Moving Your Body and Mind Forward

Years are arbitrary constructs of time. This is true. However, they’re also constructs that hold a lot of meaning for many people, and acknowledging that meaning is necessary and important. Many of the things we give weight to are quite arbitrary; though our reasons have their own internal, personal logic, they don’t always have the universal, ironclad “rightness” that we assume they do. This is a very long way around of saying that I’m not the sort of person that makes New Year’s resolutions, or necessarily thinks about the start of a new year as a special delineation of time to mark life events or changes, but at the same time, the events of the past year have illuminated some truths that I want to reflect on and use to evolve the mission of 99% Fit.

Recently, my roommate had a friend over who is an ardent believer in astrology (something I don’t believe in, but I am interested in how other people find meaning in it). He said that 2016 was “the year of completion” – a time when cycles would come to an end and new ones would begin. Whether you believe that the alignment of the planets has any effect on global politics, sociological issues, or even the mundanity of our day to day lives, you can’t deny that that idea provides an interesting perspective on the events of the past year while also laying out a framework for how we should all think about moving forward.

Many standard bearers for powerful art left the world this year, while global politics gave way to fear-driven, anti-intellectual, and nationalist trends. It’s become abundantly clear that it’s time for a new generation of leaders across industries and disciplines to step into the light and take up the mantle for progress and positive change.

What does all of this mean for fitness? Well, we’ve spoken extensively on 99% Fit over the last year about how an active life not only makes your body healthier, but also makes you more emotionally resilient and even more innovative. To fight the tidal wave of hateful nationalism and create the types of solutions that will bring equality, peace, and beauty to the world, we need to ensure that our minds and bodies are in the best shape possible. We can’t afford to let ourselves succumb to the types of habits that will only compound the external stressors we’re all sure to face. And for the joyful moments and periods of success, we want to be as emotionally and physically present as possible to take them in and fully experience them.

This year, I encourage all of you to take the time and effort to care for your physical and mental health, in whatever ways make the most sense for you and your journey. If you’re not sure how best to do that, or even if you are and you’re looking for new ideas, peruse previous blog posts here and the 2015 99% stories here.

May all the coming chapters of your life – no matter how you measure them – be filled with light, strength, and wellness. 

PokemonGo and "Gaming" Exercise

National and international news over the last few months has been less than uplifting – in fact, it’s been downright bleak. It’s enough to make you feel like maybe humans just can’t get along.

But then last week, a little game came along that’s not only reaffirmed my faith in humanity, it’s even gotten people moving around more! That’s right – I’m talking about PokemonGo. Now, you may be scoffing at my hyperbolic endorsement a bit, but bear with me as I break down PokemonGo’s genuinely remarkable ability to pair physical activity with online gaming. The partnership is so intuitive and seamless, people barely even realize they’re exercising.

For those unfamiliar, I’ll quickly break down PokemonGo’s exercise integration: one of the key components of the game is collecting animals, or “Pokemon.” In order to collect them, you have to walk around and find them. When they appear on your screen, you can press on them, and then try to collect them. Walking truly is the cornerstone of the game – you have to walk to find Pokemon, you have to walk to make the eggs of Pokemon hatch, you have to walk to get more “supplies” to collect/hunt for Pokemon, etc. (For more details, check out Kotaku’s How To Play Pokemon post)

What’s especially striking is that walking is incidental to the experience of playing PokemonGo. Instead of walking being the “object” or purpose of the game, with Pokemon cast as an incentive, the game is centered around the accumulation and evolution of the animals, with walking cast as one component of participating. In a sense, it takes components of the Cue, Routine, Reward system, but remixes them so that the reward ends up negating the need for a cue. For reference, here’s how the Cue, Routine Reward system is described by the blog 99u:

First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop… becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.

Want to exercise more? Choose a cue, such as going to the gym as soon as you wake up, and a reward, such as a smoothie after each workout. Then think about that smoothie, or about the endorphin rush you’ll feel. Allow yourself to anticipate the reward. Eventually that craving will make it easier to push throughout the gym doors every day.

It could be posited that the delight that comes through the augmented reality experience of catching Pokemon and pitting them against your competitors produces such a rush of endorphins that the means of getting there – walking – doesn’t require consciously creating a cue to remind yourself of the positive feelings you’ll get while playing the game. PokemonGo has designed game mechanics that create such a strong craving in users, the cues become unconsciously automatic. Pretty cool to think about!

