I often feel I’m swimming upstream when it comes to thinking about food, weight and health. From the parents who regard me incredulously when I say that “healthy eating” is a bad goal to set for their children, to the powerful link people believe in between exercise and calories, to the pervasive but iniquitous message that we all just need to try harder to be healthier, my increasingly strong belief that we are going about this all wrong is not popular.
Every now and then I read something or talk to someone who confirms what I see every day: that despite being a country maniacally obsessed with health, longevity, exercise and food, we are in fact unhealthy, unhappy and bereft of many of the simple joys of life as a direct result of our obsessions. There was an article in Vogue, of all places, several years ago that debunked the “calories in, calories out” myth of exercise. It pointed out the (to my mind fatal) flaws of that model with persuasive statistics and scientific reasoning, but I never met anyone else who’d read it, let alone been struck by it as I had. It’s so much easier to keep on believing the elliptical machine is really burning off each calorie that was in the food we just ate. (see here for a similar article in Time in 2009.)
Current conventional wisdom on health and weight emphasizes the responsibility—or more often, the lack thereof—of the individual citizen. Despite the inefficacy and even injustice of this belief, we struggle on guiltily in its thrall, laying the blame on our own failures rather than looking to the larger powers at fault. Efforts to involve our institutions in this issue are often either misguided, as I wrote in my last post on BMI screening in schools, or else decried as the tyrannies of a nanny state. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for example, discovered the limits of New York’s devotion with his latest gambit to slightly limit the sale of extremely large sodas. Reactions have ranged from the mocking to the hysterical; the common ground of opponents is a refusal to agree that larger forces sometimes can and should play a role in changing individual behaviors. Obviously, that role can be a tricky one to negotiate, but too often the role of government and media and even science has been to confirm our failures while proposing solutions that are doomed to fail us once more.
This is why I was so thrilled recently to discover (on Facebook, inevitably) a heartfelt, irreverent rant by filmmaker Michael Moore that vividly describes so many of the beliefs I share. Starting in March, 2012 Moore—not exactly a poster child for fitness—decided to go for a 30-minute walk. He invited all of his Twitter followers to accompany him virtually, and many did. His Facebook post at week 42 of these walks is what caught my eye, and it’s a typically opinionated, polarizing piece that has attracted many well-wishers as well as its share of haters and naysayers. What’s so refreshing about the post is his insistence that we abandon the idea of exercise as virtuous counterbalance, absolve ourselves of the guilt that inevitably accompanies unfulfilled resolutions, tune out the constant exhortations to “get fit” and lose weight, and instead embrace the simple pleasure of putting one foot in front of the other, simply because we can and we too often don’t.
It’s possible to find some hypocrisy in Moore’s message, as he points out rather slyly that he has in fact lost weight and is now adding other kinds of exercise to his regimen, but I still hear what’s quasi-revolutionary in his fervent rejection of the received wisdom on exercise, weight and even health:
[The] truth is, exercise does not work, diets do not work, feeling crummy does not work. Nothing works. My advice: Quit trying to be something you're not, be happy with the life you've been given, and just go for a pleasant walk outside. With me. Wherever you are. Get off the treadmill, stop drinking diet Coke, throw out all the rules. It's all a scam and it conspires to keep you miserable. If it says "low-fat" or "sugar-free" or "just 100 calories!" throw it out. Remember, one of the main tenets of capitalism is to have the consumer filled with fear, insecurity, envy and unhappiness so that we can spend, spend, spend our way out of it and, dammit, just feel better for a little while. But we don't, do we? The path to happiness--and deep down, we all know this--is created by love, and being kind to oneself, sharing a sense of community with others, becoming a participant instead of a spectator, and being in motion. Moving. Moving around all day. Lifting things, even if it's yourself. Going for a walk every day will change your thinking and have a ripple effect.
And while he acknowledges that one of the benefits of this daily walk has been improved fitness, he refuses to play the game in its entirety: “I am often asked ‘How much weight have you lost from all this walking?’ For a while I didn't understand the question. [….] Then I got it—skinny people (1/3 of the country) want us, the majority, to be like them. That's so nice of them.”
What I love about Moore is that in addition to being an outspoken liberal gadfly with Teflon skin—he was made for social media before it existed, in other words—he cuts right to the heart of what’s wrong with American attitudes on health and weight. Despite the billions spent (and billions made) on gym memberships, exercise equipment, personal training, Lululemon attire (pick your poison), Americans are tormented by self-loathing, guilt and doubt. And we live in a world where our motivation to move is increasingly thwarted and sapped at every turn. Moore looks at that gym window—you know the one, where people are trudging along on their treadmills despite the fact that the sun is shining and it’s a beautiful day?—and hurls a rhetorical Molotov right though the middle of it.
We need a revolution in how we understand and handle food, weight and health, and Moore proposes a simple first step. His idea costs nothing while promising nothing less than a breakthrough. If you are one of those who already walks every day, good for you. But if you are one of the many who don’t, now is the time to start: you have a legion of virtual companions waiting for you. And if you are already an exerciser, Moore’s larger message still applies: reject the corporate models of fitness and weight loss, stop treadmill trudging out of obligation, and look to a simpler place for your satisfaction. The results may surprise you, doing something good for your mind as well as your body.
What I cooked this week: