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What size is healthy?

Updated: Jan 12, 2021

I'm going to ask you two questions. Answer them honestly:

1) How do you feel about your health?

2) How do you feel about your weight?

Do you have the same answer for both? If the answers are different, why?

Let me start here:

There is a lot that I LOVE about fitness.

I love the joy and freedom of movement. The challenges overcome. The strength and flexibility that you build in the gym that finds its way into the rest of life. The stress relief. The satisfaction. The pride. The happiness.

This perspective of fitness is, to me, about health and wellness.

The thing that I hate the most about the fitness industry (and I am actually going to stick with the word hate, which I rarely do) is the strong association between health and body appearance.

"Improve your health by shrinking your waist and growing your booty"

"Think lifting weights will make you too bulky? Actually it will make you healthier by helping you lose weight faster"

Every message about fitness and health seems to be about losing weight. Especially now that everyone seems so worried about the Covid-19(lbs).

Even the messages about other benefits seem to circle back to weight:

- Lose weight and gain energy

- Lose weight and increase happiness

- Lose weight and reduce stress

Do you know that physical activity and exercise have a TON of benefits that you can get without losing or gaining a single pound?

- you can increase or maintain your bone density without losing weight

- you can release endorphins and improve your mood without losing weight

- you can improve the function of your cardiovascular system without losing weight

We so often have an unhealthy obsession with our weight. It is so twisted in my mind that I'm not even 100% sure if the diet and fitness industries have convinced us that our weight = our health, or if they have just convinced us that our body size is the most important determinant of our worth so we should actually care about it more than our health.

Let's take a brief pause to discuss the science.

Because, yes, population data does show an association between health and waist circumference. For example, people who have a waist circumference over a certain threshold may be at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

The problem with population data is that it gives a broad view without giving consideration for individual variability. That is, what other factors do you have, such as genetics, mental health status/medications, activity level, and so much more, that may modify your risk for the better or worse.

The other thing that it does not take into account is weight stigma. This is a growing field of research, which I will talk about more in another post. Essentially, how are people who have a certain body shape treated differently because assumptions are made about their lifestyle or habits based on their body appearance.

Research has shown that physicians do exhibit weight bias, which means they may make assumptions based on how you look and make diagnoses or treatment decisions based on those assumptions.

This means that if a 'normal weight' individual came into the office with a set of symptoms, they would be more likely to get a thorough exam. More likely that the doctor would take the time to get to the root of the symptoms. This person would therefore be more likely to get a timely diagnosis and treatment to prevent poor outcomes compared to someone who came into the office with the same symptoms who was 'overweight', who may have their symptoms attributed to their weight and be told to lose a certain amount of weight and then come back for follow up, never actually getting to the true diagnosis. Plus, if you are 'overweight' and this is all you ever hear from your doctor, you may be less likely to go for routine check ups, and not have potential issues noticed and taken care of before they become an illness.

We will get into this a little deeper in the coming days.

But for now, what I would really love to discuss is this:

Health is way more than just your weight: It is your overall social health, mental health, sexual health, emotional health, financial health, spiritual health, and physical health.

You can choose to lose weight to change your body - that's totally fine - but don't confuse it with improving your health. Wanting to look thinner, more muscular, leaner, whatever you choose, is a fine goal. I think it is fascinating the way body builders can manipulate their bodies and physiology to make their muscles pop. The exercise physiologist in me super intrigued by the incredible ability of the human body to perform like that. It's a really impressive sport. And so many other elite athletics may call for special coaching from an exercise physiologist for performance optimization to reach a specific goal.

But I digress...

The problem is that if we say we want to be skinnier so we can be more acceptable to society, more beautiful, more youthful, whatever the reason, it feels weird and maybe egotistical? So we pretend it is about health. Or maybe we believe it is about health. And then we start seeing it spread across our social media, all through our gyms and studios - all sorts of messaging telling us that skinny/lean/etc is healthy, and whatever behaviours you need to exhibit to get there are healthy as well.

But what exactly does it mean to be 10 lbs healthier? What impact does it have on your actual health?

This has a very different answer for everyone. For some, maybe there's a health benefit if its achieved through healthy behaviour changes. For some, it may actually be detrimental to your overall health, especially if it's achieved through unhealthy behaviours.

So, think about what it means for you and make your goals and intentions crystal clear.

If you are in the health and fitness industry, please don't use health as a motivator if you have no intention of helping someone actually develop the behaviours to live a healthier lifestyle.

Let's tackle that next.

When you consider your ideal, healthy, happy lifestyle, how does it look?

Is it:

  • Obsessively counting calories?

  • Tracking every movement you make and everything you put in your mouth?

  • Stressing over every pound?

  • Running harder because you ate dessert?

  • Skipping the party because your dress feels too tight?

  • Avoiding dinners with friends because the food may not fit your macros?

If that sounds like the life you want to live, that is totally cool. I'm not judging. And maybe its only temporary because you have a cool athletic goal. It's temporary to reach the goal, and after that, you know your behaviours and your body will change back.

But if your ideal, healthy, happy lifestyle looks more like:

  • choosing more fruits and vegetables

  • going for walks and taking your kids to the park

  • consistently working towards and achieving progressive goals

  • enjoying a drink and dessert to celebrate your friend's big success

  • having a space to mediate or journal when you need it

  • going for a run to clear your mind

  • going for a hike to enjoy nature

  • working out with friends as a social outing

just take a moment to consider how you will get there if you are training like scenario number 1.

Remember, if your goal is to lose weight, that's cool. Do what you have to do.

If your goal is to create a sustainably healthy, happy, and active lifestyle, the process needs to build the habits that will eventually end up being your lifestyle.

I strongly believe that if you are working with a coach or a trainer with the goal of improving your lifestyle, it should be a co-created plan where they give you guidance based on their expertise of the science and physiology of health and exercise and you contribute the expertise of your lived experience of your life so that you can together build a plan that develops the daily habits for you to create your ideal lifestyle. Of course, for this to work, both parties need to be open and adaptable.

Just remember, health is a journey, not a destination. Each step of the journey, you are building the life and becoming the person you want.

Your journey won't lead you to your dream. It will become your dream. Enjoy the journey.

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