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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Real Fitness Isn't About Weight Loss

This story was on my local nightly news last night (here's the text story if you don't want to watch).  I love that the news media is reporting on the incredible weight loss stories of people like this woman.  I think it's good to show stories like this, especially in our modern culture that is obsessed with the obesity epidemic as well as the latest and greatest diet craze.  Features like this can inspire a lot of people to start their own quest for physical fitness. 

At the same time, I dislike the way the media and shows like "The Biggest Loser" handle the concept of diet and fitness.  Usually scenes on The Biggest Loser involve Jillian Michaels yelling at some fatso on the treadmill for a half hour, or making them engage in some ridiculous exercise they can't complete while standing over them in a spandex two piece (not that I mind the standing part...Jillian Michaels is hot...in a scary, slightly manish way...which, now that I think about it, isn't hot at all).  The weekly weigh-ins on that show are like a game show.  I'm surprised nobody wins a car.  And everyone's diet is nonstop salads and chicken breast for months on end. 

Not only does the show make dieting and exercise look painful and not very fun, I think the whole premise of a diet and exercise plan that revolves around weight loss is a little ridiculous.  If you've followed my blog for a while, you already know what I think that sort of of fitness and diet regime.  If you haven't been following, first...what the hell is wrong with you?!  This blog should be the focus of your entire life!  Aside from that, whether you do or don't know, I'll give you a long and short version of that rant.  The long rant can be found on this guest post that I did for the Vanessa Runs blog. 

The short rant is this: I think that dieting and exercising solely for the purpose of weight loss is unsustainable at best, and downright unhealthy at worst.  If you are exercising and eating right only to lose weight, at least one of the following is going to happen: you'll lose interest in what you're doing, you'll plateau, or you'll reach your weight loss goals.  Either way you'll probably go off your diet and exercise plan at that point, and start sitting around on your fat ass eating cheesy poofs (or whatever food got your ass fat in the first place).  That's hard on your body, your mind, and especially your waistline. 

Here's an example.  I know a ton of people who are jumping on the P90X bandwagon.  Now I have no problem with P90X as a workout system.  It is very well balanced, and includes some of my favorite stuff like yoga and high-intensity interval training.  It produces amazing results.  I have plenty of friends that say things like, "P90X is amazeballs!  I lost 100lbs in two days doing 500 clapping push-ups and eating nothing but air!  YogaX and KenpoX bitches!"  I have no idea what that person just said, and if they are my facebook friend I probably just unfriended them for barking jibberish.  Quit putting the letter "X" after everything you say.  Anyway....

Here's my prediction.  That same person that lost 100lbs will not be working out or dieting in 3-6 months.  That's because, for as great as P90X is, it's also a 90 day program (hence the 90 in the P90X...I suppose the X stands for "extreme" and the P stands for "pay lots of money").  A lot of people I know go off of P90X after that 90 day cycle.  Some do because it's fricken hard and they don't like it.  Some because it takes up too much time.  Some people have reached their weight loss goals and don't see the need to do every conceivable type of push-up at 4am anymore, then go for a run at night. 

Whatever their reasons, the fact remains that the sort of rapid weight loss you see in the first 90 day cycle isn't sustainable.  You're going to plateau at some point when your body adapts to your diet and exercise intensity.  And since the focus of the program is on rapid weight-loss first and foremost, neither is P90X as a sustainable diet and exercise plan.  I don't know a single person who has continued to do P90X regularly after their first or second cycle (at least as prescribed...i.e. do every workout and follow the diet for 90 days at a pop).  What are they doing instead?  They're probably not moving as much, not eating as healthy, and slowly putting all of that weight back on.  The on-a-diet, off-a-diet, cycle of the American weight loss craze continues.

On the other hand, what I love about this news story is that it does the whole "look how much weight she lost!" story in a way that promotes a lifetime health and fitness.  Instead of making this woman's weight loss the primary focus of the feature, they talk about how she developed an interest in Muay Thai boxing.  They show how she signed up for a class, got hooked, and eventually developed enough skill and confidence in the sport to enter her first boxing competition.  Then they go on to tell you how you can get started with a physical activity or sport too.  Oh yeah...did I mention that in the meantime she lost 130 pounds?! 

I get a lot of questions from family, friends, and followers asking me for weight loss advice.  My answer is always the same.  Find a physical activity or sport that you really enjoy and do it...pretty much every day.  Eat a balanced diet in moderation, but don't worry so much about what you're eating or how much.  Just don't go crazy.  Your diet and your weight loss will take care of itself. 

