Yesterday, Sam of Fit, Feminist and (Almost) Fifty posted a link about thermogenesis that really frustrated me. Now, it’s nothing to do with anything Sam said, or even what Matt Stone – the author of the link – wrote. Rather, it was the idea put forth by Tim Ferriss that sitting in cold water can help with fat loss while sitting in hot water can cause a person’s body to retain body fat. I read this and all I could think was, what am I supposed to do with this information? Am I supposed to give up my much-beloved hot baths for the sake of shaving a fraction of a percent of body fat off my body? Am I supposed to put myself through the agony of regularly sitting in cold water – because I don’t do that enough with lap swimming and open-water swimming, I suppose – just so I can pursue that almighty holy grail of a lean body?
It was at this moment I realized that I have grown weary of the cult of low body fat.
This has been a long time coming, mind you. I can pinpoint a whole bunch of moments at which I found myself rolling my eyes at a lot of fitness advice aimed at promoting leaner bodies with as little body fat as possible. There’s all of the vaguely pro-ana tricks, like drinking two glasses of water before breakfast so you don’t eat too much (!!) and making sure that water is either ice cold or lukewarm, I still can’t remember which, but I guess the temperature of the water you drink on an empty stomach is supposed to promote greater fat loss. There’s all of the restrictive dietary advice: don’t eat fruit, don’t eat bread, don’t eat gluten, don’t eat anything processed, don’t drink alcohol, don’t eat dairy, don’t eat potatoes, well, wait, eat sweet potatoes but not white potatoes, basically don’t eat anything besides organic twigs grown using nothing but the tears of Lisa Frank unicorns. And then there is all of the training information aimed at fat loss, and the supplements, and the timing of your meals, and whether you get enough sleep, and whether your stress is managed well and…
I could go on and on ad infinitum, but I won’t. You get my point.
To a certain extent, I get why so many people are into the pursuit of an ultra-lean body. Part of it, I’m sure, is that lean bodies just look cool from an aesthetic point of view. All of those muscles with all of their striations on full display – I am the first to admit that I find that kind of physique very lovely to look at. There’s more to it than that, though. When a person has a lean body, it serves as visual shorthand of sorts, indicating that the person most likely trains hard and who has excellent nutrition (and, to be realistic, also has a certain genetic make-up that allows for that kind of leanness). You can’t see a person’s 1RM or their 5K PR, but you can see their visible abs, you know?
The issue is that for many people, the visible abs and the ultra-lean body have become the only thing that matters, even more so than the 1RM or the 5K PR. Take Nia Shanks, who recently took some heat from someone who basically called her a fraud for not posting photos of herself in a bikini, or Fit Bitch’s Meg, who has also posted about receiving similar kinds of criticism. Both of these women have demonstrated their fitness prowess time and time again, but that’s just not enough for some people. The signifier – the lean body – has become the ultimate goal, while the signified – physical fitness – has become of secondary importance.
I think about this a lot in my own life and my own pursuit of physical fitness. I’m sure the aforementioned critics would scoff at the notion that I think of myself as physically fit, considering that I haven’t seen my abs since…well, I don’t think I’ve ever seen them. To those critics, I would be considered a fraud because I have not melted away every possible bit of body fat.
But I know the truth about my body and my abilities. I know the numbers that actually matter to me. I know that I can run a mile in 6:30, a 5K in 21:19, a half-marathon in 1:44. I can run 20 miles without stopping to walk. I can swim a mile in open water. I can deadlift my body weight. I can do thirty push-ups. I am by no means elite in my level of fitness, but I can do all sorts of things that are pretty remarkable, and so when I think of myself as a physically fit person, it’s not because I’ve managed to meet some cosmetic standard of what a physically fit person looks like. It’s because I have actually done things that physically fit people can do.
Sure, I could probably lower my body fat if I wanted to, and in the process become a faster runner. But then I think about the things I’d have to give up – drinking alcohol, eating bread and pasta, my semi-weekly date with a bacon cheeseburger and a beer, evidently hot baths – and I think about what little I would gain from it, and it just does not seem worth the sacrifice. Perhaps if I was an elite athlete whose livelihood depended on maintaining a peak level of fitness, I might feel differently about this, but I’m not an elite athlete. I’m not even elite in my local area. I’m just a recreational athlete who races for fun. Maybe most importantly, I am a recreational athlete who would like to get pregnant in the upcoming months. It’s kind of hard to do that when your body fat levels have dropped so low that you no longer get your period (which is a whole ‘nother set of issues – known as the Female Athlete Triad – in and of itself).
(And let’s be realistic – if I wanted to become a faster runner or swimmer, what I’d really need to do is run and swim more. Losing body fat might help me shave a couple of seconds off my times, but doing consistent speedwork and strength training will help me a lot more.)
This brings me to another point, which is that when we hold up ultra-leanness as The Fitness Goal for recreational athletes like myself as well as people who are just trying to keep themselves healthy, we are basically saying that everyone should be held to the same standards as elite athletes. This is insane! In what other area of our lives are we expected to emulate the best of the best? Are we all expected to write Pulitzer Prize winning novels? Must we all be capable of singing like the angelic offspring of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston? Should we all be able to engineer the tools necessary to identify the Higgs-Boson particle? No! So why does this idea persist that says we must all have the bodies of Olympic athletes before we can be considered fit and healthy?
What’s more – not even elite athletes maintain that level of fitness year-round. I’ve read several interviews with top runners and triathletes who say they deliberately put on weight in the off-season to give their bodies a bit of a break. Many bodybuilders and fitness models – at least, the ones who are careful not to burn their metabolisms into cinders – give themselves breaks from the discipline required to have such lean bodies. That’s why they have their competition weight and their off-season weight. The conditions required to get the bodybuilders and fitness models into the ultra-lean shape in which we are most likely to see them are not really all that sustainable.
I feel like I say this all the time, but clearly it needs to be said even more: what your body looks like is not as important as what it can do. Your body-fat percentage is not the most important number in determining your physical fitness, not when there are so many other numbers that actually indicate what your body is capable of doing.
Once more, with feeling: what your body looks like is not as important as what it can do.
(Here’s a post over at Diary of a Newbie StrongWoman that talks about this same topic, albeit much more succinctly and with less ranting than I did. Enjoy!)