Tag Archives: Weight loss

Weight loss shows are sending the wrong message

25 Mar

Before I get on my soapbox and have a rant about why I think the weight loss and “transformation” shows are doing the wrong thing, I should probably first start out by admitting that I’ve become a bit of a “transformation show junkie”. Yeah, I know it’s probably not good for me to be sitting in front of the TV watching something that I know will end up annoying me before the credits roll, and yet I can’t help getting my little “reality TV” fix.

So the thing that triggered my urge to write about this topic came last night as I sat to watch the Biggest Loser (Australian edition), and I saw Michelle Bridges doing something that I feel was completely awful. Now before you think I’m simply going to be trying to tear Michelle down, I want it on the record that I admire her achievements and her commitment to her career. Even while I question how commercially focussed she appears to have become – and yes I know that the public view of famous people often doesn’t reflect their true nature, I still admire how well she has done and how focussed and committed she is.

So back to the story I’m trying to tell, where I saw Michelle trying to show a little tough love to a contestant. Now I don’t know if she’s turning up the intensity for the camera, or if she was simply having a bad day and getting frustrated with this particular contestant, but rather than showing him that she had his best interests at heart she instead came across as the worst sort of bully you could imagine. Her whole approach was aggressive rather than assertive, and she used insults instead of support or coercion. Naturally the contestant got angry, and I think that Michelle was lucky that this guy only left the room with a little foul language behind him!! Sure it makes good television – if you like that sort of thing, but what message does it give to the contestant and to the viewers who are watching the program? That the fat person can still be denigrated by the fit person even when that fit person is supposed to be helping and supportive? That it’s OK to be abusive towards the fat person simply because they don’t wish to do what you want them to? That personal trainers have some sort of right to insult their clients?

From my “armchair quarterback” position, I think that it wasn’t so good for Michelle to display what I believe is such a great degree of unprofessionalism, and such a lack of respect for someone who – competition or not – was at that moment her client. If I was show that video as my only view of what a personal trainer does, I wouldn’t want to hire one, or I wouldn’t want to hire the person who I saw behaving that way. Sorry Michelle, as great as I think you really are, I don’t think you are really helping either your client, or our industry in general when you behave that way, no matter how good it might be for the show or the ratings.

Which brings be to the other part of my rant, and the heart of the topic that I wanted to write about, and that is that these TV personality trainers have it in their power to do some real good in the world, and to really spread the message not only about how important it is to be healthy, but that it is also possible to undo the damage done by years of self-neglect, and the sad and truly silly thing about this is that these people are squandering this opportunity and allowing themselves to get sucked in to the commercialism of there TV shows, and I believe doing more harm than good with the mixed and often wrong signals that they send out to their adoring public.

Those mixed messages started even before any of these shows first aired. Yes, I’m saying they – The Biggest Loser people – got it wrong the moment someone first pitched the idea of having a variation on the Survivor style of reality TV program where you get a bunch of overweight people to compete in a situation where – from the public’s perspective – elimination ends your journey and with it the education that you need in order to do something that from the obese person’s perspective could literally save your life! It trivialises not only the journey that each of the contestants needs to take, but also the risks and reasons that have led the contestants to take part in the competition, and week to week, you get to see people who will get kicked off the show because they were unable to keep up with the others – regardless of whether it was due to physical difference, poor mental preparation, or sheer laziness. And they’re not just booted out of the show for coming last in a weekly competition, they get voted off by the very same people who are supposed to be a part of their support network during the show!

Even worse in my mind is that there is even a competition at all. You have a bunch of people who have come to a point in their lives as a result of hardship, depression, and self-loathing just to name a few of the reasons for their poor physical condition, and instead of building a supportive environment where they can be encouraged to learn and grow beyond the barriers they have had to getting healthier on their own, these people enter into a competition, where losing means they will not only not win the prize money at the end of the season, but that they will likely also not be anywhere near achieving any of their goals, nor likely to be any healthier or happier unless they are lucky enough to survive the competition long enough to make it reasonably close to the end.

