Why we should focus on health and happiness instead of weight loss
For several months earlier this year after watching the documentary Embrace, I was struggling a little to figure out where I fitted into the whole self-love/body confidence conversation as a personal trainer.
Let’s face it, the fitness industry has a tendency to focus on looks above health. Even if it’s not said verbally or in writing, the fitness ‘faces’ of social media, gym marketing and the way ‘fit’ people are portrayed in the media mostly involve pictures of women(and men) with ripped abs, toned muscles and hyper-bendy bodies. Kudos to them; they’ve worked hard for it.
However, this drives a focus on outward appearance rather than what’s going on inside and is often unrealistic for your average person to achieve. We’re often made to feel a little shamed if you don’t want to push yourself beyond your limits (often at the risk of injury, whether we experience it now or later as a result of repeated actions over time). Even worse, rest, recovery and lapses in health/fitness routines are a sign of weakness; it’s all or nothing. We literally have no idea what balanced health and fitness actually looks like any more – let alone how we could ever hope to achieve it! Our intuition has gone and has been replaced with meal plans, fasting and deprivation diets, calorie counters, short-term focused weight loss challenges and bootcamp intensives. These sometimes be a good starting point, or practices may be useful when used in moderation, but looking at the big picture they often will fail us – both physically and psychologically – in the long term.
When being ‘healthy’ becomes easier
As a woman who has had issues being comfortable in my own skin in the past, Embrace was an eye-opener that made me question the messages I’ve been giving clients and readers throughout my career in the fitness industry due to what I had been taught in PT school and had drilled into me over years working in a gym environment. I no longer wanted to deliver 6-Week shape up/weight loss/nutrition overhauls in the way I used to. After almost 10 years of experience as a trainer, I’ve seen that these only reinforce detrimental yo-yo dieting and on/off fitness habits. This tends to work kind of okay when you’re in your 20’s but beyond that it starts to get tiring to keep up with and more difficult to ‘fix’…
Don’t get me wrong – I know full well that too much body fat isn’t so great for your health and our outward appearance can be a reminder of this. I’ve been a key example after all. As a woman with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), my symptoms remain under control if I’m at a healthy body weight – I really struggle to feel confident and positive when my weight increases and the symptoms return. I’ve been up and down with my weight in the past, tried different diets, done back-to-back hours’ worth of exercise. But it’s only been in recent years after taking on a more holistic approach to my lifestyle that I finally feel things have been easier and more balanced with my own health and fitness. And this is what we all need to practice if we want to avoid health/fitness burnout.
The problem with focusing on weight loss for better health
Since I was 16 and had my PCOS diagnosis, I was told I had to lose weight and keep it under control. This advice from doctors (which was compounded by the message sent by the fitness industry, personal trainers I have paid as a client, the gym environment I have worked in and my own journey to be a personal trainer) means I’ve essentially spent around 15 years of my life focusing on my weight more than my health. Then you add media into the equation – what we ‘should’ look like, the size we ‘should’ be to be ‘normal’, the weight range we ‘should’ be in and I’m pretty sure all this messed me up quite profoundly when it came to the psychology of what ‘healthy’ actually is.
I used to be a gym bunny training for hours on end doing cardio and weights, following the advice of personal trainers and online exercise forums. I lost plenty of weight and looked great, but I was in the gym ALL THE TIME, had little life outside of it and was bloody burned out the majority of the time if I’m really being honest with myself. I was so obsessed with my calorie intake I had to log every mouthful in an app on my phone and I’d beat myself up if I had ice cream or a piece of cake. Sure, I looked healthy on the outside, but do those habits sound like I was leading a healthy, balanced life? As I get older I’ve known more PTs, gym bunnies and fitness fanatics hitting burnout mode and looking for something else.
Since I hit my 30’s, the invincibility of my 20’s has lessened. I’ve had a number of injuries, I’ve had limited mobility due to surgery recovery. I’ve been stuck on bed rest for multiple months thanks to a pregnancy complication. Having babies sealed the deal that I no longer cared about getting to my perfect BMI weight. I’ve found a more balanced approach to my exercise and eating habits – and yes, I still eat gluten, sugar and carbohydrates, and don’t miss meals – that is more moderate but more manageable so that I can maintain it consistently. Regardless of whether I’m at home, on holiday, sick or otherwise.
