If, as a society, we want to become healthier – as opposed to simply continuing to spend money on "health" products and wasting time in a constant cycle of weight loss, weight gain, frustration and self-sabotage – we need to rethink how we frame health and weight.
For the most part we use aggressive language to talk about health and weight: "Fighting the battle of the bulge" becomes about going to "war" with one's body. The problem is, this type of discourse does not set anyone up for long-term success. If you launch a full-on assault on your body, it will inevitably fight back.
The language of war simply reinforces the unhealthy assumption that weight loss has to be aggressive to be effective, and that losing weight or adopting a healthier lifestyle, like a battle, has an eventual end date.
The experiences of The Biggest Loser contestants are a perfect – albeit extreme – example of this problematic war-and-weight discourse. Gina Kolata outlined in her New York Times article how virtually all of The Biggest Loser contestants regain any weight lost after the completion of the show. Kolata uses research on genetics and hormones to explain how the contestant's bodies "fight back for years" in order to return to their preshow weight.
Of course the contestants' metabolism and hormonal profile reacted negatively – the show's workout and diet regime is extreme. Their bodies appropriately rebelled.
Biggest Loser contestants are expected to suffer through seven plus hours of exercise on a low-calorie diet. Exercise stresses the body; it is only a positive stress in appropriate doses – and only then when you give your body the tools (such as food and rest) it needs to recover. Most athletes don't even train seven hours a day. When they do, they mitigate the damages of intense training by periodizing their workouts (cycling through different types of training), getting regular massage and consuming an incredibly nutritionally dense diet.
When you buy into this battle-the-bulge-at-all-costs mentality perpetuated by shows like The Biggest Loser, you risk actually missing the huge health benefits of exercising and eating well. Building muscle produces a cascade of positive health effects; muscle helps you preserve the health of your cardiopulmonary system (heart, lungs, and circulatory mechanisms), positively affects your metabolism, helps to sustain the mineral density of your bones, aids in retaining a healthy blood glucose tolerance, improves functional fitness and athleticism, increases energy and improves mood and sleep quality.
Weight loss and health are not synonymous. Everyone should prioritize movement, but not everyone needs to lose weight to become healthier. Sure, for many, losing weight is a large part of what they need to do to improve their health, but some individuals need to gain weight, while others have already lost weight and to lose more would be unhealthy.
If you need to lose weight for your health, aim to lose weight. But don't let the process turn into a full-on assault against yourself.
Ditch the war metaphors. Stop simply aiming to win the "weight loss battle." How much you weigh and your relationship with your body is a complicated product of your emotions, your family history, injuries past and present, how much you sleep, your hormonal profile, your diet, your genetics and your past and present exercise regimens. Make peace with your body. Gradually adjust your lifestyle as well as your expectations. Your unhealthy health habits were not formed in a day. It will take time to negotiate and foster new habits and build healthier preferences. Health is a long-term process. Persevere.
Kathleen Trotter has been a fitness writer, personal trainer and Pilates equipment specialist for more than 12 years. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter @KTrotterFitness.