How Do We Measure Health?

A few days ago, I was flipping through a magazine at the gym when it nearly gave me a heart attack.   Lets just say the magazine I was looking at was a popular women’s muscle mag – filled images of super built women and ads for freaky protein/chemical laced products. One of the pieces was comparing womens bodies from different muscle-building competitions and I was so taken back by the “sport” I almost fell off the treadmill. It was alarming!

I admire these womens dedication – I really do, but I can’t help but wonder why? And at what cost to their health?  We know that lifting weights and building muscle mass is important. In addition to muscle, it builds bone density and connective tissue which is great for metabolic health and disease prevention.  But where do we draw the line at ‘too much’?   I hate to say it, but bodybuilding and endurance sports aren’t particularly “healthy”. Especially for women. {Men can usually get away with it a little longer than women. And granted, there are always exceptional human beings that seem to defy what’s ‘normal’.}  I think it’s easy to fall into the line of thinking ‘If a little is good, a LOT must be great’.  Food, exercise, supplements, you name it.

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Is bodybuilding focused entirely on looks? Maybe that’s why it bothers me so much.  Based on what I’ve seen on social media (and that awful magazine!)  women competitors seem to set themselves up for that ‘never good enough’ mentality. Think about it – you spend countless hours in the gym, sticking to a very strict and very limited ‘bodybuilders diet’ only to go out on stage, have someone judge your appearance, and then it’s done. Then what?  Back to square one?

Then, we have the less extreme case – like the Instagramers who are ‘photographing’ their way to a chiseled body.  Vanity goals in general bug me. Same with some fitness IG’ers social media presence – I feel like it unintentionally sets people up for the comparison trap.  The fact that women seem to be equating health to the way they look, instead of how they feel needs to change.  Anytime we look outside of ourselves for validation is a huge warning flag to reassess what’s REALLY going on. Internally.   If our main goal in life is a six pack and a thigh gap, we’ve got other issues.

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This brings me to my next thought. How do we measure our health?  In a society so focused on numbers and looks, most of us overlook or don’t know how to assess what matters most: all of the internal stuff like sleep, mood, energy levels, suppressed emotions, bowel movements (ha! poop!!!) etc.

Every once in a while, I take inventory on what’s happening in my life. Instead of scruitinizing myself in the mirror and focusing on what I don’t like about my physical appearance, I go through a quick mental checklist:

SLEEP: Am I sleeping through the night and wake up feeling rested?
MOOD/ENERGY: Am I happy? Have I wanted to kill anyone lately? (Yes, always) Have I felt energized most of the day?
GUT: Hows my poop quality? Is there anything in my diet that might not be working? <– my mom in law recently said to me, “You can’t get much done in life if you have to poop”. No truer words have ever been spoken.
APPEARANCE: Skin, hair and nail condition are good indicators of how things are functioning internally. Not six pack abs. Acne, rashes, dry skin/hair are a physical warning sign that there’s probably some internal inflammation happening, and we can almost always link that back to something in the diet, stress or both.

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(source)

Lastly, sometimes we do need to shed some body fat. A good measure of that isn’t necessarily the scale.  If we’ve been mindlessly over-indulging or are being driven to eat based on emotions, sometimes the weight will creep up. The good news is, it usually goes away quickly when we address that underlying emotional turmoil. Not hating or starving ourselves.

I’m not bringing all of this up to “brag” or because I think I’m awesome…I don’t know, call me crazy, but I find this method more productive than poking and prodding at my body fat and lack of thigh gap, followed by a self-loathing goal to ‘do more sit ups’ or eat less. The healthy mentality should be simple and natural – because it is.  We intuitively know this, but the problem is, we ignore and undermine ourselves, thinking that x magazine/fitness “icon” knows better.

One final thought – I am, by no means a “fitness guru” a Doctor, Oprah, wizard, or whatever. BUT I think that we all have stories and ideas to share. Women should support each other and TALK about these things. This is why I love the “healthy living” blogging community so much. {Especially us Canadian girls 😉 We’re so smart.}

I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you define “healthy”, or how you assess your overall wellbeing.

What do you think about bodybuilding/bikini competitions?

What about the ‘fitness’ IG’ers? Too far? 

36 thoughts on “How Do We Measure Health?

