Category Archives: Thing-a-day (Feb)

Thing-a-day 28: Health at Different Sizes


Photo by Martha Holmes — Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Dorothy Bradley, photographed for LIFE magazine article on obesity, works out in 1949.
—From Obesity: Photos From the Early Fight Against a Health Crisis, 1954

LIFE recently published a series of photos taken during the reporting of a story it published in 1954, about the problem of obesity. It features Dorothy Bradley, who embarked on a program of losing more than 50 pounds using a combination of changes in eating habits and getting more exercise. The photos show her in the gym in sweats, in a swimsuit preparing to swim, trying on dresses, sitting at a diner counter, wedging herself through a turnstile. And finally on a dance floor in a ballgown showing off her newly pared-down waist.

I love this photo in particular. We can clearly see a strong body, and an essentially aesthetic silhouette. Dorothy probably had many advantages over people who embark on this journey today at the same starting weight she did: she probably had more activity built into her day getting to and from work, and fewer labor-saving devices at work and at home. Although she may have eaten carbohydrate- and fat-heavy foods, they were less processed than typical foods in today’s environment. Another photo shows her with a slim, grim-faced nutritionist, behind whom is a poster listing “MUST FOODS – EAT DAILY” (milk, meat/fish, citrus, other fruit, vegetables, grains, fats – one wonders if they were meant to be eaten in that order). We learn that she was pursuing nursing (and did so successfully). Yet, with all these environmental advantages, and her explicit interest in health and healthcare, she had to lose the majority of this weight twice before she kept it off.

LIFE meant to show that the obesity epidemic is not new, but I think these photos show us something important about how unhelpful our messages about weight and health have become. The buried lede is exercise. One of the captions reads, “In gym in New York sweat-suited Dorothy finds workout did not by itself remove pounds but did help avoid flabbiness as she lost weight dieting.” Fitness experts love to tell people that “exercise doesn’t work,” but that caption and the photo above tell a different story. It may well be that “abs are made in the kitchen,” but nobody needs visible, ripped abs. People need stable blood sugar, a good blood lipid profile, a good red blood cell count, enough body fat to support cell functions and aid in recovery but not so much that organs lose function by being packed in it. And those goals are better supported by regular, low- and moderate-intensity exercise than by a specific diet – and the exercise can stabilize mood and lift the energy level as well.

One notable thing about these photos is Bradley’s relative isolation. We certainly don’t see any shouting trainers. We see Bradley wrestling with her body image out in the world, but mainly we see her alone with her exercise and tape measure. I find these to be surprisingly positive images. This is doable. It helps to have some consultation, which we see with the nutritionist, and it helps to know why you’re doing this, which we see with others around her, but ultimately the work itself is you alone – it’s you with your food choices and with your exercise. And the path may not be strictly linear, but you can make it if you take the long view.

Among the least-helpful cultural baggage surrounding obesity is persistent messaging that focuses on looks. Obesity is a look onto which people feel free to project assumptions of laziness, incompetence, ignorance. We still have a way to go in understanding how body fat, conditioning, and nutrition combine to support healthy outcomes, but research results are trickling in, suggesting that you definitely can be too thin (although for good health outcomes in the US, it still helps to be rich). High-protein eaters with heavy exercise schedules are helping to challenge claims about saturated fat dating back to the 1950s, and gut flora libraries are being assembled and coordinated with food records to add more pieces to the food-and-health puzzle. I hope that this better information environment can help us pay more attention to what we’re really trying to affect when we talk about addressing the obesity epidemic: bad health outcomes, early mortality, lost productivity, rising healthcare costs. And although we still need cheap, simple methods for tracking, like weight scales and tape measures, here’s hoping we can see them for what they are – approximate tools instead of final arbiters.

Thing-a-day 27: The First Selfie

Is a selfie simply a self-portrait? Many say no, that a selfie is explicitly taken while holding the camera. So while at least one very early photographer experimented with himself as a subject, the first true selfie is these guys:

Here’s how they did it:

Snapped in New York on the roof of the Marceau Studio on Fifth Avenue, across the street from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, this picture features five mustached photographers holding an antediluvian analog camera at arm’s length. Because this camera would have been too heavy to hold with one hand, Joseph Byron is propping it up on the left, with his colleague Ben Falk holding it on the right. In the middle, you have Pirie MacDonald, Colonel Marceau, and Pop Core.

