While obesity is an issue in the U.S., a lot of the myths about it have led to even more problems. The fear of gaining too much weight often causes people to believe that “skinniness” is good, while “fat” is bad. We forget about our overall fitness and instead focus too much on how we look in the mirror.
Body weight is one 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, you need to keep a bunch of things in mind.
What Is Fitness?
We hear the word “fit” all the time. But what does it really mean? Your physical fitness refers to your set of health qualities or skills. Some people have certain ones that are stronger than others. Dana Ellis Hunnes, PhD, is a senior dietitian at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. She’s passionate about fitness and nutrition for your overall health.
“For me, fitness really means, ‘Can I do all the activities that I want to do from a physical standpoint? Can I walk 5 miles in a day, without breathing hard? Can I keep up with my child at soccer? Can I climb a flight of stairs if the elevator gets out?’” she says. “The point is, can you do all the activities that you both want to do and perhaps need to do?”
Hunnes says, “You might be thin but have a horrible diet. You might eat very minimally, and you may actually be very weak.”
If you have low muscle mass, you’re more at risk for falling, breaking bones, a poorer quality of life, and a shorter life span. “When we
have little muscle on our arms and our legs, we tend to have less muscle in our hearts,” she says. “This can be dangerous in terms of heart health.”
Similarly, if you have a lot of extra body fat, you may not be able to do all the activities you want or need to do. But, while you may need to lose some weight, becoming “skinny” won’t make you fit.
“Losing the weight is a healthy goal, and [one] I wouldn’t ignore. But zeroing in and focusing too much attention on that specific goal can be counterproductive,” says Stephen Devries, MD, a preventive cardiologist and associate professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “The quality of your diet is also important. Even if people are not successful at losing weight, if they’re able to shift to a healthier quality of diet, that can be helpful. Because the goal [of fitness] is for people to live more fully and to live longer.”
Why Are We So Focused on Thinness?
Even though there are so many other factors of fitness that we should focus on, many people still obsess over thinness. “I really do believe that media, social media, and the way celebrities talk about thinness and looks – what I would consider to be a fairly superficial idea of what health is – is making a lot of people miserable,” says Hunnes. “We tend to say: ‘If I’m thin, I’m happy.’ ‘If I’m thin, people will want to be my friend.’ Whereas what we really should be focusing on is our overall health, well-being, and fitness.”
One study found that women in the U.S. aimed to be skinny due to pressure from the media and their peers. This push to be thin doesn’t just affect females though. It can be an issue for anyone, regardless of gender. In many cases, to avoid the fear of gaining fat, people will use unhealthy ways to lose weight or stay skinny.
“I think one of the problems is that people want to see results quickly,” says Devries. “They’re motivated by very unrealistic and deceptive advertising – advising them that there’s a quick fix to their weight.”
“The drive to lose weight is not always coming from a health standpoint,” he says, “but coming from you trying to match some ideal of aesthetics.”
How Can the Focus on Thinness Be Harmful?
It’s impossible to judge someone’s health from their looks alone. A thin person could have several health issues, while someone who is overweight could be on the path to a healthier lifestyle.
“Fitness is a far better indicator of our quality of life, our mental health, our physical health, and our longevity than just being thin, which for many people is a very short-term achievement,” says Hunnes. “A lot of times people lose weight, and then they gain it all back and more. I believe that this focus on thinness is really to our own detriment.”
But in so many cases, people choose the flashy paths to weight loss that we see on our screens and in magazines.
“These suggestions that come in the media – quick fixes and miracle cures – lead people down a path that, not only doesn’t work, but doesn’t produce any side health benefits – which should be the goal,” says Devries.
“Many of these quick fixes are not sustainable. They’re not healthy,” he says. “You could eat a very poor-quality diet that’s calorie-restricted, and you could lose weight. But it would certainly not have any health benefits because of the unhealthy parts that you’ve introduced in your diet.”
