What to do when you feel like your weight has become a “problem” and you’re worried about your health, or it’s harder to move your body, and you’re thinking, “I’ve got to DO something about this.”
That’s a really hard and painful place to be in. And I know it might feel like dieting is the only answer, but it’s not. I promise you it’s not.
In fact, dieting is only going to make things worse.
Maybe you feel like your weight is too high for your body. Maybe you are having more joint pain in your knees or your back. Maybe you are having a hard time getting up and down out of your chair, or you get really out of breath from walking or from trying to go up a flight of stairs. Maybe your most recent bloodwork showed some concerning things like high cholesterol or an increase in your A1c, or maybe your blood pressure is up.
I can see why you’d feel like your weight is part of the problem, and I can see why you’re concerned. And I have several things to share that I think are going to really help you look at this somewhat differently than you have before, so that hopefully you can start to feel better and you can genuinely take care of your health.
Your Body is Not a Problem to Be Fixed
The overall message that I want you to receive here is one of kindness and compassion towards yourself. Your body is not a problem to be fixed.
Your body is not an inconvenience to society.
That’s such a terrible and toxic message that we send people, especially if you live in a larger body. Your body is incredible. Think about all the things it is doing for you right now as you are listening to this. Your heart is beating, your lungs are breathing, your brain is thinking…it’s truly amazing what our bodies do just to keep us alive. And remember this: your body is your home. Your body is the vessel that carries you through life. Your body is the only body you’ll ever have, so it’s worth figuring out how to relate to it without being so gosh darn hard on yourself.
Before we go any further, I think it’s really important that I first acknowledge that I currently exist in a straight sized body and I am able bodied. So I don’t have the lived experience of limited mobility or disability. So I have a lot of thin privilege. And I know that’s tricky in these discussions because it can feel like the thin person talking is tone deaf and that they don’t know what they’re talking about because they haven’t lived it. And to an extent that’s true. I haven’t lived some of these issues, but I’ve worked with hundreds of clients and students who have.
So what I’m about to share with you is based on my clinical experience working with a lot of humans who have the lived experiences we are talking about. I’m going to share what they have told me works for them, what has helped and hasn’t helped, and what pitfalls they fell into along the way. And my hope is that this gives you some fresh ideas about how you can tend to your body with kindness and compassion, and how you can feel encouraged and empowered to do what’s right for YOU.
Health, Mobility and Weight…It’s Complicated
The first thing to remember is that with our mobility it changes with age. It’s really normal for the human body to experience more aches and pains as we get older. I have pretty chronic back pain that has gotten worse with age. My dad has knee and shoulder issues and probably needs both of his knees replaced at some point. So I first of all want to normalize that people with all body types experience joint pain.
And in general, it’s important to remember that there is no health condition that only occurs in higher weight people. Thin people can have diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, and all the other things that get blamed on weight when someone is in a larger body.
Is there a correlation with these health conditions and weight? Yes, the research does show a correlation, but we have to remember that correlation is not the same thing as causation and health is more complicated than just a number on the scale. And that dieting and intentional weight loss can create the illusion that we are improving our health, but because the impact is so temporary and it perpetuates weight cycling (the yo-yo’ing up and down of your weight), it’s actually really hard on your body and on your health. That can be confusing though when things look better with your health temporarily with dieting.
You might be thinking, “But Katy, my joint pain gets worse when I gain weight, and it gets better if I lose weight.” I believe you. That very well might be true. AND it doesn’t make dieting an effective long-term strategy for weight loss. In fact, dieting causes initial weight loss usually of both body fat and muscle mass, and then the rebound weight gain from dieting often happens as mostly body fat, so then you’re at a higher weight but with less muscle mass which can contribute to joint pain because there’s less muscle to support your joints. This becomes such a viscous cycle as someone loses and regains weight multiple times and their body composition gets worse and worse.
The other thing that I often hear from people is that when they are in weight loss mode they’re often dieting or trying to eat “healthier” and they’re exercising more. Studies show that when we are more active, we tend to have less joint pain. Being active makes those muscles that support our knees and backs stronger. And I’ve heard numerous physical therapists say “motion is lotion” for our joints. So I think it’s important to acknowledge that some of the pain reduction and the ways that you might have physically felt better when dieting could simply be from being more active.
And yes, for some people they have less overall aches and pains when they lose weight. But if the weight loss isn’t sustainable, then things tend to get worse over time because when your weight yo-yo’s it tends to ratchet up higher and higher for most people which can be such a vicious cycle.