What’s interesting here is that these five gentlemen were the photographers of the Byron Company, a photography studio founded in Manhattan in 1892, which was described by the New York Times as “one of New York’s pre-eminent commercial photography studios.”
From This Might Be The First Selfie In Photographic History: Mustached New Yorkers, Not Teenage Girls, Were the Creators of the Arm’s-Length Selfie.

So basically the first selfie was literally marketing. Now, of course, it is in true 21st Century fashion all about Brand You.

Thing-a-day 25: Looking Like a Man

A Facebook friend of mine liked a post from Dana Linn Bailey tonight. Bailey is a bodybuilder, and she posted a full-length photo of herself in the gym. As always when a woman shares a photograph of herself, the post attracted lots of comments passing judgment on her appearance. Bailey has lots of loving fans, but the Internet really seems to encourage the kind of guy who has to tell the world that some arbitrary woman does not appeal to him, as if it matters. And some of those men favored Bailey with comments along the lines of her looking like a man.

This is a hot-button issue wherever women touch weights. There persists a Victorian fantasy of women as fragile creatures, perpetuated by increasingly confused claims about what’s ladylike, and idiot celebrity trainers who insist no woman should lift weights heavier than 3 lb. Never mind that a gallon of milk is over 8 lb, potatoes comes in 10-lb sacks, and children – and handbags – often weigh much more, and no one seems to think women should be exempt from handling them. If a woman has the temerity to do exactly the kind of conditioning that will enable her to handle all those womanly duties with greater efficiency, a better energy level, and less risk of injury – watch out! Who knows what horrors might lie around the corner!

Cartoons about women exercising, and similar cartoons about woman suffrage, played on the assumption that the mere possibility of women narrowing the gap between what men and women could do would necessarily lead to abusive behavior. Pretty interesting statement about what being “manly” really means. (Larger)

If a woman lifts weights or develops her body for personal reasons, she’s especially threatening. I’m sympathetic to this point of view. I remember how much more competent and independent I felt after I started doing some lifting. And those feelings can lead to confidence, and to abandoning wide-eyed gratitude for offers of help – possibly even not hearing them, because you are too busy just going ahead and lifting that box or carrying that whatever-it-is.

It’s tempting to ascribe the negative responses to women’s strength as simple misogyny tinged with a fear that strong women can treat men the way men have been treating women. But there’s a kinder, gentler fear in there somewhere, too: in a society in which we’ve defined women as needing the help of men, what happens when they don’t need that help anymore? Will they not need men? Both of those fears are as hostile to men – painting them as essentially brutal or basically worthless – as they are to women. We all deserve better than that.

In the fitness world, some people spend a lot of time dismissing women’s concerns about looking like men because they lift, and I’d love to see this stop for two reasons:

  • It’s a moving target. You don’t know what a woman is thinking of when she expresses that worry, and women do get told they are mannish, almost no matter what they look like. I suspect much of it has to do with confidence and independence – that a woman just having a can-do attitude, and dropping the slack-jawed, tentative stuff, rubs a lot of people the wrong way. So you can never reliably promise a woman that she “won’t look mannish” – the genuine concern (and negative attention she gets) might not even be about looks in the first place.
  • Who cares if they do? Seriously, who cares about this? Women may seek a particular look, and I’m all for that, whatever it is, as long as they don’t feel ashamed or coerced into seeking it – and that goes triple for “feminine” looks. And then there’s women like Dana Linn Bailey. She knows what she’s doing! She’s built a successful professional life with that look, carefully and deliberately. If you act like there is something wrong with that, it is entirely on you – it has less than nothing to do with her.

We don’t need to worry about women looking mannish (or men looking womanly). We need to worry about why we think it’s a problem if they do. Men and women have a lot of differences, and sometimes it does seem like we are from different planets, but we’re not. We’re both from Earth, and we are both part of the same species. We are more alike than we are different, and the idea that one of us resembling the other can be taken as an insult is an absurdity that has meaning only if you think that one of those things is necessarily inferior.

