Is Weight-Loss Really the Goal?

I have a lot of conversations with people about fitness. We talk about past experiences with fitnessing, what’s worked well in the past and what’s gotten in the way. We also talk about hopes and dreams for the fitness future. 

People often say things like, ‘I’d love to get back into running, but I need to lose a few pounds first.’ 

Or ‘I’d love to go on this adventure trip, so I need to lose a few pounds before I go.’

The messages we receive—from TV and movies, from the magazines we see while we’re in line at the grocery store, and from just about everyone we meet—tell us that [insert health or fitness-related concern here] will simply be better “when I drop a few pounds”.

Quick side note:

I’m about to engage in questioning our shared, common understanding and assumptions about weight loss and diet culture. I’d like to acknowledge from the outset that I am writing this as an able-bodied, thin, male-presenting, white person—and that my perspective cannot help but be influenced by a lifetime of intersecting privilege. I’m not sure this perspective is any less valid because of that, but my privilege is something that we can’t discount here.

The question that comes to mind is this: Is weight-loss really the goal here?

Or rather, are we sure that weighing less—being in a smaller body—is the key to achieving the goal?

Let’s start by clarifying just what the goal is.

For example, let’s use running.

Running (or jogging) can be tough on the joints. It’s lots of repetitive impact and, over time, that can take a toll. When people get hurt jogging, it is usually not because they’re overweight. It is almost always—in part—because they’re under strong.

What ‘under strong’ means here is that the capacity of the joints in question is less than the demands placed on them during the activity.

Overweight vs. Under-strong

There is, obviously, a correlation between overall body weight and how strong a person’s joints need to be for any given activity…but there is also a really good chance that for an activity like jogging, under-strong joints at one bodyweight will likely be under-strong a few pounds lighter.

The perspective shift I’d like to offer here is that if the goal is to be able to partake in a regular jogging habit with less likelihood of injury, then getting stronger overall—regardless of your bodyweight—will reduce the likelihood of you getting injured.

It’s important to acknowledge here that there are a wide variety of factors that influence injury-risk: injury history, individual anatomical and biomechanical considerations, muscular imbalances, joint mobility, ligamentous laxity, etc. This is far from an exhaustive list. 

For any given activity, there are a variety of elements that go into a functional strength training program beyond building strength: 

  • We would also focus on developing, improving and maintaining functional joint mobility as part of functional movement patterns. 
  • Improved muscular and cardiovascular endurance also play a not-insignificant role here.
  • The process of training itself improves proprioception and body awareness, which contributes to improved motor control and coordination.

In this way, training becomes ‘joint-friendly’ and builds the capacity for long-term participation in the activity of your choice.

This same perspective and approach applies to making [insert fitness goal here] better.

Will losing weight make a person more healthy?

Well, how are we defining healthy?

That’s a big one to unpack. Are we looking at resting heart rate? Blood work, like glucose or cholesterol levels? Or blood pressure?

Depending on the measurements we’re using to get a sense for healthy-ness, the next step is to have a look at how to improve those measures.

At the risk of really oversimplifying, many, many of those measures can be improved by engaging in regular fitness training and by eating nourishing foods.

Where things get tricky is that it’s possible for a person to inhabit a bigger body and to be healthy, based on their blood pressure, resting heart rate, blood glucose or cholesterol levels (or other measures not mentioned here).

Nuance: but/and

Really, the main point here is to challenge the notion that losing weight is the fix that our society (and sometimes, frustratingly, our doctors) tell us it is. There are, however, a few of but/and’s that are worth mentioning.

But/and if a person is looking to improve their health (however they’re measuring ‘health’) or performance and they engage in regular functional fitness training and begin eating more nourishing foods, what tends to happen along the way is some sort of change in body composition. They’ll build muscle mass and they’ll probably lose some body fat.

But/and, the improvements in health and/or performance are not a direct result of the fat loss.

But/and if you have a goal to lose some weight and change your body composition for aesthetic reasons (or, heck, any other reason), that’s ok. More than that, it’s totally valid.

It’s not wrong to have a fat loss goal.

…though, as with any goal, it’s worthwhile getting clear about why it’s important to you. (Readers of this blog will likely know by now that we are actively interested in dismantling diet culture and regularly partake in open questioning of our society’s misguided insistence that life is somehow better in a smaller body).

So this idea of questioning weight loss is tricky.

There isn’t necessarily a conclusion.

Just a series of thoughts about digging below the surface. There’s a thing you want to be better. There’s a way you think it will get better. I’m wondering if the thing you want to improve is really the thing that needs improving. Maybe it’s a thing that society does all it can to distract you from thinking about.

And maybe, regardless of underlying motivations, the process will be where the magic happens.

2 thoughts on “Is Weight-Loss Really the Goal?”

  1. I love this topic! As a person in a larger body who use to be in a smaller one, I have a lot to say. Although I wish our world was more accepting of larger bodies, there are things that are exponentially more challenging for me now outside of external factors. For example, things that make me anxious as a larger bodied person are stadium seating, airplanes, train seats, weight limits, seating in general let’s be honest, non-inclusive sizes in clothing stores, and being active with others and struggling to keep up or being perceived as “the fat girl trying to keep up”. However, other things in my life that are challenging are tying my shoes, getting off the couch, sitting on the ground, getting off the ground, getting close enough to the table to prevent spilling food/drink, and getting hot easily to name a few. These things will be challenging regardless of social/environmental changes I think. So it’s for these reasons I tell myself why I want to lose weight, and how I justify constantly pursuing weight loss. And I really do believe losing weight will make my life easier because those things will become less challenging. But it’s naive of me to believe the first list of reasons don’t also play a factor. I dream of a day where I can sit comfortably in an airplane seat and not constantly worry about taking up too much space. Maybe it’s that the first list of reasons are driven by shame? I’m not sure. But what I am sure of is my life would be a lot easier in a smaller body, and I’m grateful for a workout space where I feel comfortable and welcome no matter what size I am.

    1. Libby!
      First of all, thank you for sharing so openly. I really appreciate your candor.
      I think you’ve touched on something profoundly significant: there are certain things that would become easier for you in a smaller body…and all of those things constitute perfectly valid–and reasonable–reasons for pursuing weight loss…AND it’s really difficult to disentangle those reasons from societal influences (which tend to be rooted in oppression).
      The dream/ideal, of course, is for everyone to be able to approach health and fitness goals (which includes weight loss/body re-composition goals) without shame playing a role…
      In the meantime, we’re grateful to have you as a part of the Reimagym community and we’re thrilled that we get to share in the journey with you.