Monday, March 17, 2014

Why and how to lose weight - and why not

Obesity is a real problem in most of the Western world. At the same time, "healthy", "nutritional" and "weight-loss" products are an enormous business and magazines are full of stories about how and why to lose weight. I try to ignore them, but once I tried to lose weight, too. I don't claim my experience is generalizable, but then again, why would other people's stories be?

Reality of "fatties"

Just today, it emerged that some guy had written an "inspirational" post about a "Fatty" he saw in the park running. He thought it was rockin' that this "Fatty" ran and tried to lose some fat, even if it was really difficult, and how awesome it was that "Fatty" was "paying off the debt of another midnight snack, another dessert, another beer". The runner had a very different story to tell. This is yet another example of generalization related to weight loss and exercise and yet another story of arrogance and unfounded assumptions. Mr. Posnanski explained well his motivations well, but whatever his motivations for running were, why make stupid guesses?

You might think that personal health is such an important issue that magazines would double check all claims they publish. However, much of what is reported about weight loss is actually just myths, and even if it wasn't, personal motivations, results and methods vary a lot and too often this is forgotten.

My experience

I have almost always been above average in size. I remember two times when I lost weight, though neither time it was my intention. In the spring of 1998, I was a poor student and basically ate too modestly. I weighed 72 kg in May - I had been over 10 kg heavier one year before. In January, 2003, I lost lots of weight. I was very busy with organizing an event and I have only vague memories of the whole month - except that I was also really short of money and didn't get much sleep. I recall losing 15 kg (from 114 to 99 kg) but I think I should blame the scale for that - it sounds implausible that I would have really lost 15 kg in one month. Later I gained weight and achieved 125 kg by the spring of 2008.

In online discussions and elsewhere, people claimed the following:
  • It is physically impossible not to enjoy exercise because of endorphins associated with it.
  • Losing weight is really hard.
  • Wii Fit is a toy and can't help you lose weight.
  • If you lose weight even a bit, you will notice it immediately.
  • If you lose weight, you will sleep better.
  • If you lose weight, you will feel much better and happier and gain self-confidence.
  • If you lose weight, everybody will notice it.
  • If you lose weight, everything you do will feel different, lighter, better.
  • If you lose weight even a bit, your general health will improve significantly.
  • Obesity means very bad blood levels.
  • Eating more healthily is really good because vegetarian food is so much better.
  • Eating less means that you feel better because you don't feel full all the time.
  • If you stop exercising, you will gain all the weight back (and then some more).
Sure, it makes sense to lose weight because there are also real health benefits. Still, the real reason why I finally tried to lose weight was none of these - it was mostly because I didn't have any reason not to, and didn't feel any pressure. In June 2008, I bought the Wii Fit game for Nintendo Wii and set a random goal of -15 kg in three months.

The first goal achieved
By September, I had gone from 124 to 109 kg. I also ate less and more healthily, and at the office cafeteria I mostly had salad lunches. Wii Fit was a nice game and I played it almost every evening for one hour. I didn't consider it as exercise - it was a game, after all. I got scores and improved on them, and noticed that I was actually pretty good at some of the moves. Apparently I had quite a good coordination skill and balance, even if I wasn't that fit. I decided to set another goal, to lose another 15 kg by January.

By January, I had lost another 15 kg and was now 94 kg - about 25 % less than half a year before. The weight had gone down completely consistently at around 1 kg per week and even Christmas didn't make make a dent to the downward graph. Then I stopped.


Per my experience, how many of the claims about weight loss were correct? Zero.

I didn't and still don't enjoy the physical feeling of exercise, regardless of the type. The physical part always feels bad, even when (very rarely) the experience otherwise would be satisfying. I only like "exercise" when it is primarily about something else, like playing a video game or going to places (cycling). Maybe it isn't fun, and never will be, but it can be tolerable.

During those six months, I had to tighten my belt by seven notches (and also make two new notches), so my waist really got smaller. This meant that I had to buy new clothes, and new clothes cost money. Aside from that, I didn't really notice anything different, and I don't think many other people noticed either. I wasn't any happier, didn't sleep better, didn't enjoy food any more. Salads were bland (though not that bad). My health didn't improve at all - I was already very healthy. Even my blood levels didn't improve. I can't say I expected any of those improvements, but any of them would have been nice. 

Did something go wrong? Weren't those claims supposed to motivate and inspire me to lose weight? Perhaps I just didn't care about those claims and that is precisely why finally ended up trying to lose weight - and managed to do it. No amount of fat-shaming would have made me to even try. Still, it seems that dubious claims about obesity and weight loss are everywhere, and are touted by both the media and individuals. These claims (whether true or not - but often not) aren't making the situation better for those who might benefit from weight loss. Don't lose weight because of dubious claims but regardless of them (if you feel like it).

I'm sure that in my case there were some benefits as well, but not in the form of happier life or daily compliments on my "new" slimmer look. Regarding the weight coming back: even though I didn't play Wii Fit or eat that healthily after January, 2009, the fat didn't return. In August, 2010, just before I moved to USA, I weighed about 99 kg, which is 5 kg more than 1.5 years earlier.

1 comment :

  1. Nykyäänhän tuntuu, että mikään nautinto elämässä ei ole niin suositeltava tai hyväksikatsottava kuin terveysliikunta. "Itsestä huolta pitäminen" on jokin hyvän ihmisen pakollinen ominaisuus, joka ajaa ohi kaiken muun, ja ylipainoinen ihminenhän suorastaan huutaa, ettei välitä terveydestään. Eikä hänellä voi näin ollen olla mitään muutakaan sisältöä elämässään.

    Laihduttajana olen samanlainen kuin sinä eli sivutuotelaihtuja. 10 vuotta sitten laihduin raskauden _aikana_ 10 kiloa eikä se tuntunut missään, koska siitä puuttui kaikki laihduttamiseen ja kuntoiluun liittyvä angstaaminen. Nyt on menossa toinen tällainen vaihe, tosin mekanismi on eri; työ on muuttunut sellaiseksi, että joudun liikkumaan enemmän ja syömään vähemmän. Saapa nähdä millainen fiilis tästä tulee kun laihtuminen loppuu, tuntuuko miltään vai pitääkö vaan todeta, että jassoo, tässä kävi näin :) Heinäkuun verikokeet sitten kertovat, kävikö siinä muutakin.

    - T.