Competition is great if you have the mental fortitude to deal with defeat, yet when you feel the whole world is against you and that a loss will just validate your own self-loathing, why would anyone risk subjecting you to the sort of pressures and behaviours that probably led you into such a negative mental state in the first place?!! Seriously, it’s disgraceful that these poor people are subjected to any of this, let alone the sort of unprofessional abuse which I described earlier. I really find it disgusting, and a part of me feels ashamed that in spite of all of this, I find myself drawn back time and again to watch with an almost morbid fascination as a group of people compete to be insulted, bullied, pushed and prodded for the amusement of the viewing audience, and the ratings of a television station.

There is one show that I have seen that seems to try to break the reality TV nightmare mould a bit, which is Chris Powell‘s Extreme Makeover. Instead of following a bunch of people for weeks on end, you get to see one person transform in each episode, which covers a year long journey. I have a lot of respect for what it is that Chris does, and for how his show generally comes across in trying to show a very difficult and personal journey with a great deal of decorum and sensitivity towards each individual that Chris helps. I like that you not only see the great successes, but that you also see the not so great successes, and even a few of the failures as well. It’s a little more real, more confronting for the viewer as well as the person being transformed, and I can’t recall seeing Chris behaving as anything other than professionally in the gym, and otherwise as a really nice human being, a mentor, and a friend when he is dealing with his clients at other times.

I wouldn’t be writing this however if I didn’t find something that doesn’t sit quite right with me, and this is one of those mixed messages that the other weight loss shows make an even greater deal about and where they fail quite spectacularly, and that is the correlation made between weight and health instead of dealing with the problem as one of fat vs health. These should not be weight loss shows, but should instead be Fat-loss shows. It isn’t weight that kills obese people. It isn’t weight that causes metabolic diseases and other life threatening complications. These problems are the result of poor dietary lifestyle, inactivity, stress, depression, and on top of all of that it’s ultimately due to an excess of body fat that obesity occurs.

So while I really love what Chris does with his show, the message is all wrong. We don’t need to be bullies as I’ve said earlier, but we also should not be so scared into political correctness that we can’t admit that it is fat that is the killer, that being fat is a big part of the problem for so many people, and that mental health is also something that needs to be addressed, and not this focus on how many units of weight you have gained or lost over time. To Chris’s credit however, and it is one of the reasons that I really like his show, he makes use of the scale, but doesn’t make the scale the focus of everything that his clients do. For that alone I’d admire his work, certainly a lot more than I do with that other show that I mentioned.

Another mixed message which comes from these shows, is that they make it seem as though you can only get the kind of help that these TV shows show from your famous weight-loss TV show celebrity, from personal trainers, or that you need to be obese before you can get that kind of extreme help or intervention. While I can’t claim to have ever reached the massive weights of those contestants and others shown on the TV, I do know that both the mental journey and the physical one have been very intense for me, and I am sure that there are millions of other people in the world battling similar demons of their own. The real help comes from the network of supportive people that you choose to surround yourself with, whether it’s family, friends, your local doctor, your psychologist, nutritionist, or even a bunch of people on-line who read your blog from time to time (Yes, that’s probably you the reader as well!!). Ordinary people with day to day problems sometimes need help too, and this help is available all around them, and shouldn’t require extremes in order to be dealt with.

Your personal trainer is one person out of many, and no matter how much I grow as a personal trainer, I hope that I never forget that I am only one of many people who are there to provide support for my clients. While my skills may be important in helping a person to travel their journey, and even while those skills may touch on other areas such as psychology, nutrition, and general health, I should always keep in mind that there are others better qualified to focus on such areas, and it will remain my job to provide my clients with assertive yet compassionate support, physical training, appropriate advice within my areas of expertise, and the  professionalism that that they deserve, with a direct and simple message minus all of the misdirection that they end up getting from the TV.

Life isn’t a competition, and your problems aren’t trivial or wrong just because someone else doesn’t understand or can’t relate to them. This is certainly  apart of the message that I am focussed on getting out there into the world, and so to is that we are all entitled to live healthy and happy lives. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is or what the reasons are for becoming unhealthy or unhappy. Help should always be available for those who need it, and no-one should learn to hate themselves just because they were unable to recognise their problems or for being ill-equipped to handle them.