  1. I totally agree with your thoughts on body competitions – it does seem quite extreme and I totally understand that models have to keep a certain “look” (even if it’s not healthy) because it’s their job and they get paid a lot of money for it…but I don’t think I could see myself risking my health…bone health, mental and physical health just to compete in a show.
    I guess it’s all about personal preference. I never would judge someone for entering a contest, but I guess a part of me wonders what all the fuss is about.
    And you’re so right about measuring our health. We often overlook SO many important aspects and just SEE what we think healthy should be without diving into other important factors…like the mental, sleep, the gut, skin, etc.
    Great post!

  2. I am totally with you on this – and I don’t even have Instagram! I stopped following a lot of people on twitter and blogs for this very reason. I have no desire to be a fitness competitor but regardless it can be easy to fall into the comparison trap.

    Your measures of health sound just like mine! Working with a naturopath has really helped to ‘nail’ that home for me. Reading resources like Meghan Telpner’s UnDiet are also a really fantastic reminder of what is healthy! I know what it feels like to exercise intensely and eat a restrictive diet. And generally – NOT GOOD. I know for me that being very skinny does not mean being healthy in the least! Though I know it works for some.

    PS. You’re not a wizard? 😛

    • Yeah, I think we all go through a period where we equate skinny with healthy. Just because we have the potential to weigh __ amount doesn’t mean that we ever will! I’d love to put an out of order sign on the gym scale.

  3. Yup, I totally agree with you on this one! Body building is totally about looks and comparing oneself to another person. I mean…can it even been healthy to treat your body in such a way!?!

    I think the way you inventory your health totally makes sense. I eat healthy (as much as possible), I exercise regularly, drink lots of water, get plenty of sleep and as long as I’m doing those things I feel okay. If I don’t sleep well or didn’t drink enough my body warns me and I make changes. Basically, I just listen to my body.

    • Yeah! A lot of people don’t know how to listen to their body, because we THINK we know better. That’s great you have a solid healthy living practice, too. 😀

  4. I absolutely love this post! First of all, I cannot stand fitness IG accounts… but I have to be honest. I used to follow them, when I had an unhealthy outlook on fitness and health. I solely looked at them for the 6 pack abs, toned arms, you know it. Thankfully I realize that they really are ridiculous and I feel sorry for the followers of these accounts who hang onto every word. I don’t think I can measure health in just one way. I do think appearance is a part of it because you have to be happy with what you see to radiate confidence, which I think is healthy. Ultimately I think it comes down to how we feel, like you said. Sometimes this does relate back to appearance for me — if I have a breakout I don’t feel too hot. I am definitely not perfect but I feel like I am in a really good place.
    ps. Canadian girls really are the best 🙂

    • I’m guilty of looking at fitness accts & comparing myself too. But, the good thing is, I quickly realized that a life spent in the gym and instagramming nasty egg white/oatmeal concoctions is no way to live.
      Can’t we start making funner goals?!

  5. First of all: hells yes Canadian blogger ladies are smart! 😉
    And I’m conflicted about where I stand on bodybuilding competitions. On one hand, I understand that it’s a competition and some people thrive on a competitive atmosphere – like running a race or playing a sport, you compete to do your best and hopefully, win. But at the same time, is it healthy for women? Absolutely not – I’ve read too many horror stories about women who end up with body image and binge eating issues because of the strictness that you have to apply with these competitions. I’m sure some women out there are able to approach them in a somewhat healthy manner, but definitely not all of them – an hour of fasted cardio + an hour of heavy lifting 6 days a week is absolutely not healthy for anyone.
    I like the way you inventory your health – you’re hitting all the important things that people actually need to be concerned about, rather than how big their thigh gap is.
    Annnd your mom is a smart lady. Some true words right there :-p

    • That’s where I feel conflicted too. I totally get the athletic drive and competitive nature – I’m a runner for goodness sake. But I also know where to draw the line. I feel like fitness competitions are the entry point for really dangerous and disordered behaviour. It’s no way to live.

  6. Canadian girls are the smartest!

    I’m so happy you posted this. I’ve had this on my mind a lot lately with being injured. I’ve begun to question why and how I pushed my body so far. What are my health and fitness goals? I came to realize that I was pushing myself so hard as if I were training for something but I’m not. I admire people who set fitness goals and work hard to achieve them when they are realistic i.e. they would like to build some muscle or are overweight but I don’t respect the “sport” of body building. In this light I came to realize that working out for me should be about moving my body because it needs that but not so hard that it prevents me from doing everything else in my life. Still trying to sort out what this means for the future but I’m sure I will figure this out in time, Thanks for this!

