'Strong is the new skinny': Exploring attitudes to health
When it comes to diet and fitness, what does 'healthy' mean to you? Is it about the food you put into your body, the amount of exercise you do, the number on the scales, or the size of your clothes – or a combination of all four? Many of us have, for a long time, typically measured our own and other people's physical health in pounds and inches. Body mass index (BMI), which measures the ratio between your height and weight, has become a standard scale for identifying 'ideal weight' ranges, and we're used to seeing celebrities critiqued in the media for either gaining or losing too much weight.
Yet in recent years we've seen the focus of many discussions around health move away from size and weight, towards a focus on fitness, 'wellness', and physical activity. The size zero debate, which dominated much of the mid-late noughties, brought with it a backlash against super-skinny body ideals. Increasingly, we started listening to body positivity campaigners, who pointed out that 'thin' didn't necessarily equate to 'healthy', any more than 'fat' was necessarily an indicator of poor health and fitness. Then came the legacy of London's 2012 Olympics, coupled with brilliant campaigns like This Girl Can, and we suddenly became a nation of health and fitness fanatics.
Community-based initiatives like Park Run have boomed in popularity, 'muscle-building' protein shakes are big business, and the fitness industry has exploded with a range of diverse programmes to suit every possible taste – from hot yoga and spinning, to morning rave dance classes and static trapeze skills. But what does it say about our attitudes towards health?
There's no doubt that getting us all more fit and active has to be a positive thing, particularly when a big part of that has been about encouraging people to try out fun new forms of fitness that they actually enjoy. Perhaps one of the most empowering aspects of the This Girl Can campaign has been the radical idea that women can and should work out at the size they are now, not feel under pressure to lose weight before they dare to hit the gym. But, on a more cynical level, is there also a chance that our never-ending quest for the 'perfect', 'beach-ready' body has simply been repackaged and rebranded in more socially acceptable terms?
If you type phrases like #StrongNotSkinny or #FitNotThin into Instagram, you'll see that there's still a clear weight-loss element to many people's fitness passions. Images of salads or bowls of fruit and greek yoghurt sit alongside selfies of thin, attractive young women – albeit posing in workout clothes. Pre-wedding workout programmes are fast superseding pre-wedding diet plans, and everyone and their dog seems to be tracking their steps, their jogs, or their workouts, as well as their meals, on some kind of wearable tech device. None of which is necessarily a bad thing – but it does come with a darker side.
Clean eating is perhaps the biggest of current diet trends and, like much of the discussion around fitness, is also characterised by its emphasis on healthy living and 'wellness', rather than thinness or weight loss. But it's also been linked to a new type of eating disorder, 'orthorexia', where a sufferer becomes so obsessed by the 'cleanness' or otherwise of what they're eating that their diet becomes dangerously restrictive, even moralistic, and any concept of maintaining a healthy balance goes out of the window. So although getting fit, like eating healthily, is a fundamentally positive idea, there's always the risk that too much focus on burning calories and achieving perfectly flat, 'bikini body' toned abs, could become a similarly toxic obsession.
It's perhaps unsurprising in our image conscious world that positive habits like eating well and working out regularly can come to teeter so close to the brink of eating disorder and obsession. When every magazine you pick up is extolling the virtues of the latest diet or fitness fad to give you your best figure ever, it can be difficult to remember that the real benefits of exercise are physical and mental, not aesthetic.
From releasing mood-boosting endorphins, to reducing your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, working out – fuelled properly by a healthy and balanced diet – is a key part of looking after your mind and body. But keep it in perspective. Ultimately, just as it always has done, good health comes from a combination of a eating well, regular exercise, and a little bit of everything naughty in moderation. Perhaps the key difference between healthy and not healthy is really in your mind-set: work out and build strength because you love your body, not because you hate it.