Losing Weight has been one of, if not the most, common new year’s resolutions, and as most of us are familiar, one of the most notoriously difficult to achieve. It’s one of those touchy topics that has garnered a ton of attention from journalists to scientists. Magazines obsess over it – their writers scrutinize celebrity waistlines, jabber about how to “get flat abs in x days” (and throw in a couple quotes from an MD to make their articles sound more credible). There is a constant influx of miracle products that make extravagant claims (some of which garner a loyal fanbase…like Shakeology) about weight loss. There are programs like Weight Watchers and calorie counting tools that try to simplify the whole process. There are societal pressures to “look like a dancer,” “get huge,” or “have an athletic body.” And it’s all very confusing, frustrating, and in my opinion, overwhelmingly complicated.
I accumulated 15 pounds of pudge in college, and spent the first year out of college trying to work it off with a combination of Stepmania (known to most as DDR or Dance Dance Revolution, 90’s kids rejoice), skipping meals, and obsessive salad eating. I was never obese or overweight, but I felt pressure to conform to an Asian beauty standard. Asian women are frequently portrayed as more attractive if they are petite with skinny limbs, a teeny waist, a small face, and large eyes. Growing up, I was always encouraged to be, for lack of a better term, “delicate” and “ladylike.” It was never about taking care of my body – it was about being thin and pretty. Quite frankly, thanks to my work ethic and discipline, my efforts to reduce the pudge did in fact work, and I dropped the fifteen pounds I had gained in college after about 6 months or so. But it was never easy. I was never obese by any means, but I remember obsessing over the scale and the numbers. And to be honest, doing the same boring exercises every day gets old really quickly.
When we talk about weight loss, we focus a lot on how we look. And when I think about women and the standard of skinny with a flat stomach, I feel discouraged by how misguided we’ve been and still are. At the gyms I’ve been to, women in general are still spending a disproportionate amount of time cardio’ing off their calories and doing core exercises to get rid of belly fat. Strength training tends to take a back seat – women don’t generally set goals to do push-ups or pull-ups because there is this perception that trying to do them will either bulk them up or simply not make them skinnier (the first is false, and the second is true, but hear me out). Now, fitness is a very personal journey and I would never flat out tell someone “you’re doing it wrong” or “your goals are bad,” but I feel strongly that as a society, the fact that women have been told to “burn off the fat” and that gaining muscle will make them look fatter and gain too much weight is misguiding us to excessive cardio hysteria and endless ab work. Sure, it’s better than vegging on a couch, but spending hours pummeling treadmills and doing a million sit-ups gets old, and well, it’s all rather inefficient and can sometimes work against you. For example, cyclists need a lot of sugar to get through their training (think energy gels, powders, Clif bars, and other sugar-heavy cycling foods) – all that cardio happens to make us crave the stuff.
Please note that I’m not saying cardio has no benefits at all – it does and I do it regularly too!
When I started my fitness journey – this was years before I started circus training – my goal was still appearance based. It was always about how I looked in the mirror. What I actually happened as I made my way through the 90 days of P90X (which I highly recommended to fitness newbies) was that I felt better. I didn’t lose weight, but I suddenly had tons of energy and it was affecting me in a very big way. I remember when I was still in school, I would constantly need naps. I struggled to keep myself awake in early morning. Focusing was hard and I dragged myself around a lot. After I finished the 90 days, the newfound energy I was feeling was exciting and I continued doing it. I realized that fitness wasn’t really about weight loss, or looking great, or having toned limbs at all. It was about feeling great, seeing what my body is capable of, and always taking the chance to be active, whether that’s biking to work or building a snowman instead of playing a video game or watching a TV show. Weight loss and being thin was largely a dietary side effect, and I learned that the hard way.
Being able to do things is a very different goal from simply losing weight. Having the ability to touch your toes, nail that yoga pose, or run that marathon. Having the ability to balance in relevé. Feeling energetic enough to not require coffee every morning. The more we focus on what our bodies could do instead of what they look like, the more naturally the aesthetic benefits will come, because when you are strong and active, chances are, you will feel more drive to hike a mountain than bog down inside with chocolate cake. Yes, we should all eat less slop, and reducing our body fat is still a formidable pursuit, but perhaps we should do that in the name of self care, getting stronger, and feeling better rather than trying to look like a supermodel.