Part Two

  • How has contempt for the overweight become so embedded in our culture that it even permeates into their weight loss efforts?

For one, we live in a society with appalling shows such as The Biggest Loser bolstering the idea that the most effective exercise routine centers on long bouts of cardio and all-out plyometrics.

Despite the fact that past contestants have come forward reporting everything from torn calf muscles to ruined knees, the show continues to require the severely obese put a dangerous amount of strain on unconditioned bones and joints. The damaging, long-term repercussions to their health don’t contend with ratings, however. And ratings don’t lie. Week after week, Americans are tuning in, which means this is what we want to see.

This is our entertainment.

“My thyroid, which I never had problems with, is now crap,” past cast member Kai Hibbard told the New York Post in her detailed account of life on the ranch. It’s clear from her testimonial that the show fails to properly progress their trainees. There appears to be little to no thought process behind the exercise selection, and no justification to these extreme scenarios other than to exhaust the contestants and drum up drama.

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Upon returning home from the ranch, Kai Hibbard went straight to the doctor: “She said I had such severe shin splints that she didn’t know how I was still walking.”

The show reinforces the idea that exercise must be punitive, miserable, and cardio-based in order to result in weight loss.

In a recent article for T-Nation, published author and figure competitor Dani Shugart wrote:

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While the show succeeds in getting participants to quickly drop scale weight, it does nothing to set them up for the future. Maintaining a lean figure long-term involves building muscle, because muscle is more calorically expensive than fat. Simply put, the more muscle you have on your body, the higher your metabolism, and the more calories you burn at rest.[4]

muscle v fat (1)

  • It is my contention that this sensationalizing of suffering and humiliation further dehumanizes the overweight. Their efforts become a spectacle.

It is troubling that contestants are constantly told they are lucky to be participating in such a harrowing program, and publicly derided should they choose to rest. The effect that this has on the millions of viewers is misleading and damaging.

I understand that not everyone has studied exercise science. I do not understand why there is such an overwhelming lack of compassion when discussing the overweight.

Krista Scott-Dixon, a researcher and coach in the field of nutrition, believes it’s important for the fit to understand just how different their physical experience of the world is to that of the heavy.

“Unless you have experienced the physical discomfort of significant surplus weight, it can be difficult to comprehend. […] You have all the mechanical stress of excess weight, but then you also have the metabolic problem. Fat is a metabolically active organ. It’s not just storage; it actually secretes hormones that affect your energy levels. […] You just feel like crap.”

Add low energy to the overwhelmingly common fear of being judged at the gym and it’s no wonder many obese people fail to get an adequate amount of exercise. The International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association published a study that found more than a third of the 1,700 respondents were too intimidated to work out at a gym.[5]  Most of those respondents were female and overweight.

In 2014, Sport England conducted a study with similar findings.

“We found out by talking to women of all ages up and down the country that what’s stopping them [from going to the gym] is fear, fear of judgment: whether that’s about how they look, whether they’re any good at it, or feeling guilty about spending time on themselves. Whichever way you slice it, women’s fear of judgment is sapping their confidence.” [6]

Many people, it seems, are afraid of being judged at the gym.

For a long time I’d tell newbies that their fear was unfounded, and that everyone is focusing on themselves. Was that always untrue, or has something shifted in our culture? 

While training in Brooklyn a few days ago, I overheard two women snickering about an overweight girl who chose to forgo the treadmill in favor of the squat rack, and I found myself questioning both their assumptions and their intentions.

Everyone deserves to enjoy their exercise. Everyone deserves to go about their exercise feeling safe and un-judged.  I’d really like to stop and ask these people, or anyone judging someone else’s activity:

  • Why do you care?

This may be the yoga instructor in me talking, but look inward toward your true intentions the next time you feel the need to say something negative about someone.

Are you projecting your own fear of judgment onto someone else? Are you mocking the choices of others, so that you can immediately feel safer in your own choice? By making a separate individual inferior, one can immediately become superior, and detach from their own fear of inadequacy.

  • Everyone has different goals.

Finally, I’d like to end with acknowledging the fact that not everyone is actively pursuing weight loss. 

Maybe that guy at your gym with a little extra body fat just really likes to bench. Even if cardio was the true key to fat loss, should he stop benching because someone else thinks he needs to lose weight? Where does the line get drawn, then? Who decides?

Isn’t the answer obvious?

  • Let’s look at the big picture. 

If we choose to educate ourselves and support those around us, a greater number of people may feel successful with their fitness efforts.

If we continue to show up for ourselves and remember that no one is expecting perfection, we can stop fearing being ridiculed for our own perceived imperfections.

Perhaps then we can stop transferring that fear onto others in a factually incorrect and socially irresponsible way, so that more people can pursue their goals (whatever they may be) in a safe and welcoming environment.

 

[1] Melov S, Tarnopolsky MA, Beckman K, Felkey K, Hubbard A. (2007). Resistance exercise reverses aging in human skeletal muscle. PLoS ONE 2(5): e465. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000465.

[2] Kyle UG, Melzer K, Kayser B, Picard-Kossovsky M, Gremion G, Pichard C. Eightyear longitudinal changes in body composition in healthy Swiss adults. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 2006;25(6):493-501. 6. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (2010). Obesity Data and Statistics

[3] Stiegler P, Cunliffe A. (2006). The role of diet and exercise for the maintenance of fat-free mass and resting metabolic rate during weight loss. Sports Medicine. 2006;36(3): 239-263.

[4] Wang Z, Ying Z, Bosy-westphal A, et al. Evaluation of specific metabolic rates of major organs and tissues: comparison between men and women. Am J Hum Biol. 2011;23(3):333-8.