Health isn’t determined by numbers on a scale. Woo speaks to experts about setting alternative fitness goals
image High School Musical, 2006, Walt Disney Pictures
words Lucy O'Brien
TW: mentions of disordered eating, fat-phobia and body shaming.
The first months of the year can be tough on our self-esteem as everyone on social media seems to be talking about their punishing workout routines and providing details of exhaustive weight loss diaries. This can make us think of fitness as synonymous with weight loss and can even encourage an unhealthy relationship with working out.
The pressure is at an all time high, with YouGov’s most recent body image survey finding that 51% of Brits reported feeling under pressure to have the perfect body, which for some manifests as an internalised pressure to lose weight.
But setting weight-based goals when starting a fitness journey can actually be a hindrance, because health is determined by so much more than numbers on a scale. Stamina, heart health, fatigue, hormones – there are many factors that play into our overall wellbeing.
“Weight is not an indicator of our health and happiness,” say Kerrie Jones, eating disorder psychotherapist and CEO of Orri, a treatment-based service for those in recovery. “Setting weight-based goals can put arbitrary expectations on ourselves that only work to shame ourselves into action. Instead, we must focus on movements that bring joy and tap into the part of ourselves that wants to play and be creative.”
But when it comes to unlearning ingrained ways of viewing health and what that looks like, it’s about more than just discovering the forms of exercise we like. It’s a journey towards forging a healthier relationship with our self-perception and body image. “It requires self-reflection,” Jones explains. “What’s underneath our desire to pursue weight loss or gain? Perhaps we hold critical beliefs about ourselves. For example, if we’ve grown up in a critical or challenging environment, ask ourselves: whose beliefs are these? Are they mine or someone else’s? Do these beliefs serve me or hold me back?”
Once you begin to view fitness as something beyond weight, you can start to reap the real benefits of training and keeping active. Chloe Thomas, personal trainer and nutritionist who uses her platform to raise awareness of eating disorder recovery, shares five goals to work towards when starting a fitness journey that will leave you feeling good, inside and out.
Improve your bone health
“Especially for women, strength training decreases your chances of osteoporosis,” says Thomas. Several studies have found that strength training (lifting weight and training your muscles to grow stronger) puts pressure on your bones, which encourages bone-forming cells to work faster. The study also confirms that training your strength can lead to the reduction of bone loss, with others suggesting it can even build bone.
The best equipment and exercises to help with bone strength is “by using dumbbells, kettlebells or resistance machines”, says Thomas.
Learn new skills
Getting into fitness can do way more than just change your body shape. It can also be a place to try new things, challenge yourself and find out what makes you feel fulfilled and motivated. If you’re not into weight training, that doesn’t mean you can’t explore fitness. Thomas suggests giving yourself small but achievable new challenges to try; “for example learning a headstand or handstand or how to do a pull up!”
Release those happy hormones
Doing exercise releases endorphins, aka, the happy hormone. Alongside other activities like acupuncture and meditation, exercise is considered to be one of the best ways to release this mood-boosting hormone.
Known in the medical community as a “runner’s high”, cardiovascular exercise is generally considered to be the best way to release endorphins. But studies have concluded that any form of aerobic activity, like hiking or a game of tennis, can also release endorphins.
Make time for yourself
Thomas stresses the mental health benefits of taking up fitness as a hobby, rather than seeing workouts or staying active as a chore. “Focusing on weight will not keep you motivated,” says Thomas. Instead, finding movements that keep us feeling happy, energised and fulfilled is the best way to ensure you will stay focussed and see changes in your health.
Broaden your horizons
“Getting stronger in the gym crosses over into other areas of your life,” Thomas adds. “For example, building strength in your legs means you can do other things like hikes, climbing mountains or rock climbing!” For many, fitness does not always translate into purchasing a gym membership, and that’s completely valid!
Above all, it’s all about balance. Staying healthy and happy also means indulging in the things you love, too. Thomas explains; “It’s all about balance - having coached for seven years now, I always tell clients to go out and enjoy themselves. Socialising is essential for our mental health, so it’s important to go out with friends, family or your partner and have a nice time.
“It’s not healthy to be exercising and eating perfectly 24/7. It’s about doing your best 80% of the time and listening to your body.”
If you are struggling with disordered eating and want to speak to someone, you can find helplines specific to your area on the UK-based charity website, beateatingdisorders.org.uk.
If you are struggling with body image or think you have an unhealthy relationship with food, you can find guidelines, information and advice at the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE), here.
Guidance on where to find specific help for bullying or body-shaming can be found on the Anti-Bullying Alliance UK’s website, here.