Thing-a-day 23: Just a Nice Place to Be

In 2011, I joined a website called Fitocracy. It was a good time for me, because I’d recently had my allergy and asthma medications reorganized. I’d always been someone who could roll off the couch and do a 30-mi bike ride or a 15-mi day hike, and the better management meant better performance. I had decided to get a rowing machine for home, and I was excited to see what I could do.

Fitocracy uses some nerdy game elements to assign points scores to activities. Users accumulate points, climb levels (more points for the higher levels), and can collect badges for achievements and quests – performance milestones and exercise combinations. It’s a compulsive’s dream/nightmare. Like Twitter or Flickr, it allows people to follow each other, post status messages and photos, and participate in social and competitive groups. And it is incredibly sticky. People routinely joke about spending more time on Fitocracy than working out.

The principles of Fitocracy are gamification of one of the few things that it’s great for – exercise – combined with a social component that invites people to share information and keep each other accountable. One of the best features of the site, though, is that it gives people a place to talk about big changes in eating and exercise habits with people who care. A common observation on the site is that coworkers, friends, and family can often be unsupportive or even downright belittling or undermining, and users are grateful for a welcoming place.

And then there’s the points. Fitocracy has a method to its scoring: in general, it gives better scores to activities the founding team believes are better for overall health. There are problems with this approach, partly because of the premises they used, but ultimately it doesn’t really matter. High-volume athletes in deprecated areas can, in fact, make it up in volume, and the people who care the most about the points accumulate so many so fast that they are literally meaningless in fairly short order. And the site offers bonus points for some recipes of just about every activity a person can log – a good opportunity for specialists to explore a little, have some fun, and maybe discover a good cross-training option.

From Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, a perfect encapsulation of Fitocracy’s diabolically effective stickiness: made-up points that don’t mean anything. But while Sisyphus may get the dopamine squirt he needs from watching his meaningless, imaginary level climb, the fitness he develops is his to keep.

As a high-volume athlete in a deprecated area, and a pretty decent nerd who also enjoys what the founding team values most, I did the obvious thing: I figured out how to do what Fitocracy likes in a way that I like, too. People also joke about doing some exercises solely because they give good points, and I laugh along with them, but I’m not quite that motivated. Or at least, not motivated in that way. I can lose my sense of proportion when it comes to things I already enjoy, though; I have to be careful what challenges I take up, because I am easily tempted to court injury if both points and a deadline are involved. Fitocracy touts its social features as helping to enable persistence in people who are new to fitness, but the same features can help people with powerful intrinsic motivation, too: nobody wants to have to slash their output because they hurt themselves even though they know better.

Fitocracy has been operating for a couple of years now, and it is at the age where it is working to establish lasting revenue streams. Founded by, for, and about nerds, the core team probably always suspected that wasn’t going to be a very supportive market financially. It’s very hard to take the game dynamics aspect far enough, in enough detail, to truly satisfy nerds, for one thing. But their vision was always helping people who never quite jelled with exercise get into a rhythm they could stick with, and that’s a vision that deserves – even demands – a much wider audience. And remarkably, even in an environment that is almost all about changing how you eat, move, and look – subjects that make people about as anxious as they get (about something that happens in public) – Fitocracy has attracted one of the most respectful, friendly, and upbeat communities I have seen online in over 20 years.

Thing-a-day 22: I’ll eat you up I love you so

Worth1000 has the best photoshoppery contests. I want to do one of those marvelous blog entries that is like a magical journey through the imagination, but the problem with Worth1000 and me is that I get lost down the rabbit hole, and nothing gets done for at least a day. So you will have to be satisfied with this.

The source image is Portrait of Princesse Albert de Broglie, née Joséphine-Eléonore-Marie-Pauline de Galard de Brassac de Béarn, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1853). Well, the source for the room and the dress, anyway….

Thing-a-day 21: Maybe it’s time to let the scales fall away

If you don’t measure it, it doesn’t matter.” That’s the reality when we want to do anything important – whether it’s reaching an eating or exercise goal, writing substantively in our journal, or tracking our progress in a long, multistep project. The weight scale is the simplest, cheapest, most accessible method for tracking whether someone is the right size or on the right track, but it’s a blunt instrument (and might not match your real goals, anyway). It’s important to know what it does well, and what it can’t do at all.