If you want a better show, show a person’s journey from start to finish. Show how we can learn from our failures, celebrate our victories, and what sort of help systems there are in the world for those requiring more extreme forms of help. For Chriss Powell, I’d suggest that he follow up on those he felt he couldn’t help, and to see after a year or two whether those people were able to find other ways to overcome the physical and mental barriers that prevented them being successful in their journeys. Did they seek a support group, or counselling, or some other intervention process? Did it work? Did it help? Would these things make a difference to a person who tried to reboot their journey after they had learned a few more skills?

For all of those shows, change the message. Focus on health and fat management more, and less on competition and on having people turn on each other in order to win. Show us that everyone can be successful with a little love and support, and that everyone who has struggled with their health in life deserves another chance to be healthy again without the risk of bullying, abandonment, or showing that the entitlement of health only belongs to those who fight hardest for it, even though we must sometimes fight with ourselves in order to ensure we maintain our physical and mental health.

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Don’t aim for thin… get LEAN!

6 Feb

Following the theme from my previous post, I’ve decided to declare today as the beginning of my attempt to take over the world by getting people to stop trying to be skinny. Yes, you heard me. I think that skinny is not a good goal. I’m sorry if I offend any of the skinny people out there but skinny just ain’t sexy, and as a goal for those of us who aren’t genetically suited to looking like the average 16 year old supermodel, skinny is an unrealistic and possibly even dangerous target that is ultimately impossible ever to reach with any real satisfaction. Seriously people, if you’re going to be even remotely serious about being at your physical and emotional best, forget about being thin and focus instead on becoming Lean.

Why Lean?

Yes, Lean is definitely sexy, and it’s not simply about turning yourself into eye-candy either. It’s more about the psychological impact of both the people who see you, and of your own state of mind when you are lean. When you see someone with a lean physique, you are attracted on the surface to the physical appearance of a body in proportion with itself, and subconsciously you respond both to the vitality of a person who clearly makes an effort to maintain an attractive physique, and also to the bearing of a person who radiates confidence, pride, happiness, or any number of other positive emotions that are generally exhibited by people with  healthy bodies and minds.

Now going far beyond the attractiveness of being lean, there is also the benefit of being in the best of physical health. Being lean means you have a minimum amount of body fat without completely depleting your body’s essential fat reserves, and as the science repeatedly tells us, a lean body is statistically unlikely to develop any of the diseases that are commonly attributed to excessive body fat, such as Type II Diabetes, some cancers, gastrointestinal, liver, and other metabolic diseases.

What Lean Is and Isn’t

Michelle Bridges & Daniel Craig. Good examples of Lean.

Being lean means that you present with very little body fat, yet more than just the bare essential amount of fat that the body needs. For the guys, this is a body fat percentage between a fit 14%-17% and an athletic 6%-13%.  For the ladies, you’re looking for a body fat percentage between a fit 21%-24% and an athletic 14%-20%.

A lean physique is one where you present muscle everywhere in proportion, and where no bone shows though the skin, except perhaps for a hint of rib when you bend to the side, and a slight prominence of the collarbone, elbows, knees and ankles. There should be no sign of tendon showing through the skin except perhaps under extreme strain when lifting heavy objects. Lean is a presentation of understated strength, where the muscles show clearly under the skin, and yet lean does not imply being heavily muscled. So what we’re talking about here, is being toned and not necessarily bulky.

Health isn’t about being fashionable

Most of us regular aren’t genetically “fashionable” if you believe all of those heavily photoshopped magazine pictures are showing you what beautiful is meant to be. Normal people could never dream of being able to fit into those tiny sized clothes that can only be found barely covering the ass of your typical Victoria Secret model, and we all should know by now how poorly the magazine represent health and beauty, and how this influences the negative body image that so many people have about themselves.

The thing is, why should you even worry about whether your size or look is comparable to someone else. Instead of aiming to fit into what you think is your idealised size-x clothing or becoming what you think would be your idealised “weight” or body shape, set the even loftier yet ultimately attainable goal of being as fit, strong, and as lean as you can be, and enjoy the health benefits, the satisfaction and the confidence that goes hand in hand with living within a healthy body.

