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Why we need to focus on fitness not fatness

Fitness not weight should be the focus







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I delivered a talk called ‘Why fitness is more important than weight’ at TEDx Wandsworth in November 2016. This is a transcript of the talk, or you can watch it online.

According to a 2012 study, the average British woman spends 17 years of her life on a diet. A 2013 research by the National Institute for Health Research produced even more alarming results: 25% of 13-year-old girls are skipping meals to stay thin. And if you think 13 is too early to go on a diet, there is a study by the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, according to which children as young as three are beginning to show signs of unhappiness about their appearance and body. Our mirrors are taking over our life and that of our children and this needs to end now.

Let me tell you a little story: A few months ago I went to see a show, called Circa, on London’s Southbank. It was put on by a small group of acrobats, male and female, who performed non-stop for 75 minutes. It was a remarkable display of athleticism, strength and bravery. After the show had finished, one thing really struck me and it was nothing to do with the tricks I’d just seen. It was about how different all their physiques were. Some of them were very outwardly muscular, some less so. They were all clearly immensely strong, but some had a little layer of body fat concealing their abs, or some had puppy fat on their thighs. All pretty normal stuff but from people who were doing the most extraordinary things. It occurred to me right then that we’ve got things wrong. For many of us, the pursuit of the perfect-looking body means we’ve forgotten about what’s more important – the health of our bodies. We praise people who are skinny ignoring the fact that this could just as well be the result of an unhealthy, restricted diet. What if we focused on what we can achieve with our bodies rather than obsessing about how we look? What if we switched our focus from fatness to fitness?

Good physical fitness is important for many reasons. It helps to protect us from injury and reduces the risk of illnesses. It means we can do things like play sport, take part in activities and socialise in a healthy setting. Everyday tasks like shopping, climbing stairs and walking become easier. Not only do physically demanding things become easier, but you feel stronger and better equipped to try new things, and that’s because the journey of becoming fit forces you to confront difficult challenges and then overcome them, and that’s a great skill to have. Exercise can be enjoyable but it can also take you into your discomfort zone, and I think that can be really healthy. I personally do something at least four times a year that takes me into my discomfort zone, because I find it makes me physically, emotionally and mentally resilient. My world literally expanded when I became very fit, but this is also because I used fitness to help me through a very difficult time in my life. In March 2012 I was treated for alcoholism, and one of the ways I recovered was by focusing on my fitness. Instead of changing the way I felt by drinking bottles of wine, I used exercise. I can’t overstate the power that exercise has for building resilience and changing how you feel about yourself and the world but in a very healthy way.

And let me debunk a few myths around exercise. A common misconception is that you need a lot of time to exercise effectively. That’s not true. You can achieve a lot in just 15 minutes of high-intensity exercise, and a fasted cardio session such as a 20 or 30-minute run in the morning can be very effective. The quality and intensity of what you’re doing is more important than the duration in most cases.

Another myth is that you need to join a gym or have access to a lot of equipment. Again, not true. Parkrun is now hugely popular – for those of who don’t know it’s a 5K run every Saturday in parks all over the country that’s free to sign up for. It’s also perfectly possible to do a workout in a hotel room or in your own home using only your bodyweight or some of the furniture as props. And let’s not forget our daily commute. Consider walking whenever you can. I have a rule called the ‘three stop rule’ which means if my tube journey is three stops of less, I walk. I think walking is vastly underestimated as a mechanism for getting fit. This will take a minute to get your head around, but it requires approximately 100 calories to travel a mile on foot irrespective of how fast you’re going. So in other words, it’s as effective to walk a mile as it is to run. The efficiency comes in how quickly you’ll get there if you run. So walking is a great way to burn off excess calories, strengthen your bones and joints and maintain good heart health. What’s not to love?