How many pounds (or kilograms) you weigh is pretty arbitrary. We all grew up with ideas about ideal weights for our heights, and some of us have seen the ranges (for example, as used by insurance companies) change over the years. A pound of muscle and a pound of fat both weigh a pound, but they look really different, so two people with the same height and weight might have very, very different bodies – especially when you factor in skeletal size and the genetic tendency to build muscle.

5 lb of fat weighs the same as 5 lb of muscle, but it takes up way more space!

When people say “I want to lose weight,” they almost always mean they want to lose fat. If your nutrition and hydration are good, and you’re exercising regularly, tracking your weight can work well to help you measure your progress, but those are really big “if”s. Many people recommend, “throw away the scale,” and suggest other methods to track progress as a way to help people break the cycle of extreme dieting, followed by exhaustion, rebound weight gain, and future, even unhappier attempts at extreme dieting. But you can make the scale work for you instead of against you by keeping in mind what it does well, and how to get the best results from it. And one thing it does well is make you pay attention.

There are lots of factors that affect your scale weight:

  • Are you drinking enough water? If you get the recommended 8 glasses a day, that’s 4 lb right there, so if you’ve recently started improving your water intake, be prepared that the scale will show that. This is also the main reason you shouldn’t get excited if you “lose 2 lb overnight.” You probably just need to replenish your water.
  • Have you peed or had a bowel movement recently? These can easily make a pound of difference each. Or more!
  • Have you had a meal recently? You’re carrying that food around in one form or another until it’s all either used or eliminated, so keep that in mind if you recently had a particularly large meal.
  • Stress and lack of sleep can both lead to eating (especially comfort foods, which can be harder to have in small portions), and may have other effects that cause weight to fluctuate.
  • Many factors can lead to retaining water: a particularly salty meal, the changes in air pressure of a jet flight, or a menstrual period. A particularly carb-heavy meal can hold extra water, too – that’s part of the reason it’s been recommended for marathon runners, who can put on several pounds from a pre-race “carb load.”

Many factors cause fluctuations in your weight over the course of a day or two, and others cause major changes. One of those major changes is losing body fat. The other is gaining muscle. If you’ve embarked on a new exercise program, it shouldn’t just be treadmill or elliptical time. It should also have a full-body resistance component. That might be a circuit of machines in the gym that each work specific muscle groups. It might be choosing swimming, rowing, or kettlebell routines, to combine resistance work with cardio. It might be dumbbell or barbell work, particularly in large movements that help you develop balance and coordination as well as strength. That resistance work will add muscle, and that will hopefully – yes, hopefully! – add weight. This is where the tape measure comes in handy – so you can see how much less space that new weight is taking up. As a friend of mine says, “You’re not disappearing – you’re more concentrated!”

If you use a scale to track your weight, keep the conditions as consistent as possible.

  • Weigh yourself at the same time of day, every time. First thing after waking, after you pee, is convenient for most people.
  • Use your scale in the exact same spot, every time. (Try it – subtle differences in the floor can cause a scale to give slightly different readings in different places.)
  • Wear the same thing (or nothing!) every time.
  • You may want to weigh yourself after bowel movements. (If you’re still in good touch with your inner 12 year old, you may wish to weigh yourself before AND after.)
  • Consider weighing yourself only once a week. It gives you more opportunities to work around bowel “transit time,” and often a week is long enough to show a trend with less bouncing up and down.

Another option is to attack the tyranny of the scale head on by taking so many measurements that you can see the connection with your daily habits. This works for people who really like lots of information, but if your stomach churned just reading that sentence, that’s reason enough to not even try it. If you have a scale in the bathroom that is your enemy, though, maybe try weighing yourself every few minutes for a half hour, and see if you get the same result every time. If not, you really should throw that scale out! And don’t feel compelled to buy a new one – there’s other ways to see progress.

What about bodyfat testing scales? The technology used in home scales to estimate bodyfat percentage is called bioelectrical impedance analysis, and it has a wide margin of error. Home scales only really send current through the lower body, the condition of your skin (temperature, moistness, cleanliness) can affect the result, and so can your hydration status. So bodyfat testing scales have all the same problems as scale weight in general, and more. However, they can be good enough for trending if you’re careful about the conditions when you use them (for example, upon waking, after peeing, after washing your skin and wiping down the scale) – just take the strict accuracy of the number result with a grain of salt (or skip the actual salt – no need to invite water retention).

