After Boris Johnson’s attack on obesity, writer Alice Palmer explains why shaming people into exercise isn’t the answer.
My name is Alice Palmer. I’m a writer, I live in London and I exercise three times a week. I’ve really missed going to the gym during lockdown – solo workouts don’t quite do it for me. I enjoy HIIT, boxing and any new fast-paced exercise craze because it makes me feel good.
Oh, and do I need to mention that I’m a size 18?
Boris Johnson has decided he’s going to lecture the nation on losing weight and I’ve decided I’m going to try and counter that with some cold, hard exercise truths.
“Losing weight, frankly, is one of the ways you can reduce your own risk from coronavirus,” Boris told the UK last week. We all want to do everything we can to reduce the risk of catching COVID-19, Boris. We would all love to be healthy and strong, but that is much more complex than simply being smaller. Yet his language frames size as the problem – beating coronavirus is not just about “getting your weight down”, it’s about everyone taking steps to improve their health. These are two very different things. So what stops people, of any size, exercising?
Well, surely one of the biggest reasons is fear mongering – Boris himself said that one of the “great things” about running in the morning is that “nothing could be worse for the rest of the day”. How exactly does framing exercise as a gruelling and horrible experience inspire a nation to move?
Then there’s also the idea that exercise is simply a weight loss tool which is, frankly, one of the biggest barriers of getting people to exercise in the first place.
The notion that working out is only worthwhile or successful if the numbers on the scale are dropping, immediately removes and discounts all the additional (and most important) benefits gained by improving your fitness. For many, the intimidation and judgement of being measured by a scale not only prevents them from exploring exercise altogether, but can cause people to simply quit.
The number on the scales
Judging whether it is worth working out by the number on the scales attaches the notion that you can ‘fail’ if you don’t “decrese” or “meet” a certain number. But the scales are not the best way to judge your health – mentally or physically. Nor is it a good motivator to get people exercising and to stick to it.
That is because you cannot fail at exercising. By moving your body in whatever medium works for you, you are improving your fitness and your mental health. Exercise should never be viewed as a quick fix, but something that we can all benefit from implementing into our lives for the long haul.
I’ve lost count of the number of gym buddies that have disappeared, citing the fact they had no reason to workout as there was no bikini needed to be worn on the horizon, or seeing women distressed in the changing room that despite doing everything ‘right’, their workouts weren’t resulting in the pounds melting away.
Exercising just to lose weight is a huge part of our problematic diet culture and a key reason that many people don’t equate exercise simply as part of a healthy lifestyle, but as a pre-holiday ritual or post-Christmas punishment.
But fusing fitness into your daily or weekly routine has so many benefits that don’t include your waistline.
It’s well documented that the endorphins released by a good sweat session is great for reducing stress levels and boosting our mental health. As we start to emerge from one of the most globally stressful periods in recent years, there has never been a better time to recognise that we need to stop separating mental and physical health. We must find ways to improve the health of the whole nation, not just targeting those with larger clothes sizes.
There are so many benefits to working out that don’t involve bathroom scales. Seeing improvements in how you move and feel is great for your self-confidence and in pre-coronavirus times, the social benefits of going to a gym to make new friends was another non-weight-related pro too. Exercise is good for overall health, be it to help you get a good night’s sleep or get your blood circulating when you’ve been sitting at your desk all day. It’s both mentally and physically empowering, and these benefits are far greater in the long term, than simply watching pounds “fall off.”
Health Coach Marieta of Bodysome.com says, “We live chasing an image. Many times, it’s one without a meaning. But what about health? Mental, physical and emotional health? What about feeling great in your own skin, feeling happy to wake up in the morning, feel vibrant, being patient with your kids and understanding with your partner.
“Good food and regular exercise is just a part of the puzzle, and are great for your body. It’s a way to say thank you for everything that it does for you. Being healthy doesn’t mean fitting in a particular size or shape. Being healthy means, respecting your body by eating the best way you can, exercising regularly to pump all that “rust” away from your heart and most importantly, take the time to enjoy this one thing that is yours. Your life.”
Whenever health is discussed in the mainstream media or by parliament, there is a huge push to ‘tackle obesity.’ However, if you are or have ever been ‘overweight,’ you will have known it long before a politician pointed it out. You will have lived with the burden of all the stereotypes that come with living in a bigger body. The assumptions that you’re lazy, eat badly, don’t care for yourself properly and never step foot in a gym and if you do, you’re only there to lose weight.