It remains to be seen whether this behavior will hold in the long term, but for the short now, it’s fun as well as heartening to see more people using technology and gaming to get up, move around, and connect with one another. It’s a much needed cultural burst of sunshine among the dark clouds of civil unrest and violence that have been hanging around so far this year. So if you’ve been on the fence about downloading it onto your phone, or even if you’ve been an outright naysayer or skeptic – give it a chance and indulge in some fun, ACTIVE escapism. 

 A wild Pikachu I encountered on W. 53rd between 5th and 6th Avenues. I think maybe he was on his way to do some shopping, but he ended up coming with me!

A wild Pikachu I encountered on W. 53rd between 5th and 6th Avenues. I think maybe he was on his way to do some shopping, but he ended up coming with me!

Embracing the Discomfort

Already at 99% Fit, we’ve covered the many psychological benefits of physical activity. Today, we’re delving into a specific mental payoff that is increasingly getting traction: resiliency. It turns out that regular, vigorous exercise has the power to make us more comfortable with the things in life that routinely make us uncomfortable.

In a recent piece in New York Magazine’s The Science of Us, Bradley Stulberg examines the mounting evidence that “those who habitually push their bodies tend to confront daily stressors with a stoic demeanor.” For instance, a study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that college students who adopted an exercise program – even a fairly basic one – not only developed more healthful habits, they showed better self-control and emotional regulation.

As Bradley says at the beginning of the piece, “When I first started training for marathons a little over ten years ago, my coach told me something I’ve never forgotten: that I would need to learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I didn’t know it at the time, but that skill, cultivated through running, would help me as much, if not more, off the road as it would on it.” This is something I’ve experienced in my own life, particularly as I’ve trained for more long distance races. Pushing my body to its physical limits *does* feel uncomfortable – but it’s a discomfort that, with time and persistence, I’ve learned to recognize and accept. Instead of dreading the feeling, I almost look forward to it and welcome it. It’s a sign that my body is getting stronger and faster. And, it’s improved my mental focus, acuity, and determination.  I can more easily reframe situations and obstacles that might have once seemed impossibly daunting, and I don’t procrastinate (as much) with tasks that are boring, tedious, or otherwise un-fun.

Discomfort is an inevitable part of any physical activity, especially if you’re new to exercise. Your body balk at the unfamiliarity of the movements, the rise in body temperature, the rise in heart rate. But as Free-soloist Alex Honnold explains in the Science of Us piece, “The only way to deal with [pain] is practice. [I] get used to it during training so that when it happens on big climbs, it feels normal.”

So don’t be afraid to lean into the discomfort. Certainly listen to your body and don’t hurt yourself – but also remember that doing anything new is going to be unpleasant at first. But with time, that disagreeable feeling will become more familiar, and conquerable – making difficulties in every arena of your life, bit by bit, easier to manage. 

Growing Out of a Size 0 Mindset

The broader culture is starting to reflect what science has been pointing to for years: people with model-esque bodies have basically won the genetic lottery. Sure, it’s possible with regular activity and a healthy diet to lose *some* weight, and, more importantly, improve your overall health and wellness, but chasing a size zero frame is often an unattainable goal that will lead down a path of disappointment and further fracture broken relationships with health and fitness.

Additionally, many who have won that genetic lottery are speaking out about the dangerous implications of championing an impossible beauty ideal. In her 2013 TED talk, Cameron Russell, a former Victoria’s Secret model and progressive activist, spoke to the reality of how the shape of our bodies is simultaneously important but difficult to completely control: “Image is powerful… but image is superficial. Barring surgery, there’s not a lot we can do to change the way we look, but how we look, though it’s immutable and superficial, has a huge impact on our lives.”

More recently, another former Victoria’s Secret model, Erin Heatherton, spoke about the pressure to maintain this body ideal. Because even when genetics work in your favor, the bar to meet is so high that it can still require you to engage in unhealthy behaviors: “My last two Victoria’s Secret shows, I was told I had to lose weight…I look back like, ‘Really?' I was really depressed because I was working so hard and I felt like my body was resisting me. And I got to a point where one night I got home from a workout and I remember staring at my food and thinking maybe I should just not eat.”

In the end, she decided she couldn’t continue to be a participant in holding up this impossible image of bodily perfection: “I realized I couldn’t go out into the world—parading my body and myself in front of all these women who look up to me—and tell them that this is easy and simple and everyone can do this.”

