Scales are bullshit. I mean, it’s not their fault.The massive focus on what we weigh, as opposed to, say, how we feel or what we can physically do, means that they end up having a hold on us that is disproportionate to their usefulness.
As I was finishing the first installment of this series and beginning on this one (which, frankly, is where shit gets real), my sister-in-law posted this article from the Washington Post on Facebook, in which Traci Mann, a psychologist at the University of MN who studies food and eating, discusses the fallacies surrounding weight loss, specifically, the idea that it’s possible to lose and maintain weight to a point beyond what is your body’s unique “set range”. It sparked a pretty huge debate, which I did not weigh-in on at the time (pun intended), but I’m sure as hell going to now.
On one side were people who said it’s possible to be healthy at any size, and excessively restricting calories is pointless and does nothing but make life miserable. On the other side were those who didn’t want people to give up on their goals just because it’s hard and takes time. As with most debates like this, the two positions are not mutually exclusive. Also, everyone fully agreed that a healthy lifestyle should always be the primary focus. Good job, friends and friends-of-friends!
The truth (as I see it, anyway) is slightly more nuanced than a debate on Facebook allows. I’ll illustrate with a personal story:
Weight Loss Journey
For years I was focused on losing weight. At my lightest, back when I was between 19 and 24 years old, I weighed 120 lbs. At my heaviest I was over 200. Now, I was a smart woman (still am); I knew that trying to get back to the weight of my early 20s in my mid-30s would be foolish. But I figured that aiming for 140 lbs., squarely in the upper third of my “ideal weight range,” made sense. (If you want a truly epic rant on ideal weight, check out this blog post from all-around smart guy Craig Nelson).
So I would get amped up, begin working out, and diet hard—like 1200-1400 calories a day hard. Surely, you see where this is going: I’d see some results, lose some weight, and then fall off. And I blamed myself, felt bad, wallowed, gained back any weight I’d lost and then some, and then start it the process again in 3-6 months. I tried running, I tried strength training, I tried yoga, I biked everywhere, I even tried carefully measuring and weighing all my food (an unsurprisingly unsustainable enterprise), all to no avail.
Things began to turn around for me in September of 2012, I started a new job and one of the benefits was small group training with a personal trainer. (Huge shout out to my buddy Mitch Mohs at Prime Shape Fitness who helped get the ball rolling for me!) In addition to weight and body fat analysis (via calipers), I was, for the first time, given assessments that measured what I could do. Specifically, a 12-minute run on the treadmill at 1% incline for distance and number of push-ups without stopping—knee push-ups, which I’ve come to loathe, but still. Those last two things were super motivating. It also helped that I was working out with friends from work, bonding over getting sweaty and shaky once a week.
After I’d been working with Mitch for about seven months, I saw some people doing things at the Y that looked really hard, and like any good lunatic, thought to myself, I want to do that. (That was my first glimpse of Tim, Sally, and Denise. Hi guys, bet you never knew how much you inspired me!) So I signed up for Tim’s boot camp class Tuesdays at 6 am. And it was hard. Oh my god was it hard. But I kept going back, again and again.
Through all this time, I was weighing myself religiously, counting calories, and not seeing any scale-related progress. But, I was moving through circuits more easily and I was definitely getting stronger, all the while spending time with my new pals. It was SO MUCH FUN. Then my husband and I decided to do the Whole 30 in March of 2014, and I finally started losing weight.
Now, I can’t say whether the diet was the tipping point (Maybe it was that I ceased counting calories and, instead, just ate what I needed based on how hungry I was. There’s science that correlates calorie reduction with increased fat production), whether I’d just finally dragged my metabolism out of bed and got it moving, or some combination thereof, but for the first time I was seeing results on the scale. Funny thing: I didn’t really care. Sure, it was super nice to hear people tell me that I looked great or see the number on the scale dip below 190 (a place it hadn’t been since shortly after my wedding), but I was much more interested in the gains I was making in strength and endurance.
Ultimately, my weight normalized, but my story doesn’t end there. I’m still progressing, still setting goals, and not really concerning myself with the scale unless I’m prepping for a powerlifting meet.
Lest you think I’ve strayed, this does tie back to the great diet/weight loss debate in several ways:
- You can’t be healthy at any size. I started off at approximately 205 lbs. I couldn’t be healthy at that weight; I could be more healthy, but I was never going to be able to do a Tough Mudder or triathlon carrying around those extra pounds. But,
- You can be healthy at the size that’s right for you. Every person has a different body type, different metabolism, and different fitness goals. That “set range” mentioned by Mann is individual. For example: Woman A is 5’6″, 180 lbs. and a marathon runner; Woman B is 5’6″, 150 lbs. and can barely climb a single flight of stairs. Being healthy is about more than weight.
- No one should give up on their goals, but finding the right goals is key. You may have noticed that I never said whether I hit that 140 lbs. The truth is, it doesn’t fucking matter. I have a 200 lb. back squat and can run a mile in just over 7 minutes.
Now, I understand why people gravitate towards weight as a measure of health. I do. It’s readily accessible. And it can be a useful measure of progress as long as it’s not the only measure of progress. Focusing too much on weight—and even size—fosters unhealthy relationships with food and exercise which can be exacerbated by numerous psychological and social factors, some of which I touched on in the last installment. (Want more information? Check out the National Eating Disorder Association.)
What we need are better metrics and (forgive me for using 90s MBA speak) a paradigm shift. Next up: how to shift focus from weight loss to health.