These unhealthy ways to lower body fat can also affect your mental health. When we take on harmful habits, we raise our risk for:
- Eating disorders
- Discomfort with our body image
What Should We Do to Get Fit?
“The best plan is to look for approaches that have a whole range of positive side effects, as opposed to things that are only focused on weight loss,” says Devries.
This means you’ll need to put fitness into many parts of your life.
“I think it’s important for people to have balance. Balance in your eating – eating three meals a day – balance in physical activity, and balance in your life,” says David Creel, PhD, a psychologist and registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic. “A big part of all of this is to not become over focused on any one section of our life. But instead focus on what’s important for someone’s life overall.”
To maintain or lose weight in a healthy way, there are plenty of steps you can follow:
Get moving. “Physical activity is really powerful for preventing weight gain and, for people who’ve lost weight, to keep off the weight,” says Creel.
Eat right. “Just exercising, without changing diet, doesn’t show a lot of quick weight loss. It’s not as evident,” he says. To have long-term and healthy results, it’s best to do both at the same time.
“Eating less processed foods, in general, can be really helpful for us. Not drinking a lot of sugar-sweetened beverages, because we know that people tend to over-consume these. And then add lean proteins and lots of vegetables and fruits in your diet,” says Creel. “Those things, in general, tend to lead to healthier outcomes.”
Listen to your body. “We want to have a healthy relationship with food. Pay attention to hunger and fullness cues. Have some kind of regimen and structure to your eating,” he says.
How Can We Measure Our Fitness?
Oftentimes, people judge their health based on their body mass index (BMI). While this can give you some insight into your health, it can also be misleading. You might have more muscle than the average person of your age and height. That means you may have a BMI that’s “too high” even though you’re in shape and not unhealthy.
To shift the focus to fitness, there are some other tools we can use to get an idea of our overall health:
Body fat percentage. “This would give us a little bit of an indication of the breakdown between muscle and fat,” says Creel.
Waist circumference. “The other thing that’s really simple to do is a waist measurement,” he says. “If someone is carrying their weight around their midsection, that puts them more at risk. Especially the fat that’s surrounding the organs.”
Metabolic measurements. “What does your blood pressure look like? What’s your blood sugar look like? Do you have high cholesterol? Those sorts of things,” says Creel.
Your ability to be active. “What can you do from a cardiovascular standpoint? We know that lack of cardiovascular fitness also puts people at risk,” he says.
In a country where we focus too much on appearance, it would benefit us to shift and value fitness over looks. Not only is it better for us, but it allows us to live a more fulfilling and stable life.
“I encourage people that I’m working with to think about nourishing their bodies to maximize important life experiences,” says Creel. “If we take this negative approach – this fear of excess weight and obsessive behaviors – that sort of thing can derail us from living life fully.”
“This perspective that we’re doing all of this to have a better quality of life is important,” he says. “It’s not just to get to a certain weight. The broader purpose is to have a high quality of life.”
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David Creel, PhD, psychologist, registered dietitian, and certified clinical exercise physiologist, Bariatric & Metabolic Institute, Cleveland Clinic.
Dana Ellis Hunnes, PhD, senior dietitian, Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center; adjunct assistant professor, Department of Community Health Sciences, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.
Stephen Devries, MD, executive director, nonprofit Gaples Institute; preventive cardiologist and adjunct associate professor of nutrition, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Public Health Reports: “Physical activity, exercise, and physical fitness: definitions and distinctions for health-related research.”
Annals of Medicine: “Implications of Low Muscle Mass across the Continuum of Care: A Narrative Review.”
Cleveland Clinic: “Why Do Women Feel Pressure to Be Thin? Study Examines Internalization of Appearance Ideals Across Cultures.”
Eating and Weight Disorders – Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity: “Comparing internalization of appearance ideals and appearance-related pressures among women from the United States, Italy, England, and Australia.”
Pediatric Obesity: “Relationship of pressure to be thin with gains in body weight and fat mass in adolescents.”