Marketers in the fashion industry are slowly starting to follow suit, showcasing models of all body types: plus size model Ashley Graham graced the cover of the 2016 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and Aerie by American Eagle has committed to featuring more diverse models AND refraining from retouching their photos. On the broader cultural front, there’s even a documentary on body diversity in fashion slated to debut in 2017.

While there’s still a lot of progress that needs to be made, it’s heartening to see this ideal being dismantled, if slowly. Embracing many different definitions of beauty will be an important component of helping people rebuild their relationships with health and fitness culture – once you’re no longer worried about losing weight to look perfect, you can start to finally enjoy the host of other beneficial effects of a healthy, active life. 

Keep Your Eyes on Your Own Plate

One of the chief aims of 99% Fit is to perpetuate the idea that people can be healthy at any size. This is central to helping people rebuild their relationships with fitness. If you believe that health and body type are not always intrinsically tied together, you can cultivate a fitness practice that’s about much more than losing weight – one that’s about personal wellness, self-care, and self-expression.

I’ve written previously about fat shaming and the damage it does to people’s sense of self, as well as how it makes it harder for people to break out of unhealthy behaviors. Today’s post is somewhat related to this, and talks about a subject many, many women have encountered: food shaming.

A wonderful piece from a 2014 issue of Women’s Health tackles this topic. The author begins with an anecdote that sounds all too familiar:

“I'll never forget the time that a co-worker at a former job invited me to go to our office cafeteria with her one afternoon to get an ice cream sandwich…Since the express purpose of our little outing was to get dessert, I ordered my ice cream sandwich right away. But as the other women saw the giant scoops of vanilla ice cream being heaped onto my sandwich, something shifted. Suddenly, they couldn't stop talking about how ‘massive’ it was. And while I offered to split my sandwich with one or both of them, some intangible jury had already ruled that the ice cream sandwiches were now gross. So after all of that, I was the only one who went back to the office with an ice cream sandwich. And rather than bonding with my co-workers, I now felt more isolated from them.”

Reading this, I was instantly reminded of the number of times in my life people have made unsolicited comments about my food choices: “Wow, a bag of gummy bears? You’re so lucky you’re so skinny and can eat whatever you want!” OR “Oh, look at you being so healthy, getting a salad!”

Later on in the piece, Dr. Michelle May, author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat drops some insight about this pervasive, but unhelpful behavior: "It's normal in our culture to obsess about food this way and to judge our choices and to label foods as 'good' or 'bad.’ Here's the problem: When we judge food as being 'good' or 'bad,' we also judge ourselves and other people as 'good' or 'bad,' depending on what we ate."

Over at Mind Body Green, health coach Alison Dryja describes her own process to discovering how unproductive food shaming is: “I found myself constantly telling people how to eat healthier, and caught myself rolling my eyes when I saw people eating what I considered junk food…But the more people I worked with, and the more I got to know my own body, the more I realized how individual our relationship with food really is. What we eat is intimately personal. It’s not up to me — or anyone else — to determine what someone should or shouldn’t eat.”

There’s no doubt that our society has a fairly disordered relationship with food, and certainly the food industry doesn’t help – our food is chock full of trans fats, sodium, and sugar, a lethal but addictive combination of unhealthy additives. Most of us could probably benefit from making better choices in one way or another, but as Alison says above, relationships with food our OUR business, and not anyone else’s. Let’s all try to be more mindful and kind to one another, and remember that everyone’s health and wellness journey happens at their own time, at their own pace. 

13 Songs for 13.1 Miles

Today, in honor of 99% Fit’s return from a short blogging hiatus (there have been a lot of exciting personal and professional developments over the last month), I’m breaking form a little bit and bringing you a fun, music filled post. For 99% of us (see what I did there?) music is an important partner to physical activity. The right tunes can be revitalizing and energizing, and give us the extra oomph needed to get a good workout in. I’m running the Brooklyn Half Marathon on Saturday – what follows are 13 songs from my playlist, one for each mile. Whether or not you plan to run an actual half marathon, you might be grappling with something that *feels* like running a half marathon, so one or more of these songs might help get you in the right state of mind to rise and meet whatever physical or mental challenges you're facing. Enjoy!

Mile 1: Breathe, Stretch, Shake – Ma$e ft P. Diddy

Races bring with them nervousness and anxiousness right before the starting gun fires – what many runners refer to as “pre-race jitters.” A little excitement is good and actually helps fuel you through the run; too much though, and you might start out too fast, which can create problems for you towards the end of the race. The mantra that powers the hook of this song helps keep me calm and relaxed so I can maintain a conservative pace right at the start of a nearly two hour run.

