The weighing scale has become synonymous with the indicator of being healthy. Weight comes not only from fat but also from muscle and bone. Weight can also fluctuate within the same day and from day-to-day. Also, as our age increases, the changes in our metabolism can bring about genetic-related changes in our weight.
When the scale shows a reading higher than either the average same-profile people or the usual baseline number, distress sets in and there is an almost immediate desire to ‘lose weight’. This is propagated by the media which is bombarded with messages about looking good by losing weight or about weight-loss procedures.
The focus should be about being physically and mentally fit, even if it means being at a weight higher than average or higher than the prior baseline. Being at a lower reading on the scale may not necessarily be healthy; for example, low weight can put us at risk for osteoporosis.
Researchers measuring health in terms of body fat generally rely on the American Council on Exercise’s guidelines – anything below 10% and above 31% in women, or below 2% and above 24% in men is considered a health risk. Direct measure requires expensive imaging like MRI or CT scan. So, we rely on indirect measures like skin fold thickness and body mass index (BMI). These measurements are inappropriately used to represent fitness and media discussion about healthy bodies. As per World Health Organization assessment in 2011, waist-hip ratio is good predictor of health risk – healthy ratio for women is <0.85 and for men is <0.9.
Thin-ideal-promoting media has flourished. As a result, the diet and weight loss industries are thriving like never before. Self-body-image is hitting an all-time low. Life insurance industry collects higher premiums from those they themselves define as being “overweight”. It is no wonder that we have come to believe the myth that being thin is what being fit means.
The truth is: measuring health according to activity level is a more accurate gauge of true wellness. Our luxuries have reduced our amount and intensity of physical activity. There is evidence that cardiorespiratory fitness is a more powerful predictor of risk than body weight. Even when we don’t lose as much weight as we think we should, we are still likely gaining some serious health benefits from being active. One meta-analysis of medical studies concluded that overweight and active people may be healthier than those who are thin and sedentary. In other words, there should be a focus on healthy behaviors like exercise that can promote physical and mental health at any weight.
In addition to regular physical activity, eating well should also be part of the healthy lifestyle. It is best to have 6 small-portioned meals daily; unless there are some sensitivities, these meals should have a balance of all the food groups. Skipping meals slows down metabolism. Healthy cooking techniques like grilling and steaming should be adopted over frying.
Researchers have identified body dissatisfaction (“feeling too fat to exercise”) as one of the major barriers to regular exercise. We easily give up due to the perception that “healthy” or “average” as defined by the media is unreachable.
There is a difference between media representations of bodies and real-life bodies. The media personalities are not the average people; their livelihood depends on maintaining unusual body proportions, not necessarily healthy in all cases. Photoshopping is common in published images. Extreme diet and exercise routines are followed for periods closer to public appearances and photoshoots. Even these media personalities have periods where they do not resemble their published images.
Self-comparisons to body ideals in mass media may reduce the motivation to exercise either because the results are not immediate or more commonly because the goals are unrealistic. This leads to negativity which, in turn, can propagate emotional unhealthy eating. Unhealthy eating is known to demotivate further. This becomes a vicious cycle. Breaking this cyclic pattern is possible with the simple step of exercising because it boosts serotonin (“the happy neurotransmitter”). The happier you are, the healthier you eat. The healthier you eat, the more motivated you stay to carry on these healthy behaviours.
In short, less focus on the actual weight and more focus on a healthy lifestyle is the key to a more physically and mentally fit you.