No, lean isn’t fashionable. Lean is attainable, healthy, realistic, strong, beautiful… and is definitely sexy! 😛

Should Weight Loss Really Be Your Goal?

4 Feb

I may have alluded to this in comments or a previous post, and yet I feel that it’s an important enough issue to dedicate an entire article to. My concern is that the fitness industry, diet industry, weight loss industry, and perhaps even the world in general has it’s priorities wrong when it comes to the issue of obesity and how to offer the best advice and service to people who are considered overweight or obese.

The problem as I see it is that we play the blame game, naming all sorts of reasons why obesity exists and targeting the symptoms of a health problem rather than the actual health problem itself. To be fair, I can see why this happens. We see a problem in the bowel, so we treat the problem in the bowel. We see plaque developing in arteries, so we treat the problem in the arteries, and we blame all sorts of things from diet to smoking as if any one individual thing is the cause of the problem being treated. Research likewise focusses very narrowly because it’s impossible to test every possible combination of thousands of different conditions that are merely suspected of contributing to the cause of a problem. So we end up blaming one thing or another for obesity when the reality is that the problem exists no matter what the cause, and the treatment needs to reflect the actual problem itself and how to deal with it.

While I’m on the subject of blaming, who should we blame for the obesity epidemic? To start with, the diet and weight loss companies are to blame because they are all focussed so heavily on their products and their “weight loss is king” attitude, that they don’t provide anyone with a realistic approach to regaining their health. The food industry is to blame because it will use any cheap and unhealthy thing it can get its hands on in order to maximise its profit on the food it produces, bulking up foods using inferior and cheaper product in much the same way as drug dealers cut baking powder into cocaine. Governments are to blame for inventing “food pyramids” and “plates” that focus more on protecting the interests of the food industries rather than on the realities of each individual’s specific health needs. Schools are to blame for teaching children based on faulty and improperly researched information fed to them by the governments and food companies, and parents are to blame for not knowing any better, but only because they learned all of their unhealthy habits from school, or simply because fast, junk, and heavily processed foods are all that are available or affordable to them, thus perpetuating the problem to future generations. I’ll also blame the fitness & health professionals, TV shows and others who themselves blame weight as being the problem that needs to be solved, when it isn’t weight they should be focussing on at all.

Weight is something that I feel is the most abused and misunderstood health measurement. At some point in history, someone decided to look at a whole bunch of people, grouped them and build a statistical picture based on observed averages, so that if you were a certain height you’re expected to have a certain weight to be considered healthy. Never mind that there are all sorts of other factors besides weight that contribute to a person’s relative state of health! If you are obese, you are expected to lose weight, and if you are severely underweight you are simply expected to gain weight. The problem with using weight as a determining factor of the state of a person’s health is that weight itself is simply a measure of the state of a person’s entire body mass at a given point in time, and doesn’t take into account that person’s body composition. Are the bones thicker, thinner, hollow or dense? How much muscle, and how much fat and water is there? Weight doesn’t distinguish between any of these other factors, it just sums them all up together and assumes that everyone’s body composition will be the same, when the reality is that even amongst an entirely healthy population, there will be a great deal of variation in the composition of each individual’s body.

Now I’m not writing yet another “Don’t rely on BMI” article here. What I have to say goes much deeper than simply choosing one flawed system of measure for another. What I want to highlight is the emotional impact of weight, and the social stigma that seems to be attached to it. Even worse perhaps is the political correctness that I believe has contributed to the maligning of “weight” and its misrepresentation as a specific health problem. The BMI chart is a good example of what I mean when I mention political correctness. In adults, there are a series of Obese categories once you get past the overweight range, yet for children you would never say obese, you would simply say overweight. This is to avoid labelling children as being obese so that the child doesn’t develop a poor body image and the poor psychological state that goes with it. There it is again, we say people can be Overweight making weight the focus of the problem when weight itself isn’t the problem at all

So what is a better way to view obesity if not using weight as a measure? How about undoing political correctness and simply using the word “FAT”. Yes, there, I said it. It’s all about FAT. In particular, the relative amount of body fat compared to the composition of the rest of a person’s body.  Fat is the problem, not weight. You can’t be overweight if you don’t have excesses of body fat. Rather than saying that I have been overweight, I prefer to say that I have too much body fat. At my worst I had over 35% body fat, and with very little muscle mass. Even though I may have been considered technically only a little overweight at the time, the real problem was that I was unfit, had poor muscle conditioning, and I carried too much body fat for healthy metabolic functioning. Basically, I was Fat. Not overweight, just simply fat!

