Diet culture and eating disorders can make one’s relationship to exercise complicated.
Allow me to flashback for a moment…
It’s the 1980s, and Jane Fonda has just ruined, oops, I mean revolutionized women’s lives with aerobic exercise. Who could resist those neon-and-pastel body suits, leggings and headbands? Without reading too much into the actual history of it all, this, in my mind, is the moment where exercise became some sort of imperative for being “the right kind of female.”
And me? I hated formal exercise. I was a rough-and-tumble kid who liked to play outside at made-up games, pick-up softball and kick-ball games, and still remember the glorious summer when the oldest kid in our neighborhood would organize block-wide games of hide-and-seek, kick-the-can and ghost-in-the-graveyard (Damn my childhood seems idyllic now). I was good at nothing except being scrappy and determined. Always the slowest, but it didn’t seem to matter when we were at play.
Anyhoo, along came high school and uninspired gym teachers who, on occasion, would play videos of “The 20 Minute Workout“, which, upon remembrance, actually came with a health hazard warning, and truly felt like a cardiac nightmare even for a teenager (or maybe just this teenager??). I mean, what was with all the damn jumping??
And then, later, the years of exercising because I felt I should because that’s what thin people did. Needless to say, that ended up feeling like more of a punishment than anything else and did not endear me to exercise for a lifetime.
Flash forward to the present. It’s been a long, circuitous journey to where I am now. I’ve found what works for me for now. And what works for me might not work for someone else, and that’s okay. No one is obligated to exercise either – it’s not a marker of your worthiness as a human in any way.
So what’s your relationship to movement feel like? Do you feel compelled to exercise even when you don’t want to? Do you struggle to incorporate movement into your life even though you truly want to? If so, you might enjoy this Dietitians Unplugged podcast episode that we did with my good friend, colleague and mentor, Lauren Anton MS, RD, CEDRD-S, CPT. She’s knowledgable in all things exercise and eating disorders and Health at Every Size® and non-diet sports nutrition. She’s amazing and I think you will find her story interesting and her advice helpful.
I like to move my body, but sometimes I get sick of the same ol’ same ol’ when it comes to the exercise I’m doing. So lately I’ve been experimenting with trying some new ways to move.
I decided to try the dance studio down the street. I signed up for a Zumba class. Long story short, it was a less than ideal experience. Despite being promoted as good for beginners, the steps were far too advanced, the instructor wasn’t cueing the steps or pointing out the direction ahead of time, and I ended up frustrated and lost. Then I looked around the class and noticed that there were only two people who could be even remotely considered fat – me and another woman. I started wondering how exercise spaces could be made more welcoming to more people – people of different sizes, abilities, and skill. And people who don’t want to think about their bodies as something to shrink or re-shape. People who want to exercise just because it’s fun to move your body.
When I told my podcast partner, Aaron Flores, about it, he had the brilliant idea of asking Ragen Chastain, speaker, writer, dancer, marathoner, fat activist and author of one of my favorite blogs Dances with Fat, about how exercise could be so much more inclusive of more people. She agreed, and we had a great conversation all about what needs to change in the world of exercise to be more inclusive and available to all people. Enjoy!
Greetings Dietitians Unplugged Podcast fans! We’ve got a new episode for you! Aaron and I let it all out as we discuss a show that epitomizes our current diet culture, NBC’s “The Biggest Loser.” We discuss the widely-shared article in the New York Times that reviewed the latest research on how contestants’ metabolisms have yet to recover even six years after being on the show. We also talk about Sarah Aamodt’s great article from the NYT about why you should never diet again. And we quote one of our favorite HAES® colleagues, Deb Burgard in this great article. Take a listen to this very important episode — it might be the one you need to hear before you consider going on your next “diet.”
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.
You can also listen on iTunes and Libsyn! Like our Facebook page to get all the latest news on our podcast and other non-diet podcasts! And if you like our podcast, please give us a rating and review on iTunes – this will help more people find us!
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.
I hear it, or some version of it, at least once a week: “Oooh, if I have this [insert delicious or even just plain regular food here] I’ll have to do at least an extra half hour on the hamster wheel tonight.”
To which I usually cringe, roll my eyes, eat the thing in question, and then leave. I don’t have time for this kind of tomfoodery anymore.
I was recently at a goodbye work party with a fantastic spread of Mexican food. Someone had baked the best tres leches cake I had ever tasted – actually, make that the best cake I had ever tasted…ever – and as I stood next to it at the end of the buffet, the middle-aged surfer dude I work with sidled up to the punch bowl, eyed it nervously and uttered, “Hm…is it worth the calories?” Then look lustfully at the cake. “That’s another hour of exercise for me, I guess.”
I didn’t walk away this day. “Really? Because I’m probably gonna lay down for a nap after this,” I said. I suppose sarcasm shouldn’t be my first line of response, but I am what I am.
I get it. He probably doesn’t want to look like me. We’ve talked before and I know he watches his weight religiously. But if you have to do so much hard math about what you’re taking in and expending, if your energy balance is so fragile that a glass of punch or a piece of cake can throw it completely out of whack, then you’re probably not at the weight that your body wants to weigh – a weight I’d like to define as your happy weight.