Physical Activity is Great for Health (Regardless of Weight)
When it comes to health, research shows clear health benefits to physical activity regardless of weight. Being physically active also correlates with lower risk of death, regardless of your weight. So being active is one of the best things you can do to take care of your health and to FEEL better in your body.
Our mobility is a use-it-or-lose-it type of thing. The less active we become, the more deconditioned our bodies become, which then makes it harder to move, which makes us less likely to want to do movement, and it’s easy to progressively get more and more sedentary over time. If becoming more sedentary correlates with weight gain for you, it’s easy to blame your weight for your difficulty moving, but the difficulty moving might also be because you haven’t been moving.
I’ll share a personal example here: I used to be able to touch my toes when I did yoga quite a bit. Now I can’t even come close. I lost some flexibility because I haven’t been practicing flexibility. (And it probably doesn’t help that I spend so much time sitting in my desk chair with my legs bent and my hamstrings getting tight.) Rather than blaming or shaming my body for what it can’t do, I can meet my body where it’s at and find ways to work with what I’ve got.
So let’s pause and recap what we’ve covered so far:
- It’s a shared human experience to have pain, difficulty moving our bodies as we get older, and various health issues. None of this means that there’s something wrong with you, or that you’re lazy, or that you’re failing. It means you’re human.
- Thin privilege means that people in smaller bodies can have these issues without doctors and society blaming it on their weight. This sucks because it’s not fair the way that people in larger bodies are treated and the way that everything is blamed on their weight. This type of weight stigma creates so much shame, and studies show weight stigma itself also correlates with worse health outcomes.
- Even if your joint pain or your lab values get better with weight loss and worse with weight gain, that doesn’t mean that dieting is a helpful strategy for improving your health. The GREAT news is that there are many things that you can do to improve your health and to feel better about your body and more empowered in how you take care of your body, which we’re going to talk about in a second.
- Movement is fantastic for mobility and health, regardless of your size. AND I know that movement isn’t easy or accessible for some people. I’ll share some more ideas and tips. Remember with movement, it can be a use-it-or-lose it type of thing, so if we can help you find ways that ARE doable for you to move your body, with whatever its limitations might be, that’s fantastic.
- The main point I want to make here is about being kind to yourself. I want you to keep reminding yourself that your body isn’t a problem to be solved, and that you are worthy at any size. AND that you absolutely can do things to take care of your health no matter what your weight might be. Taking care of your HEALTH is about more than a number on the scale.
Body Kindness and Exercise
I had a friend named Herb, and sadly he passed a couple of years ago. He was this delightful man who was about 5’5” and just so gentle and unassuming. He had this sweet smile and was so humble. And it was so funny to me because he was this sweet older man who also rode a motorcycle wherever he could. Well, Herb decided in his 40’s that he wanted to start exercising, so he took up running and swimming. When he was in his 70’s he had at least one if not both of his knees replaced, and he did the rehab and was back out there running and swimming again. I remember at his funeral the pastor saying how he was driving downtown one day and saw Herb out there running. There’s a lesson here that we can learn from Herb: he decided in the 2nd half of his life to be more active, and he had knee pain, he had it addressed, and he was back out there being active again. And I think that’s a good example of how we can meet our bodies where they’re at, use medications and surgeries when we need to, and keep showing up and finding ways to be active. You certainly don’t have to run or swim like Herb but what if you approached movement like Herb did, with determination to do what you can and to be kind to your body and address any pain or problems you’re having, and then to get back to whatever type of activity works for you? Instead of making your body bad or wrong you can try to listen to the messages your body is giving you, and to respond to those messages the same way you would respond to the needs of a child or a dear friend. Most of us are much harsher with ourselves than we would ever be towards anyone else.
What to do if Movement Isn’t Easy or Accessible For You
This is way more common than you might realize, so I want to normalize this. For a lot of people exercise (which you’re hearing me call movement) isn’t easy or accessible. It might not be easy because of physical limitations, or you might be working multiple jobs and don’t have time to move, or it might not feel safe to connect with your body through movement if you’ve had trauma in your past. Or maybe movement isn’t accessible to you because you have a disability, or you don’t have a place to do movement, or you’re a single parent with little kids so you have no time to yourself, let alone energy to exercise. These are all valid challenges.
