Do you hate “exercise?” So do we! Sort of…Episode 7 is here, and in it, Aaron and I talk about how, after making peace with food, we’ve also made peace with our relationship to moving our bodies. We also talk about fitness trackers, our different approaches to getting activity in our lives, and why we actually hate the word “exercise!”
Here is The Atlantic magazine infographic we referred to during the podcast.
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As a dietitian who believes in non-diet, non-weight focused nutrition, I often find myself explaining my position on intentional weight loss to casual acquaintances who always want to talk to me about weight loss. It usually starts out with someone else bringing up the topic after they have discovered I am a dietitian (there is a reason I don’t volunteer this information easily). They say something like, “Well of course diets don’t work. Permanent lifestyle changes are what lead to lasting weight loss,” or, “Eating less doesn’t work, you have to do interval training in order to lose weight and keep it off,” or, “The only way to maintain long lasting weight loss is to do resistance training.” As though fat people have never tried any of these things ever, and if they just would, they’d have their fatness cured, stat. *Eye roll*
To which I have to answer: “Actually, no one has figured out a way to create long-term weight loss for more than a tiny fraction of people…and neither have you.” (In reality, I try to be nice about this. But for the purposes of this blog, I get to have a Snark-o-rama, ʼkay?) And then I clarify that I’m talking about basically all the weight loss science that exists out there and how it pretty much shows that long-term weight loss is pretty much a unicorn (as in, it doesn’t exist) for all but a few people. And then, of course, perhaps because I’m a dietitian and why trust someone with an actual degree in nutrition*, or perhaps because I’m a chubby woman who’s clearly just given up on herself*, they don’t believe me.
My favorite person (okay, not really) to argue with on this subject insists that the key to weight loss (even long-term!) is interval training weight weights (despite complete lack of evidence) . When I say that I lift weights and I’m still fat, the answer is invariably, “Well, you’re just not doing it enough.” When I ask how much and how often I should lift weights, the answer is, “More than you’re doing now.” Which is asinine, because he doesn’t know jack about what I’m doing now. When I say that I lifted weights very regularly when I was much thinner and dieting and that I couldn’t build any muscle to save my life AND my weight eventually returned even as I adhered to my regimen, he says it was because I was dieting. When I say I stopped dieting, still lifted weights and gained a lot of weight, it is because I’m not lifting enough. Basically, I’m a fatty who can’t win. Oh, and it’s all my fault.
This seems to be the prevailing attitude among people who all profess to have THE answer to the weight loss “problem.” What it really boils down to is, “Do this thing you might not even like to do, do it a lot, focus your entire life on this, forsake all the other things you might be interested in doing because they won’t produce weight loss, and you’ll be CURED of your fat forever!” Except that, oh yeah, there is zero proof that any of this will work LONG TERM for more than a tiny – like 5% tiny – fraction of people, even if you manage to keep at it.
And by the way, guess who’s tried these “foolproof,” “long-term” weight loss “methods”? (imagine me air quoting vigorously here). Only every fat person that’s ever tried to diet ever. Yeah, that’s right. We’ve tried it. It didn’t work and also, it sucked. If it was something most people could sustain long-term AND they enjoyed it, they’d do it. But we’re not talking about enjoying life here, are we? No, the idea seems to be that we do stuff we don’t like just to chase a body that isn’t really ours. Essentially, we are being punished for our fat. You only get one life on earth, so why don’t you do stuff you don’t enjoy to make sure everyone else is okay with the way you look?*
Let’s take weight lifting, for instance (something I actually happen to enjoy). Even if it did work to induce long-term weight loss for most people, what if someone hates lifting weights? Resistance training isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But in order to lose weight and maintain the loss, someone is supposed to sacrifice their interests and pretty much all their spare time just to make sure they have time for adequate amounts of weight-loss inducing resistance training (assuming one doesn’t make a living lifting weights, which most of us don’t)? Pfffft, thanks but no thanks.
There is a reason the weight loss industry is hauling in $60 billion a year – it keeps selling the same shoddy product over and over again to the same people (like, all of us) without ever actually working. If there was a way to produce sustainable weight loss that worked for most people, we’d have all figured it out, done it, and eventually the weight loss industry would cease to exist because we’d have all lost weight and kept it off. But we didn’t. And it keeps existing. And this weight-loss mentality is actually doing more harm than good by contributing to body shame, disordered eating and exercising, weight cycling, and even more weight gain for a lot of people.
So then I hear, “Permanent weight loss is hard work and people are just lazy.” First of all, short-term weight loss is no piece of cake either, but most of us who have tried it have lost at least some weight initially. And you know who works hard? Just about everyone. Yep, turns out the world is not full of lazy people. In a world of ever-increasing working hours and people with multiple jobs, we live in a society that is well-acquainted with hard work. Sometimes it’s hard work we don’t even like, but we do it anyway. But somehow we’re just lazy about losing weight permanently even though we’re willing to pay $60 billion a year for it? This is some serious non-logic.
So, no big surprise here, but nope, no one has “cured” fatness yet. Sorrrreeeeee!
