Beachbody’s Insanity program is sold with the promise: “I’ll get you a year’s worth of results in just 60 days!” The Jenny Craig diet promotes that you can: “lose up to 16 pounds in just 4 weeks!” Every globo-gym is running a 45-day weight loss challenge, and most trainers are peddling a variation of the industry’s most effective sales pitch: “in X amount of time with me, you will look like
Beachbody’s Insanity program is sold with the promise: “I’ll get you a year’s worth of results in just 60 days!” The Jenny Craig diet promotes that you can: “lose up to 16 pounds in just 4 weeks!” Every globo-gym is running a 45-day weight loss challenge, and most trainers are peddling a variation of the industry’s most effective sales pitch: “in X amount of time with me, you will look like Y.” Whether the emphasis is on pounds lost, muscle gained, or some combination of the two, everyone is approaching fitness from the “look better naked” point of view. Is there any other way?
People often claim that the fitness industry is broken, but what does that mean? As of 2015, the wellness industry has an estimated global worth of $3.7 trillion, with the nutrition and fitness sectors accounting for $648 billion and $542 billion, respectively. Sounds fairly successful, but that is only if success is measured in dollars.
The cumulative societal outcomes have not kept pace with those expenditures. Junk food still has a stranglehold on the American diet. The U.S. fast food market grew from $6 billion dollars in 1970 to $200 billion in 2015. The results of our convenience-oriented culture have been a net negative for community health. As of 2014, 37.9% of the U.S. population was obese, and over 70% are overweight. We’ve all felt the financial consequences, whether in our insurance premiums, or in the massive direct costs to those most unhealthy. Obese adults spend 42% more on healthcare costs than those at a healthy weight.
These trends are what lead people to the determination that health and fitness professionals are failing. Still, that is an oversimplified analysis. The reality is that the fitness industry does not operate as one seamless unit. Like most economic activities, the field is littered with all manner of competencies and moral compasses. In fact, the sentiment that this industry is broken is usually expressed by ethical, knowledgeable fitness practitioners who are frustrated by the dominance of competitors who operate on models that don’t work, long-term, for the customer. There is no shortage of great wellness advice, but these voices can’t compete with the broad appeal of instant gratification that consumers crave.
Short Term Goals, Short Term Success
As we’ve seen, the ramifications of poor health are not reserved to aesthetics. There are far deeper considerations that don’t get as much emphasis in popular health and fitness narratives. Yet, sales figures indicate a customer base that is most concerned with immediacy and image. The customer is always right, thus powerful health and fitness brands will continue to work at this angle.
In my experience, the lifespan of goals centered around losing weight expediently is short. Typically, someone that has not worked out consistently or paid attention to their nutrition will zealously jump into their new regimen. Early on, everything is new, fresh, and exciting, but that soon wears off and is replaced with a sense of drudgery. Counting calories, starvation, and extreme exercise often prove to be too great a contrast from their previous lifestyle, and the steady stream of positive results slows to a crawl.
A few hearty souls will soldier on, but even that usually means only a more gradual return to their old habits. It is a result of their narrow focus.
“I got to my goal weight, so now what? I lost 20lbs in two months. Does this mean I’m done? I mean, I did it, right? Can’t I start to eat like I used to, as long as I keep exercising?”
Even those who keep working out often feel a loss of purpose. Eventually, life gets busy and people make small concessions that, over time, become large lifestyle patterns, landing them right where they started.
It Was Never About the Scale
These patterns will not change until our understanding of health and fitness does. As long as education continues to devalue health and physical literacy, the burden of responsibility will rest upon the individual to navigate these murky waters. So what other reasons might there be to work out and eat better?
The most impressive physical transformation I’ve ever seen was a woman we’ll call Jane. Jane struggled with weight for years. That struggle contributed to depression and—her words— “self-loathing.” She began with modest dietary changes, but no workouts other than walks. For her, it was important to move one variable at a time. Eventually, she worked had eliminated all added sugars. She lost 90lb in a year. After not seeing her for a few months, I was amazed. She glowed. Her personality was radiant again. Her world held tremendous possibility.
When I asked Jane how her life had changed, she immediately went to the thousands of daily interactions most wouldn’t consider. She talked about how much she used to hate flying; walking onto the cramped aircraft, seeing her seat and assuming those around her were cursing their poor luck, feeling uncomfortable and unable to not invade other’s space. She talked about the breathing machine she had used every night for years, and how her sleep apnea had dissolved, leaving her free to sleep regularly. She talked about her knees and how much they used to ache; how she wouldn’t walk the beautiful trails she loved for lack of energy and fear of falling. She talked about her relationships, how she assumed other people were judging her, because she was judging herself.
She lost weight, but the changes in her life were never about the number on the scale. They were about the improvements in her life.
We Need a Better Measure of Health
Health is the most important thing in all our lives, but we usually don’t do anything until it’s too late. It gradually slips away and becomes the new norm. Take the time to deeply explore which quality of life measures are most intrinsically motivating to you. What would you do, if you had energy and zest on nights and weekends? Perhaps you want to be able to get on the floor and play with your kids and grandkids or chase them around the playground. Maybe you want to be able to still play basketball against your son when he’s in college.
How empowering would it be to work your way off blood pressure medicine? Would you love to feel more confident in the presence you portray in work meetings? Do you want to travel in your 60s, 70s, and 80s? You’ll need the confidence that you can navigate planes, walk cities, climb monuments, and continue to relish life with that retirement money you spent years accruing. How about just maintaining independence late in life?
Quality of life measures are rooted in deeper purpose. Having kids makes life very busy. Many cite this as their reason for not exercising and eating well, but it is the best reason to exercise and eat well. Without your health—the ability to move well, to feel energized, to avoid debilitating sickness—you are severely limited. Fitness and nutrition are essential for cognitive development, emotional development, and general wellbeing. But don’t think your kids are going to just adopt these lifestyles on their own. A recent Harvard study indicates that more than 57% of today’s youth will be obese by the time they are 35. This is the cultural norm. If it is important to you that your child thrives and is fulfilled, then it will be your model that inspires them, not warnings to “do as I say, but not as I do.”
The desire to lose weight and look like a Greek god or goddess is a fine starting point, but eventually we need to dig deeper. Expediency is never the answer in fitness. Long-term lifestyle habits must be the emphasis. With an understanding that each change is meant for a lifetime, we’ll need a more patient approach that really gets to the details of why fitness matters. Let’s shift the conversation from the scale and the six-pack to quality of life measures.