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Paul Landini
Paul Landini

Why the Carleton gym scale controversy is light on facts about weight loss Add to ...

At 75 years old, my father is in better shape than most people half his age. He’s lean, moves well, suffers from none of the ailments that tend to strike later in life, and, much to the surprise of every doctor he speaks to, takes no medication at all. Genetics play a role in this (he was born and raised in Sardinia, one of the so-called Blue Zones where a large proportion of residents lead vibrant lives well into their 100s), but ask him and dad will say it all comes down to food.

The Mediterranean diet – a simple approach to eating that focuses on plant-based foods, healthy fats, and the occasional glass of red wine – was front and centre in our household, long before doctors even gave it a fancy name. Dad has also been a long-standing advocate for portion control and moderation. This is a man to whom the words “all you can eat” are an affront to moral decency. He eats when he’s hungry, stops when he is not, and when his pants start fitting a little too tight, he eats less. Ask him what he weighs and he’ll shrug his shoulders before offering an estimate that hasn’t changed by so much as a pound during my lifetime. I don’t even think my parents own a bathroom scale.

I thought of dad when word came out Wednesday that Carleton University had reversed its decision to remove scales from its gym. A seemingly well-intended move meant to discourage students from obsessing over weight became international news, with social-media trolls and professional pundits opining against this generation’s slide into yet a deeper circle of political-correctness hell. Now the university has issued a statement saying it was responding to feedback from fitness centre users. “While we will continue to provide educational information on various health measurements that shift the focus away from weight, we do understand that some people want to weigh themselves, and so we have provided scales in the change rooms,” public affairs manager Beth Gorham said in the statement.

Part of me understands the outrage. It’s the same part that seethes whenever talk turns to trigger warnings and safe spaces, the angry old man in me who thinks kids today are soft and spoiled. But then there’s that other part, the part that works with people who struggle with their weight and has seen how crippling body-image disorders can be. If you’ve ever had a frank conversation with someone who hates himself or herself because of his or her weight, chances are you’ll understand what the folks at Carleton were hoping to achieve.

One of the problems whenever a story like this makes the rounds is that people tend to stop reading after they’ve seen the headline. That, or they learn the details from a secondhand source that twists the story to fit a narrative. Take the time to read the original article published in The Charlatan, Carleton’s independent weekly newspaper, and you’ll learn this isn’t a case of crybaby students being coddled. According to Bruce Marshall, the manager of the university gym, the scale in question was removed not because of complaints, but because of a shift in “current fitness and social trends.”

“We don’t believe being fixated on weight has any positive effect on your health and wellbeing,” Marshall said to the Charlatan reporter.

I agree.

The health and fitness industry is indeed undergoing a paradigm shift, wherein a more compassionate and less rigid approach is quickly becoming the norm. The days of grinding clients into dust and insisting upon calculated diet plans have led us nowhere. Successful trainers now focus on the long game; they work with clients to develop small and sustainable lifestyle changes, building upon past successes so that healthy eating and exercise become second nature. Can the scale be a useful tool in this approach? Absolutely. But it is just that – a tool, one of many, and probably the least useful of the lot.

Despite evidence collected by the U.S.-based National Weight Control Registry suggesting that regularly weighing oneself is essential to maintaining a healthy body weight, I discourage my clients from using weight as a measure of success. Instead, we use performance-based metrics. How many pushups can you do today compared to last month? How much weight have you added to your deadlift since we started training? And when it comes to body composition, there are other means of tracking changes – the mirror, the fit of your clothes – that are arguably less oppressive than the almighty scale.

For too long, we’ve been a society enslaved by the scale. Let’s change that. Let’s channel that energy toward creating healthy habits that support your goals, habits that leave you feeling fulfilled and successful rather than depleted and diminished. Eat more vegetables and less meat. Cut back on the booze. Turn off the TV and go for a walk. And when you’re in the gym, focus on building muscle rather than burning calories. A sensible strength-training program combined with a healthy, plant-based diet can deliver incredible results. Just ask my dad.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator at the Toronto West End College Street YMCA. You can follow him on Twitter @mrpaullandini.

-with a report from the Canadian Press

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