The good news is, that doesn’t mean we need to give up on our health. Although they won’t necessarily cause most people to lose weight (yes, they may cause some people to lose weight, just not a statistically significant proportion of people), actual, doable lifestyle changes that support health are much easier to make and sustain compared to what you have to do to induce and sustain weight loss. So why not do the things that are achievable and sustainable, like listening to internal hunger and satiety cues to prevent overeating, adding more fruits or vegetables to our diet to boost our nutrient intake, or finding more ways to move enjoyably?
These things are easy to do in the absence of hunger and deprivation, or misery of doing stuff that you hate that often accompanies weight loss efforts. And while they might not “cure” our fatness (just as nothing has been shown to do), they will make us healthier. And maybe even happier.
As summer gives way to fall (well, not in LA, it is still blazing hot as I write this in the middle of October), I’m thinking back to my August staycation-vacation.
One of the reasons I love staycationing in LA is that it’s got everything I love in a vacation: heat, beach and no need to fly anywhere. We took advantage of some of LA’s best: biking along the Pacific Ocean bike path (“The Strand”), and of couple of glorious beach days.
We own boogie boards but had never quite mastered the art of catching a nice wave all the way into shore. On this day, though, the waves were perfect for it. We waded through a kelp forest to get to the sweet spot and then sped inward to shore wave after wave after wave – pure, unadulterated fun. On one turn, I passed by a couple of young teenage girls gingerly wading in the shallows, their dad recording their every pose on his phone. Wearing a look of manic joy on my face, I screeched, “THIS IS AWESOME!!!!” as I passed by them; the look on their faces was best described as mild, pleasant embarrassment for this middle-aged lady. However, not long after, I saw those girls back in the water with their own rented boogie boards and wearing the same thrill in their faces and no longer paying attention to their dad with the camera (or the middle-aged lady, probably).
Things I didn’t think about while boogie boarding at the beach: how my body looked in my swimsuit. I am WAY into body positivity and feeling good about oneself and accepting what we have now, but this is a process. After at least 34 years of being so focused on the size, shape and look of my body (I became aware of my body in that way around age 10), it’s not easy to just stop (It’s easy to decide to stop. But after that…process). The beach, however, is one of the places I am happiest and most in-the-moment and therefore least aware of how my body looks to others, despite being in the least amount of clothing. Maybe it’s all the other sensory input: sand on my feet, cold salty water on my skin and stinging my eyes, the sun warming and sometimes even burning my exposed skin, the waves crashing into me – I love all of this. I become aware of my body in another way that has nothing to do with how I look, and everything to do with how I am experiencing the world at that moment.
On another day, we rented bikes and rode along the bike path that follows the ocean. I haven’t ridden a bike with any frequency since I was in grade school. It was so fun!! I felt so lucky at that moment to live in Southern California and to be able to ride a bike. We rode to a restaurant in Playa Vista and had the most delicious sandwiches. Bonus: former child actor Anthony Michael Hall was having lunch in the same place!! (The Breakfast Club is seriously one of my favorite movies). It was a hot day and my honey and I were both sweaty. I probably looked pretty messy as I always do when I’m doing any sort of exercise or activity. As always, I was in my fat body. And once again, I just didn’t care. My body was a vehicle to enjoy these wonderful moments – how it looked was irrelevant.
I’m not saying that in order to appreciate our bodies we need to completely forget about what they look like. But once in a while, I think it can help. Boogie boarding and biking reminded me that our bodies are here to allow us to live life. In our appearance-focused culture, it can be all too easy to let worries about our fat bellies, thighs or hips, or our sweaty armpits or our disheveled hair distract us from the real living – the fun or the learning or the meaning of what we are doing. When we can let go and focus on those things, we truly become body positive.
Someone left a message on my Facebook page along the lines of (and I’m paraphrasing because I deleted it toute suite) “This comment probably won’t be appreciated here [correct!] but this page seems like a big excuse for people to be overindulgent and lazy. You don’t have to do crazy fad diets or anything but people should try to eat better and be the best they can be.” It was left by a gentleman who was very muscled and shirtless (and notably, headless) in his FB photo, so based on that and the general negative tone of his comment, I’m guessing he disapproved of my message to love our bodies as they are through a Health At Every Size® approach.
I deleted the comment because of the negative, accusatory tone – I intend for my Facebook page and blog to be safe, positive spaces for people practicing HAES®, body positivity and Intuitive Eating. People of size, people who have suffered from eating disorders, even people with “normal size” bodies who want to step away from dieting – we all hear enough pro-diet, negative body talk in the world every day. I don’t owe anyone a platform for their thoughts, and there are plenty of places on the internet where those kinds of comments will be appreciated. But one thing I do want to address here is the particular sentiment of “People should try to be the best they can be.”
First of all, while I would love to encourage people to be the best they can be, the word “should” is troublesome because who are any of us to tell anyone what they should do? People can do what they want and they don’t need anyone’s permission. But say some folks decide they want to be “the best they can be” (if they feel they aren’t currently at their best)? Great! Does that necessarily have to mean our bodies??
