I recently watched a show about the Ironman Triathlon. The former Ironman winners who were interviewed all said some version of “This is a thing that the human body just isn’t supposed to do.” I also watched “Spirit of the Marathon,” a documentary that follows runners – some elite (running every mile of the marathon faster than the treadmill at my gym goes), and some first timers – as they prepare and compete in a marathon. Many of them were dealing with serious injuries along the way, and some were running in spite of those injuries.
We celebrate this in our society – people who run farther, go faster, push the boundaries of human endurance. As a professional dancer, I endure a level of training that very few people would probably want to do. Those of us who push the boundaries tend to be proud of the level of our athleticism.
But do we need to do this to be healthy? No! Abso-freaking-lutely not. Athleticism and health are not necessarily the same thing at all. Over a lifetime of playing sports as hard as I could and especially as a dancer, I’ve had any number of injuries that a “normal,” healthy person would never have. In order to do the crazy things that we do, athletes sometimes ignore our body’s signals, and we generally work well past what we would need for health. I’ll bet that we could have good health without stress fractures, muscle strains, sprains, pulls and all manner of overuse injuries, not to mention ignoring our bodies when they are screaming at us to stop. That’s not particularly healthy at all.
So I wonder, does the cultural celebration of this level of athleticism discourage people who could be healthier if they just moved their bodies in ways that they enjoy for 20 or 30 minutes a day on most days? Do people feel like they need to run a marathon or they shouldn’t bother to move at all? I wonder what would happen if society glorified dancing around your living room or gardening or whatever kind of movement you would like to do, instead of showing pictures at the gym of people at their physical brink, trying to push past.
I think that this goes double for me and my fellow fatties. We often get the message that we can’t possible be fit unless we are thin, and that if our physical activity doesn’t lead to thinness, then we are failing at it. As a three-time National Champion dancer, and practitioner of the Health at Every Size (r) method, I beg to differ. So does research from The Cooper Institute, the ARS Western Health Center, and Kuk et. al. The Health at Every Size philosophy is that the best chance for our healthiest body is healthy habits, and that includes moving our bodies in ways that we enjoy. With HAES, the focus is on practicing the habits themselves so practitioners have success early and often, instead of of feeling like failures if their healthy habits don’t lead to a change on the scale at the end of the week.
One of the Ironman competitors said “To make it through the Ironman you don’t need to be the best, you just need to be consistent and keep pushing forward.” It would seem from a lot of the research that health and physical fitness can be acquired in roughly the same way. If you feel like you’re not getting enough movement in your life, find something that you like to do and do it a few times a week. Try some new stuff – if you like it, do some more of it. If not, you don’t ever have do it ever again. You are a grown up and gym class is over. Consider letting go of your dodgeball nightmares and finding some fun ways to move your body. If you like to run and feel like you’d like to try a 5K, go for it! If you hate running then do something else. If you’ve been moving your body only as a way to try to change it’s size and shape, then I would suggest taking the focus off the number on the scale and putting it on your health. It’s not about being an Ironman, it’s just about honoring your body and moving it in ways that keep it as healthy as possible.
Don’t let the elite become the enemy of the healthy.
About the Author
Ragen Chastain is a three-time National Champion professional dancer and choreographer. Ragen is fat and she writes and speaks regularly about self-esteem, body image, and Health at Every Size. Her blog can be found at www.DancesWithFat.org. Her writing has been translated into multiple languages including Spanish, French, and Bulgarian and her blog has readers on six continents in places as diverse as France, Australia, Korea and Libya. She’s been heard on NPR and Blog Talk Radio and is a frequently requested speaker for groups from the University of Southern California, to the American Society of Women in Accounting, and Rotary International. Ragen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org