 

Mile 2: Hypnotize – The Notorious B.I.G.

A Brooklyn Half Marathon playlist wouldn’t be complete without representation from one of Brooklyn’s most iconic residents. “Hypnotize” is one of Biggie’s best known jams, and its laid back, mid-tempo beat helps maintain a good starting pace during this early part of the run.

 

Mile 3: King Kunta – Kendrick Lamar

The funk influenced beat of this jam continues the hip hop-dominate first half of the playlist. Kendrick’s unparalleled lyricism with allusions to the rap scene’s hierarchy and the novels of Chinua Achebe gives me something to listen to and think about in addition to just moving my legs.

 

Mile 4: Diamonds from Sierra Leon (Remix) – Kanye West and Jay-Z

The Brooklyn Half’s major hill makes its appearance at Mile 4, so it’s time to start bringing out the big guns, musically speaking. Kanye West’s diatribe about corruption in the diamond trade will propel you up the hill, while Jay-Z’s verse about business acumen in the face of adversity will help you to the summit: “The pressure's on, but guess who ain't gonna crack? Haha, pardon me, I had to laugh at that. How could you falter when you're the Rock of Gibraltar? I had to get off the boat so I could walk on water. This ain't no tall order, this is nothin' to me. Difficult takes a day, impossible takes a week. I do this in my sleep. I sold kilos of coke, I'm guessin' I can sell CDs. I'm not a businessman, I'm a business, man! Let me handle my business, damn.”

 

Mile 5: I Feel Better – Hot Chip

Time to enjoy the downhill with some uptempo synth-pop courtesy of the British group Hot Chip, since you will in fact feel better as gravity takes a little bit of the pressure of your legs.

 

Mile 6: Love Generation – Bob Sinclair

Confession: Bob Sinclair is a staple of my running playlist. I would absolutely never go to one of his shows live for fear of encountering a crowd full of rejected Jersey Shore cast members, but his House mixed with Dance Hall EDM style is perfect for cardio. And, “Love Generation” is a sweet little jam that will make you happy and feel more peaceful and kind to your fellow man; a good attitude to cultivate as you’re trying to make your way through a crowded field of runners.

 

Mile 7: Too Many Men – Wiley

This song is great for two reasons 1) it’s pulsating Grime beat helps the transition from Prospect Park to the endless stretch of Ocean Avenue that makes up the second half of the race 2) it’s an accidental feminist jam: “We need some more girls in here; there’s too many men, too many many men.”

 

Mile 8: Running Behind – HOLYCHILD

“Running Behind” was tailor-made for a running playlist. I mean, the song has “running” in the title. The claps and drumline-inspired beat make it particularly perfect for Mile 8, a tough mile that needs a little injection of fun.

 

Mile 9: Til I Collapse – Eminem

Miles 8 and 9 are always the toughest in a half marathon – you’re over half way done, but you still have a ways to go, and your second energy goo hasn’t quite kicked in, so you might be feeling a little sluggish. Eminem’s spoken word intro is a great reminder to “not give up, and not be a quitter, no matter how badly you just want to collapse and fall on your face.”

 

Mile 10: Flux – Bloc Party

So close, and yet… so far. If you’ve stuck to your race strategy, you should be getting your second wind right about now and feel good enough to start powering up for the last three (point one) miles. “Flux” has a great guitar riff and synth beat that compel you to run fast.

 

Mile 11: Demons – Sleigh Bells

“Demons” is another song that makes stillness impossible. Lead singer Alexis Krauss is basically a combination of Ozzy Osbourne and a high school cheerleader, and her insistence that “you had a vision; you’re on a mission” helps get you hype for that finish line.

 

Mile 12: Focus – Ariana Grande

“Focus” is a sassy and fun self-empowerment song from Mariah Carey’s funnier, more self-aware mini-me. And, focus is a good end of race mantra; you have to keep your mind in the right place to finish strong.

 

Mile 13: A Million Voices – Otto Knows

The last tenth of a mile can feel longer than the rest of the race, so good thing this song is basically sucrose in sonic form. It’s all electronic beats and wordless android vocals, and exactly what’s needed to sprint across the finish line.

