It’s a new year, and many of you are running out to buy exercise equipment so you can shed the pounds you put on stress eating at home during the end of the world. The entire fitness industry sees a jump around this time annually, and their marketing matches that.
Try to remember, though: weight loss is not wellness.
There’s nothing inherently wrong exercising with weight loss in mind. During the pandemic, my apartment complex gym closed, I couldn’t go anywhere, and I started eating my feelings. My weight ballooned by 40 pounds and the muscles in my back weakened to the point that the slightest effort started causing me profound pain. After a doctor recommended some physical therapy, it became really clear what was wrong with me was too much sitting still and over-indulging in McDoubles. When I started exercising again, my back pain returned to normal levels for a 39-year-old man who had made many poor life choices.
And sure, weight loss is nice. I’d rather starve than go pants shopping but being skinny isn’t wellness no matter how many people try to tell you it is. We’ve gotten far too used to equating the two, as if being the same size you were in high school imparted some sort of blessing.
It doesn’t, but an entire industry preys on insecurity that it’s truth. On top of all the exercise equipment, people are out there buying stuff for juice cleanses and crash diets and special teas that promise to shrink your waist. Either they put your body into a simulated state of starvation so that fat burns rapidly at first or they simple cause you to go to the bathroom so much that you dangerously shed weight in the form of water. Not only are these physically dangerous, they have a success rate of nearly zero.
Real physical fitness is a long-term goal, not something that you can pack into a few months of eating nothing but carrots so that you look good the next time you’re at the beach. We have to divorce the idea of wellness from being thin.
When I was in rehab for alcohol abuse, one of the counselors told me something I have never forgotten. He said that the number two indicator of whether a person was still sober a year after they entered a program was whether they kept a regular exercise plan. When I got diagnosed with general anxiety disorder late last year, my psychologist prescribed me 30 minutes of cardio a day for the dopamine production. The two things are related. Physical activity, done moderately and not obsessively with self-hating your body in mind, literally produces a healthier person.
Other things that were prescribed to me? Not using alcohol or drugs, obviously. Substance abuse has skyrocketed during the pandemic, and your wellness online group is unlikely to tell you to cut out the wine. That’s because when you take everything only in terms of calories then you’re missing the other effects that could be happening.
Meditation or prayer was something else multiple doctors recommended I do daily. It’s not really about the spiritual aspects, although that can be nice if you swing that way. It’s more about purposefully disconnecting from the world, even if just for five minutes while a woman with an English accent and a love of wind chimes tells you to love yourself. If there’s anything the rise of fascism in America has proven to me it’s that angry people who don’t take regular moments to explore their inner worlds in a directed manner end up in unhealthy cults with awful consequences. It’s not about wearing Jesus on your T-shirt. You have to actually put some effort into your mental life otherwise it’s just football hooliganism with a weird mascot.
Wellness is a holistic thing that combines the physical and the mental. Making time to spend with your family and friends is wellness. Finding a way to work out in a safe way every day is wellness. Trading bad things for good ones is wellness, as is understanding that nutrition is more than a calorie count. You can be skinny and still very unwell. If your weight is making you unhappy, then there’s nothing wrong with trying to change that. However, it won’t magically make you healthy, and people literally die thinking it will. Instead of picking a pants size as your new year’s goal, try taking stock of your life as a whole and deciding what reasonable course of action will net the most gain.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.