If your weight falls outside of the recommended Body Mass Index for your height, you’re not alone. An estimated 63% Americans are considered overweight, and of that number, half meet the clinical definition of obesity. Those numbers are up dramatically from just a few decades ago, prompting medical professionals, the media, and the government to proclaim that we are in the midst of an “obesity epidemic.”
For larger Americans, the pressure to lose weight for the sake of one’s health is immense. Doctors warn that extra weight is associated with increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other life-threatening illnesses, and many health plans and workplaces, citing those concerns, have begun to charge higher premiums for patients whose BMI falls outside of the recommended percentage.
Making matters more difficult is research showing that sustained weight loss is statistically improbable for most overweight people. Anywhere between 80-95% of dieters regain all of the weight they’d lost, and then some, even if they maintain positive habits such as proper nutrition and exercise after achieving their weight loss goals. No one knows why that is, exactly, but some cite a combination of genetics and “cell memory,” the idea that the fat cells in the bodies of larger people “remember” their former size and fight against weight loss efforts in order to get back to that size.
Does that mean all larger people who fail to lose weight or keep it off are doomed to live short, unhealthy lives? Not necessarily.
A growing body of evidence supports the idea that nutrition and physical fitness have a much larger impact on health and longevity than body shape. In fact, overweight people who engage in healthy habits — such as exercising daily, eating five or more servings of fruits or vegetables per day, not smoking, and drinking only in moderation — tend to live as long, or longer than, thinner people who engage in those same healthy habits. It’s only when nutrition, exercise, and other healthy habits are removed from the picture that the risk of premature death increases for larger people.
That’s great news for anyone who has struggled in vain to shed weight, or succeeded in doing so only to watch the pounds pile back on.
Bolstered by such research is the growing “Health at Every Size” movement. Grounded in the conviction that people are more likely to take care of themselves if they are motivated by an internal desire to feel good rather than by external factors or shame about their bodies, some health experts are working to help overweight people to take steps right now, as they are, to lead healthier lives.
In addition to dropping the size shame, the Health at Every Size concept stresses the importance of pleasure as a motivator for healthy habits. Finding fun ways to incorporate movement into your daily life is preferable to attempting grueling, unpleasant workout routines that are likely to fall by the wayside. Possibilities include taking a dance or martial arts course, swimming (a low-impact activity that can be good for those with joint issues), daily walks with a friend or dog, cycling, or joining an amateur sports league. Of course, what is pleasurable for one person may be painful for another. The important thing is to find what works for you and stick with it. If an activity starts to feel like a chore, replace it with something more fun, or mix things up by doing different activities on different days of the week.
Likewise, in trying to eat healthier, it’s important not to demonize foods you love as “bad,” or to try to eat only things you don’t enjoy. When it comes to adopting healthier eating habits, feeling deprived only leads failure and guilt. Rather, think of fruits and vegetables you do enjoy and try to find ways to incorporate them into your diet more often. If you’re having a sandwich, make sure to add some healthy, flavorful greens and/or a slice of tomato. Having a bowl of cereal? Top it with some fruit. For snacks, opt for sources of protein and good fats, such as nuts and avocados.
While eating more nutritious food and exercising daily may lead to weight loss for some, Health at Every Size advocates say that’s beside the point. Whether you lose weight or not, adopting these behaviors is virtually guaranteed to make you feel better be healthier overall.