But all of these are just that, stereotypes, and if there is one thing we should have learned by now, it is that stereotypes can be extremely damaging and often incorrect.
PT and Nutritional Coach Tania Weil says, “You can’t judge health on body size. Health is not something you can assess by looking at someone, especially if you’re not a doctor. Moreover body size is not a reliable indicator of overall health. Remember a healthy body starts with a healthy mind – self-love and celebrating yourself is a big part of health at any stage of your journey.”
Living healthily is not a quick fix thing; rather it entails a lifelong change in lifestyle, if not an entire mindset. There is no magic pill that on its own can give you the same results and rewards as self-love, eating well and exercising.
The idea that all plus-size people are unhealthy and everyone in smaller bodies are automatically ‘healthy’ misses key indicators as to what actually equates to health.
We were never all made to look the same and that includes our physicality. You can have a person who eats junk food and rarely exercises that remains what is considered to be ‘looking healthy’, just as you can have a larger person consuming a balanced diet and working out who doesn’t fit the assumed physical profile.
At a size 18, I have been a gym goer for many years and while Boris might put my body in the faulty category, I’m inclined to disagree.
Reinforcing body stereotypes only adds to the already intimidating gym environment. I have been victim of not looking ‘fit’ enough to pair up with a partner in class on more than one occasion – don’t worry, I always prove them wrong.
All these perceived markers are again skewed once more when we start to take mental health into account.
Being larger doesn’t always mean you are more prone to sickness and categorising bodies as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ with such sweeping generalisations only serves to scaremonger a group in society that already feels the weight of health bias against them.
I’ve lost count of the number of plus-size women that I have heard saying that they’ve experienced poor health care service because medical professionals cannot see past their size – even when their body mass was not the true cause of the issue. By terrifying overweight people, you aren’t encouraging anyone to get healthier. In fact, you could potentially stop someone from seeking medical advice when they need it most for fear of being fobbed off once again.
The language used around this topic is often incredibly damaging and demoralising. It’s well documented that fat shaming does not equate to weight loss, if it did, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
The war on obesity is a headline that has become all too familiar and is often seen by successive governments as almost a moral battle.
There are 3.4 million people in the UK suffering from an eating disorder and many more with patterns of disordered eating – all ranging from a spectrum of sizes. Until we start to address how damaging diet culture is, I fear we shall continue in this cycle.
What next, Boris?
If we really want to improve the health of the entire nation, then this must be targeted at every single person of every size.
We must address the systemic issue of diet culture in society and unlearn the many damaging behaviours that make us divide bodies between ‘good’ and ‘bad’. And most importantly, work out the best way to prevent future generations from falling victim to this vicious cycle.
We need to recognise the connection between mental and physical health, and then work out what “true health” actually means – while understanding that “health” does not have just one physical embodiment.
With proposed government plans to bring in calorie labelling in restaurants, cafes and takeaways to help diners opt for healthier food choices, I worry that we will end up demonising food or food groups through such initiatives that value calorie counting over nutritional value. As teaching restricted eating does not enforce positive habits, but continues to create damaging rhetoric around eating.
This issue won’t get fixed by making chocolate bars smaller, but can be helped by addressing social and economic factors that are intertwined with health. We need to make getting and staying healthy easier.
Healthy food needs to not just be cheaper but more accessible. Making unhealthy food more expensive is not the answer and we must ensure we are teaching cookery in all schools across the country. In addition, funding leisure facilities and after school clubs will help kids and adults explore a range of sports and fitness activities so that they can find exercise that best suits them. Most importantly, we need to ensure the language we use around fitness and nutrition is not demoralising.
These may sound like basic ideas, but everything we have done so far clearly has not worked. Perhaps, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
If you live in a slimmer body, learn to be an ally for those that don’t – and never assume you know what health looks like. Think about your own life balance, reassess how you view and talk about your own body and about others. Encourage your own long-term health goals that should focus around creating lifelong healthy habits and not Instagrammable quick fixes.
It sounds like a tall order and it is, but this isn’t something the government can be tasked with alone. We can all play a part and the rhetoric must change – from the media to the gym. It’s 2020, let’s stop talking about being “beach body ready” and start getting ready for life – for good.
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