While obesity is an issue in the US, many myths about it have led to even more problems. The fear of gaining too much weight often leads people to believe that “thin” is good while “fat” is bad. We forget our overall fitness and instead focus too much on how we look in the mirror.
Body weight is part of your overall fitness level, but it’s not the whole picture. Being “thin” or “fat” doesn’t define how fit you are. When measuring your overall health, there are a number of things to consider.
We hear the word “fit” again and again. But what does it really mean? Your physical fitness refers to your health qualities or abilities. Some people have certain ones that are stronger than others. Dana Ellis Hunnes, PhD, is the senior nutritionist at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. She is passionate about fitness and nutrition for your overall health.
“For me, fitness really means, ‘Can I physically do any activity that I want to do? Can I run 5 miles in a day without breathing heavily? Can I keep up with my child in soccer? Can I climb a flight of stairs if the elevator exits?’” she says. “The point is, can you do all the activities that you both want to do and maybe need to do?”
Hunnes says: “You may be thin but you have a terrible diet. You may eat very little and may even be very weak.”
If you have little muscle mass, you are at a higher risk of falls, broken bones, a poorer quality of life and a shorter lifespan. “If we
When we have little muscle in our arms and legs, we tend to have less muscle in our hearts,” she says. “It can be dangerous for heart health.”
If you have a lot of extra body fat, you may not be able to do all the activities that you want or need to do. But while you may need to lose some weight, getting “thin” won’t get you fit.
“Loss weight is a healthy goal, and
Even though there are so many other fitness factors to focus on, many people are still obsessed with being thin. “I really think that media, social media and the way celebrities talk about being thin and looking – which I would think is a pretty shallow idea of what health is – makes a lot of people unhappy,” says Hunnes. “We tend to say, ‘If I’m skinny, I’m happy.’ “When I’m skinny, people want to be my friend.” What we really need to focus on is our overall health, well-being and fitness.”
A study found that women in the US aimed to be skinny due to pressure from the media and their peers. However, this urge to be thin does not only affect women. It can be a problem for anyone, regardless of gender. In many cases, people use unhealthy ways to lose weight or stay thin to avoid the fear of gaining weight.
“I think one of the problems is that people want to see results quickly,” says Devries. “They are motivated by very unrealistic and misleading advertising – advising them that there is a quick fix for their weight.”
“The urge to lose weight doesn’t always come from a health perspective,” he says, “but from you as you try to conform to an aesthetic ideal.”
It is impossible to judge a person’s health by their appearance alone. A thin person might have multiple health issues, while someone who is overweight might be on their way to a healthier lifestyle.
“Fitness is a much better predictor of our quality of life, mental health, physical health, and longevity than just being skinny, which is a very short-term achievement for many people,” Hunnes says. “Often people lose weight and then they gain it all back and more. I think this focus on slimness is really to our detriment.”
But in so many cases, people choose the flashy weight loss avenues that we see on our screens and in magazines.
“These suggestions that are coming out in the media — quick fixes and miracle cures — are leading people down a path that not only doesn’t work, but also has no health side effects — which should be the goal,” Devries says.
“Many of these quick fixes are not sustainable. They’re not healthy,” he says. “You could eat a very poor quality calorie restricted diet and you could lose weight. But it certainly wouldn’t have any health benefits because of the unhealthy bits you’ve included in your diet.”
These unhealthy methods of lowering body fat can also affect your mental health. When we adopt harmful habits, we increase our risk of:
“The best plan is to look for approaches that have a whole host of positive side effects as opposed to things that just focus on weight loss,” says Devries.
That means you need to build fitness into many areas of your life.
“I think it’s important that people are balanced. Balance in your diet—three meals a day—balance in physical activity and balance in your life,” says David Creel, PhD, psychologist and registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic. “A big part of all of this is not focusing too much on one section of our lives. But instead focus on what is important to a person’s life overall.”
To maintain or lose weight in a healthy way, there are many steps you can follow:
Move. “Exercise is really powerful for preventing weight gain and for weight maintenance for people who have lost weight,” says Creel.
Eat properly. “Just exercising without changing your diet doesn’t show much rapid weight loss. It’s not that obvious,” he says. For long-term and healthy results, it’s best to do both at the same time.
“Eating less processed foods in general can be very helpful for us. Don’t drink a lot of sugar-sweetened drinks because we know people tend to overconsume them. And then add lean proteins and lots of vegetables and fruits to your diet,” says Creel. “These things generally lead to healthier outcomes.”
Listen to your body. “We want to have a healthy relationship with food. Watch for signs of hunger and fullness. Have some kind of regime and structure for your eating,” he says.
People often judge their health based on their body mass index (BMI). While this can give you insight into your health, it can also be misleading. You may have more muscle than the average person your age and size. This means you may have a “too high” BMI even though you’re in good shape and not sick.
To shift the focus to fitness, there are a few other tools we can use to get a picture of our overall health:
body fat percentage. “This would give us a little clue as to the split between muscle and fat,” says Creel.
Waist size. “The other thing that’s really easy is a waist measurement,” he says. “If someone carries their weight around their midsection, it puts them at greater risk. Especially the fat that surrounds the organs.”
metabolic measurements. “How’s your blood pressure? How is your blood sugar? Do you have high cholesterol? Things like that,” says Creel.
Your ability to be active. “What can you do from a cardiovascular perspective? We know that a lack of cardiovascular fitness puts people at risk, too,” he says.
In a country where we focus too much on looks, it would benefit us to shift and value fitness over looks. Not only is it better for us, but it also allows us to lead more fulfilling and stable lives.
“I encourage the people I work with to think about nourishing their bodies to maximize important life experiences,” says Creel. “When we take that negative approach — that fear of being overweight and obsessive behavior — that can keep us from living life fully.”
“This perspective that we’re doing all this to have a better quality of life is important,” he says. “It’s not just about hitting a certain weight. The broader goal is to have a high quality of life.”