In an Obese World Fitness is Counter-Culture

Individual efforts are doomed to fail in the face of social pressures to become less healthy.

When someone finds out you’re a fitness professional, they will eventually unload a barrage of the emotional and physical struggles they’ve had connected to food. In response, I do my best to promote a variety of strategies to create sustainable lifestyle change. The advice I give is less magic in a bottle, and more common sense and long, hard work.

But regardless of whether they listen to my advice or not, national obesity statistics say that the health and fitness industry is failing society at large. If we are serious about helping people improve their lives, we need a culture that supports positive changes. Without that, any intervention is far less likely to work.

The Uphill Battle to Get Healthy

The trouble most people encounter with lifestyle change is rooted in social pressures and the norms of the American lifestyle. In that sense, trying to make positive changes is always going to be an uphill battle. Despite ubiquitous concerns surrounding what we eat and how it affects us, there is a large gap between what we know we should do, and what we end up doing.

Scientific certainties when it comes to dieting are few, because of the complications involved in converting statistically averaged data into clear, actionable results that apply to endlessly complex individual situations. But we aren’t even following the good advice we know to be true: that we must eat a balanced diet of more fruits and vegetables, and fewer processed and fried foods; that less processed meats are better for us than hot dogs and bologna; that Oreos, sodas, and chips aren’t staples in a healthy lifestyle; or that mixed nuts make a pretty decent snack.

Instead, we devour sugar-laden sweets and highly processed convenience food at every event and each meal. The result is poor energy, myriad health issues, and the emotional duress of repeatedly starting and failing the latest fad diets.

Fitness is Counter-Cultural

Why the disconnect? It comes down to the setting we’re immersed in. With few exceptions, the only place long-term change happens is within well-insulated subcultures.

In that respect, fitness professionals have it easy. They spend most of their time around people who are fit, and they are well incentivized to be fit themselves. Members of great community-style gyms have a slice of this same healthy support system. We often see that in the CrossFit world. It’s not just a place to work out, it’s a community, a support system, and an accountability mechanism.

But these situations are exceptions to the norm. For most, the idea of a healthy lifestyle is decidedly counter-cultural. Even for those who are part of these subcultures, when life changes and that stability is removed, old habits often resurface. Everyone feels the insidious effects of broader social pressures.

It Takes a Village to Change Health Habits

Environment is king for habits and behavior. If we want to reverse the worldwide trends of poor health habits, we cannot continue to segregate those who follow healthy lifestyles into their own, fitness-crazed communities.

Health is the most important thing in each person’s life. Don’t believe me? Think about what happens when it’s taken away. When you aren’t healthy, you are not the fullest version of yourself. All your relationships, endeavors, and passions suffer. But whether health is society’s or each person’s top priority is a different story.

Sustainable health change for individuals is most likely within the context of healthy culture. As Dr. Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Science said, “Lifestyle changes against the tide of environment are hard to make, and even harder to maintain.”

Our relationship with food is a complex web of past experiences, nostalgia, and the chemical interactions food has with our brain. Nutrition and lifestyle changes are hard enough without having to fight the momentum of all of society. Any change to these entrenched habits needs as much help as possible. If we really want to make a difference, we can’t just look at the individual; we have to look at broad community education and support to see real change.

A Case Study: The North Karelia Project

In Finland, the North Karelia region once led the world in heart attacks. Men of this region were 30 times more likely to have a heart attack than those in Crete and had a life expectancy over 10 years lower. More than half the population smoked, and butter fried potatoes, buttered bread, fried pork, fatty sausage, and beef stew were the cultural staples. Vegetable consumption was rare to non-existent. Startled by these findings, the Finnish minister of health chose a 27-year-old physician named Pekka Puska to lead The North Karelia Project: a mission to radically reverse the current health trends of this region.

Puska hired mostly young, similarly idealistic workers, rather than established public health workers. They operated from the premise that it was more cost-effective to prevent disease than to treat it, and that quality of healthcare mattered far less than the population you belonged to, in regards to long-term health. 

Under Puska’s leadership, they switched their approach from reactive individual interventions to proactive, broader ones. They met with all the major local organizations and organized “longevity parties” where they taught simple, effective health changes. They distributed recipe books that added vegetables to traditional North Karelian cuisine. They recruited 1,500 socially-involved citizens, mostly women, to be ambassadors, and taught them simple dietary changes to promote in their communities. Puska and his staff visited and spoke at schools, churches, and community centers. Workplaces were convinced to adopt smoke-free policies, and villages competed with each other to get greater participation in challenges to quit smoking.

Next, Puska turned his attention to food producers. He knew that none of his efforts would be fruitful if the right ingredients were unavailable. He convinced local dairy farmers to designate some of their lands for berry crops and promoted increased production and freezing of crops that only grew in the summer months.

Initially, Puska’s work was met with vicious resistance from businesses. Fearing a loss in profits, they began ad campaigns against Puska, but these only served to spark public debate. Soon, Puska was able to make inroads with local sausage makers, and influence them to reduce salt and replace some pork with filler from locally grown mushrooms. Sausage sales actually increased.

Puska’s strategies lowered male cardiovascular mortality by 80%. Smokers went from a dominating 52% of the population to only 31%, and life expectancies rose seven and six years respectively for men and women. While it is unclear which specific strategies and emphases were most effective, what is clear is that Puska’s campaign was an overwhelming success. It saved lives and provides a template worth replicating in other communities.

Where to Direct Our Efforts

There is a tremendous opportunity for campaigns like the one in North Karelia to save lives and create profound, lasting, societal change. Gyms could serve as ground zero for organizing similar community campaigns.

There are also some simple policy changes worth lobbying for. The billions spent on advertising for pharmaceutical drugs is a truly absurd phenomenon that is illegal in every other country except New Zealand. Processed foods are made extremely cheap through government subsidies for the production of corn and other commodity crops. There is great potential to end such subsidies and reallocate these resources to encourage the production of real food, like vegetables, almonds, and other nutritional powerhouses.

But the place where efforts would yield the highest reward would be within the public school system. Schools are our cultural nucleus, and thus offer the greatest potential for influencing broad change. Currently, the exact opposite is happening, as our education system entrenches and virtually ensures the development of poor nutritional habits and sedentary, screen-dependent lifestyles.

For healthier, happier future generations, broad social change must start in our youth. Standing in the way is a political and educational inclination to avoid taking hard stands. We must convince school districts that it is their responsibility to lead societal changes toward healthier habits.

To Change a Person, Change Their People

The easy thing is to conduct business as usual. For too long, most have remained completely neutral in this fight. We have allowed companies whose only goal is higher profits to continue to induce habits that lower life expectancies and cause chronic illness.

Like the schools, parents will have to be even more vigilant and committed to their responsibility of developing healthy adults. They should take concrete action to counter pitfalls like tech addiction, inactivity, and poor nutrition. Parents today face unprecedented challenges to keeping their kids healthy, but they must draw the line.

For our own individual improvement, we must consider the common good. To enact millions of individual changes, we must think about broad, sweeping movements. If we want to save and change lives, we shouldn’t focus on healthcare; we should turn our attention toward making fitness and lifestyle improvements more likely by creating an environment that promotes them.

For the Finns, it was a grassroots movement. Perhaps it will be the same for us in the United States. Regardless, to impact broad change, we must prioritize efforts from our parents and educators. Cultural momentum must develop in these arenas if we are to have any opportunity to create real, lasting change in our country at large.