The New Year has arrived, and with it the annual onslaught of weight-loss resolutions. For all those who are once more vowing to squeeze into that size 0 skirt or 32 waist pants by March, I have a modest proposal:
Ditch the diet and focus instead on true health, the kind that goes beyond the number on the scale. Real health is not just physical but mental, emotional, and spiritual—the kind of health that reflects what you do rather than what you look like. Studies contradict one another, or are inconclusive. Medical research isn't always great at distinguishing correlation—two things that happen at roughly the same time—from cause and effect. Much of what we think we know about health turns out to be inconclusive or just plain wrong.
But don't despair; there are ways to increase your well-being. Here are five ideas for improving your real health this year. A votre sante!
1. Find some kind of exercise you love, and do it most days. Exercise helps with depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, and a slew of other health problems. Our bodies are meant to move. Whether it's a brisk walk, African dance, or training for a triathlon, if it makes you feel good, you're more likely to keep doing it.
2. Add foods to your diet. More than 90 percent of weight-loss diets fail in the long run, thanks to the human body's persistent appetite for equilibrium. And we all know that deprivation inevitably leads to overindulgence. So don't deny yourself the foods you love; instead, broaden your diet. Add in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, but don't eat out of a sense of duty: Studies show that our bodies make more efficient use of the nutrients in foods we like than in foods we dislike.
3. Accept that people come in all shapes, sizes, and weights. This is a radical suggestion in our appearance-centric culture. But consider the facts: Diets don't work. Genetics play a starring role in determining body type. And you can't tell someone's true state of health by looking at him or her. Thin people may smoke, eat poorly, and fail to exercise; heavy people may eat nothing but raw foods and walk five miles a day. Studies by Ancel Keys, Ethan Sims, and other researchers show that metabolism is far more complex than "calories in, calories out." And it turns out that being overweight or mildly obese (per the BMI charts) is associated with lower death rates, especially as we age.
4. Aspire to self-love, not self-loathing. The harder we work at getting thinner, the heavier we've gotten. Maybe it's time for a new strategy. According to Peter Muennig, an assistant professor of health policy and management at Columbia University, many of the ailments associated with being overweight may actually come from stress and stigma rather than avoirdupois. In other words, walking around berating yourself for being fat in a culture that values thinness—or being berated by others—may be far worse for your health than being fat. Remember what your mother used to say: If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. Now apply this to yourself as well as others.
5. Understand that we're all going to die someday. So much of the advice around health seems to imply that if you eat perfectly, exercise, and do everything "right," you'll live forever. Which makes the stakes impossibly high. So forgive yourself your lapses. Focus on living well. And know that no matter how attentive you are to your well-being, sooner or later the warranty will expire. It's a surprisingly liberating feeling.
Harriet Brown teaches magazine journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Her latest book is Brave Girl Eating: A Family's Struggle with Anorexia.