Three months ago, I attended a workshop on re-framing how we discuss health and weight. It was an excellent and lively discussion and multimedia presentation. We watched various commercials (both print and television, domestic and foreign) as examples of how we treat people based on their appearance. Most of the examples were unsurprisingly of overweight or obese people, and how the messages are dehumanizing, hypercritical, and cruelly mocking. There were a few examples of thin people and how the message changes from moralizing and contemptuous to a knee-jerk diagnosis of an eating disorder or drug addiction (with all its attendant smug superiority). I learned quite a bit at this workshop, and it has clarified how I look at both myself, and the national problem of obesity-related problems in general.
One of the messages that I carried home with me (and has really stayed with me) is that we cannot tell how healthy an individual is by simply looking at them. All we can observe is that they are fat (or not) in the absence of their medical records (and the knowledge and skills to interpret the contents). Several of the people in attendance were not overweight or obese because of a personal failing to eat a proper diet or get regular exercise. Most of them gained a significant amount of weight as a result of taking medication for other health problems. For example, steroids are often prescribed for arthritis and asthma patients – and an unfortunate side effect is weight gain. In terms of their personal health, they are doing much better and are healthier despite the number on the scale.
As I reflect on myself however, I have no health problems and I take no medications. I am overweight simply because I ate too much of the wrong things, and too much of the right things, and failed to get off my ass and move. It’s really that simple.
I recently found a picture taken of me eleven years ago. I’m wearing a pair of tiny shorts and a tank top. The inscription says that I weigh 131 pounds. I’m soft, lacking much muscle definition, but I’m about 40 pounds lighter than I am now. I can’t stop looking at how big my smile is. I keep this picture hanging in my bathroom – a daily reminder – proof that I have been slender; that it is achievable.
For me, improving my health is synonymous with losing weight. I have a family history of diabetes and hypertension – both strongly correlated to obesity. Losing weight and keeping it off however, isn’t easy. It is hard work and it takes dedication and discipline to see (and maintain) results. I read recently that improving your health is much like opening a combination lock. If you only have three out of the four numbers, you don’t gain 75% access. Weight loss seems to be similar – doing a few things right yields very few (or no) results, but doing all the right things opens the lock and results come quickly.
From what I can tell, the following factors seem to be part of the combination lock of weight loss:
- What I eat
- How much I eat
- When I eat
- Frequency of exercise
- Quality/intensity of exercise
- Combination of Aerobic, strength, and flexibility training
- Getting enough quality sleep
- Managing stress
- Maintaining/creating thriving, loving relationships
Currently, I have another 40-50 pounds to lose. If I had to edit the analogy to the combination lock, I would say that the lock itself seems to reset after some results have been netted. I have lost over 20 pounds since last October, almost exclusively due to changing my eating habits. But now, the weight loss has stopped and my results have stabilized. Diet is no longer the only factor, so now I’m adding in more exercise in hopes to re-open the lock and start seeing losses again.
My husband often remarks that he wishes he could just flip a switch, or offer me a magic pill so that I could be instantly at my ideal weight. It’s a sweet sentiment, but we both know it’s impossible. Weight loss drugs have historically had ghastly side effects, some of which are permanent (like death). The trick of course, is to stay motivated to keep trying, to keep tweaking my diet, my exercise routine, and not get discouraged.
The silver lining in all this is that I now have a good idea of what to do to maintain my weight. If I could quickly (even suddenly) lose this last forty pounds, I would probably gain it all back just as quickly. I would have no clue as to the combination of factors that lead to the successful loss, or how to maintain it. I’m trying to enjoy the struggle, because this is after all, ultimately a lifestyle change, not just a short-term weight loss goal.