NPR reports that this past year, half of all New Year’s resolutions in the U.S. were based on fitness and “nearly half were based on weight loss.” We also know that by March, many resolutions traditionally tend to fade away. Maybe it’s time we start looking at this annual end-of-year self-improvement ritual in a new, more productive way — like the idea that the goal of exercise needs to be seen as much more than just to lose weight. What about to live longer, to sharpen our thinking, to ward off disease? These goals are said to be more likely to net instant and obtainable results to build upon.
NPR recently launched a campaign to examine the role that diet culture, that collective set of social expectations we impose on ourselves, plays in setting a weight-loss resolution up for failure.
Says Nadia Craddock, a body image researcher at the Center for Appearance Research in the U.K., “There’s that very common error of equating health and fitness as one and the same and that you can tell how healthy someone is by their body size.” She defines diet culture as that voice “telling us that there’s one way to be and one way to look and one way to eat, that we are a better person, we’re a more worthy person if our bodies are a certain way.”
Take, for example, a comment that we generally think of as a compliment: “You look great. Did you lose weight?” Craddock says it is one of those “coded comments” that reinforces what is often a counterproductive reaction. It’s “really about endorsing and reinforcing those ideas that to be thinner is to be better. What happens when they regain the weight? Are they no longer amazing?”
Dr. Robert Sallis is a former president of the American College of Sports Medicine and inspired a campaign called “Exercise is Medicine,” which encourages physicians to discuss a patient’s physical activity with them and even “prescribe” it. He recently explained to NBC News that he encourages patients to keep going with their exercise program even if they aren’t losing weight. Often, “there is this singular focus on their weight,” but “weight has so little to do with the benefits.” If you can get patients who are overweight to be active, they get the same health benefits … Sedentary people who get moving can start feeling better right away.”
As Time magazine contributor and author of “The Healthy Skeptic” Robert J. Davis recently reported, “Exercise — at least the kind most of us do — is typically ineffective for weight loss … Studies overall show that doing moderate-intensity aerobic exercise such as walking for 30 minutes a day, five days a week — the amount recommended for good health — typically produces little or no weight loss by itself. When moderate exercise is added to diet, the results are equally unimpressive.”
“Perhaps the biggest problem with exercising to drop pounds is that it turns physical activity into punishment — a price we have to pay for a slimmer body,” says Davis. “By framing exercise as penance, we’re unlikely to enjoy it or to keep doing it for very long. The takeaway is that we’re more likely to perceive exercise positively and actually do it when we focus on our well-being rather than our weight.”
He also says that “in studies where exercise has produced meaningful weight loss, participants burned at least 400 to 500 calories per session on five or more days a week.” To put this in perspective, he noted that “a 150-pound person would need to log a minimum of 90 minutes per day of brisk walking or 30 minutes of running 8-minute miles,” and “even if we manage to exert that much effort, our bodies often compensate by boosting appetite and dialing down metabolism, effects that over time limit how many pounds we shed … to improve the odds of success, focus on how movement helps you feel better physically and emotionally — and forget about how it moves the needle on the scale.”
As reported by Time, new scientific studies show that exercise affects nearly every cell in the body and that the byproducts of physical activity, even if it doesn’t produce weight loss, help cells and tissues to get healthier. It has also been shown that combining that exercise with the outdoors can improve mood as well as a sense of physical well-being.
I have written often over the years about the health benefits of the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” first introduced in 1982. In March 2019, I noted that taking in the forest through our senses — sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch — can generate a profound sense of well-being. Much of the research from Japan suggests that phytoncides, the organic compounds released by trees, might explain the health-boosting properties of forest bathing.
Whether indoors or out, exercise can make you feel physically and mentally stronger or more in control of your life. Let the motivation to live life longer take the lead and let the rest follow. “It’s perhaps the most important thing you can do for your health,” says Davis.