Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Mirror Test

Sometimes when I venture into Bloglandia, I come across postings on the fit-or-fat question. Of late, I have been finding some relatively strident comments from people I have dubbed the DOO, i.e., the Defenders of Obesity. I think I understand where these folks are coming from, and I can sympathize, but I would be remiss if I didn't offer that I believe their advocacy of such attitudes does more harm than good.

The gist of it is this: Society places too much value on appearances. (I agree.) What a person looks like is not the full measure of who they are. (No argument). There are some real questions as to whether health is that much affected by obesity. (I don't think there is any question here. Maybe genetics are more important to longevity, but there is no doubt that the quality of one's physical and emotion life are adversely affected by being obese.) 

Therefore, the conclusion comes, it is okay for me to be obese, and I'm happy with it.

If, when you shuck all your clothes and stand in front of a full-length mirror in good lighting and you are mostly-happy with how you look, then I got nothing else to tell you. If, on the other hand, you aren't happy but are reconciled to it and accept it, that's not the same. (And I say "mostly-happy" because few of us can't see room for improvement standing in front of the mirror. How much work we are willing to do to get that is another matter.)

If there was a magic pill that had fewer side-effects than aspirin, cost a dollar, and by taking it you would become fit, attractive, and healthy, and stay that way for, oh, say, thirty or forty years, would you take it?

I have yet to meet anybody who is obese who, when asked this, wouldn't consider the idea. Most of the folks I know would jump at it.

There is such a pill, but it costs a lot more than a dollar. Eating right and exercising does the trick, but it requires a lot of sweat equity and time.

Most of the DOO people to whom I've talked are long-time warriors in the War Against the Avoirdupois. After years or decades of struggling with diets and exercise, they have had enough. They've left the battlefield, and fuck it.

It is their choice, and I don't blame them for it. One measures, one weighs the benefits versus cost, and one elects an option. No problem.

Where I run into trouble is with the notion that the grapes of fitness are sour anyway, and rationalizing it thus allows them to feel better about themselves.

Don't want to fight the war, that's cool, but the goal is still valid, and offering that it isn't for others is wrong.

Sophie Tucker has a line, "I've been rich and I've been poor; believe me, Honey, rich is better."

I feel that way about health and fitness. You don't have to be a fanatic about it, up at dawn every day and working out for three hours -- as in most things, moderation is the ticket. But because you've elected to walk away from the war doesn't mean that it isn't worth fighting.


Dave Chesser said...

Agreed. There's a lot of rationalizing and enabling going on.

From a martial arts POV, I often get annoyed with the "I don't have to be in shape because I have good techniques" idea. 90% of the time this argument is made to excuse an obese instructor. In CMA, we even have such people going on and on about health this and that when they are obviously no role model.

Honestly, every time I see an obese MA teacher, I cringe.

Kai Jones said...

There's a lot of rationalizing going on from the fitness warriors, too. Injuries? You've got 'em. There's the time commitment: studies say about an hour of vigorous exercise a day to maintain a current level of fitness, so it would take more to get there. And constant exercise with prudent diet doesn't guarantee perfect results, see, e.g., Jim Fixx. You can still be stricken with cancer or have a genetic predisposition to disease. Or just get hit by a car.

As for strident, there's no one-true-wayist like the diet and exercise kinds. The moral superiority, the self-righteousness, the insistence on telling other people their choices are wrong--it's all there in all caps. They can handwave their judgmentalism away by saying "if you're happy with your body or your life, I'm not talking about you" but it comes through loud and clear that they don't believe anybody is really in that category--it's just denial combined with rationalization. Note I'm not referring to you here, Steve--I don't think you're a one-true-wayist although you are a strong advocate.

And Dave, you can't tell fitness by looking, unless you're Humpty-Dumpty-like definition of fitniess is to be skinny. Skinny people might have high blood pressure and cholesterol, might have asthma, might not be able to run a mile--fat people can be fit in those categories and others without losing the weight.

Steve Perry said...

Indeed, I am an advocate, and for selfish reasons. I love life and want to enjoy it as fully as I can. I might not live a day longer because of my attitude about diet and exercise, but I can attest to the notion that the quality of my life is better when I'm fit than when I'm not, and there is evidence all to hell and gone that it works that way for most people most of the time.

