Health & Fitness | April 22, 2021 9:54 am

This Is the Only Year That It’s Acceptable to Dream About Your Perfect Beach Bod

We're about to take our shirts off in front of people again. It's okay to frame your fitness goals around it.

beach bod
If you want to go "full beach volleyball god" over the next two months, that's your prerogative.
University of Southern California/Contributor/Getty Images

At some point this year — probably June or July, according to most state legislators — coronavirus restrictions will ease and we will all re-emerge, like bears from their slumber, into polite society. To help you readjust, we’ll be sharing some advice on grooming, fitness, getting dressed in something besides sweatpants (but also sweatpants), how to manage your stress and mental health, dating, concert and bar etiquette, and more.

It’s been called “the summer of hedonism.” Travel experts are predicting record PTO requests. A lot of people are finally going to get married. It’s a wildly imperfect analogy, but Summer 2021 already feels like V-J Day in Times Square come to life: a sunny, splashy, season-long block party. It isn’t just a return to normalcy, it’s a leap to the best and wildest of all those things we once loved.

Can it possibly deliver on all that hype? TBD. But either way, it’s perfectly understandable if you’re currently checking yourself out in the mirror and unsure whether you’re emotionally prepared to start taking your shirt off in front of people again. One American Psychological Association survey found that 61% of Americans experienced undesired weight gain during the pandemic. The “quarantine 15” wasn’t just an early-pandemic quip: consumption of processed foods and alcohol skyrocketed over the last 12 months while people adjusted to a more static, hunkered-down lifestyle, devoid of gym memberships or daily commutes.

So, now more than ever, it’s natural to want to shed weight or build mass ahead of beach vacations, weddings and family reunions. (This summer is essentially all three wrapped into one.) But the mania of event-oriented wellness has long been problematic. My friends and I have a running joke, whenever we book a trip to head somewhere in a few months: “[Insert destination here] bods start now!!!” Might we actually fit in a few more trips to the gym, ahead of a trip to Austin or Miami? Sure. But it’s tongue-in-cheek, purposely on the nose. We know we probably won’t look very different by the day of our flight, and prepping for one weekend of fun won’t lay the foundations for a lifetime of fitness.

crowded beach
Summer is coming to a town near you. It’s okay if you’re preoccupied with preparing your body for it.
Federico Giampieri/Unsplash

Speaking recently with Men’s Health, celebrity trainer Jeff Cavaliere offered an excellent quote on the concept of summer-specific sculpting: “Maybe you talk about a summer cut, but summer’s eventually going to turn to fall. Then what happens? Oftentimes, we find ourselves going back to exactly what we did to put ourselves in the situation where we’re looking to get in shape again for the next event.”

He’s right. As we march into our first proper summer in two years, with most of us eager to make an impression — or, at least, to not make an upsetting impression — it’s natural to fantasize over quick, dreamy results, an Adonis frame by way of Amazon Prime. We owe this to a culture of comparison. There was a fascinating study a few years ago that confirmed that men stare at each other’s chests more often than women stare at men’s chests. This has been going on for a while, and as long as men walk around with exposed pecs, biceps and calves, it’s only going to continue.

The New York Times once referred to this psychological phenomenon as “beach body tyranny.” It’s body dysmorphic disorder, just hyper-seasonal. You start to fixate on perceived aesthetic inadequacies, and how you feel finishes second to how you look. Our responses in these sorts of situations are always personal, but there are some identifiable patterns. Think: overexercise (especially at the expense of sleep), eating disorders, increased anxiety, social phobias.

Which all sounds … supremely antithetical to a summer for the ages, no? Who needs that kind of pressure? Shouldn’t our collective reentry just be about reestablishing relationships and making memories? Do you really need to lose 20 pounds by the Friday before Memorial Day? Or put up 200 pounds on the bench press in time for the Fourth of July? From a fitness perspective, what’s the correct way to approach these coming months? Is it even possible to reconcile your need to look a certain way with the very real mental health concerns that spring from that pursuit?

This year, the answer is yes — but a heavily qualified one. You should feel absolutely free to dream (and even stress a little bit) about achieving your perfect beach bod ahead of a perfect summer. Goal-oriented fitness is fraught, but so is living life without any goals at all. Consider: the medical community has recently turned its attention to a concept called “languishing,” a nascent clinical term that describes those who are neither “depressed” or “flourishing.” These people find themselves bopping around in life’s aimless middle, indifferent to projects they quit or hobbies they drop, unwilling to work harder for a promotion, incapable of getting excited about travel plans.

The pandemic has been a bona fide bonanza for languishing. As constructive, feel-good objectives have slowly lost their meaning, so many of us have struggled to retain a sense of purpose, which has slowly eroded our sense of self. This whole thing started with pledges to bake bread and build home gyms, but over time, you may have found yourself, say, reading and cooking less while spending too much time on the phone or in bed.

A dedicated fitness plan with lofty intentions, then, can be a positive thing to help you regain a sense of routine ahead of your reintroduction into polite society. And vitally, it doesn’t have to mean trying to lose weight or build up your chest. Think about some of those “back” and “side” doors available to you, which can help you fine-tune your wellness over the next couple months. Schedule a steady outdoor activity that you enjoy, like hiking, tennis or golf. Take a constitutional in the middle of your workday. Eat less meat. Eat less at the end of the day. Head to bed earlier. Make lists. Mind your desk posture. Schedule your meals. It all counts.

This stuff is boring. It doesn’t square with the oiled-up, six-week six-pack programs men’s rags have promoted for decades. And, FYI, tackling these things alone will probably not get you exactly where you dream to be. But they’re all going to help — they’re going to organically assist and augment every run, cycle and strength-training session that you attempt ahead of summer. Counting these small victories will help you get where you want to be again, physically and mentally.

Cavaliere is right: fall is also on the horizon, and by that point, spring’s sprint for summer could feel very far away. But peppering your scramble for a better beach bod with sustainable decision-making is your best shot at making the whole operation worth it.

This pandemic has taken so much from us. It’s become one long, inexplicable dream, which we fortunately don’t have to explain to anyone — everyone gets it. But with light (literally, and a lot of it) at the end of the tunnel, allow yourself to feel inspired again. It’s okay to imagine something better for your body, and this year especially, to peg that ambition around a time we actually hope to never forget.