 

BONUS SONG:

I said this post would have 13 songs and I lied! It has 14! This song will always have a special place in my heart. While running the New York City marathon, I passed a bar in Williamsburg that was blasting this song. Since I had my name on my singlet, spectators could cheer me on if they so wished, and one particular bar patron shouted at me “WHITNEY! THEY’RE PLAYING YOUR SONG!” Even if your name is not Whitney, “I Want to Dance with Somebody” is a pretty great celebratory song.

Mindfulness and Exercise

"Mindfulness” has been a dominant health and wellness trend over the last couple of years – the word gets thrown around in conversations about everything from eating to shopping. But what does mindfulness really mean, and how does it relate to physical activity?

Psychology Today defines mindfulness as  “a state of active, open attention on the present. When you're mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.”

So, why is it important to have “active, open attention” and to be able to “observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance”? As it turns out, this ability leads to a whole host of other mental health benefits:

•    Fewer depressive symptoms
•    Reduction in stress
•    Better working memory
•    Better focus
•    Less emotional reactivity
•    More cognitive flexibility
•    Greater relationship satisfaction
•    Better fear modulation
•    Greater self-insight

One of the best-known ways to become more mindful is to adopt the practice of mindfulness meditation, which encourages you to concentrate on your breath, body and surroundings for a designated period of time, usually while sitting comfortably with your eyes closed. At 99% Fit we were also excited to learn that there are a few ways you can integrate mindfulness into some common physical activities.  For Dummies has some great, simple ideas for how to make running, swimming, and cycling opportunities not just for improving physical fitness, but mental fitness as well:

•    Running: leave the music at home (a tough one for me, I’ll admit!) and run outside so your senses have more to take in. Pay attention to your breathing, how your body feels, and your surroundings – the temperature, the pavement, the wind on your face. Observe any thoughts that arise calmly and without judgment
•    Swimming: as with running, pay attention to your breathing, your heart rate, your body, etc. Also, observe the sensation of your body moving through the water, and how it feels
    Cycling: Take note of how your body feels on the bike, especially points of contact like your hands and feet. When you start cycling, pay attention to the movement of your legs and the wind against your face. Try not to think too much about where you’re going; think about where you are in the moment. 

Anything that helps exercise enhance mental wellness in addition to physical fitness is obviously positive – but not just for the here and now. These benefits help us in the near term, but are also the building blocks for a long, fruitful, and healthy life. 

Your Brain on Fitness

For most of the fitness industry’s existence, the physical benefits of exercise have been touted. While those remain important, a growing body of research has catalyzed an exciting conversation about the mental benefits of exercise. The last few years have shown us that regular physical activity can make our bodies AND our brains much healthier and happier. Consider the following thorough (but incomplete) list of cool things exercise can do for your body’s super computer:

 

·      Regular exercise has been show to increase concentrations of norepinephrine in the brain –- a really important neurotransmitter that helps the brain cope with stress. So more exercise = less stress 

·      Physical activity has also been shown to help alleviate the symptoms of clinical depression. Just moving your body around has the capacity to make you happier. 

·      Exercise can also help keep your brain in shape throughout old age – and prevent some of the cognitive decline we all assume happens when we get older. Studies have shown that people who exercise have less brain shrinkage and decay in white matter (two components key in brain function) in advanced age.

·      Since most of us are knowledge workers these days, this one’s especially important – if you’re facing writer’s block or are just generally creatively stumped, exercise can get those juices flowing again. Some research has shown that people who exercise can access an increased boost in creativity for up to two hours after completion of a workout 

·      Another important one for anyone stuck behind a desk for most of the day: physical activity can have amazing effects on your professional output. Research has shown that employees who walk at least 10,000 steps a day report boosts in energy, productivity, and job satisfaction (probably why all our FitBits and JawBones tell us to walk that many steps!) 

 

Physical activity has the power to improve virtually every aspect of our lives. The important thing to keep in mind is that exercise should be used in service of our goals – it’s a tool to help us get where we want to go. Whatever our dreams or demands happen to be – battling the blues, finishing a memoir, tackling tough client demands – exercise can improve and hone our abilities to accomplish those things. Because exercise has the ability to better our minds, by extension is has the ability to help us hone our identities – our overall sense of who we are, and who we want to become.

 

Make the Gym Work for You

When most people decide to “get in shape,” they immediately join a gym. On a surface level, this makes sense. Gyms are plentiful, accessible, and filled with equipment and classes suited to a variety of personal interests and fitness goals. Additionally, many of them lure people in with competitive rates and special deals, particularly around times of the year when people are thinking about adopting healthier habits the most – New Year’s, “bikini season,” etc.

