Why Health Is Not Fitness

Adverts, Instagram, and for profit magazines encourage aesthetic fitness as somehow synonymous with health. To be good looking is to be healthy—muscled yet lean like the idols on our screens. Such representations genuinely affect how we think, and what we do. Why else would people be so invested in presenting themselves similarly on social media?

But average bodies are just that – average. Within the normal curve of distribution rather than attractive outliers living exciting lifestyles. In the usual feed, cellulite is overlooked, yet it exists, averageness is shamed as though it is rare, yet it defines  per capita life and per capita bodies.

Ordinairy humans lack the spare 19 hours, eating regime time, inclination. or genetics to become a Brad Pitt or a Beyonce. Nor should anyone be led to want to. An irony of modern times is the enshrinement of individual choice, just when individuals choose to copy the globe trotting, oscar exuding, and influnce marketing crowd.

Some say idols’ concern with wellbeing and health sets a good example, but whose example? Gwyneth Paltrow follows a diet I thought was satire. Moby boasts a morning ‘health smoothie’. Neither are actually that healthy. Paltrow endorses an exclusionary approach to eating rather than celebrating food; an approach that risks developing a fasting or pathological relationship with food. Moby risks rises in insulin spikes causally associated with diabetes II. Celebrities seldom set good examples for everything, nor could they.

Yes, becoming aesthetically pleasing is an ideal. Yes, matching that ideal can make one feel good. Many conversations I have had circle around the dillema of mind versus body cost-benefit analysis (what can I say, I have strange friends), and I inveigh, in the end, against the mental benefits of looking fit. As Harvard Medical School geneticist David Sinclair says, “what benefits you in the short term often harms you in the long run”. The sheer labour and energy and calories required subtract from your social leisure time, work even, and your lifespan. Protein intake increases energy store and exercised muscle mass and tone; muscle mass and tone requires cell division; cell division activate the mTOR pathway which spends the cell divisions you have left.

Self-improvement is a worthy goal, but self-improvement and self-transformation are different. Working to become a better version of your body can obviously be pernicious since it implies an inadequacy with what you have already. (As Lao Tzu said, “let go of who you want to be to finally be who you are”.) Self-imprvoement further implies healthy positive body image ought to come from measurements, and even imaginary applause from like button dopamine rushes.

Personally, I cannot stand it anymore and in light of evidence – see this great article – have boycotted Instagram. Self-harm is on the rise and is predicated on improving bodies to unresaonable standards, especially hurting girls and boys whose growing brains are especially sensitive to status qualms.

Gym and body size obession can make sense evolutionarily; we want to impress others and our view in the eyes of others is inevitably vital to wellbeing. Muscle, size, and tone can indicate genetic fitness and situational advantage. Muscle implies reliable calories. Size indicates ability to compete and intimidate in coalitions. Tone implies youthfulness.  Indeed, it is debatable how much, but the peacocks tail evolved not for obvious use but exactly because it boasts waste – enough to pass on genes but not preserve the long term health of the bird. The logic applies with humans, it just depends how it manifests.

In the long term goals, beyond impressing, what is more important for wellbeing is just being, without the impingment of body goals. Mental goals are challenge enough.

To be clear – exercise is the very best thing you can do. But that does not mean the gym or following companies’ dietary, or absurdly D.N.A tailored, plans. If we define health as living with few maladies into our 80s, 90s, and 100s – what better definition is there? – while challenging oneself into old age enthusistically, then simple activity is enough; social activity especially. No pain, life gain. The places with real people who live these lives, called The Blue Zones by National Geographic’s Dan Buettner, boast zero gyms. In lieu of weights and running machines, they allocate to chilled exercise and consistent social eating.

Being strong can be helpful for lifting or endurance tasks, and leanness offers esteem boosts, but visual appeal and mass garnering and body obsession are pathologies. ‘Fixing’ oneself to an imaginary mould can be harmful physically and mentally and no amount of peer or media or money interested pressure should divert us or those we cherish from that fact. Including our self.

If you want to read more about why, I recommend How Not To Die.

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