    • Don’t get me wrong – fitness goals are GREAT when they’re done within a healthy mindset. Like running a race, or building muscle. It’s important to do things that make us feel good, as long as we’re not neglecting any other aspects in our lives. On the other hand, I think women are made to feel like we’re SUPPOSED to have fitness goals, and if we don’t, we’re lazy. Or, if we’re not moving forward than we must be moving backwards. It’s not true!

  7. I couldn’t agree more! I absolutely love everything about this post. I will admit to following these type of bloggers/Instagram users on and off but, if I were to be honest, it is not for the right reasons. I’m either judging myself next to them or I’m judging them for treating their bodies in such a ”neurotic’ way. I wish more women would consider your perspective. I think it could really help with the awful comparison trap if we could see that others shared their perspective. Again, love this post! I’m going to tweet it out on my Twitter! 🙂

    • I think their intentions are good – they want to inspire others to live better, but it almost seems like a disordered/unhealthy/narcissistic obsession. Like they thrive on the praise from others to keep going. Maybe I’m out to lunch, though? Thank you for sharing! 😀

  8. Interesting topic. Especially the poop part. Your mother in law is a wise woman.

    I don’t like the idea of over doing anything and I think body building is a prime example of that. It’s no bueno.
    And so may bloggers would hate me for this but I don’t think running marathons is the best idea either. There comes a point when you are pushing your body too hard and it is unhealthy.

    I would have to agree with you and your checklist. What matters most is how I feel physically, mentally, and emotionally. Not how big my muscles are or how skinny I am.

    • I wondered what other HLBs would say about this once I published it. And yeah, I agree with you that marathons are NOT healthy. It’s that mentality of more = better. I’m also not speaking to the select few human beings that seem to be able to defy “normal” human endurance, physiology, etc.

  9. I LOVE this and couldn’t agree more. It definitely is so easy to become obsessed with the numbers. I mean, I’ve been one of those people. But there is so much more the health than looks, and it took me a while to figure that out. The media stresses that perfect, toned/ripped body, so that’s what everyone strives to achieve, rather than a HAPPY, healthy body. I have unfollowed a bunch of Instagrammers who have posted vanity pictures. It drives me nuts too!

    • The unfollow button is my best friend! They should built an app for that – anytime someone posts a photo of their Garmin or abs, they are eliminated from the planet. Hahaha

  10. I totally agree with you here. I’m not a fan of bodybuilding/bikini competitions for the same reason as you: the fact that they are based completely on looks. I’ve never been interested in building that kind of body, but I’ve read blog posts from women who have, and who have damaged themselves in the process. Such a low body fat is not normal for women! And looks really don’t tell the whole story. When I was at my thinnest, I was also at my unhealthiest – low energy, dry hair, unhappy, etc. Which is why I LOVE the way that you measure your health. I think it’s such a good idea to check in with yourself on those factors every once in a while.

    • This is why we’re friends. 😀 😀 The problem a lot of women face is, that we *think* our lives will be better if we’re really thin or really built, but it’s like trying to treat the symptom instead of the cause!
      And yes, thinking back to when I was my lowest weight… 6lbs when I was born, I have no desire to relive that. Ha!

  11. I love this. I love YOU — sorry for being so upfront, but it’s true — it’s SO nice to come across bloggers who have their head on straight and aren’t running 10+ miles a day and “refuelling” with egg whites. Oh man, not going there…

    I just can’t get behind fitness competitions after hearing so many horror stories surrounding them. Those women are probably the furthest thing from healthy and to be completely honest, I don’t envy that kind of look. I like feeling like I look in-shape, but… not like that 😯 And I’m honestly not sure that I could ever force myself to maintain that kind of strict lifestyle and diet. I mean, your whole life basically has to revolve around it, and that’s just not something I’m willing to do.

    • Well, you and Sam have really inspired me to not be afraid to speak my mind and talk about these things. Because they’re so important! Our next mission should be tackling the protein powder recipe concoctions. NO, just no. It’s not frosting, dessert or a mug cake.

  12. Love this! It is so easy to get caught up in all of the fitness related rhetoric. First it was be super skinny, now it’s be a body builder – there has to be a happy medium. I really like that you focused on other areas like how your body is actually feeling and operating as opposed to how you look. Especially the sleep factor and poop factor. Such simple things to check in on but they are so important!!
    I’m all for working out and I’m not going to lie there are some perks in terms of appearance but those perks are the last thing that keep me getting up at the crack of dawn to go for a run or fitting in a late night lifting session. Plus I love eating way too much and I don’t think I’d be able to be so restrictive with my diet. I’m pretty sure that would make me dread eating and I’m not willing to do that.