Here’s a key piece of information to think about, whether you’re evaluating your current gym membership, or thinking of getting one for the first time: many gyms are betting against you. To put it another way, the financial success of a gym is often dependent on your lack of success in maintaining a consistent gym-going habit. This is especially true for low-cost gym chains like Planet Fitness – the reason they’re able to get away with offering membership fees as low as $10 a month is because they sell far more memberships than they can possibly accommodate, lock people into long term, inflexible contracts, and design their spaces to dis-incentivize people from going regularly (check out this Planet Money episode from 2014 for more in-depth details – it’s truly eye-opening).

So what does this mean – should we all revolt and give up gym memberships altogether? Should we protest “Occupy Wall Street” style against “Big Fitness” and their attempts to take our money at the expense of our actual wellbeing and physical fitness? Not necessarily.

As we’ve stated frequently here at 99% Fit, when you decide to adopt a more active lifestyle, it’s important to reflect and ask yourself why you want to do it, and what you want to get out of it. This is a step in the journey that’s often glossed over or skipped altogether – as this post said at the beginning, our thought process at the outset of a fitness journey is often “I want to get in shape --> I should join a gym.”  One of the central purposes of 99% Fit is to help us all retrain our brains to say “I want to get in shape --> Wait...why do I want to get in shape?” Once we’ve answered that question, we can begin to determine what resources we need to help us achieve our individual goals. One resource might in fact be a gym! And that’s okay! But when we have a clear idea of what we want to achieve, we can mindfully seek out the type of gym (or other fitness center) that will serve us the best.

So next time you hear that voice in your head say “you’re out of shape,” ask yourself why you want to be in shape. When you have that answer, you’ll be prepared to invest your money wisely in the systems that will best support your goals – and the good news is, there are plenty of options out there! From ClassPass to Barre Method, to SoulCycle, to Yoga, there are disciplines and methods to suit every need and goal. The key is to first be clear about what makes sense for you – and no one else. 

Weight Ain't Nothin' But a Number

References to questionable R&B artists aside, weight truly is just that – a number. 

For a handful of decades, weight has been the marker we’ve used to determine how healthy an individual is. BMI, the measurement traditionally used to classify people as overweight, relies almost exclusively on a weight/height proportionality formula. If you weighed more than you should based on your height, you were classified as overweight, and therefore unhealthy.

The tide is slowly turning when it comes to this way of thinking. Recent research is even concretely demonstrating that you can’t determine someone’s health simply by his or her weight. A study published in The International Journey of Obesity states BMI isn’t an accurate barometer of heart health: the research team found that 30% of people in the normal BMI range were at above-average risk of heart disease. At the same time, 48% of "overweight" and 29% of "obese" people were happily heart-healthy. This has startling implications for the overweight population. "Using BMI categories as the main indicator of health, an estimated 74,936,678 US adults are misclassified as cardiometabolically unhealthy or cardiometabolically healthy," the team concluded in the study. 

A second study conducted by a research team at Georgia Tech and published in the journal Obesity undermines the relationship between so-called “healthy” BMIs and longevity. In this study, researchers looked at data on about 400,000 people in the U.S. who were ages 50 to 71 at the start of the study, in 1995. The researchers followed up with them through 2009, and about 112,000 people in the study had died by then. The findings showed that the “best” BMI for the people in the study in terms of their lifespan was 26, on average – a BMI that typically indicates someone as “overweight.”

The thing that’s particularly startling about BMI – and is something I was completely ignorant about until delving into this issue – is that it originated as a means to measure population trends in the 19th century. While it has the ability to compare relative weights across populations, it wasn’t originally intended to measure individuals’ health. The idea that we’re actively misusing an antiquated tool to make judgements about individuals’ health is very troubling. 

Dr. Howard Karloff, one of the authors of the Georgia Tech study, is calling for a new, modern model of assessing health, and acknowledges that a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t going to land people in the best place. He claims that we have the ability now to create “personalized BMIs” – optimal weight ranges that are different for different people and are formed based on a variety of different factors. 

All of this new information can help us to start to reframe our definitions of what true health actually looks like. Instead of obsessively comparing our bodies to a supposedly optimal standard of health, we can start to create personalized definitions of health. Definitions that are ultimately more sustainable, because they’re based on our own individual needs – and no one else’s. 

EDIT: This amazing post about a young girl who schooled her teacher on BMI was sent to me by a 99% Fit reader. Check it out!

