Optimizing for Health vs. Training for a Physique

Anybody else guilty of mindlessly scrolling through dozens of #fitfam or #fitspo images on Instagram before wasting precious minutes nitpicking your body in front of the bathroom mirror? No matter what diet nazi and militaristic exercise routine you follow, it’s never good enough. You still have those love handles or loose skin or tummy fat or stretch marks. Been there. Done that.

What happens when we take our eyes off the glossy magazines with the photoshopped bodies and the “seven ways to get abs like this” with a squiggly arrow pointing at a flawless midsection? Because we know that it’s not real. It’s an illusion. An illusion we’d like to believe is real. An illusion we’d like to believe is both achievable and maintainable.

What is the cost of being lean?

This is a question we neglect to ask. Losing the first 10 pounds is a LOT easier than losing the last 5-10 pounds to get very lean. What works when you start your weight loss journey usually does not continue working when you get past your body’s leanness set point.

This means that those before-and-after transformation winners on websites and cover models on fitness magazines did not only follow a simple weight loss plan, take a fat burner and work out a moderate 3-5x/week.

To get “that lean,” it takes a heck of a lot of work! (I’ve been there and done that.) Some of the aspects that go into a typical photo shoot or physique competition prep include:

  • Extremely low calorie, low fat dieting for 12-16 weeks.
  • Weighing out every morsel of food.
  • Drinking 1-2 gallons of water per day.
  • Taking hundreds of dollars worth of supplements per month.
  • Doing 1-2 hours of steady state cardio daily.
  • Training 6x/week with weights.
  • Drastic—and borderline dangerous—use of diuretics and laxatives in the week prior to the big day.
  • Posing in front of a mirror to get your angles right for an hour a day.
  • Obsessing about your body for hours every day.
  • ...and when all else fails, a bit of photoshopping.

So, do you really want to spend four months of your life obsessing about your body and neglecting everything else you enjoy about your life? And, after those four months, you’re going to put all that weight back on (if not a bit more) because it’s not maintainable for 99.99% of us!

What are some of the symptoms of being too lean for your body?

Figure Competition 2010
Figure Competition 2010

If you’re a female, getting too lean for your body could cause you hormonal issues, mood disturbances, achy joints and the loss of your menstrual cycle.

If you’re a male, getting too lean may cause your testosterone to take a dip, your moods to swing and your strength levels to take a hit.

These are only a few of the symptoms, as it does vary from person to person. When I got ultra lean (as in this competition photo), I was NOT a fun person to be around. I made very poor decisions, suffered from brain fog, lost my period for almost two years, had hypothyroid symptoms, had poor lab test readings, experienced terrible mood swings, had achy joints and did not enjoy working out because I had NO energy. Was it worth all that sacrifice simply to see the outline of my abs and muscular definition for 24 hours? Not really.

There’s a difference between a body that looks lean and a body that is optimized for health.

Mindi Rosser - 21% Body Fat
Mindi Rosser - 21% Body Fat

Though mainstream diet gurus will promise that your health issues will vanish when you lose that extra 20 pounds of fat, it’s not always the case. Your body may not respond as well to that level of leanness and may even resist it. Many of those athletes and models walking around ultra-lean are struggling with serious health issues, though their bodies may "look good."

If your body tends to have trouble putting on muscle but looks fairly lean, you might be able to easily maintain a lower level of body fat than the average person. As for me, I feel best when my body fat hovers between 19-21% (as in this photo) because I'm a recreational weightlifting athlete. I’m strong. I’m happy. I eat a healthy diet, but never measure my food. My menstrual cycle is regular. My blood test results are better than they’ve ever been. I feel like a powerful woman, rather than a starving female.

Optimizing your body for health may mean that you need to hold onto a few extra pounds than you like, but you’re also improving the quality of your life, increasing longevity and boosting happiness.

What does it mean to optimize for health?

Optimizing for health means you stop obsessing about your scale weight. You stop performing the cruel bathroom mirror beatdowns. You stop following your fitness idols on Instagram. You stop reading every single blog post about “losing those last five pounds” or “getting ready for a photo shoot.”

You start focusing on nutrient density of foods versus calorie counting or macronutrient ratios. You embark on a path of self-discovery where you begin identifying what activities actually nourish you rather than trying to squeeze yourself into a self-imposed mold of “bodily perfection.”

You ask yourself the hard questions, like these. What makes you intrinsically happy? What level of fitness can you maintain for the long-term? What types of foods are nourishing and will make your body and brain feel good? What periodic treats can you also include? What types of exercise do you actually enjoy?

How do you measure progress if it’s not fitting into your skinny jeans, scale weight or body measurements?

You don’t measure progress in the same way. You begin to look at health, fitness and food as part of your happy lifestyle. You notice other markers of progress, such as, great blood test results, mood stability, happiness, less depression, gratitude, energy levels, motivation levels, whether you’re enjoying your workouts. You get the idea.

Instead of focusing ONLY on the body, you take a holistic approach to your wellbeing. When you’re healthy, happy and fit, your jeans size doesn’t matter. Your morning weigh-in doesn’t control the day’s outlook. Your waist measurement doesn’t dictate your sexiness.

Can you still look good naked and have optimal health at the same time?

Yes, you can. Each one of us can discover an ideal balance that works for us, where we can perform well in our workouts, eat enough food to satisfy us and still have energy for our families, our work and our hobbies. All without obsessing about our bodies.

There’s not a one-size-fits-all-solution for everyone, as experimentation is key. I’ve tried all sorts of diets and ways of eating, and what has worked well for me in my early 20’s doesn’t work as well for me now that I’m in my late 20’s. As your body and fitness levels change throughout life, so should your nutrition. For me, the biggest discovery was to be in tune with what is working for my body right here, right now. I’ve made a decision to “switch it up” when whatever I’m currently doing stops working. That is freedom. That is bliss. That is being happy, healthy and fit to me.

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Your Turn: What’s your take on optimizing your health versus only focusing on the outward appearance? Which matters most to you and why? Tweet me or email me your thoughts!