Maybe my commenter’s version, based on what he said and how he’s choosing the represent himself in his online persona, involves doing what it takes to have a body shaped similar to his: lean, large, muscled. Perhaps his body is the masterpiece of his life and that is his idea of being his “best.” That is absolutely a-okay because that’s what he wants. That works for him.
But does that mean improving one’s body is the universal meaning of “be the best you can be?” Not for me, it isn’t. I tried for many years to make my body the masterpiece of my life, and all it ever did was leave me unhappy. Even with all the societal approval that I “won” with my acceptably-small-sized body, I was simultaneously profoundly unhappy with my body and fearful that I would lose what I had created. My masterpiece left me wanting so much more out of life, not the least of which was peace of mind.
I realized my body did not have to be the culmination of my life’s work, that there were other things I could be “my best” at – like loving myself without judgement and then learning how to stop judging others for the thing I had agonized over in myself.
I learned I could learn things – like chemistry! – that I never thought I could when I was so busy creating my “best” body. I learned that when I did learn new things – microbiology, ho! – I felt much better about myself than when I had dutifully eaten like a dieting all-star all week. Sadly, I could have earned two PhDs for all the unhappy time I had spent thinking about ways to maintain my societally correct body.
The “best” me can have vigorous conversations about politics, science, pop culture, sociology, religion, fashion – things that don’t even involve my profession, nutrition (but I like talking about that, too) or my body (a topic which, frankly, bores me). The “best” me want to read books that bring me a new understanding of the world. And – unlike my body-shaping efforts of years past – doing these things actually makes me happy!
I learned that “the best I can be” is different for everyone, and that there was a better “best” inside of me than out. You get to choose what your best is, and it will involve your body, whether you want to conquer a sport or have a better understanding of constitutional law or become an ace quilter.
So I’m sorry I couldn’t let your post roam free on my Facebook page, dear commenter, but my followers don’t deserve to be shamed for choosing different paths to the best they can be.
*edited from original to add a link I had forgotten to add!
In the years before I learned about Health at Every Size®, I exercised at a gym two to three times a week, cardio and weights. I mostly dreaded it and it wasn’t at all fun, but it was something felt I had to do to keep my weight down. Living in San Francisco with no car, I walked everywhere as well, which was something I actually liked to do, but even that I thought of as Exercise with a capital E: something I did to control my weight.
When the revelation hit me that what I was doing with both my eating and my exercising was not first and foremost fun or pleasurable, I had to take pause. Because I am a fun person. Ask anyone, you want me at your party! And our time on this great blue marble is limited, so why, then, was I taking what little free time I had and spending it on not-fun activities?
Right about the time I decided to stop dieting restrictively, I also decided to quit Exercise (with a capital E) cold turkey. Reevaluating the choices I was making in my life, I realized that the pleasure I had once got from weight loss was long usurped by the misery of trying to maintain it. Quitting Exercise seemed extreme but it would help me to take a step back and decide what I really wanted to do for movement, or frankly, if I even wanted to do anything at all.
Taking a break from all that gym drudgery was heaven at first, but also a little alarming. I’d been a regular gym-goer for at least 10 years. What was I supposed to do now?? Of course I still walked around the city; I have always loved walking and didn’t want to give that up. But did I want to do something beyond walking?
Turns out, yes. After many months of being gym-free, I realized that I actually did enjoy going to a gym – when I wanted to. There was the key: going because I felt I had to was pure awfulness, but going just because I felt like getting sweaty felt like a luxury. No schedule. No strict regimen of so many minutes of cardio followed by so many reps and sets of weights. I got to do whatever I felt like: maybe a Zumba class, maybe yoga, or maybe still be that hamster on its wheel on the elliptical machine. That’s when going to the gym became a treat and not a chore. Since then, I’ve maintained a gym membership wherever I’ve lived but without the need to commit to X many nights a week. Ironically, that freedom has allowed me to attend even more than I thought I would. Movement makes me feel great and I think that is the best reason to do it.
Last year I challenged myself to find new and fun things to do outside of my regular activity. That led me first to a hula hooping class, where I learned a bunch of cool tricks that I continue to be able to do badly. Then, having been a pretty lousy swimmer most of my life, I decided to take swimming lessons. After that I spent the summer at the beach in the ocean. I rode a bike by the seaside for the first time in 15 years. Occasionally I hike in the beautiful hills surrounding LA. Frequently, I dance vigorously in my living room which feels best of all.
I also learned what I don’t want to do: Running of any sort. Belly dancing. Lifting super-heavy weights. Spinning or any kind of stationary bike. As I experiment, I’m sure this list will continue to grow too.
I’ll continue this trend of trying new (and old) things in 2015 with two rules: it has to make me feel good and I have to enjoy it.
It doesn’t have to be a gym or structured classes or anything that costs money. It doesn’t even need to be an activity anyone has ever heard of before. What matters — the thing that will make it wonderful and worth doing — is that you do it because it makes you feel amazing in that moment.
We could call it Intuitive Exercising. It reminds me how we move as children. No kid ever played hide and seek and then wondered after how many calories she burned. Let’s take a lesson from the kids we were and stop Exercising with a capital E and start moving for fun.