    • Good point on really thin vs really built. Why the two extremes? And why are so we concerned with physical perfection?

  13. You hit it dead on! I’ve felt this way for awhile now! Yes I do think it starts to become more about looks than health when they constantly eat artificial sweeteners and excessive amounts of protein powder and meat in general! I especially can’t stand when people with 6 packs post a picture of them “bloated” after a cheat meal and they don’t even look bloated! They never seem to feel happy with themselves even when they look amazing! That’s not how I want to live! I think as long as you move your body, eat well but indulge when you want to (without freaking out) and have an actual social life…that is healthy! 🙂

    • That drives me crazy too. I remember seeing a photo of someones stomach saying, “I used to have such great abs, and now they’re not as defined so this picture is ‘me holding myself accountable”. REALLY? Dream big.

  14. Oh my, what an useful post! I’ve been working on a similar topic for a while. It’s a shame what nowadays is defined as “healthy” when actually “lowers body fat” or “makes skinny” or “raises the metabolic rate” is meant. Health labels are put on all kind of diets which are against the way our body functions naturally. Excuse me, living off chicken and broccoli only might make you skinny, lower your body fat and working out 7 times a week on top of that will most likely raise your heart rate. But pardon me, you are one of the unhealthiest beings I know. I don’t know how often I felt the need to tell a person or a magazine something like that. And sadly, even in our healthy living blogger community there are still people living such a bad example.

    • Yeah, it’s definitely no way to live and I worry about the people hanging on to their every word. I can’t wait to read your post on the topic!

  15. I love this. I recently took a hardcore Boot Camp class at my gym, and halfway through, I wanted to cry — why was I putting my body through that? Intense workouts are great sometimes, but it was then that I realized how hard they are on my body. I could NEVER put myself through a competition like that — I don’t know how those people do it! I think that we all need to be more gentle to ourselves, myself included — get more sleep, eat things in moderation, do yoga, go for walks.

    • YES, absolutely! All of those things. I enjoy a challenging workout too, but NOT every day. You can’t even give it your all if you’re doing daily high intensity/endurance stuff anyways, so why bother? If we feel like we need to go balls to the wall, we’ve got issues that need to be dealt with. I love walking so much – I think it’s one of the best things we can do for ourselves- physically, emotionally and spiritually.

  16. Ok, so seriously? I’ve been holding on to this post in my reader for almost a week now just waiting for enough time to sit down and give it my undivided attention because I just KNEW you were going to knock it home with this one! Well, I wasn’t wrong! I absolutely LOVED it! Now grab a cup of tea, because this is going to be a novel! 😉

    First off, “the fact that women seem to be equating health to the way they look, instead of how they feel needs to change” <- Yes, Amen, Fuck Yeah, Preach it Sistah! I honestly have NO IDEA how the body builders and fitness competitors do it! I could never stand on stage like that in such a vulnerable state waiting to be knocked down! And about the whole "fitness" IGers…the let me post 39562 pictures of myself in my undies on a weekly basis…can't freaking stand them! Actually, in the early stages of my "recovery" (I say that since I wasn't diagnosed with an ED but felt like I was on the cusp of one), I had to go through my account and delete a lot of people for the exact reason you mentioned! Without even realizing it, over the last few months before I gave up calorie counting/restriction/ignoring my body signals, I was starting to compare myself (and my food) to these girls every day. Once it dawned on me, I could have slapped myself in the face…but instead I just deleted them and didn't look back. Since then, omg, I mean…you read my last post on the matter…I'm like a whole other person now! It's crazy how much getting caught in the comparison trap can bring you down. I never felt like I was good enough then…and it stretched into so many aspects of my life OTHER than physical appearance!

    I love what you said about having the mental checklist! And omg, your MIL? She knows her poop STUFF! 😉 I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt like I was starting to get out of whack and it almost always came down to a lack of sleep or “me” time! The term “healthy” to me really comes down to so much more than just diet and exercise. Honestly, I think mental health should come first and foremost…only when you take care of your insides can you then look to do things with your outsides!

  17. You said poop. That makes me happy and kinda gross too.

    I found this post through Running With Spoons, and I’m thrilled I did. Yes, yes, yes to everything, especially the poop. I did a post last Friday where I literally said exercise for me, is not about six pack abs or a thigh gap. Instead, it’s about mental stress relief and perhaps making my jiggly bits a bit less jiggly.
    Health should be about the way we feel, not how we look. I 100% agree, and I’m so glad I found your blog.

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