 

Let's Talk about Fatphobia

Culture tells us that thin bodies are the most attractive bodies. It also tells us that the best way to get a thin body is to consume fewer calories than what our bodies use up – the old “eat less, move more" advice.

There’s an interesting subtext lurking behind the statements above. When we convey these messages, we’re also propagating the idea that bodies that aren’t thin belong to people who are morally deficient in some way. We assume that thinness in every case can be simply achieved through disciplined diet and exercise and that a lack of discipline is what’s responsible for extra weight. Ergo, people who are not thin are lazy, indolent, and lacking in self-control. 

The reality is that diet and exercise are two in an assortment of factors that contribute to body composition, which have different proportional effects from individual to individual. But, this is a complex idea that has yet to take hold. At present, overweight people are far too often subjected to abuse stemming from our culture’s obsession with thinness. A study in the February 2016 issue of the Journal of Health Psychology found that obese women experience up to three incidents a day of stigmatization based on their weight, not just from strangers, but also the people who are supposed to love and care about them the most. From a MinnPost article on the study:

“The most common experiences involved ‘physical barriers’ (84%), ‘nasty comments from others’ (74%), ‘being stared at’ (72%) and ‘others making negative assumptions’ (72%)…The most frequent sources of the nasty comments, by the way, were spouses, friends and family members.”

Our society seems to think it’s okay to level an overwhelming amount of abuse at overweight people, which is bizarre at best and sociopathic at worst. It seems as a group, we’ve come to believe that socially ostracizing these people is the key to making them change. 

This is not only a deeply un-generous behavior, it’s also ineffective. It should come as no surprise that this incessant shaming does not in fact encourage people to adopt healthier habits – on the contrary, if people who are overweight are already engaging in unhealthy behaviors, further stigmatization only makes these habits harder to break. People who have experienced fat-shaming have also been found to be more likely to binge eat and engage in other unhealthy behaviors. Again from the MinnPost:

“Healthful behaviors were less common among the women who reported higher numbers of stigmatizing events, a finding that is consistent with other evidence linking weight-related stigmatization to avoidance of exercise and to unhealthful eating habits. 

‘Healthful activities such as maintaining a diet and exercise regimen are already challenging for most individuals, but when the additional burden of weight stigmatization is added to daily life, these goals may become unattainable,’ write the authors.”

This sociological problem is at the heart of our obesity epidemic. Conquering it doesn’t start with callously spouting “eat less, move more” at people; it starts with cultivating a healthy sense of self-image so we can be kinder to ourselves, and most importantly, others – especially the people who are struggling the most. 

Health and Priorities

Each of us has a varied assortment of wants, needs, and desires. Sometimes these compliment each other; sometimes they conflict with one another. When they begin to conflict, it makes prioritizing them a very difficult task indeed.

Fitness culture by and large encourages people to make physical fitness, and sculpting the accompanying body type, a top priority. One of the core principles of 99% Fit is that physical fitness should certainly be a priority. Whether it has to be anyone’s first priority is another matter, and a complex issue to unpack. In an essay for Forbes called “Why Are Some People Healthier Than Others?” the healthcare expert John C. Goodman offers the following thought about some of the challenges people encounter when trying to develop healthier habits: “…people face different personal tradeoffs. The acquisition of health requires time, money and other resources. More good health usually means less of something else that people desire.”

A few things to consider

1)    Physical activity is important

2)    So is having a job

3)    And friends

4)    And family

5)    And hobbies, passions, interests, areas of expertise – the things that make you an interesting, well-rounded person

At various times in your life, anything on this list might have to take priority over something else. Maybe you’re working on a huge, career-changing project at work that requires late nights and early mornings. Or, maybe you have a friend who’s going through a breakup and needs to talk to you a lot to process her feelings and grief. In that case, maybe exercise becomes walking or biking to work, not hitting the gym for an hour five times a week. On the other hand, maybe you decide to check running a marathon off your bucket list. In that case, fitness becomes a huge priority – you dedicate many hours a week to training, and pour funds into shoes and gear. The other parts of your life might have to take a backseat during this time.

Here’s another way to think about it: imagine that your life is a song. All the different components of your day-to-day life represent different parts of the song, but the whole of it still leaves people with a particular impression, an overall feeling about who you fundamentally are. At certain times of your life, physical fitness might be like the drum section – in the background, not super prominent, but setting a consistent rhythm that keeps everything else in sync. Or, it might be like the bass section – rounding out the overall sound, but not dominating everything else. At other times still, physical fitness might actually be the lead singer – the element that’s in the foreground of the song and is it’s most memorable or defining feature.