Your happy weight, by my own definition, is the weight your body arrives at when you’re just living and enjoying life, eating normally and moving pleasurably. You might be trying to eat healthfully and get regular exercise, but those things don’t take up too much mental real estate. It’s the weight your body eventually returns to even after a week of vacation in Paris (two words: baguettes and brie). It’s the weight you maintain without constantly trying to deny yourself cake or breaking yourself at the gym every night. Because, in the end, trying to outrun calories doesn’t work for most in the long run and it’s no fun either.
I remember having similar thoughts about food during my dieting days. Looking at a piece of birthday cake or a slice of pizza, I’d mentally calculate how much extra time I’d have to spend at the gym that night to compensate. I was terrified the dial on the scale would inch ever so slightly, but steadily, upward. Maintaining a constant level of hunger was crucial to my success, but it sometimes resulted in overeating the exact foods I was trying to avoid, without the joy I would have experienced if I’d just eaten the damn thing in the first place. I was definitely not at my happy weight. I was able to buy size 6 clothing but I was so preoccupied with outrunning my calories that I couldn’t even enjoy it.
The reality is, when you are at the weight that is right for you (and only your body can determine what that is, not some diet plan), you can afford to live a little out of balance, a little decadently, on occasion without facing massive exercise compensation. After I ate 3 small pieces of that amazing cake (that’s just how good it was) I was done with sweets for a few days. I craved lighter meals with lots of vegetables. As far as I can tell, my weight did not change significantly (I don’t weigh myself). The body has its way of bringing us back into balance if we will only trust it.
I hope surfer dude enjoyed the cake without too much guilt, if he could bring himself to have a piece. After all, cake is a normal, wonderful, usually occasional part of our lives. He probably would have been just fine. I know I was.
Perhaps I am a naughty dietitian for saying so, but I think doing “healthy” stuff now to ward off vague future health threats is a terrible motivation for behavior change.
There. I said it. So sue me. But first let me explain.
I think we humans tend more toward hedonism than toward future thinking in that, most of the time, we just want to feel good in the immediate here and now.
This has been gleaned anecdotally by me in a not-at-all scientific way but I’m standing by it right now because 1. That’s how I am myself and 2. That’s how my clients are and 3. That’s how my friends are. So, with only a few exceptions, that is, like, everyone I know! Yeah, people want to be healthy but more importantly they want to feel good.
Somewhere along the way to feeling good and feeling healthy, weight became the stand-in for both, perhaps because it has immediate, visible results that let you know if what you are doing is working AND you feel good because everyone tells you nice things about how you look. But weight is a poor barometer of health and we know now how poorly weight loss works and so now the thing we implore you to do is “eat for your health.”
But I gotta say, that sucks. Even *I* don’t want to do that. And I’m a great planner. So what to do then?
Well, how about a little something I like to call feel-good-now-nutrition?
Let’s say you’re mastering intuitive eating, dieting is a thing of your past, and now you’re ready to try this business of eating healthier. You eat “virtuously” because you don’t want to get diabetes or heart disease, but then you keep forgetting about your reasons for eating this way because it’s a future thing. And who wants to be scared all the time worrying about conditions you might not – or worse, might – get? It’s too depressing, so you put it out of your mind. And I don’t blame you! Aside from some basic (and, sigh, I’m guessing inadequate) retirement planning, I don’t want to think of a future where I may be infirm in any way. I just want to enjoy living in the now.
And that’s where feeling good becomes your new guideline. For example, one of the best reasons to stop overeating is because the feeling of being overly full is just plain unpleasant. When you are in the middle of a meal, then, it makes sense to pause and not think about how healthy you’ll be in 30 years if you stop now, but how uncomfortable you might be in 30 minutes if you don’t stop now. Our internal cues around hunger and satiety are designed to make us feel good. Getting to that hungry-and-ready-to-eat point? Feel good. Getting into hangry territory? Feel bad. See? Simple!
Our bodies seek balance. After even a day of “treat” foods, I find myself craving a pile of vegetables. And when I have them – ones that I like, prepared how I like them (i.e. in a non-diet way) – I feel good. My stomach doesn’t feel weighed down or bloated, and I like that feeling. Or sometimes I want something “heavier” like comfort food, because that’s what makes me right as rain at that moment. Our bodies crave variety so that we get all the nutrients we need from a range of foods. Yes, vegetables are healthy, so there is definitely an advantage to including them in your diet. But there are a ton of feel-good-right-now reasons to include them in your diet, taste being one and bowel regularity being an important other. Can’t poop? Feel baaaad. If you’re not a vegetable lover, try experimenting incrementally with different veggies using recipes that combine them with favorite foods (like green beans sautéed with bacon fat, Stilton blue cheese, and walnuts – thank you Jamie Oliver!).
This works for exercise as well. I only exercise now when I feel like it and I only do what is fun or what helps me to clear my head and loosen my joints. After years of experimenting, it turns out that I feel good getting some sort of movement most days of the week. All of those days aren’t spent at the gym – at most I want to be there two days a week, and others not at all. I’ve found other forms of activity that make me feel good for a variety of reasons. Most recently this has been a line dancing class at work, which feels good not just because it is movement but because it’s totally fun, goofy, and social. Exercise doesn’t have to be about the sweat at all if that doesn’t make you feel good.
So to recap: Feeling healthy = Feeling good right now. Math portion of the post now complete.
Finding the “healthy” foods and the right movement is important, but they have to make you feel good in the moment. We are creatures built for happiness now first and foremost, so let that be your biggest motivator for being healthy. Because after all, our happiness is the most important part of our health!
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.