry. Still, this is a struggle against ourselves and therefore – no matter what the ultimate outcome may be – it is a struggle we can never actually win.
If so, then how do we escape this dilemma? Moreover, what realistic perspective can we offer the overwhelming majority of us who are struggling to become healthier but who are not naturally predisposed to the air-brushed body type society considers a “fit” body? The answer is alarmingly simple: We need to stop striving for that cheap and false ideal altogether and instead take a more nurturing and wholesome approach to bettering our bodies and improving our entire lives. We need to focus on how we feel by making mindful daily choices that not only improve our health but increase our happiness and quality of life, as well. In that regard, there is much that today’s misguided fitness industry can learn from traditional Maltese culture, and astonishingly many of these issues have nothing to do with exercise.
Let us begin with food, which is at the heart of Maltese culture, as it brings families and friends together to enjoy wonderful traditions and celebrations as it helps family members strengthen their bonds with each other. Maltese food is a quintessential part of the Maltese identity. Science increasingly recognizes that healthy eating does not just mean eating healthy food, but enjoying a nurturing, stress-free environment. Nevertheless, much guilt and concern attaches to Maltese eating habits. Inane and outdated fitness industry practices like “calorie-counting” reinforce the immense guilt most of us already suffer and help underscore a variety of eating disorders, which manifest themselves as a sick love-hate relationship with food. Slowly, we are beginning to understand that fear, austerity-based approaches to food and fitness may actually be encouraging many of the unwanted health conditions they are seeking to prevent.
This needs to change. What we need to be aware of is that when ingested, food becomes part of a bio-chemical process in our bodies that provides us with the necessary nutrients for our health and wellbeing. Food should make us healthy and, yes, happy. When we instead attach feelings of guilt, stress or remorse to our own nourishment, it becomes the opposite of nourishing. Obsessively reading about foods that can make you “fat” or that can “cause cancer” or other diseases is not always conducive either, as almost everyone has an opinion about nearly everything we eat today. Such advice can create even more confusion and can lead to unnecessary restrictions in already severely limited calorie-counting diets. On the contrary if we eat healthy foods, in healthy amounts, in a healthy atmosphere, our food will keep us healthy.
The only way to establish a constructive relationship with food is to return to the traditional Maltese dining experience by transforming our fears and guilt into delight and appreciation of food and the company of our loved-ones. When we transform our meals into a celebration of food and of being alive, it enables us to naturally choose delicious and wholesome nourishment and to regulate our occasional indulging. Malta offers a wide range of delicious goodness: catch of the day seafood, fresh and tasty salads full of locally grown goodness, mouthwatering local fruit grown under the Mediterranean sun, traditionally homemade meals and scrumptious baked goods including options for meat lovers and for vegetarians and vegans, as well. Instead of cursing calories, we should make a choice to say a prayer of gratitude each time we cook or sit down to eat a meal with our loved ones. Anytime we are offered a tasty treat, we should celebrate the fact that we have all this deliciousness to enjoy and the fact that our loved ones are there to enjoy and celebrate these precious moments with us. Try this and you will immediately feel healthier and fitter.
Another pertinent but still often overlooked issue affecting our health, fitness and well-being in Malta is the air that we breathe. Malta prides itself on its beautiful, crystal-clear waters and gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, which produce amazing Facebook and Instagram photos that entice tourists and expats alike. At face value, Malta seems like a dream location for retirement, fitness and recreation. Yet, with its increasing popularity and hence increasing population, the amount of construction and car usage has grown immensely in the past few years; a trend that is inevitably contributing to massive air pollution that compromises the health quality of our outdoor recreational activities. This brings us to an alarming question: What good will our precious toned muscles be to us when layers of smog cover our horizons and we are unable to run or exercise outdoors without compromising our respiratory and immune systems? This, too, must change.
Breath is a life force. Breathing in fresh air, and being able to breathe deeply, is an integral part of physical and mental fitness. What can each of us do to remedy the current situation and make the (individual and collective) lungs of our island fitter? Please think of how many times a day you use your car. Are there any other perhaps healthier alternatives to driving, especially in the months when the weather is not scorching hot? Choose walking or biking. By getting out there and getting moving, you are making both yourself fitter and the island a fitter and a cleaner place to live, which in turn enhances the fitness of the air that we all breathe. By choosing to minimize your carbon footprint, you are actively preserving the island’s beauty and its potential for endless outdoor recreational opportunities while taking care of yourself and others.
