We are firmly in the 21st century when AI is a reality, hoverboards exist and video calls are basic. But when it comes to understanding fitness, we are pretty much still living under a rock. For example, a majority of fitness coaches the world over have accepted that Body Mass Index or BMI is not a true indicator of health and is in fact an outdated metric. However, in the popular consciousness, weight and fat continue to be on top of everyone’s mind. Fitness experts, coaches and nutritionists are unanimous in identifying weight loss as the most popular goal worldwide, especially for those who are either coming to the gym for the first time.
There are multiple reasons why people want to do something that helps them lose weight. Societal conditioning, peer pressure, and unrealistic representation of the body ideal in popular media have contributed to the idea that weight is the key to fitness, health, happiness, beauty, good looks and confidence.
“Weight loss is often a popular reason for starting exercise because it directly ties into the desire for physical changes in appearance. Additionally, the correlation between exercise and calorie expenditure makes it a practical choice for those seeking to shed pounds,” says Abraar Khan Waryah, coach and co-founder of Grid Iron fitness centre in Kolkata. Cult.fit fitness expert Spoorthi S. adds that a leaner body is often linked with better self-confidence and societal aesthetic norms, which is why people are obsessed with weight loss, above everything else.
But here’s the thing: Focusing on weight is erroneous, and could even be dangerous. An obsession with weight can lead to eating disorders and other medical and mental health issues, and all this is well documented. Weight is not a complete reflection of health or fitness, points out Pooja Udeshi, consultant sports nutritionist at the Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital. “Weight can tell us BMI but that can be higher in athletes competing in specific weight categories like wrestlers, weightlifters, boxers etc.,” she says.
“What one must understand is the science behind fat loss rather than weight loss and incorporate a well encompassed regime that includes workouts and good nutrition as well. This can also take a toll on the mental health of an individual due to the constant fixation of wanting to lose weight and may even lead to body image issues,” says Spoorthi.
In recent times, several professional sports teams and sports federations have stopped or banned weighing their athletes. Some have even discontinued measuring body fat percentage at all, focusing instead on other metrics such as strength, speed and endurance: truer indicators of athletic capabilities and capacities.
British gymnastics banned its coaches from weighing gymnasts in order to safeguard athletes. The agency that provides nutrition support to the Australian women’s football team, stopped weighing players two years ago as they realised that weight didn’t really have a connection with one’s athleticism or skill levels. While many fitness experts and nutritionists suggest checking one’s body composition to figure out details such as body fat, fate free mass, water and muscle percentage, even doing so has its limitations.
While the weight can indicate one's health at a surface level, it is other factors such as physical fitness and lifestyle habits that are a better indicator of health. These factors determine the chronic disease risk factors, health of joints and muscles, and the ability to perform tasks in everyday life. “There are several indicators that depict progress depending on the goal of the person. Performance indicators such as strength, endurance, mobility, etc. can be assessed for progress. Some other signs of a healthier and fitter body include higher energy levels, lower resting heart rate, better mental health, and the ability to consciously prioritise one's health,” says Spoorthi.
People seeking weight loss for aesthetic reasons need guidance from health and fitness experts, especially since they would need to focus on their primary health markers to track their progress. “A coach's primary role when working with clients seeking weight loss involves taking a holistic approach. This includes personalised exercise plans, nutritional guidance, and emotional support. It’s important for coaches to promote realistic goals, encourage a healthy body image, and educate clients on sustainable lifestyle changes rather than quick fixes. Building a positive relationship with food and exercise is crucial for long-term success and overall well-being,” says Waryah.
Better goals and markers for health and fitness often focus on holistic well-being rather than just aesthetics. Also, constantly fixating on weight can contribute to negative body image, self-esteem issues, and even eating disorders.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.