We can all trot out our exceptions.

Yep, in sixty years, I've bunged up some things -- strained this, torn that, and I had knee surgery recently. More folks need that same surgery due to inactivity and obesity than from being fit. What I've gotten far outweighs what it cost.

I want the people I love, those I respect and admire, to stay around. If your favorite writer kicks off early you don't get any more books from him or her, and if cutting back on the bacon and doing a brisk walk now and then keeps them writing for a few more books, I'm going to push that notion.

I've known people who were obese who could run a marathon, and that makes them fitter than a whole lot of skinny folks, and even plenty who are muscular. But those distance runners are the exceptions that prove the rule, and they'd be kinder to their knees and ankles if they were lighter.

I know about set-points and homeostasis and tricky metabolisms, and that there are indeed folks who have such hormone storms that any weight-loss diet seems like pure starvation. But most people aren't in that category. 95 or 96% of people who are morbidly obese can't claim that it is a freak metabolic process.

The cause is too much food and too little exercise.
The reasons for these are myriad, and some justifiable -- depression, say, or having children or being injured, lots of things --but outside a small number, people who are obese bear some responsibility for their condition. It is to a degree their fault.

Most people don't have the discipline to do what is necessary, a cold fact.

(Jim Fixx had occult heart disease before he started, and from everything I know, would likely have died even sooner had he elected to be a couch potato.)

Being fit doesn't make you bulletproof. It isn't a panacea. But it does shade the odds in your favor, and it certainly gives you a better quality of life by my measure. For me it is worth it. For others, it isn't.

I'm not telling them if they don't do it my way they are wrong. But I'm not going to sit by and listen to them say it doesn't matter. It does.

I spent five years working at a Family Practice clinic and from my experience, there is an awful lot of denial and rationalization going on regarding this topic.

If somebody wants to eat a bacon-double-cheeseburger smothered in chili fries and washed down with a triple-thick shake, that's okay by me, I've done it myself and enjoyed it muchly. But if they hold it up and say it's a healthy meal, I know better. I will call them on it.

Viro said...

In early 2001 I was laid off when the bubble burst. I didn't have the budget to do much, so I got to live in my own private "Okinawa."*

They say that if you're stationed on Okinawa, you have three options for your free time- get fit, get drunk or get religion. There is nothing else to do.

I didn't have the budget for booze. I've already been an altar-boy... *mutter mutter* So exercise it was!

I added some muscle and lost around ten pounds. I was probably in the best shape of my life at that time.

Well, after a few months, at a family gathering, they held an intervention. They worried I was anorexic.

"But my body-fat percentage has been at about 17 percent for a month or so. Twenty percent is considered overweight."

No. No. No. Not eating as much as us. You have a problem.

"S e v e n t e e n percent and holding."

Anorexic. Problem.

"S-E-V-E-N-T-E-E-N percent. Holding."

I finally had to go full-douche on them and explain that an "average weight" to them was overweight.

I, uh, didn't say it as rationally as that. There was some shouting.* The term "buncha fatties" may have been used. Like I said, I had to go full-douche.

*We always have the best get-togethers.
After leaving my Uncle's house at Thanksgiving of last year, my wife turned to me and said, "My God. When you were fighting with your brother at the dinner table, I thought you two were going start hitting each other."
My reply was, "That wasn't a fight. That was a 'spirited discussion.' Now keep an eye on the front door while I key his truck."

Jay Gischer said...

I find I both agree and disagree. I agree that exercise and eating well will help everyone feel better. Amen. It isn't about fat, it's about fit.

The problem is that the two are confounded. For example, look at this video, I consider it an inkblot test for this issue:

Would you say Chen Xiaowang is too fat? Out of shape? Many of the commenters seem to think so. As if he couldn't tear them into itty-bitty pieces. At the level of fitness and energy he has, the fat he carries has a positive benefit to him. It acts as armor.

Our culture habitually indulges in fat-shaming. Of course someone who is fat would imagine themselves to be happier if they were thin, because they wouldn't have their body publicly shamed all the time.

I don't think shaming people into change works all that well.

One further point to consider. Not too long ago in our past, the only time someone lost a lot of weight quickly was when they had some sort of life-threatening condition: They had TB, or cancer, or were in a famine. The only time. It's not all that common even today.

