The explosion of
the fitness industry has led to a new generation of gymgoers, all
looking to stay fit and healthy. Unfortunately, it's also led to a
lot of issues, many of which I aim to tackle in this blog. But here's
one that sticks out above all the rest: everyone wants to be skinny.
Fat discrimination is a massive aspect of our culture, and one that
is more detrimental than anything else.
We live in a culture that's all about appearances, and furthermore, this is historically unique. In the past, lack of infrastructure and technology made it difficult for ideas to be expressed widely over a great area. The growth of social media has changed this, and as a result entertainment industries (which disproportionately favor this media) have moved into the forefront as a dominant force in the lives of most citizens of developed nations. Television and movies propagate images of unrealistically skinny, attractive men and women, causing all sorts of body image issues for those who don't fit into the norm, including pretty much everyone. We are told who and what to like, how to dress, and how to act. The club has gotten more and more unrealistic over time, as models get skinnier and skinnier, and movie stars get more and more attractive. We've come to a point in which a small fraction of the people in the world represent the vast majority of the world in terms of body image.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Body types of all shapes and sizes are acceptable, and I will be the first to admit that I have no problem with anyone having a little bit of extra weight on their body. This isn't the way many men feel; we're supposed to be bred to call all women fat bitches if they don't fit into our standards, and many people in the public eye suffer from hurtful criticism of their perceived or imagined fatness. We're a culture that places a massive emphasis on the sexual attractiveness, healthiness, and general all-around implication that skinnier people are better people, in every way, shape and form. But they aren't.
The majority of people who come in for personal training want to lose weight. Very rarely, you get an athlete or exercise buff looking to improve on their existing workouts with a little bit of scientific help, but the vast majority want to lose weight. They perceive it as healthy and desirable, even if they aren't that overweight in the first place. Here's the thing: they don't have to lose weight.
I've written several papers about this subject, and I could go on for a long time, but here's what it boils down to. There is a greater correlation between inactivity and health than there is between body fat and health. That is to say, overweight people who exercise regularly, even if they aren't losing weight, are just as healthy, if not more so than skinny people who don't exercise at all. The human body was made to move, was made to do work, and this is something that we've lost in a culture of desk jobs and entertainment services. Some people get lucky, have good genetics, are born into a good food situation, or simply have just the right amount of appetite control. Others get shafted, and no matter how hard they try, they can't seem to lose pounds. But you don't have to.
This isn't to say that there aren't people out there who could stand to lose some pounds. If you put a lot of excess weight on an unexercised body, this causes all sorts of musculoskeletal problems (particularly lower back pain) as you overextend your body more and more. You also put yourself at risk for a variety of metabolic disorders. But the point is that while many people are overweight, not everyone is overweight to the point of it actually affecting their quality of life. In fact, in some cases the extra weight makes you healthier.
Recent (and not-so-recent) studies have shown that being overweight (but not obese) is actually healthier than being what we normally consider a healthy weight. (http://www.cnn.com/2013/01/02/health/overweight-mortality/) BMI is a very faulty number, and there are a lot of things wrong with using it to gauge healthiness. As a ratio of height to weight it doesn't take into account things like body composition and can thus disadvantage those who have large amounts of muscle or other non-fat tissues when compared to the norm. A BMI of 20-25 is normally considered the healthy range, while 25-30 is considered overweight. But if the 25-30 range is actually healthier than the 20-25 range, shouldn't that be what we consider the baseline healthy weight?
Extra body fat is helpful in a lot of ways. It protects the body against cold, electricity, (in case you wanna get tazered or touch electrical wires, I guess), sudden falls, and provides extra energy stores in case of sudden periods of starvation or sickness. Everyone has to face injury or sickness at some point, because no one is immortal; doesn't it make sense that we should always plan to have some extra fat on, just in case?
Bodybuilding and athletics, however, generally focus on performance over healthiness, looking for results over personal well-being. These competitors look very healthy at first, but were one to get a serious illness without any extra bodyfat, they would probably just keel over. As a culture, we look to these people as indicative of 'healthy', when in reality they only propagate unhealthy body images. But there are also plenty of resources out there for people who know and understand that low body fat isn't everything.
Most lifting sports aside from bodybuilding place little emphasis on low body fat percentages, focusing more on strength than anything else. When having a little extra body weight helps toss weights around, it's always an advantage (though of course there's a lower correlation between body weight and strength than there is between neuromuscular adaptation and strength). Powerlifters sometimes fast a little to compete a bit under their typical weight, but strongmen have no such issues. Strongman websites like http://www.liftbigeatbig.com/ are a good example of responsible weight consciousness in fitness (though liftbigeatbig can sometimes veer a little in the opposite direction), particularly this article (http://www.liftbigeatbig.com/2012/05/body-image.html).
The plight of Sarah Robles before the recent Olympic Games (http://www.buzzfeed.com/jtes/the-strongest-woman-in-america-lives-in-poverty) is another example of our skewed and ineffective understanding of obesity and its relation to health. Despite being the strongest Olympic lifter (male or female) in the United States before the games, she was living wholly on the 400$ a month stipend she received as an Olympic athlete. Sarah has since gained and lost sponsorships, but is largely in the same place now as she was before the games. You can find her blog at http://prettystrongblog.blogspot.com/. She's a real amazing woman, and my heart always goes out to her.
As a culture we need to learn to understand when and where body fat is harmful, and when and where it can actually be a huge benefit. We need to learn to propagate responsible body images which don't marginalize those who may not fall easily into one category or another. Often when I tell people that they're on the cusp of being considered obese, they freak out. But it's really not as big of a problem as they often see it; with exercise and good dieting, you can be healthy as crap even if the tests say that you're obese. But as long as we live in this culture of appearances and illusions, we're going to value visible indicators of health moreso than any other, even when those indicators are the most faulty.
Go to the gym if you want to. Lose weight if you want to. But only if you want to. Don't let skinny people tell you how to feel about yourself. Don't get discouraged if you don't find yourself losing pounds. You can lose that weight, if you want to, I guess. But if not, then don't. As long as you're going to the gym regularly, you're better than half the people out there, skinny or not. It doesn't matter how much you weigh, there's nothing more attractive than someone lifting a heavy weight. Period.