Are you going to lose 100 lbs in 90 days?  Maybe...but probably not.  But you won't have to do 300 sit-ups while being screamed at by some meat head on a $90 DVD at 4am either.  Are you going to set yourself up for a lifetime of health and fitness?  No doubt in my mind. 

How do I know this?  Because when you find something in fitness that you love to do, you'll follow the same path as the lady in this news story.  You'll try the activity out a couple of times.  You'll get hooked and want to do it all the time.  You'll start doing it more and more.  Maybe you get a goal or two specific to your activity and want to push yourself to reach it.  That will make you work harder and longer.   

All the while, you're gaining confidence.  That's because with your new-found activity and slightly better diet, the weight is starting to come off.  Hey...this shit is working!  Not only that, you're gaining confidence because you're getting better at whatever you're doing.  You're getting faster, stronger, and more agile.  Hey...I'm actually good at something!  So you do the activity more, or more intensely.  And maybe you watch your diet a little better so that you get better results.  Everything snowballs on itself.  And it really doesn't have to stop.  Every success you have in your chosen activity can become motivation to achieve bigger things both in your fitness and your diet. 

I love this story because it aligns with how I think everyone should approach their weight loss goals.  That is, weight loss shouldn't be your goal in a fitness and diet plan at all.  Weight loss should be a welcome side effect.  Lifelong fitness and happiness should be your goal. 

Your weight is just a number, and a pretty arbitrary one at that.  I've been both the most and least healthy in my life at my current weight of 195lbs.  During my last year of college, I weighed 195lbs...and I chain-smoked, drank, ate crap, never worked out, and had a beer belly along with size 36 waist pants that fit me pretty snuggly (hey...that's big for a tall, lanky guy!).  Now I weigh 195lbs and I can run further and faster than ever before, I have more strength, I eat a healthy paleo diet, and I just feel plain better.  And my body doesn't look too shabby either.  Although it was never my goal, I fit into the same pants that I wore when I first entered college as a 165 lb beanpole dork as a 195lb beanpole dork. 

I certainly am proud to be back to the same waist size as I was in high school.  You know what I'm more proud of?  Running a marathon in memory of my father (love you Dad!).  Besides...what's more impressive?  Someone saying, "I lost 50 lbs"....or someone saying, "I lost 50 lbs and just finished my first marathon!"  Your weight loss goals aren't going to be there forever.  Eventually you'll have lost all the weight you can reasonably lose.  A sport or physical activity you love will provide you with a lifetime worth of motivation and happiness.

None of us folk that you see lining up at the start of a marathon, or an Ironman triathlon, or even a Muay Thai boxing competition got that way overnight.  We followed the same path as that lady in the video.  Maybe we lost 100 lbs in a short period of time like this lady...maybe we didn't.  But we're probably fairly satisfied with the way we look and feel.  And after this marathon, you'll probably see us at the starting line of another one, and another one, and another one.  We don't worry about our weight or our diet much anymore because it's where it needs to be to achieve our goals.  We don't quit running or whatever because the race is over and the goal is met.  We'll just get another goal.  And we do it all because we love what we do. 

Find what you love and do it today citizens!


  1. Well said. I know I still have lbs to lose but it secondary now. I had an epiphany when out sledding with the kids and another family. I took a trip down and hiked back up. The other mom did the same. Her daughter wanted to go again and the mom was huffing and puffing and said she needed a minute. I gave myself a once over and I wasn't even breathing heavy. She may look better than me in a bathing suit but I can hike a hill without dying anymore ;)

  2. Great point Colleen. You can be skinny and still be unhealthy. In that case, what is it all good for? I imagine that although that woman looks thin, she probably isn't all that happy, and has an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise.

  3. Great post, Christian! Running has been so magical for me since it's the first exercise I've so completely fallen in love with that it's really not even tempting to stop. Maybe that'll change some day, but I've been at it a year and a half and I just want to keep going.

    I was one of those skinny but not entirely fit people. Now I'm fit, and that's a great feeling.

  4. Frank Forencich from Exuberant Animal says basically the same thing. He is vehemently opposed to the idea of exercise as we do it today (in a gym, or with a regimented plan). I highly recommend his recent book Change your Body, Change the World, where he goes into these ideas much deeper. It really got me to change my whole worldview on fitness.

  5. Thank you for the reminder, Chris, that it's about having fun and doing something you enjoy for the rest of your life, and the health/weight is actually a bonus. I started looking for ways to have fun with my little nephew outside, playing ball with him, and I get a great workout without thinking about it.
    Life's too short to worry about my weight. I'm healthy and I'm becoming more active, as well as enjoying my family, and that's what life is about.