Just as we all have distinct lives, we’ll all inevitably decide to give different pieces of our lives varying levels of importance. It’s possible to lead a healthy life as long as physical activity appears is somewhere on the list of priorities – but, contrary to what culture might try to tell you, it doesn’t actually have to be at the top. 

The Why Versus the What of Fitness Goals

Over the summer, my friend Naomi traveled to Europe and wrote an e-mail to a large group of her friends about her experiences. After describing the beauty and tranquility of Copenhagen and the gritty seriousness of Berlin, she hit upon a contrast that she’d noticed between European and American values, one that struck me deeply. She said that she felt like Americans are obsessed with achievements and milestones, “quantities” of things, while Europeans take time to reflect and enjoy individual moments and experiences, the “quality” of things. Americans focus on the “quantified self,” not the “qualified self.”

At the time I read this, I was starting to conceive 99% Fit, and I realized that this fixation on the quantified self was another component of fitness culture that frustrated me. The fitness industry is littered with apps that track every conceivable unit of measurement associated with physical fitness – minutes, pounds, steps, miles, calories. There are at least 100,000 apps in the app store dedicated to health and fitness, according to a report from 2014, and the health and fitness app industry itself is worth $4 billion. We’re more than spoiled for choice when it comes to tools to help us get fitter, and we’re clearly spending a lot of money on them. Yet, establishing long-term fitness habits remains elusive for many people.

I can’t help but believe that technology is not the complete answer to our struggles with consistency. Feelings of intimidation, insecurity and disenfranchisement drive many people’s inability to fully engage with fitness culture. These are also feelings that require reflection and thoughtfulness to overcome; behaviors that aren’t easily conjured by entering data into an iPhone. In our rush to run the most miles in our friend group or lose the most weight in our office pool, we often don't stop to think about why we’re pursuing those goals in the first place. That’s not to say that quantifying our progress isn’t helpful. Plenty of experts have studied the power of being able to monitor your progress and see the fruits of your labors played back in tangible data. But sustainable, long term success starts with a compelling reason for wanting that success.

Fitness culture touts plenty of reasons to be more active – to look great in a swimsuit, to “get your body back” after having a baby, to wear the size you’ve always dreamed of wearing.  The behavioral scientist Dr. Heidi Grant Halverson examines goal setting at length in her book Success, and dedicates some prose to the idea of “be good” goals – which sounded to me eerily like many of the goals offered up by fitness culture. “Be good” goals are largely about proving our worth and superiority in a group – having the best grade on the test, scoring the most points, or being the skinniest. They’re often about measuring up to the expectations of others. They’re also the ones that put us most at risk of descending into spirals of depression and despair if we don’t meet them.

The other category of goals Dr. Halverson describes, “get better” goals, are about individual progression and progress. A “get better” goal doesn’t set “being the best in the group” as the achievement to work toward, it sets “beating my own personal best” as the target. In some ways, it sounds like the embodiment of one of the most prevalent pieces of self-help advice: focus on being the best version of yourself. Dr. Halverson’s research has shown that people tend to be more resilient in the face of setbacks on the path to meeting these goals because they’re directed inwardly, not outwardly.

The stories and content housed within 99% Fit are in many ways presented with the aim of helping people who want to develop consistent fitness routines do so by setting “get better goals.” All of my original ten interviewees, consciously or not, ended up setting those goals for themselves when they embarked on their activities, and this has undoubtedly been a large part of why they’ve maintained their lifestyles even through difficulties and setbacks.

So if you’re trying to work out more, try not to just think about what you want to do – go to the gym more often, lose 10 lbs, eat less – think about why you want to do it. In fact, try asking yourself the following questions:

“Do I want to do this because I want to learn something new?”

“Do I want to do this because I think it’s something I could grow to enjoy?”

“Do I want to do this because I’ll feel better mentally and physically – I’ll have more energy, more vibrancy, and more positivity?”

“Do I want to do this because I’ll gain greater peace of mind?”

I suspect that if you answer yes to any of those questions, you’ll find that the road to building healthier habits is not quite so hard. You’ll be motivated by a larger internal purpose, not just the reward of external validation. By qualifying our actions and not just quantifying them, we might be able to create better fitness habits to last an entire lifetime.