motivation · weight loss

Better to be a corpse with ripped abs?: On looks, performance, and health

Here on the blog we often make the distinction between athletic and aesthetic values when it comes to exercise goals. We’re about the former, not the latter. You know, run to improve your 5 km time not to lose those last five lbs.

That said, you do you.

Our worry is that appearance, in particular weight loss, is a lousy motivator. See here. People try. It doesn’t work. And then they stop exercising even though it’s good for their mental and physical health to workout.

But looks and performance aren’t the only games in town. You might also care about health.

At the elite level health and performance might come apart. They often do. Lots of athletes train in ways that aren’t great health wise. At the other end of the spectrum, the kind and amount of exercise recommended for health might not have much effect performance wise.

Health goals might also conflict with appearance goals. I was chatting with some young people this week about the latest news about health and ultra low carb diets. Interestingly, they didn’t care. The news wasn’t that ultra low carb diets don’t work for weight loss. The news was that they are bad for your health. Low carb dieters don’t live as long as people who eat a moderate amount of carbs.

It made the news everywhere. Here’s this story from Running World on low carb diets leading to premature death.

But, said the young person, who cares about living long? I’d trade five extra years of life for ripped abs. My low carb diet is about being shredded not about being healthy. If low carb is key to weight loss, who cares if it’s bad for your health? I have a few Facebook friends who feel the same way. Some want just to be skinny. Others want to look muscular and chiseled.

I don’t want to argue the facts of it here, that is, really low carb versus moderate carb diets, but I am interested in the relative weight we give to looks versus health and longevity. And it’s interesting to see the weight loss set admit it’s not about health really after all. It’s about chiseled abs. Fine.

So where do you stand? Are you in it for the abs, the long life, or for winning the competition, whatever competition that is?

Lately I’ve been thinking that what gets left out of these goals is a broader definition of health, one that includes functional fitness, pain free living, and mental well being.

A picture of a breakfast. A mug of black coffee and a bowl of muesli and fruit

6 thoughts on “Better to be a corpse with ripped abs?: On looks, performance, and health

  1. I’m in it for the health–long life, I don’t know (I mean that in the Buddhist sense of we have no idea when our last day is), but quality of life, yes. That said, leaving out the “I look good”, as much as I know that’s healthier, it’s not a perfect separation. One of the periods I was happiest in my body was a stretch of months I lived without a full length mirror. So how I felt about my body was only connected to how my body felt.

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    1. Yes, that’s a variation on my thinking: why is it not just about how great it can make you feel right now? That’s what kept me going on the exercise front – until I fell in love with cycling. My doctor asked me about how it affected my energy, and I told him that using energy appeared to create energy. I get so much more done, and have so much more fun doing it since I got in really good shape! (And I was pretty active and content before that.) On the other hand, food restrictions have never worked for me. They are just annoying and uncomfortable. So, I get that a very young person might not be concerned about a long life – may not even perceive a great difference between 60 and 90 – both are so far outside of their range. But perhaps if they realized they could feel stronger and happier here and now with the healthier approach…?

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  2. This is great food for thought, and not in a hypothetical way. I think I’m finally (FINALLY!) getting closer to caring more about how my body feels than how my body looks. And also, thinking that my body looks rather nice, too (YAY!) Eating and moving (and dressing) in ways that may make me more conventionally attractive, while less healthy-to-me, is of little interest. So I wouldn’t give up any years or months or days if I could trade it for being, say, 50 lbs lighter.

    But I might (and maybe will) trade some longevity in order to live with fewer side effects of drugs that are prescribed for some conditions and diseases. Not sure if I want to take statins or anti-hypertensives (no need right now, but who knows in future). What options we will have as we age is something I care a lot about but currently know little of. More blog fodder!

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    1. It’s tricky. There are some trade offs worth making. Lots of women use HRT to relieve awful effects of menopause (b/c say, live without sleep isn’t worth living) even though it increases your risk of breast cancer slightly. You may well decide that’s a risk worth taking given what’s at stake. So it’s not obvious that life maximizing choices are always the right ones.

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