Having babies has meant my body has been through so many internal and external changes I had a choice to either accept my stretchmarks and softer appearance or stress over it all. I didn’t want to make myself separate meals from my family and I didn’t have the time or energy to put into those long hours of exercise I used to (or the energy to put into short intense exercise).
Finding balance in life – a sense of moderation – and being consistent with it has helped improve my health and happiness far more than focusing on weight loss ever did, but you know what? It still led me to a healthy weight. I just achieved it in a much easier and sustainable way.
Turning it around: Focusing on better health for weight loss
When we focus on health practices; eating a variety of foods that are nutritious, increasing positive thoughts, drinking plenty of water, sleeping more… they are all things that help our body to find its place of equilibrium which includes a ‘normal’ weight given enough time.
The sad thing is that modern society has conditioned us to believe weight loss and appearance is the most important thing above all else. I’m seeing this to be most prevalent in clients who are women and am now starting to hear from parents that this language is coming from their primary school-aged children who are so concerned about getting ‘fat’ that they are restricting their eating habits.
Something has to change in the way we are thinking about things, and I believe the more we do to remove the emphasis on weight loss from the fitness and health industry the better. We become so desperate to look for the answers to lose weight that we’ve lost the intuition behind our own health and wellness. Then we need to be told what foods to eat, how to do our cooking, how to move our bodies, how to be happy; this is all well and good for ideas, but the problem is that we’re all unique individuals and our personal answer is going to be just as unique.
As a fitness professional I used to run weight-loss focused challenges and bootcamps, but over the past year I’ve been shifting away from this emphasis. I don’t want my clients to be pushing themselves for that weight loss goal for 6 weeks, building a raft of fitness and eating habits that won’t last in the long term only to return to their normal life and lose it all again.
Instead I’m now working on plans to help my clients with a more holistic approach. I may not get the fast weight loss results the rest of the fitness industry seems to be gunning for, however, I’m feeling much more socially responsible that I’m teaching them habits to help get sustainable results in the long term.
Doing more harm than good?
The latest thing in fitness right now is HIIT, high intensity, crossfit-style exercise which can sure get some amazing results in a short time and are being pitched as the best type of exercise for weight loss, however, the types of exercises that are being incorporated into these training sessions are also driving injury rates up.
Repetitive high impact movements may be fun in your 20’s, but what happens when those hundreds and hundreds of squat jumps over time wear away at your joints and you’re left with little to work with in your 30’s? We’re now even seeing yoga injuries from seasoned yogis because of people trying to bend themselves in ways your body isn’t designed to; after hours of sitting during the day getting our joints to open into sweeping backbends and scorpion handstands wears away at the ligaments and other structures around the pelvis and spine. Scary stuff. Do you still want to be able to squat, lunge and bend in your 40’s? Your 50’s? Later?
Some of us find these activities fun and motivational – I love to have a great workout – but we shouldn’t be doing it for the sake of losing weight and we do need to bear in mind the risks we are taking by participating in these kinds of activities.
There are so many ways to get our body moving it’s just not necessary to jeopardise our mobility later in life. We need to ditch the ego and find a different purpose behind the way we are moving. To me this is very much a part of showing ourselves self-love and kindness.
Finding our own health intuition
Let’s bring back the focus on intuitive eating, exercise and wellness. Finding actual happiness – not just through more money, more material possessions, more work. When you’ve lost touch of your intuition it’s usually not just a matter of snapping your fingers to sort it, you need to actively practice getting it back. The mental/psychological side of things is so often overlooked in the health equation these days as you can’t physically see the thoughts in your brain.
What activities do you love doing? When you eat fresh fruits and vegetables how does that make your body feel compared to eating junk food? Do you notice when you are actually feeling signs of hunger before eating or fullness after eating? What helps restore your sense of balance? What do you enjoy cooking at home? What makes you laugh and feel happy? What are you grateful for?
Get exercising with other people and make it a social occasion. Look for opportunities to get outside and feel the grass/sand/leaves between your toes. If you’re hating the gym, you don’t have to go! Find another activity that you actually enjoy and commit yourself to doing it. Involve your family in your workouts if you have little ones, there’s so much they can learn. If you’re exercising and a joint or muscle is sending out alarm bells, don’t just push through it; honour your body’s alarm system and respect that it’s telling you that activity may injure you in the long term.
When these things happen, our bodies have a tendency to find their own state of homeostasis and weight loss and management just happens as part of the process. In the end it gives the same result; but the journey along the way is a helluva lot more positive.
Image / NZ Real Health