Separating Thinness From Health and Fitness

You may have seen a few images of the various body shapes and sizes of Olympic Athletes floating around the internet lately (some showing more skin than others). These are the strongest, fastest, most accomplished athletes on the planet. But as you’ll notice, they look very different from each other. Not only are they different heights and weights, the build of a weightlifter is not the build of a basketball player, or a gymnast. This is the most striking example of why we must separate our ideas—our paradigm, if you will—of what health and fitness look like. Healthy people come in all shapes and sizes, and thinness does not necessarily indicate health.

There is tremendous value in separating our idea of what “looks good,” from health. Not everyone can look like Twiggy (for you young-uns, she was a model in the 60’s, famous for being super thin), but everyone can perform behaviors that improve their health. Losing weight is not a behavior, but rather an outcome among many that can occur as a result of changing to a healthier lifestyle. Weight loss is often misunderstood as the first step in improving health. The misconception lies in the belief that weight loss is what leads to the improvements in blood pressure, glucose level, and cholesterol, for example. The reality is that those levels improve as a direct result of increased activity and better food choices, and the weight loss can be just a side effect.

Harriet Brown, an associate professor of magazine journalism, with a focus on health and science journalism at Syracuse University, has written a book: “Body of Truth: How Science, History and Culture Drive our Obsession with Weight—and What We Can Do About It.” She highlights the Health at Every Size (HAES) movement as a tool to redirect the conversation so that it focuses on health instead of weight.

So, when you’re thinking about trying to lose weight, consider these guidelines for overall health:

  • Goal setting should focus on behavioral changes that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound, such as adding an additional high intensity workout to the week.
  • Long term goals should focus on health, and not weight.
  • Interventions should have a holistic focus and consider the physical, emotional, social, occupational, intellectual, spiritual and ecological aspects of health.
  • Any program you choose should focus on promoting self-esteem, self efficacy, body satisfaction, and body size diversity.
  • Focus on modifying behaviors to improve health, without focus on the the weight.
  • Understanding that weight loss is not a behavior, it’s a result of modifying your behavior.

Equating thinness with health is a risky proposition for certain segments of the population. Brown describes in her book that the toxic culture surrounding thinness, dieting, and physical appearance can lead to destructive obsessive behaviors, including life-threatening eating disorders. So, let’s look at what you can change to improve your choices, rather than simply focusing on being “thin.” Once you’ve done that, the rest will fall into place.

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Written by Melissa Abramovich, ACE CPT, NASM CGT, AAHFRP Medical Exercise Specialist at Elite Sports Club-River Glen

Melissa Abramovich went into Personal Training and Group Exercise instruction after successfully losing 140 pounds through healthy diet and exercise. Her desire to help others drove her forward into a career helping others to make healthier choices. She is an ACE certified personal trainer and now also a Medical Exercise Specialist (AAHFRP), helping clients with a myriad of health issues at Elite Sports Clubs. She holds a Bachelor’s degree, and many group exercise related certifications as well.

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