Please note: the article below contains my thoughts, and details my own personal journey. This should not substitute for medical or health care professional advice. Also, this is long. Make a cup of tea and bear with me.
My sister does not own a pair of bathroom scales. She doesn’t want a pair in the house.
I have a pair of bathroom scales. They have been with me like an old friend for a very long time; though now, they lie neglected beneath my bathroom cabinet and only make an appearance once a week. Gone are the days when I would weigh myself every morning, obsessively, and sometimes again throughout the day as well. I don’t know when I felt the shift from focusing on that number, to focusing on other cues to tell me if I am maintaining my weight. After a long journey of weight loss, weight gain, and weight loss again, I have come to a place where I am comfortable with my body. I am happy with the way it moves through the world, and the space it occupies. I am a healthy weight for a person of my age and stature, and just as importantly: I am at a healthy weight for my mind.
I was listening to Jillian Michaels on the way to work this morning and she had a caller ask her ‘when do you know you are at a healthy weight, and you should switch to focusing on maintaining your weight?’
I was intrigued, after all the focus there is on BMI and waist measurement, what Jillian would say in reply to this. I really liked her answer. She congratulated the woman on her progress so far, and then told her that the healthy weight was the one at which her blood test results showed that her cholesterol and other blood measures were healthy, and when her blood pressure was in a healthy range. Essentially, when her physiology read like that of a healthy person, rather than a number on the scale. Jillian then went on to imply that sometimes a weight range could be helpful when you are setting weight loss and maintenance goals, but that eventually your body will reach a steady state at the weight it prefers to sit at. Health practitioners call this ‘set-point theory’.
When you are eating a healthy and balanced diet and exercising regularly at an appropriate level your body will rest naturally within a certain weight range – this is different for everyone and even different for people of the same height (check out this great article). The science behind ‘set-point theory’ postulates that adults can maintain their body weight over long periods of time due to an internal feedback mechanism that is complex and multifactoral.
My body has reached that point. It is most comfortable within about a two to three kilogram range. I can starve myself and exercise like a crazy woman and get to the lower end of the range or below it, but I am only faced with the rebound of feeling tired and low in energy – and hungry – which are all signals that my body needs to re-calibrate, rest, and re-nourish itself and it returns to that range again. I can stuff myself full of food and not exercise enough and I reach the higher end of the range, which has the same result as going too low. At both ends of the spectrum there are signals that I need to pay a little more attention to how I am treating my body. How I am nourishing myself with food, exercise, and a healthy attitude to both.
When I was working as a health professional I did use numbers to guide my patients, but instead of just being driven by two points on a BMI chart I encouraged them to set small weight loss goals to bring them down gradually into the healthy range. When they found a weight within that ‘healthy range’ that they could maintain through moderation of diet and exercise, a point where their body naturally stopped losing, that this was what they should aim to maintain.
Numbers about weight are easy to find: BMI, BMR, RMR, MRH, waist measurement, body frame measurement, body fat percentage – the list is endless. The problem with numbers is that there is no ideal exact number for everyone. Take my little sister and I as an example. I am only a tiny bit taller than she is, but my healthy, natural weight, is ten kilograms more than her healthy, natural weight.
The easy and horrendous trap that exists is in the comparison we make between ourselves and others when it comes to body shape and weight. Celebrities are splashed across magazine front pages with their weights emblazoned beneath them, or speculation on how much they have gained or lost, and by just typing ‘(celebrity name)’s weight’ into Google you can compare your weight to the rich and famous.
How is any of that helpful to maintaining a healthy attitude about your body? The answer is simple: none of it is helpful.
My advice, as someone who has learned not to be number-obsessed?
- Focus on internal feedback from your body – energy levels, how you feel after a meal, sleep patterns – listen to your body.
- Remember that worth is not measured in pounds or kilograms. If you don’t believe me, read the obituary pages of the newspaper – see the measure of a life.
- Look at your lifestyle as a whole, rather than reducing your whole outlook down to the dimples of cellulite on your thighs – look around you for ways to see the bigger picture of your life and the way you are living – are there ways that you can change your habits for the better?
- Forget your scale for a month. Live in your body. Eat moderately, exercise moderately every day, smile at your reflection when you walk past the mirror. Pay attention to how you feel in your own skin. At the end of the month, you may be surprised that you are the same weight that you started at.
- Learn what eating and exercise habits work the best for you and your circumstances. No one is the same.
- Be kind to yourself.
Tell me dear reader, do you watch the numbers carefully? How do you keep sane in a numbers obsessed world?