It’s been the mantra of media and health experts for at least the last three decades. What is the solution to the western world’s supposed weight and health crisis? (the question of this "crisis" is a blog post for another day...)
“Eat less and move more”
It sounds like a simple enough concept. So simple in fact, that personally, I've often felt like a fool for being so inept at consistently applying it in my own life. I got to thinking recently, "What is it exactly that makes this basic formula so difficult for us to put into practice?"
1. Our culture is currently too disembodied and fear-based to apply such an open concept to health and well being.
The realities of health and wellness industry messaging offer little to none of the simplicity and choice suggested by the "eat less, move more" mantra. Dive into any health related website, book, blog or podcast and more often than not you will find preachers of very specific, often extremist and disembodied approaches to food and exercise. Undoubtedly you will find some version of a rule book that lays out” good” vs “bad” and then something you can purchase in order to stick with the good and avoid the bad. The reason for this, I believe, is that as disconnected humans, we actually have no bloody idea what to do with such broad suggestions. Dogmatic and externally based approaches to food and exercise are attractive and continue to be the norm because we struggle so mightily to get in touch with the deeper needs and desires that should serve as our compass. To add to that, even in moments when we do feel that delicious electric pulse of connection, we are instantly told that it is not be trusted. No wonder we're so confused about how move and eat, the system is rigged and raises us this way.
2. The mantra is problematic in that it completely ignores psycho-emotional and social aspects of health.
Our culture is in desperate need of an expanded definition of what it means to be healthy. Did you know that one of the biggest predictors of health and longevity for humans actually has to do with the strength of one’s social/family network and sense of community? It turns out that connection (ding ding ding!!) is actually far more important than what we put in our mouths or how many miles we run. Somehow this information never seems to get disseminated from media or online health gurus to the same degree that diet and exercise data does. Perhaps this is because there is little money to be made in the selling of connection and so few repeat customers when people are capably filling up their own health and well being cups with something free flowing and sustainable. It’s truly time we stop ignoring the myriad of other factors that lend themselves to being fulfilled, healthy human beings and to take food and fitness out of the driver's seat for a while.
3. The implied assumption is that eating less and moving more leads to weight loss, that weight loss is the yellow brick road to health and that health is something all of us must constantly and tirelessly be striving for.
These are not universal truths and yet they are often touted as such. You are expected to want to be healthy. You are told that it is your duty to society, in fact; to consistently be striving to become less of a burden on the medical system, to be healthy for the sake of the loved ones in your lives and weight loss is the path that will get you there. Enough already. Let’s leave room for people needing and wanting to eat MORE and move LESS. Let’s stop once and for all this conflation of smaller and thinner (not mention whiter and cis-gendered) bodies being inherently healthier. AND let’s continue to refer back to point number 2 and remember that the scope of health is so much broader than what we are currently allowing it to be. These assumptions are what lead directly to the cheering on of disordered eating and exercise behaviours in our friends and family as well as the shaming of those who choose not to participate. No more.
4. This is a grand oversimplification of the steps required to change food and exercise behaviours.
I am 100% likely to get riled up when I overhear or observe people discussing health and weight loss and someone (someone, I'll add, who most likely is not a person who uses food as a coping mechanism but equally likely employs a different, less visible form of coping since we all do) inevitably chimes in with our chippy mantra. “Well, all you have to do Barbara, is eat less and move more”. Fuuuck. Anyone who’s tried to work this oversimplification knows that there is so much more to the story. Getting underneath behaviours of disordered eating and exercise, requires a deep dive into the core of why these behaviours are happening. Anyone who has done any kind of therapy or personal work on this knows that the answers to these questions often lie deep in our subconscious minds and require difficult and often excruciating digging into childhood messaging and past traumas. This is not simple work. It’s not that simple. Stop oversimplifying it.
Several years ago I committed to venture outside the mainstream diet and exercise health chatter and instead invited my body to captain the ship. Here are a few things I’ve figured out so far:
*Truly connecting with your body is something the majority of us do not know how to do AND within that connection lies the key to our health at any given time. Connection requires pause in a world that never pauses. It requires that we get curious as well as compassionate about the various distraction mechanisms we employ in a culture where distraction is sold (oh right, capitalism again!) to us repeatedly as the top drug of choice for the existential pain of humanity *(side note: a certain amount of distraction in order to cope with life on this planet is completely healthy and normal, in my opinion and this includes sedentary things like Netflix binges and eating!). Currently, we are disconnected from each other, from the land and Mother Earth as a whole and from ourselves. I believe this is at the root of so much of what is ailing us and threatening our very existence as a species. The body is not typically loud (unless something has gotten so far out of balance that it is sending you messages through ill health) so we must become quiet in order to fully embody and understand it. Only then can we follow it’s wisdom and find a path to what health and happiness looks like for each of us as individuals throughout the course of our lives. Perhaps we'll even save ourselves in the process.
*Allowing your body to lead you in our current culture is an act of rebellion. When you start doing things like no longer discussing your body in disparaging ways or deciding to skip the gym in favour of a nap or you eat grilled cheese sandwiches on gluten full sourdough bread every other day for a month because you love them (*enthusiastically raises hand on this one), you find out very quickly how counter culture listening to the wisdom of your body truly is. It's simply not done. It's not modelled or mentored and yet it's THE pathway to peace. I encourage you, when you're ready, to start modelling this for those in your circle. See if you can help them get a little free too.
*It turns out for me (and I’m guessing maybe for many of you as well) that “movement” and “working out/exercising” are very different mental concepts. Our bodies actually require a lot less “working out” than most of us think they do and certainly less than the fitness industry would have us believe. I know for myself that I became infinitely happier AND healthier when I stopped trying to “work out” quite so much. Playing volleyball, hiking with my partner, shooting hoops with my son, having sex, dancing in the kitchen as dinner is cooking. None of these things are done for the purpose of “exercise”, they are done for the sense of connection and the pleasure sensations they create, yet they all encompass moving my body in ways that’s good for it. They are all forms of exercise yet after so many years of indoctrination on what it means in our culture to "perform" exercise, they are not framed that way in my mind. Bonus: they also don’t require any of the nonsense vigilance or tracking in order to continue doing them. This makes them SO MUCH EASIER to do consistently. This is the answer.
*I don’t actually need to eat less and move more, I need to eat intuitively and move intuitively and sometimes that means I need to eat more and move less. The longer I come to trust my body and the more embodied I become, the less I look to any kind of health or fitness advice or instruction. To me this is freedom. Freedom from the constraints of capitalism and from the sexist ways that I’ve been told to alter my body since I was a girl. As long as I am truly inhabiting my body, it has yet to steer me wrong.
Lori Race is a healer, health clinic owner and writer with a passionate message to share from her past as a fitness instructor suffering from compulsive exercise disorder.