Let’s Talk About Health: Misconceptions

I’m still trying to stabilize my plans for this month – my neck / the chiropractor, along with some personal stuff, has derailed this week – so as I work to figure out where I’m going with my workouts in August, I want to talk a little about, basically, this: how you decide where you want to go.

The definition of efficiency is getting the most out of the least: getting the most output out of the least input. But how do you define these variables? Is your input money? Time? Effort? Sweat equity? And what’s your output? There are so many things we can track – pressured by the industry, by books, by each other, by body image.

One thing I’ve learned over the years that’s important to understand:

“getting healthy” ≠ “losing weight” ≠ “looking thinner” ≠ “being fit”

Just take a look at that for a second.

Getting healthy. What is it? How do you define it? Getting healthy could mean eating better; it could mean working out more; it could mean working out less; it could mean working out smarter. It could mean stressing less about how you’re working out. It could mean things unrelated to activity: not getting sick as much, managing a chronic illness, functioning with daily pain. It’s usually an overall thing, yes, and has to be considered from so many angles – but we have to define where we are going if we want to build a path to get there.

Losing weight is actually not a great judge of “health”. It can be, of course. But a) muscle, which gives you a much healthier body composition, actually weighs more; b) due to muscle/fat distribution, someone can look thinner but weigh more –  muscle takes up far less space and looks better; and c) many people can vary 5 lb or more over any given day or given week due to water intake, salt retention, phase of the moon, etc.  And yet so many people are so focused on the scale.

Looking thinner isn’t necessarily a good gauge of “health” either. In some cases it might be – where a more muscled person would weigh more but look thinner than their less-muscled counterpart – but declaring ‘skinny’ to be ‘healthy’ isn’t correct either. Plus, people who don’t feed their bodies correctly aren’t being “healthy” either, no matter how “thin” they may appear.

Being fit is confusing, too. What defines someone who is fit? The ability to do 100 pushups? To run a 5K? Being able to bench press a certain weight? Running a marathon? There are many different kinds of ‘fitness’ – and some are mutually exclusive, for anyone who isn’t a professional athlete.

I’m sure everyone can think of a couple people who slot right into a certain area of this odd set of overlapping ideals. Someone who runs 20 miles a week and has completed half-marathons but still carries some pudge around their belly. Someone who appears tall and slender, but sits at the computer all day, eats junk, and can’t walk a mile without getting winded. Someone who could barely run a mile, but can do pull-ups until the sun sets; someone who can run a marathon but couldn’t do 10 proper form push-ups. Someone who is carring 10-15 extra pounds, but takes long slow walks and does yoga. Someone who batters their body with running lifting and contact sports so that they’re almost always sore and injured. Somewhere in the middle of all of these options lies actual health. Where do we find it?

If you want to run a marathon, you’re going to need to become a completely different kind of healthy than if you want to start lifting heavy weights. You’ll need a different regimen: long slow runs, vs short high-intensity intervals. You’ll need a different diet: carbs vs protein. You’ll look differently at the end. But both are healthy- and in the busy world most adults have to deal with now, ‘both’ isn’t an option.

And let’s not forget what we get marketed, the things we’re being sold: thin is healthy, according to the ads and the health campaigns, and food is sin; low-fat! low-carb! fake sweeteners! treat yourself to that brownie if you worked out. It’s a mindfuck, plain and simple.

The answers are complicated. But the first thing to do is wade through all of the misconceptions and misinformation out there and decide: what is it that you want your body to do?