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. 

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. 

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.