  6. I'm really glad to have read this post today. Just last night, my wife was talking to me about getting the P90X DVD so that she can exercise at home. (Neither of us really know much about the program) Now, thanks to this post, I know exactly what I need to know about P90X. And, I can, once again, recommend that she just go find something she likes to do instead of forcing herself to workout on the glider thingy at the gym, or whatever.

  7. Personally, I love P90X workouts. I love exercising at such high intensity that I keel over afterwards. I do that sort of workout becasue its applications for running and strength are amazing. It is by no means "fun", and I think that's why P90X has such a high dropout rate.

    Treadmills and gym exercise equipment for me falls into the same category. They are dumb and boring and you don't want to do them, so you don't stick to any sort of program.

    Here's a suggestion for a good home exercise program for your wife: The Gaiam Yoga Club. It's a downloadable home yoga workout. http://www.gaiamyogaclub.com/

    You might even like it too.

  8. Thanks for the Gaiam Yoga Club suggestion, MGBG! I can see why you might think I'd like it, too. ;-P

  9. I couldn't agree more!

    IMHO, the first step to real towards real fitness is to realize this. For a lot of overweight folks, especially women, this also means fixing the unhealthy emotional connection to food and gaining a more realistic idea of what is morbidly obese, obese, overweight and realistic. The combination of an unhealthy emotional connection to food and a warped body image is what makes a fatty, as opposed to someone who is overweight.

    I think I'm a great example. I've been overweight so much of my life, I didn't really have any problems with being overweight. I was used to it. In fact, I resented it more than anything else when friends and family would presume to tell me how to live. I don't think this is a defensible view, especially if you have a family of any sort, but that's how I felt.

    At some point, I started making positive life changes. This was entirely motived by internal changes- I would be a father soon, and I wanted to be more fit more than anything else so that I would be around to see my kid(s) grow up and have the energy to chase them around.

    I started a program of exercise, mostly weight training. Nothing hardcore, but I stuck to it religiously. It's all stuff anyone could do from their home with a set of weights from a garage sale. My energy levels and libido soared, the food I wanted to eat was healthier, and the weight began dropping off. A year later, I had lost 100 lbs. Four years later, I am a parent with of an awesome three year old. I've lost another 30 lbs. Weight loss has slowed quite a bit, mostly because it's a lot harder to find the time to actually go to the gym with the distractions of a wife and young son. Even so, I've not gained back an ounce and I still have the improved energy.

    I may still be obese, but I can haul ass. I don't run, but I am an avid walker and hiker. I realized that if I can hike 10-15 miles in a day with a 30 lb pack at 2.5 mph on moderate sections of the Superior Hiking Trail that there's no reason I can't do a road or trail marathon. So I signed up for the Grandma's half marathon and the Half Voyageur full marathon. Still haven't gotten the running thing down, but I do have my road walking pace up to 3.5 - 4 mph- my understanding is that I need to sustain at least 4 mph to be allowed to complete Grandma's. I'm hoping I can figure out how to run at least a few miles during the Grandma's half as insurance for my 4 mph minimum speed.

    Even if you're vain/have body image issues, working out for fitnesses sake rather than weight loss is still makes a lot of sense. Even 100+ lbs overweight, I looked so much better after a month of regular weight training than before- the human body is meant to have muscles and the attendant contours and curves. Men and women who are close to their suggested weight with no muscle have less attractive bodies than those someone who is whole body fit and 20 lbs overweight.

    Apologies for the long, rambling post- have fun!


  10. Tomorrow I'll wake up, do some P90X
    Find a really nice girl, have some really nice sex
    And she's gonna scream out
    This is great
    (Oh my god, this is great)

    Yeah, I might mess around
    And get my college degree
    I bet my old man will be so proud of me
    But sorry pops, you'll just have to wait

    Oh yes, I said it, I said it
    I said it 'cause I can

    Today I don't feel like doing anything
    I just wanna lay in my bed
    Don't feel like picking up my phone, so leave a message at the tone
    'Cause today I swear I'm not doing anything

  11. Great post. Picking something you can do for life both in exercise and diet are the only ways that results are going to stick around.

  12. Rev, thanks so much for sharing your story with us! After I wrote this post, I've been sharing a lot about my issues with body image when I was more of a bodybuilder. In short, because of the nature of my sport I was completely obsessed with my body image. No amount of progress was ever good enough. I learned that the best way to feel bad about yourself is to put the way you look as a goal over the way you feel and your happiness in what you're doing. You can't really control the way you look. But you can have a good attitude and do something you enjoy every day.

    You have the right idea. Keep up the good work!



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