One of the best things about being an eminently employable English major is that I come across a lot of different literature from many different cultures. One of my favorites is “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” It’s an Indian parable about perspectives found in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain texts, so all we really know about its origins is that it is ancient. The story goes that six blind men learn that an elephant was brought to their village and having not experienced one before, they go to “see” the animal with their hands. Each man touches a different part of the elephant and comes away with a different viewpoint than the others. One feels the tusk and determines that an elephant is like a spear; another feels its tail and concludes it looks like a rope; another feels the ear and thinks it looks like a fan; another feels its leg and says it looks like a tree trunk; one feels its side and believes an elephant is like a wall; and the last touches its trunk and believes the elephant is like a snake. From there, the story varies with the text but the point is that each is seeing only one part and one perspective of the elephant. In order to really determine what an elephant looks like, they need to see the whole creature or at least compare their findings, because each of them is correct about the part that they touched, but none of them is correct in what an elephant truly looks like.
Perspective is massively important when it comes to weight loss, health and fitness, and it’s where so many of us get in trouble. It’s easy to lose weight if you don’t care about being healthy, and the same is true about fitness. Most of us think in terms of “losing weight” or “getting fit,” but neither of those are important if we don’t think in terms of Being Healthy (the whole elephant.) When I was in college, I had a roommate who was also overweight. We really commiserated over it because we both liked a lot of the same foods and we both tried being vegetarian and both of us ended up gaining weight. I ran into her a few years after she moved out (both of us were in the pharmacy line, FYI) and I didn’t recognize her because she had lost so much weight. Unfortunately, it was due to Type I diabetes. Her pancreas had stopped functioning and now she was insulin dependent. She had to check her blood sugar several times a day and inject insulin before every meal to control her blood sugar. I remember her telling me she had always dreamed of losing weight, but this was not how she thought it would happen. She was over a hundred pounds thinner than she had been when she lived with me but she certainly was not healthy. Even worse, she was pregnant with her second child which put both her life and her baby’s at risk!
When we approach weight loss or fitness, we can’t just focus on the one aspect that we want to prioritize, otherwise we lose sight of the whole elephant. “Being thin” or “being muscular” is of no importance if you aren’t healthy also. Some of you know that I lost an aunt in 2003 due to complications from anorexia. She’d had a gastric bypass, which in my opinion she did not need as she barely weighed 200 lbs, but the end result was that she stopped eating, which is not an uncommon side effect of the bypass. Ultimately, she ended up collapsing, catching an infection and dying. She was the same age as I am now, and while I’m not exactly young anymore, I have a lot to look forward to and so did she. But she had also always dreamed of being thin, and for months prior to her death, family members had been begging her to see a doctor, because it was so painfully obvious that she was not healthy or happy. Unfortunately, no one could help her.
Some of us do the same thing with exercise: we lose sight of our overall health, which is what really matters. We’ve all heard the stories of people who over-exercise, or eat and then work out super hard to burn off all the calories they ate. Some of us try to “out exercise” a bad diet, but most nutritionists and doctors will tell you that 90% of weight loss comes through your food choices and the remaining 10% is your activity. Basically, you can exercise until your arms fall off but if you’re eating donuts and drinking Pepsi every morning for breakfast, you’re not going to be accomplishing much!
Most of us are in a hurry to reach our goals- I know I am! But over-training and starving ourselves isn’t the way to “get cut” and/ or “get thin.” Drastically cutting calories and working out really really hard are stressors on the body, so our body goes into conservation mode if we stick with these practices for a long time. We will probably lose some weight and maybe build some muscle at first, but the longer we stick with it, the more the body begins to conserve its fat stores. This looks like it might be a famine or some kind of catastrophe: basically a lot of hard work and not a lot of calories coming in. The body’s first priority is survival: nothing else matters if it (i.e. YOU) don’t survive another day, so it takes steps to make sure you last as long as possible. This is why Biggest Loser ‘winners’ end up gaining weight eating 1000 calories a day: their bodies have slowed their metabolisms so much after a prolonged period of starvation and hard exercise (i.e. the tv show), that now any calories coming in over the subsistence level gets stored! The body is trying to protect itself against another catastrophe where it (the ‘winner’) drastically lost weight.
Obviously, that is not a healthy situation to be in. I really want to lose a lot of weight and I’d really like to have more muscles, especially as I’m getting older. I don’t want to be the helpless old lady (with the zillion cats!) but I also know that it’s going to take some time to lose weight and gain muscle in a healthy way. That means growing long term healthy habits like eating for nutrition without starving myself and being more active without over-training or injuring myself. Both of those mean that it’s going to take some time, since my body and metabolism are going to make slow healthy adaptations to my new lifestyle. I need to keep my eye on the ultimate goal of Being Healthy rather than my chosen perspective of Being Thin. As I’ve learned the hard way, being thin doesn’t count for much if you’re too sick to enjoy it.