You’re not fat, so why do you exercise?

Paraguayans in my site love to comment on my weight periodically…you know just in case I’m not aware of the current state of my own body. And as much as they like to say I’ve gained or lost weight, I’ve stayed about the same since I got here. Well, until recently. I turn 26 this I year and I decided that because I’m now closer to 30 than 20 I should stop putting off my body goals. In July, I started to take steps to lose weight by my birthday in October. At the same time, a friend asked me to run a 10 km race with her for fun. The race brought back my running bug, which I lost sometime in 2012. The point being two fold. First, I’ve started controlling what I eat and how much. Second, rather than just exercising in my house—which I did consistently for most of my service—I started running. Now, everyone in my community can see me exercising.

I think most people know the basic math of weight: if you eat fewer calories than you burn you lose weight, if you eat the number of calories you burn you maintain your weight, and if you eat more calories than you burn you gain weight. Depending on what you are doing weight gain can be muscle or fat. That said, I think many people in Paraguay and the US overestimate the power of exercise in this equation. If you want to lose weight the most effective way to do it is to watch what you eat. Why? Because it is hard to do enough exercise to burn more calories than you consume if you are eating many high-calorie foods.

We are now in late August. I am a little skinner, and Paraguayans like to tell me so, and they attribute it to my exercise. Well, actually, first they say it is because I am in love. A common Paraguayan wives’ tale is that you lose weight when you’re in love (I always thought it was the opposite…). But, after I assure them that I am still single they turn to the exercise excuse. While I was visiting a señora the other day she asked, “You’re not fat, so why do you exercise?” The question struck me. I do link exercise and body image, but for me the connection is muscle tone rather than jiggle or skin-and-bones not exactly weight. And, I exercise more because I feel like crap if I don’t, not because I’m worried about muscle tone. The señora’s question made me think about exercise theoretically, and why so many people don’t do it.

Obviously, it takes effort and time to exercise, but after considering those things I think there is a greater force preventing people from being motivated to exercise. And I think that force relates to how society talks about exercise. Many people, in Paraguay and the US, regulate physical activity to the castigation of the overweight and the amusement of a special elite class of “fit” people. Just as my señora friend’s question suggested, exercise is considered by many to have the single purpose of helping one lose weight. I see this belief as dangerous.

If I had been quicker on my feet I would have explained the following to my señora friend: You don’t have to be fat to exercise. You don’t have to be special. Nor do you have to do a specific type of exercise; all exercise is not equal but most ways of exercising are better than not exercising. Exercising helps your heart, your bones, your brain…everything.

I can’t remember what I told that señora, but I see a greater opportunity, based on her question, for public health wonks. Maybe we should focus less on telling people to exercise and focus more on changing how people talk about physical activity. After all, exercise is for everyone not as a punishment or as a chore but because our bodies need to move to work correctly. Exercise should not be thought of as extra. It should be lumped in with things like vitamins, necessary and required.

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