As the weather warms up, so do local gyms as people rush in to achieve their summer “swim suit body.” It’s a time to reinvigorate those lost hopes of New Year’s resolutions to prepare for shorts, t-shirts, and not having to wear a parka everywhere.
However, when it comes to measuring progress, people persistently rely on outdated, inaccurate means of determining their true health. That’s why one Canadian university tried something different. Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario has recently replaced traditional body-weight scales in its gym with another kind: Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs and self-actualization. Signs in the building ask gym-goers to focus on health metrics that don’t pertain to their weight.
This decision didn’t come without some backlash. Some critics see the change as one not promoting body acceptance, but one that ignores objective facts. The underlying message to take away from this change is to see health beyond physical appearance, and body-weight scales and BMI charts aren’t accurate representations of true health and well-being.
Traditional means of measuring our health often fall back to our weight. Studies consistently show, like one from the Center of Disease Control, that maintaining a healthy weight is important for overall health and can help prevent and control many ailments like heart disease and high blood pressure. Long-term weight control comes from healthy eating and regular exercise.
If health professionals and patients strictly look at the number on a scale, they only see one side of the story. Using a scale and Body Mass Index chart to determine what weight is appropriate for one’s height disregards factors that could illustrate an entirely different idea of health for up to twenty percent of people. An article from Time magazine says that scientists cannot use a BMI number to distinguish fat from muscle, nor can the number understand different types of fat that each have different metabolic effects on health.
Someone who is at a “healthy weight” can be less healthy than someone considered “overweight” and even “obese.” These designations thus lose any sense of reliability or purpose for everyday wellness. In fact, according to Live Science, some studies suggest being overweight can improve survival of chronic diseases. A single number, although easy to rely on, doesn’t take into account someone’s everyday habits, body composition, nor their mental health.
When it comes to true health, perhaps psychologist Abraham Maslow had a good idea when studying the concept “self-actualization.” This term refers to an individual’s growth toward fulfillment of the highest of needs. Website Simple Psychology breaks down the five-stage model as humanity’s needs for basic survival, psychological well-being, and self-fulfillment. The pyramid has the largest portions dedicated to physiological and safety needs for security, food, water, and shelter. From there, humans desire feeling love and esteem that come from relationships and accomplishments. With all of these needs in balance, one can achieve their full potential and purpose in life.
If people simply focus on one area of life, such as physical appearance and achieving their “goal body,” other innate needs get pushed aside and disregarded. People push themselves so much to be more productive and become better versions of themselves, but rarely do they step back to consider how the rest of their lives might be affected. Deprioritizing less visible signs of wellness leads to further stigmatization of mental health problems that equally determine our well-being.
Measuring health is not a one-size-fits-all system, but an individual analysis of genetic and environmental circumstances. Studies show significant evidence that each body has a biological control of body weight at a given set point. With Western culture’s fascination with fad diets and overexercising, bodies replace their set points with various “settling points” that disregard biological signals throw people off-balance in a limbo that cannot endure in the long run. Rather than focusing on others bodies and numbers on a scale, individuals must understand their own body’s needs and natural resting point where they will truly thrive.
Even if people still want to take physical measurements of their patients, there are still better options out there. For example, gaining strength and endurance, wherever the starting point may be, shows progress and comes from consistent physical activity. Also, measuring one’s resting heart rate will show if the cardiovascular system is working efficiently to maintain good heart health, along with measuring blood pressure. The Mayo Clinic promotes a heart rate around 60-100 beats per minute and a blood pressure in the 120/80 range are normal and healthy.
Rather than going to the gym and working out for the external desires that seem to sporadically trend, people should focus instead on the internal and overall benefits. Regular exercise can reduce stress, improve sleep, keep skin looking younger longer, increase everyday energy, and improves productivity. Seeing exercise as an activity that works from the inside out can, in turn, improve the relationship individuals have with it, seeing it less as a obligation and more as an enjoyable pastime.
Canada’s Carleton University has certainly made a significant step toward seeing health as more than a number, and other gyms and universities should follow suit. Judging one’s lifestyle and health based off of a single glance is both unrealistic and damaging, leading to even greater health concerns like eating disorders and exercise addictions. Something as simple as gravitational pull with the earth should not have such a strong hold on society as it currently does. The human body is an amazing thing capable of fantastic feats. The best way to appreciate that is to listen to and care of it, accepting however it looks and building a loving relationship with it that goes beyond skin-deep.
Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie