What Does a Healthy Body Look Like?
by Mary Saucier Choate, M.S., R.D., L.D., Hanover Consumer Co-op; Hanover, NH
Looks can be deceiving. Many people assume that one can easily tell how healthy a person is based on looks. We associate a body that is slender or highly muscled with “healthy.” In reality, you can’t truly know a person’s health status by looking at him. A slender person may be a smoker, have high blood pressure, or an elevated cholesterol level.
A fat person may have none of these conditions, and may be exercising daily and getting in her “Five-A-Day” of fruits and vegetables.
The media images of “hard body” celebrities and super-muscular athletes don’t make the mirage any easier to recognize. Celebrities, models, athletes, and others whose source of income depends on their bodies’ appearance all too often engage in unsustainable or even dangerous activities such as consuming weight loss pills, following extreme diets, excessively exercising, and other unhealthy behaviors to keep that “look.” When their career is over, they often find that they have paid a very high price for their fashionable body shape.
For instance, a 1994 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that National Football League offensive and defensive linemen had a 52 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease than the general population.
Actor and former professional football player Lyle Alzado used steroids and growth hormones for almost two decades. These made him a massively huge player on the field, but ultimately resulted in his physical deterioration and may have played a role in his premature death at age 42. He spent his final days warning youngsters about the dangers of such drugs.
Super-thin singer and actress Victoria Beckham, Posh Spice of Spice Girls, recently revealed that she suffered from an eating disorder.
An effect of constant media exposure to such imitation cosmetic fitness can be that we equate it with being healthy and set unrealistic expectations for ourselves.
Your health status is determined by much more than a number on the bathroom scale. Real fitness is the result of small choices made every day to eat foods that support health and to engage in activities that promote strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular well-being. True fitness is not a look; it’s a style of living that encompasses healthy eating and activity.
This internal, much more important, kind of fitness—called metabolic fitness—doesn’t require a trip to the gym or a bagful of supplements. All you need is solid information and the will to make some small, permanent changes in your eating and activity choices.
From here to metabolic fitness
The National Institutes of Health state that being active helps you live longer and protects you from many chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and osteoarthritis.
According to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, the goal of being fit is to enable us to perform up to our potential. It is “the ability to perform daily tasks vigorously and alertly, with energy left over for enjoying leisure-time activities and meeting emergency demands. It is the ability to... carry on in circumstances where an unfit person could not continue, and is a major basis for good health and well-being.”
Nowhere does it state that you need to be reed thin or have enormous muscles to be fit.
A myth-busting quiz
Try this myth-busting quiz to see how much you know about weight, health, and fitness.
A slim person is automatically healthier than one who is fat.
In a series of studies, researchers from the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas found that a person’s fitness level is more effective at protecting one from the risk of early death and certain chronic diseases than leanness alone. Simply put, it’s not what you weigh, it’s the fitness things you do every day!
You can tell how fit someone is by how much he weighs.
According to current weight standards, German triathlete Dave Alexander is firmly in the obese category at 5 feet 8 inches and 270 pounds. He has completed 277 triathlons since 1983 and, as you would expect at this fitness level, has a healthy blood pressure and pulse rate.
At 5 foot 6 inches and 180 pounds, 46-year-old American ocean swimmer Lynne Cox is just shy of classifying as obese. She is fully classified as fit, however, being the best cold-water, long-distance swimmer in the world. Last December, she swam 1.22 miles in 25 minutes in Antarctica’s 32 degree water!
You can have a significant effect on your health by losing as little as five to ten percent of your starting weight, if you are overweight or obese.
Many large health organizations, including the American Dietetic Association, the National Institutes of Health, and the North American Association for the Study of Obesity, report that weight loss in the range of five to ten percent of initial weight can have a significant impact on health, including normalizing or improving blood glucose, high blood pressure, and abnormal blood lipids.
These organizations recommend maintaining this reasonable weight and improved health status with appropriate food choices and activity levels for the long term, rather than eating styles that lead to short-term loss of pounds that are quickly regained.
You can improve your fitness level without setting foot in a gym.
Several national health organizations recommend shooting for 30 minutes daily of moderate physical activity, whether it occurs in several short ten-minute sessions or one longer session. This can be as simple as brisk walking, bicycling, running errands (on foot), gardening, mowing the lawn, vacuuming, dancing, or swimming.
You can improve your health even without losing weight.
Participants in the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) study lowered their blood pressure in only two weeks by eating more fruits and vegetables, nuts, and whole grains and less saturated fat. This improvement in health occurred while their weight remained stable and was equivalent to changes seen with medication.