Your Weight Isn’t Your Health

This post is part of my effort to tell the story of my recent health journey.

But what if nothing much changes in your life to make you care about improving your health?

You could just keep on as you are—which means that, eventually, you could end up with some kind of health scare. Better if it never gets that far.

I think there’s a way to build up to caring about your health without a scare and without major life changes—much like how I took many small steps to slowly change my inertia of inactivity, you can generate a momentum of caring. It starts with a necessary first step:

Stop making weight the goal.

You shouldn’t ignore your weight: it’s meaningful and it matters. Nor should you ignore more important numbers like blood pressure or resting heart rate.

But if your goal is to make those numbers go down, that’s not terribly motivating. You can’t relate to a goal like that on any sort of deep personal level. It’s too abstract.

As a culture, we tend to think of health primarily in terms of weight. We think that being healthy means being skinny. Or, at least skinnier. But I think we all know, on some level, that weight isn’t actually a definitive indicator of health.

There are some people who are overweight according to standard metrics who are also robustly healthy. For most of us, though, being overweight really isn’t healthy at all. Likewise, there are some people who are super skinny who are also robustly healthy. But most of us would have to do real damage to our bodies to make ourselves thin.

Weight isn’t a reliable indicator of health. But weight tends to be the default vocabulary when we talk about health. So if we’re going to find ways to make our health matter to us, we need to change how we think of it.

We need to start focusing on how we feel. Not the numbers we use to document our health, but the physical, emotional, and psychological experience of living in the body those numbers describe.

For me, there were things I wanted to be able to do with my wife that I couldn’t do because I was too unhealthy. There are things we want to do in our future that I won’t be able to do if I don’t keep myself healthy.

There were things that I used to be able to do—back when I was young and hale—which I missed doing. I lost my ability to do some of those things because of the inevitability of age, but most were a matter of poor health.

Taking long walks. Mowing the lawn (a task which I find quite meditative). Going on hikes. Swimming in a lake. Running around with my dog. Running around with our kids, if we ever have any. I wanted the strength to be able to take on maintenance and repair tasks around our house.

I wanted to be able to do these things. I couldn’t do these things because of my poor health. That connection defined a path for me to begin caring about my own health and well-being in a meaningful way.

My goals were never really about my weight. I didn’t set out to lose so many pounds, or even to hit certain numbers on my blood pressure. These are useful metrics to assess the process of getting healthier but they’re not the goal.

My goals were to:

  • Walk three miles in under an hour.
  • Mow the lawn in less than one hour.
  • Ride a stationary bike for 30 minutes at a pace of 15 mph or better.
  • Do 50 push-ups.
  • Do 50 sit-ups.
  • Increase my flexibility to where I could once again touch my nose to my knees and grab my hands behind my back.
  • Do work around the house without being tired and sore for days afterward.
  • Etc.

These are goals that actually matter to me. These are goals which directly affect how well I can live my life. There exists no set of diagnostic numbers that can motivate me the way these goals can.

But mostly—I wanted to stop feeling terrible all the time.

When I was at my least healthy, I never had any energy. I got winded too easily, dizzy and woozy. My headaches got worse and more frequent. I was always stiff and sore. I had nearly constant heartburn. I had no stamina.

I couldn’t do much of anything. It was frustrating and uncomfortable.

It doesn’t feel good to be unhealthy. I wanted to feel good again. I wanted to not hate living inside my own skin.

Health isn’t your weight. It’s about how you feel. It’s about what you can do. I wanted to be able to count on my body to be able to do certain things reliably.

That was a goal worth working toward.

If we understand our own health and well-being in those terms, and not just as a set of abstract diagnostic measurements, maybe that will help us to care more about ourselves.

Maybe even enough to want to do the work of getting healthier.

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