The next integral part of our health, and our island’s health and fitness, are the seas that we swim in. We have been told that swimming is one of the most effective cardiovascular exercises for weight loss and joint health. It is also a type of exercise that can be enjoyed at almost any age. Moreover, nothing compares to that blissful feeling of jumping into clean, glistening Mediterranean waters to refresh ourselves on a hot summer day. Not only does swimming make us healthy, but it makes us wealthy as well, as year for year the majority of tourists are drawn to Malta mainly because of its surrounding waters. Yet, whereas travel catalogues advertise pristine waters around the Maltese islands, the actual reality is that our pristine seas are often full of plastic garbage and actual sewage.
When faced with the unpleasant reality that those images of pristine waters do not reflect the current reality but ten-year old stock photos, we often get angry and throw our hands up in the air, but ultimately surrender to the idea that “it’s so sad, but there is nothing we can do!” Is that really so? What if each of us became just a bit more aware and a bit more caring? Do we merely pick up after ourselves or do we stop for a moment to pick up any other garbage lying around when we see our littered beaches? Or do we not pick up at all? Should we continue burying our heads in the sand and pretend other people’s pollution is simply not our business? If we want to continue enjoying the health benefits of the waters of Mediterranean, then it most certainly IS both our business and our obligation to individually and collectively protect and preserve those waters. We must also forcefully demand that those people charged to protect our waters actually do so without any excuses.
Finally, when speaking of fitness, we rarely consider the mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of fitness, which are perhaps the most crucial building blocks in our overall fitness. Although Malta prides itself on its island mentality, its centuries’ old longstanding traditions and its reclusive Mediterranean location, today’s hectic and often nonsensical busyness has managed to weasel its way into the traditional Maltese ways of living with the younger generation being particularly affected. Many of us today spend our days in a constant grip of stress, fear, negativity and self-abasement berating ourselves for not ever being good enough at our jobs, our relationships, or even at reaching our fitness goals. Instead of being enriching, enlightening and transformational, our daily interactions with others are often toxic and draining, bringing us down along with them. Furthermore, the daily exposure to social media garbage where we play along with others in our petty celebrity games can lead us to waste the little energy we may have left trying to make our lives appear glamorous and exciting rather than using it for purposeful and life-affirming activities.
To fix our bodies we also need to fix our minds. So what’s the fix to inertia caused by feelings of perpetual “unworthiness” and self-deprecation? Instead of investing our energy in dead-end connections and in creating false life representation for notional online communities we can make a conscious choice to live useful and productive lives grounded in reality and to engage in forming and strengthening valuable real life connections. We all need time to contemplate, meditate and to just be. Oftentimes, however, we busy ourselves to extremes with our jobs and our careers while distracting ourselves to the point where we no longer even question anymore if what we are doing is in any way fulfilling or meaningful to us or if we are instead simply keeping busy while running away from ourselves, our feelings and our realities.
True fitness is the kind of healthy state that nourishes and enriches us physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually; yes, all four elements. Malta, with its spectacular nature and exotic location, is ideal for recharging and rejuvenating both our bodies and our souls. Yet all-encompassing and truly valuable fitness cannot be achieved if we keep on narrowly focusing on shallow ideas like our own abs and thigh gaps. It cannot be accomplished by running around being purposelessly busy, yet continuing to ignore our polluted and noisy (both physically and mentally) environment. Yes, we still need to exercise, but we also need to exorcise those negative traits and habits that prevent us from being better to ourselves and better to others.
“A Fitter Malta” therefore means calling forth the beauty within us and preserving and enhancing the beauty around us by inspiring ourselves and others to make life here more valuable and sustainable. It means caring and being aware by consciously choosing to practice daily mindfulness habits such as minimizing our carbon footprint and choosing to be more involved by keeping our villages and beaches pristine. On a interpersonal level, it means reaching out and healing ourselves and our surroundings by connecting to each other in compassionate and meaningful ways and expressing daily gratitude, appreciation and kindness towards each other rather than letting greed, fear, obsessions or bodily distortions blind us to the essentials of our survival and the immanent goodness of life.