Beach Bodies: The Wrong Model of General Health

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Originally featured on Huffington Post — lead blog Health-Living.

What is health? If you ask doctors and scientists they’ll sat it’s a few hours of exercise per week and a balanced diet. That’s a realistic standard most everyone can reach.

However, ask most Americans about health and they’ll point to David Beckham, Victoria’s Secret models, or anyone with a banging beach body. That’s a discouragingly high standard that most people cannot or would find incredibly difficult to reach.

In popular society, we often have the wrong understanding of health. Instead of seeing health as something for everyone, we’ve turned health into something elite — “salad people.” We’ve confused athleticism, very low-calorie diets and the general beach body for a normal model of health. Perhaps nothing shows this more explicitly than the covers of beauty and health magazines that constantly feature the most impossibly fit and attractive celebrities as models of health.

When we make the athletic lifestyle and small waist lines our societal standard of health, many people are likely to say themselves, “I guess healthiness is not for me,” “It’s too much effort,” or “I don’t have the genes or the time.”

The beach body diet and athletic lifestyle is a worthy and healthy lifestyle enjoyed by many people. However, even the simpler healthy lifestyle recommended by doctors can have massive health benefits over a lifestyle that is more sedentary and nutritionally unbalanced.

A wealth of research on goal pursuit shows that high standards discourage people from beginning goal pursuit. 2011 findings from Szu-Chi Huang (then a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin) and her colleagues found that when people are considering pursuing a health goal, they frequently ask themselves, “Can I get there?”

In an ingenious set of experiments, Duke University Professor Christine Moorman and colleagues tested this influence of feeling or not feeling health competent on future healthy behaviors. When people were made to feel like they were not smart in the health domain, they subsequently made unhealthy decisions. The takeaway? If people do not feel health is “their thing,” or “they can’t get there,” they will not act healthy.

Accordingly, if we keep calling Americans unhealthy, they may just stay that way. All we may be doing is making most Americans feel bad about themselves, not sufficiently motivating them in a positive direction.

Tragically on the other end, for those people who are already quite healthy, popular standards of beauty, athleticism or even health might push them over the edge to unhealthy eating and lifestyles. People may undereat and face malnutrition to gain a small waistline or use dangerous steroids to gain big muscles.

So what’s the answer?

On one hand, health is a very complicated issue. Yet, on the other hand, it is quite simple. With few exceptions, to be healthy a person just needs to eat an easily manageable fresh and varied diet, exercise a little and avoid serious stress. It’s something most people know in the back of their minds, but it’s corrupted by the popular standards of perfect health and beauty.

Unfortunately, to complicate things more, a constant flame war rages in society between two extreme sides. One side loses it anytime someone says anything that seems slightly not “body positive,” and the other side loses it anytime someone says anything that seems to “normalize obesity.”

However if you are in part of the rational middle majority, then know this: there is a happy medium.

The happy medium is found when the standard of health is not about looking good or being able to run a six-mintue mile. Instead the standard should be about having a body that is healthy. Yes, that will mean some people should lose weight and should be motivated to improve general health, but it does not mean those people need to strive for six-pack abs.

If Americans are to become happier and healthier, respect for the standards known by health scientists must triumph over the current popular health standards. We must wash away the beach-body model of health and paint a picture of a realistic, obtainable and scientifically-sound model of health.

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