So it's not really surprising that family members would get alarmed at a relative that has lost a lot of weight quickly, it's scary to us as human beings because it's so abnormal.

Steve Perry said...

Sure, Master Chen is an exception. And from his look, I wouldn't say he was morbidly obese.

This is a medical term, and has a specific meaning -- 50%-100% (or a nice round hundred pounds) over one's ideal, with the ideal being a certain percentage of body fat.

The medical defintions vary from country to country, but there are anorexic, underweight, ideal, overweight, obese, morbid obesity, like that. It is unhealthy to be too skinny, despite the old saying you can't be too thin or too rich.

The most popular method of determining these states, the BMI, is flawed because it is a ratio of weight to height. By this measure, Schwarzenegger, when he won the Mr. Olympia Contest (seven times) was morbidly obese.

Using that, I am considered bordering on obesity at six-one and two hundred and five pounds, and on a good day, I can see my abs. I am carrying five or ten pounds more than my ideal fighting weight, but I pass my mirror test.

A four-hundred-pound sumo wrestler is in better shape than most people. They work out every day. But they don't live as long as average. You can look it up.

The diseases related to obesity are legion, and while being thinner doesn't grant you immunity to these, being morbidly obese increases your chances of illness in virtually every body system -- heart, liver, kidneys, joints, gallbladder, cancer, skin, circulatory, pancreas -- pick one.

Have a look here:

I come from a medical perspective on this. There is a reason they call it morbid obesity. If you want to convince yourself it isn't so, fine, it's your life.

If you believe that being morbidly obese doesn't matter to your health and longevity, you aren't fooling anybody but yourself.

Irene said...

Thing is, people do differ. No two people are alike, otherwise we could all play basketball like Jordan, sing like Pavarotti, and write like Perry. There are basic physical and mental differences. Losing weight is easier for some people than others. Hormones, metabolisms, genetics, all do play a role in how efficiently your body turns calories into energy and tissue. But blaming your body for that is a cop-out, absolving yourself of responsibility for your actions. So your metabolism is faster, more inclined to turn food into energy rather than fat, than mine is? So be it. I eat and act in the way that's right for me, you have to eat and act in the way that's right for you. I can't eat and act like you, and expect the same effects that you get... because I'm NOT you.

Irene said...

I just got in touch with an old friend of mine whom I haven't seen in maybe six years. He was overweight in high school, and continued to gain weight thereafter... last time I saw him, he was well over 400 lbs.

Over the past 5 years, he has dropped 225 lbs through... you guessed it! Eating less and exercising more! I told him he looks great. Damn, David, if you'd looked like this in high school....
Ah well.

Makes me think those last ten pounds CAN come off...

Steve Perry said...

Um, Irene, if you lost ten pounds you'd have to stop coming to class -- nobody would be able to see you.

"Hey, did you hear something?"

"Yeah. That's just Irene. She's around here somewhere, I think ..."

Irene said...

Well yeah, that's the idea, smaller target = harder to see = harder to hit. It's all about the silat.

steve-vh said...

I used to get the "you're lucky, you don't have to work out to stay thin(er than them)" My reply? No not luck, success. Like i wasn't working at it? And I'm paying for it with pain and recoup now.

My wife however is that freak metabolism. Constantly struggling to loose weight and yet running and coaching marathoners and doing triathalons. Easily puts in 25miles of running a week. If I did that I'd be a ghost.

The only time she was really successful was when she did 4hours of full on spinning classes 5 times a week with a 30 mile ride on the weekend.
But I never saw her. Was it worth it??

Interesting episode of House this week. Ill character is a fitness celebrity who it turns out had bypass surgery. Much about fraud ensues.
Well, ultimate diagnosis is she has some rare genetic disorder that causes the body to only be healthy on a high sugar diet. When she was overweight she was self medicating, the body knew.

Her end choice? Start me on the medicine to treat the complications, not put me back on the right diet. She choose not go back to heavy though it was actually healthier.

Dave Chesser said...

I include injury prevention and recuperation into my workouts. So i don't have many injuries from my athletic training. Quite the opposite actually.

