A fascinating, lay article in the Huffington Post, with the catchy title, “Everything You Know About Obesity is Wrong“, attempts to offer readers a simple, and emotionally moving, synopsis of obesity science. It is heartbreaking at times as interviewees often express lifelong feelings of pain and shame, and society and the medical community don’t help.
Thus, I want to highlight one woman’s statement after her daughter’s doctor made a comment upon seeing the woman that anyone in the fitness world will recognize: “Well, whatever you’re doing now,” the doctor said, “it’s working.”
Her feelings about his comments are, “If you looked at anything other than my weight,” Enneking says now, “I had an eating disorder. And my doctor was congratulating me.”
I hope you can sense the pain in her statement. Here’s a doctor congratulating, even encouraging, an obese person to continue starving herself, enough though she’d lost her menstrual cycle, as if that would solve her weight problem! Shameful.
It’s counter-intuitive for a fitness professional of over 30 years to be writing in defense of the overweight and obese in our culture, in any culture. After all, I read about 10 newsletters monthly, all of which address weight in some context or another, be it about disease, arthritis, psychology or mortality. I know both from experience with weight management, lecturing fellow fitness pros and my research that obesity is a multi-pronged ordeal for those who carry that weight with them physically and emotionally.
I know from my work with the original Eating Disorders Coalition of Tennessee, now called Renewed, that the emotional toll of a negative body image doesn’t just strike those who starve or vomit their way toward thinness.
My reasons for getting involved at the EDCT’s inception in the early 2000s was to raise awareness and concern, and outreach, to the broader trends in our society and culture toward excess weight vs the upper-class, first world issues of those who’ve been struggling with anorexia or bulimia. The obese are the forgotten, and unforgiven, class, garnering little sympathy not just from society or family but even from experts such as doctors or, worse still, fitness professionals.
A few years ago at an ACSM annual meeting, I heard a lecture on the Obesity Paradox. This contends that being lean and sedentary is a greater risk factor for disease than being too fat and fit. There’s more to this than this synopsis – as in these previous posts here, here, here and here – suggests but it’s enough to start from. Because my beef with the healthcare industry at all levels, as the article I’m commenting on clearly states, is that there are unreasonable expectations and inconsiderate approaches to helping people manage excess weight.
The reason I argue this is not because of the data showing how dangerous excess weight is – it is highly correlated with all kinds of medical and lifestyle risks. Despite a recent article in Prevention magazine on line that discusses a study showing there is really no such thing as the Obesity Paradox in the long run – that is, eventually obesity will take its toll – I believe it is still of paramount importance to encourage the overweight/obese to participate in a regular exercise program.
When working with overweight clients, I struggle against my own prejudices using my knowledge of weight-related physiology and metabolism to counter the words and advice prejudice and socialization would spout. As a lifelong ectomorph, able to eat pretty much as I desire, and able to exercise as much as I want (hell, I own a gym, for goodness sake!!), I can’t help but think others could – SHOULD – at least try to lean down.
But knowledge is a powerful mediator and moderator, if one allows it to be.
Knowledge of leptin, ghrelin and other appetite-related hormones, even without knowing the actual molecular biology, enlightens one to the realities of metabolism faced by those with weight issues. Knowledge of genetics, without fully understanding or even appreciating the nuances of genetics, enlightens one on the pre-birth destinies many obese people confront once they are able to make informed choices. Knowledge of exercise and eating behaviors, and options – a critical piece of the broader struggle against excess weight, buffers one against the prejudices of the uninformed even if one holds those prejudices.
In other words, the article in the HuffPost offers knowledge. It encourages those with weight issues to face up to these issues in their struggles against society and their own self-loathing, not by extreme measures to lose weight but by finding peace with their bodies, minds and place in this world. It supports efforts to live healthfully without the browbeating measures to lose weight.
For a professional personal fitness instructor, this article is a good reminder that our mission in life – to help others become and live more healthfully – supersedes any effort to make others leaner. We can’t. Maybe they can’t.
But we can all get healthier by making those small changes away from the socio-politico-economic norms that are imposing themselves on both health and happiness.
Let the revolution begin!