Yes, let’s talk about fat. We are obsessed with it. Avoiding fat in food, avoiding fatness in general. Fat is bad. And indeed, too much fat is bad. It can lead to metabolic conditions and poor health. Obesity is a major problem in the UK, and affects 1 in 4 children and 1 in 3 adults. Too much fat is definitely a problem. But how we measure fat is under dispute: BMI, a very popular method, is not as accurate as you might think and its correlation with body fat depends on things like your age, gender or race. It’s possible to be very fit but also slightly obese by generic standards, and this might not be such a problem. Whilst subcutaneous fat, particularly around the middle, can be damaging to our health, what is more damaging is a lack of fitness. We need a certain amount of body fat in order to survive, and there is evidence that suggests people with a small amount of body fat have greater life expectancies than those who don’t. That isn’t to ignore the huge problem we have globally with obesity, and I’m certainly not saying that doesn’t need addressing because it does, and now. What I am suggesting is that instead of obsessing over our scales we should perhaps worry more about how we control our weight. Are we depriving our body of valuable nutrients and even the pleasure of food as an excuse to avoid being more active? It’s physical activity which has been proven to reduce the incidences of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and even help us manage diseases like Alzheimer’s.

I think we should be focusing on fitness not fatness. It’s a lack of fitness that’s threatening our children’s health and ours. Let’s consider what legacy we’re creating for our children. The stats around physical education at school for children are woeful. A recent survey revealed that five to seven years old do an average of 102 minutes of PE a week in school when the NHS suggests 60 minutes of physical activity daily for children aged 5-18. And to be honest, we all know how easy it is to get out of PE if we want to. A quick faked note signed by ‘mum’ and you’re off the hook. Another problem is space. There are several schools around where I love in South London that don’t have any green space for children to play in. The playgrounds are concrete and the spaces are cramped. Just finding the space to move is getting harder for kids. We need to ensure that children understand what it feels like to be fit from a young age, so that exercise becomes part of their pattern of life from the start. An unfit child is much more likely to become an unfit adult, and an overweight child is likely to be an overweight adult.

We need more positive role models in sport for young kids to look up to. You can’t be it if you can’t see it. The London Olympics was helpful, but the messages still contradict each other: In the recent Rio Olympics many commentators were more concerned with making irrelevant, stereotypical comments about female athletes than with complimenting them on their athletic performance, strength or stamina. An NBC, commentator said that the US women’s gymnastics team looked like they “might as well be standing in the middle of a mall” during their team final. And role models shouldn’t only be in TV; as parents, aunts, uncles, teachers and neighbours, we can set a good example by exercising regularly and making it a priority. If young kids see the other children and adults around them playing sport and keeping fit, they will aspire to do the same. Studies have shown that children whose parents try to remain fit are fitter themselves.

I’m arguing that we have to change our perspective on how we view our bodies and shift our focus from appearances to functional fitness. I think we place too much emphasis on how our bodies look and not on what we can do with them. Problems with body image have been endemic for women for a long time but it’s a problem that affects boys and men too. Whilst girls and women tend to internalise their negative thoughts and strive for a thin appearance, men and boys tend to externalise their thoughts and strive for a more muscular look. Young boys are increasingly turning to steroids at a young age in order to ‘bulk up’, whilst young girls are influenced by celebrities who themselves are often airbrushed to look ‘perfect’ or are starving themselves to look a certain way.

But this isn’t about men or women, it’s about all of us. Too many people have a warped and deformed view about how they look, which is then fed and supported by advertising, the media, fashion and in the multi-million-pound weight loss industry. We need to be much less critical of ourselves, and of others. Instead of chasing the dream of a perfect body, or the perfect dress size, let’s chase the goal of a more active lifestyle that is not restricted by the four walls of our office or our house. Let’s reconnect with our bodies in a primeval way and make movement and exercise something that we all do, because of the way it helps us in all areas of life. I believe we need to rebuild the relationship we have with our bodies, so that we can make things better for the next generation and focus on what’s really important in life. Perfect doesn’t exist but happy and healthy does.

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Leanne Spencer is an entrepreneur, coach, TEDx Speaker, author of Remove the Guesswork, and founder of Bodyshot Performance Limited. Bodyshot is a health and fitness consultancy that helps busy professionals get more energy by removing the guesswork around their health, fitness and nutrition. Visit www.bodyshotperformance.com or email [email protected] to register your interest in our services and connect with us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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