I see this as just another excuse to not work out. But then again, i'm not an extreme advocate of strength training or any other single aspect of fitness and many "fitness people" are.

Agreed about "skinny" people to some extent, they can have fat around their organs as I do (not that I'm skinny). But ironically, a six-pack and small waistline do suggest a lower amount of such fat. It's just that we shouldn't perhaps go by broad mirror tests. It's too easy to fool ourselves. I did it for years.

My measuring stick is the health check i get every other month. I have my liver function, cholesterol, blood pressure and pulse, uric acid level, protein, etc. checked and judge my health according to those levels.

Since moving away from doing taichi 4-5 hours a day to a more fitness based approach, I've seen dramatic improvements in all categories, bar none. I've also dropped about 14 pounds.

It all comes down to whether or not people will follow the exception or the rule. People can point to exercisers who died young anyway and say it's not worth it without dealing with the fact that such exercisers are the exception, not the rule.

Kai Jones said...

Dave Chesser wrote: I see this as just another excuse to not work out.

Who says fat people don't work out? That's a baseless assumption; some do, some don't.

It all comes down to whether or not people will follow the exception or the rule.

No, I think the rule you are assuming is wrong. There's no one rule that works for everyone, and healthy means different things to different people. Neither working out nor dieting is the same as healthy or fit.

Steve Perry said...

Well, yes and no, viz the everybody is different theory. There are parameters. Jumping off a tall building head down onto the concrete is bad for everybody who wants to keep sharing the communal air.

If, when I'd been working at the clinic, somebody had come in and told me they were talking arsenic every day but shy of the lethal dose and did that make it okay? I would have told them it wasn't. It might not kill them, but it definitely would cause a host of problems, and the cumulative effect would not be a good thing.

Health and fitness might not be entirely related to diet and exercise but that's the way the smart money bets; and "healthy" means what it means -- there are relative states of heal, of course, and one person's nadir might be somebody else's acme, but you're playing word games and you know better.

jks9199 said...

OK. I'm not suggesting that being overweight is generally a good thing, or desirable. I definitely need to lose a fair piece of weight.

But I'm also one of those people who are NEVER likely to hit the "ideals." Using BMI -- well, I'd need cancer or to lose a leg (I think I could keep the arm) to be close. Per body comp analysis, I carry more bone and muscle than my "ideal" weight by several charts or BMI. Looking at family history... skinny ain't there. On either side. Irish ancestry, with a trace of German. Solid people...

Not too many years ago, I worked out for fitness alone 6+ days a week. More than an hour of intense, hard cardio. Another hour plus of intense weight training. It wasn't a good workout if I didn't have to wring my shirt out at the end... I had a stress EKG and took something like 20 minutes to get up to their predicted max heartrate, and felt little strain. I think I was pretty fit. I was around 250 lbs. Dropped down into the 230s during the police academy -- and was in the top of my class for PT. Despite appearances. I think it's pretty reasonable to say I was pretty fit, right?

I get sick of the whole "you should be skinny" approach. Be fit. Be healthy. Find a reasonable weight that you can carry, move, and do anything and everything you want or need to do without problems -- and can maintain it with a reasonable lifestyle. I ain't a professional athlete or actor with a trainer and dietitian on call, and a personal chef to prepare the food. I'm just plain not going to be skinny...

And it's frustrating as hell eating less than many people around me... and still having to fight to maintain my weight, or put up with the freaking fat "jokes."

(And I don't like women who are too skinny, either; women should have curves and "interesting bumps." And those don't happen if the body fat is too low.)

Steve Perry said...

One of the questions we are debating is what constitutes "fitness," and if it is, indeed, a good thing. It has been my contention all along that "it" whatever it is,* is* a good thing, and that it is better for one's physical, emotional, and even spiritual being to run closer to optimum than not.

Hatha Yoga was developed to help keep people fit enough to sit and meditate. It has since come to be an end in itself, but it was a means when it was created.

The story is that Bodhidarma developed kung-fu because the Chinese monks were falling apart in their spiritual disciplines because they were in such crappy shape.

I'm not talking Olympic-class jocks here, but I am railing against the notion that being eighty or a hundred pounds beyond what is optimal is any kind of good idea.

It isn't. Anybody who says differently is fooling themselves.