We can practice acknowledging and addressing these challenges using the framework of body kindness and self-compassion. In fact, I have a great tool for this. It’s what I call The Daily 3, and basically it’s a 5-minute journaling practice where you start each day by identifying 3 things you can do to be kind to your body that day. The cool thing is it can be whatever you want it to be. Some days it might be the same thing as the day before, and other days it might be different based on what you’re needing. You can download these journal pages for free along with a guide for how to use them by clicking here.
On certain days, body kindness might mean taking a walk, or calling your doctor, or drinking more water. And on other days it might mean going to bed early, or vegging out and watching Netflix. The idea with body kindness is to honor what your body needs for your health and wellbeing, which is quite different from dieting.
We can use the Daily 3 to help implement what’s called “fierce self-compassion” around movement. Self-compassion in general means being kind to yourself, and there are two sides to it: tender self-compassion, and fierce self-compassion. With tender self-compassion it’s the softer side, and the nurturing side. And fierce self-compassion is being your own cheerleader, and saying to yourself, “I can do this!” It might mean setting goals and working towards them with movement, which is a much more helpful goal than doing Weight Watchers or the keto diet for the 7th time.
Dieting Isn’t a Helpful Long-Term Solution
Remember that no matter how much you might be feeling like your weight is a problem for your health or mobility, that doesn’t make dieting a helpful or effective solution. Dieting gives you that instant gratification and the illusion that you’re doing something healthy for your body, when really it’s damaging your health and self-esteem because it’s so temporary. Keep in mind that with dieting yes, most people do lose weight initially, and then within 2-5 years they’ve often regained more weight than they lost in the first place, which is why the end result of most diets is weight GAIN not weight loss.
The GREAT news however, is that there are many things you can do to tend to your health without dieting. We already talked about one of the best things you can do for your health which is to be physically active. And how you can use The Daily 3 Body Kindness Journal Pages to help you do that. Being more active might not mean going to the gym or taking a walk (although it totally could). It might mean doing some leg lifts while watching TV, or doing arm circles in between meetings, or walking to the mailbox each day to get your mail. Sometimes we just need to start small to overcome the inertia of getting started. Those little things that you do get you in the habit of being more active in general, and that’s fantastic. So play around with The Daily 3 and see what you think. I love it, and I’ve been using it each morning and it helps me remember to take care of my body each day.
10 More Ideas to Tend to Your Health Without Dieting
These are things that many of my past clients and students have found helpful, and things that science supports as being effective for improving health:
- Get better sleep.
- Drink more water (within reason, don’t go overboard).
- Have carb, protein and fat at your meals.
- Throw in a fruit or veggie at most meals.
- See your doctor on a regular basis.
- Take medications as prescribed (and don’t be afraid of medications).
- Incorporate more movement throughout your day – “microdose” it.
- Drink less alcohol.
- Practice supportive coping skills.
- Go to therapy.
You see, health is about more than the food we eat or don’t eat, and it’s about more than the number on the scale. When we can approach our health from many different angles it has a more powerful impact than if we focus on weight alone.
Your body and your weight are not problems to be solved. Your body is your home.
Sometimes when it comes to health it’s more than just our behaviors. Sometimes we are genetically predisposed to things like joint pain, arthritis, high blood pressure or diabetes. If your doctor recommends medication for one of these issues, the medication doesn’t mean you failed. It means that your body is asking for some help, and it’s AMAZING that we have medications that can help with these things.
What if instead of thinking of your body or your weight as a “problem” you tried to look at it as your body is speaking to you? Your body is giving you feedback and data, and you can use that feedback to find ways to compassionately respond. I don’t mean compassion in the sense of letting yourself go. I mean compassion like putting a bandaid on a cut that’s bleeding – responding directly to the issue. So if you have a hard time moving, let’s work on moving. If you’re having health concerns, let’s directly address those health concerns. Sure, there might be some lifestyle and nutritional things that might help, but that’s different than going on a diet and fixating on the number on the scale because that’s not going to help you.
I want you to feel like you can make some empowered decisions about how to treat your body with kindness and respect, and that this sometimes means doing things that we don’t necessarily want to do for our health, like going to the gym or taking medication, or going to bed earlier. But when we embrace health as being multifaceted and not simply about the number on the scale it allows us to respond in ways that are going to be much more effective and helpful in the long run.
Did you know you can listen to all this information in audio format?
Search for Episode 76 – What to Do When Your Weight has Become a “Problem” and It’s Harder to Move Your Body
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