We need a certain amount of body fat, which is generally termed essential body fat. For men this is around 2-5%, and for women around 10-13%. For a good athletic build, you would normally expect to see about 6-13% body fat in men, and around 14-20% in women. So what about people who have nearly no body fat and who are considered dangerously underweight? I think a similar definition applies, in that it isn’t the weight that is the problem. When body fat reserves are depleted the body cannibalises muscle tissues in order to remain alive. When muscle conditioning becomes poor, and is accompanied by weakness, and tendon and joint pain, it isn’t weight that is the issue, but all of the things that have resulted in a body becoming gaunt and weak that are the problem, and not weight itself.

The myth that weight is an issue isn’t helped by all of these weight loss journey shows on the TV. Yes, I’m talking about shows like The Biggest Loser, and Extreme Makeover, and all of those other shows that make the result on a scale the ultimate goal of the obese people that the trainers are trying to help.  Now please don’t assume I am criticising the trainers themselves, or the people who appear on these shows. I think that they do a marvellous job of transforming the lives of the people on these shows, yet the goal always seems to be to lose weight, and the numbers are all about the kilos and pounds of overall body weight. When small gains or losses are made, you hear emotional speeches about the diet and exercise, and while I agree that these are contributing factors, there are other factors that aren’t discussed or taken into account because it probably wouldn’t make good television.

When you are training hard, yes you are burning fat, and when you’re diet restricts your calories, your body will turn to its fat reserves. What seems to be forgotten however is that while you train your muscles and feed your body protein, the muscles use the protein to repair and build, and so you end up gaining weight that might have been burned off the fat reserves, yet added as muscle, and you need that muscle mass in order to effectively burn off more of the excess fat. When you are hydrating your body properly, you will use more water in your body tissues, and all of this will be reflected on a scale simply as weight, with no explanation to you as to why the weight is fluctuating and seems to go down more slowly than you would like. Replacing body fat with muscle is a good thing, yet is forgotten when the expectations are purely focussed on the scale. For those who are doing their journey on their own and who might not really understand why they can’t get the great results that they see on the TV, it can be soul crushing, and all because their expectations are set unrealistically high and based on the fairy stories that the world of television spins. Oh, and don’t forget all of home gym machine/contraption companies that show you how you will only get great results with their uber-expensive device, and by results they all seem to be focussed on losing weight and the perfect bikini bodies.  You know their advertising:

“I lost 130 pounds using the ab-destroyer max 4001, and now I feel confident taking my shirt off!!”

Seriously?!!

As I mentioned earlier, the priorities are totally wrong. We should not be so fixated on weight. Seriously, put away your bathroom scale, and only bring it out if you are using the value to help you calculate something specific that is of value to you. Instead, focus on your ability to do something meaningful to you. Look at strength and stamina as a measure of your success. If excess body fat is causing health problems or leaves you with a poor body image, do something about the excess fat, and not your weight.

Aim for a healthy body fat percentage of somewhere between 14% and 22%, and find out what it is about your diet that causes your body to store so much fat. If you are too gaunt, look again to the diet and exercise to determine where you can improve to both increase your body fat percentage and your muscle conditioning. Set realistic targets that don’t rely on a single flawed piece of information that can’t possibly tell you whether you are healthy or not, and accept that the reality is that changes will take a long time to apply, and your end goal is more important than the successes or failures that you will encounter along the way.

For me, I’ll no longer be showing how much weight I lose. I’ll be focussing only on waist and hip size, body fat percentage, and the outcome of my fitness tests. I’m setting all of my goals based on achievable targets for these measurements only, and my journey will end only when I feel I have satisfied myself, not by reaching these targets, but when I feel I have learned enough while achieving them.

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