And that for most of us, to whatever degree we choose to exercise or not, to eat well or not, that our condition **is a choice. All too often, I hear the "It's not my fault!" response when somebody is trying to defend any bad habit.

Sometimes that is true. Most of the time is not. Even if you agree that obesity is an illness, like alcoholism, there are options. You can be a sober alcoholic. And most people, if it is important enough to them, can reshape their bodies into a healthier form. The hard truth is, most people who don't simply don't have the discipline to get it done. Not everybody does.

It is natural to want to feel better about one's self, to put a spin on it that allows for ego-balm. But when you get right down to the real nitty-gritty, if you are willing to do what is necessary, you can change it.

If you aren't, it won't happen. Period.

I've never said that we should all look like runway models or Steve Reeves. But most of us know where the line is and when we are across it.

Dave Chesser said...

On a similar note, i noticed a tendency among "knife and stick" types to be big (I don't know what else to call it or i'll piss someone off).

Have you noticed that as well?

Quite a few aikido guys are like that but then aikido isn't great exercise.

Steve Perry said...

I expect knife and stick guys might offer that the padding would be, like a sumo's, useful. I think that is something of a reach -- one would need a huge amount to protect superficial blood vessels and even tendons against any but the smallest knife, and fat carries plenty of nerves, so getting whacked with a stick will still sting as much. Might protect muscles somewhat, but those hand-raps and disarms against the stick? The leverage is the same.

Our art is based on position rather than speed, but generally -- generally -- bigger is slower, and that means you need an art that isn't based on speed, too.

Real-time fights don't last long, so conditioning might not be the deciding factor. You can be a pot-bellied grampa who smokes like a coal-fired locomotive and have more than enough to take out an attacker before you run out of steam -- if you know what you are doing. But carrying an extra hundred pounds is going to impede the way you move and limit your options.

Ximena Cearley said...

Well, Steve, I'm the most beautiful woman in the world. End of chat.

Also, hate exercise because of exercise-induced asthma they made me "work through" as a kid. So I'm visually a "lucky" skinny person, even though I'm not fit. There's nothing more pathetic than a skinny flabby person.

My brother, on the other hand, has a freakish metabolism that means he can't seem to gain weight. He's WIRY. His waist is smaller than mine.

I gained ten pounds when I hit thirty. Never felt better.

jks9199 said...

I'm not trying to say it's ideal to carry 80 or 100 or even 20 or 25 extra pounds. But I do have issues with how you decide that someone's carrying "extra" weight.

Your title here is great; "The Mirror Test." Let's be real; we can all look in a mirror, and know whether or not there's some weight there that probably doesn't need to be. And it's better than BMI (which makes no allowance for different builds or muscle; Holyfield in his prime was morbidly obese by BMI) or the old height/weight charts...

I personally am a fan of a definition of "fit" that balances three elements: body composition (muscle & fat ratio, basically), functional ability to do what you need/want to do in normal life or other activities without undue problems (If you can't walk upstairs to the bathroom without being worn out... that's a problem. If you're not up for a marathon every weekend... that may not be a problem. Unless you're a nut about running marathons...), medical standards (heart rate, BP, etc) and reasonable esthetics (do you like how you look?). I'm working to get back into that 230 range... I get there, I'll consider pushing lower, based on all the above.

Steve Perry said...

Ximena --

Bosh. You *tango ...*

Steve Perry said...

Side Note:

Saw a piece on ex-football players from the NFL last night on the news. Apparently many of them balloon up after they quit the game and suffer accordingly.

The average weight of an NFL's team's line has gone up over the years, and if I recall correctly, is around 318 lbs. now.

The number I really found mind-boggling was, that of those players were obese when they quit, 70% of them die from heart disease -- many of them in their forties or fifties.

Dave Chesser said...

Wow, that's sad. Football players have it bad, I guess.

Wim Demeere said...

I just read this post and couldn't agree more. I've worked as a personal trainer for over 15 years and have also seen that line of reasoning. Maybe one of the causes is just sheer numbers: there are more and more obese people => people get used to seeing them => it eventually is perceived as "normal".

I don't have the numbers but I think the target body fat percentages were changed about 20-30 years ago. What was "fat" in the 60's and 70's is now normal/healthy. I'd have to look it up though.