I expect that I confuse a lot of people at the gym where I work out. I have been asked more than once why I breathe so hard. The short answer is that I do high-intensity interval workouts where I raise my heart rate and then recover before beginning another interval. Some people have looked at me strangely when I talk to myself, probably somewhat loudly because I am wearing headphones. But I suspect there is something about me that is more confusing than either of these. Many are surely confused because I am pudgy; those who are blunt might even say fat. I have been regularly doing intense workouts for years, yet I do not have the physique expected of such a person. I am not alone; the expectation that exercise will result in massive weight loss and a buff body often fails to materialize.
The current popular thinking about weight is the weight-normative perspective which states that better health results from being thin, and efforts to improve health should focus on promoting thinness. Thus, losing enough weight to be healthy is defined as achieving a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9. There are many of us who can improve our diets and exercise more and not achieve a BMI in this range. Despite associations between being overweight and having poor health, the weight-normative position may result in poorer health. It is well accepted that weight cycling, or yo-yo dieting, is worse than being somewhat overweight. Yet if people have difficulty achieving or maintaining weight loss, we are at least tacitly encouraging them to experience weight cycling.
Another problem with focusing on weight is that when people fail to achieve their weight goals despite vigorous efforts they may get discouraged and give up. If the goal is thinness and we cannot become thin, we might as well stop eating healthfully and exercising. But exercise has many more benefits than mere weight maintenance. Exercise reduces the risk for many physical illnesses and it promotes mental health. No one can go to the gym and adjust their weight according to their wishes. We can go to the gym and choose to exercise well. We have direct control over our exercise behaviors, but do not have direct control over our weight. There is a small movement promoting the weight-inclusive perspective. Proponents say we should focus on controlling what we can directly control—our diet and exercise. If we embrace exercise for its benefits, including being able to take hikes without soreness the next day and buying the large bag of dog food without straining our backs, we will be better off than if we become frustrated by failing to achieve thinness and giving up healthful behaviors.
A readable but scholarly review of these issues is provided by Dr. Tracy Tylka from Ohio State University and her colleagues from several institutions. It was published in the peer-reviewed “Journal of Obesity.” They report that multiple randomized clinical-trial studies show the advantages to a weight-inclusive intervention over a weight-normative diet-based intervention. Participants who were part of weight-inclusive programs, such as Health at Every Size, demonstrated improvements on objective physiological measures such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels. They also exercised more and had more healthful diets. Finally those in weight-inclusive programs experienced psychological benefits such as improved self-esteem. When people focus on the behaviors they can control, rather than on their weight, they are not only happier but healthier. To my friends who began the new year with hopes of a buff body: stick with the exercise even if you are still portly. Hunger and weight are complex and are still being researched. Our bodies were engineered for a world in which famines were inevitable. Some of us may simply have been endowed by our Creator to be well prepared for the next famine. Have the confidence to practice a healthful lifestyle for the many benefits beyond elusive buffness. You will feel better and live better.
Joseph J. Horton wrote this editorial for visionandvalues.org, where it was first published.