Did you skip all of that because you hate the scale? Are you really working your butt off (literally) just for a number? Most of us have other, more meaningful goals when we make healthy changes in our lives. It can sometimes be hard to focus on them, because they aren’t as convenient as a number on a little screen, but they will probably make the biggest difference in whether you feel a sense of success.

Here are some examples of non-scale measures – and successes:

  • Measurements: Take all the measurements a tailor would take, and repeat them every couple of weeks or so.
  • “Sentinel” clothing: Choose an item (or a couple of items) whose fit is snug, and try it on every week or so.
  • Change in habit: Realizing you walked right past the donuts in the office for the first time.
  • Change in mood: Little things at work bugging you less, for example, or realizing you aren’t feeling wiped out after lunch anymore.
  • Change in ability: The same settings on the treadmill feel easier, or you kept up with your full-of-beans kids for longer than before.
  • Change in appetite: Finding you reach for more nutritious food first because you want to, not because you’ve had to convince yourself to.
  • Change in focus: Getting more excited about a new thing you can do than what the scale or tape measure says.
  • Specific performance goals: Choosing a goal number of steps per day, and hitting goal – then hitting goal every day for a week, or 6 days a week for a month. Or maybe setting bigger goals.
  • Health measures: A lower resting heart rate, or less of a jump when you exercise; lower or more stable blood sugar or blood pressure; better test results at your annual physical.
  • Branching out: Finding you’re ready to try a new thing – a class, a new form of exercise, or maybe a group activity that you never wanted to do before.
  • Growing confidence in social settings: Actually looking forward to that big party – or even a 10- or 20-year reunion.
  • Other people notice! Coworkers or friends tell you you’re looking great, or ask you your secrets.

I once read in a women’s magazine, gosh, more than 20 years ago, that everyone should try this simple test: notice your immediate reaction when you catch sight of your reflection in a mirror or a window. Did you scowl? Jerk your eyes away? Instantly focus on that thing you hate? Or did you smile?

Non-scale victories are about the things that put a smile on your face. Sometimes we think we should be making more progress than we are, real life intervenes and just messes up our schedule for three days in a row, or we get invited to dinner and decide to just plain enjoy it. That’s life, and it’s fine – if we’re making good changes most of the time, we’ll keep moving in the right direction. And that means more smiles.

Thing-a-day 19: “What’s my problem?”

I’ve been collecting little bits and pieces I’ve written over and over again as people have asked me questions about food and exercise. One frustration I have with the fitness industry is that its sales focus tends to reduce solutions to THIS ONE WEIRD TRICK and other foolish formulas, single sizes that fit pretty much none, and that’s just when they’re not frankly bunk. What interests me more is teaching a person how to find the path that will work for them. Have a question? Ask me! I don’t expect to make any money from this, so I can just talk about it here on my blog, and see where it goes. Feel free to comment here or Twitter @caitlinburke.

There are lots of ways to gain and lose weight, but a single dominant feeling about all of them: that ultimately individuals just can’t control it for long.

It’s not true, of course – lots of people successfully adjust their weight and maintain it at a level they like, and there’s lots of interest in what makes them different. It probably boils down to the brain, and more specifically to beliefs, like “I believe I can accomplish this and stick with it” combined with “I know what I need to do to make it work.”

It can be hard to believe we can accomplish something even if we know what to do. Part of that comes from the wide variety of ways there are to get things done, so general principles often don’t help. Nobody seriously tells people how to make cookies by saying “Mix sugar, butter, and flour, and bake – easy,” but they don’t hesitate to say, “Eat less and move more – easy!” I believe both those things, but I’ve made a LOT of different kinds of cookies over the years, and I’ve also experimented a lot with food and exercise. And you can, too.

What does it mean to eat less?

Eating less means fewer calories in, overall. Thanks, Captain Obvious! We want to come up with something we can do – happily, every day, so we’ll have to come up with some specifics … that we can live with.

Eating is sometimes compared to fueling a car, but it’s more like budgeting. To support yourself, you need to match your means and your spending, and most of us have a basic complement of things we need to spend money on routinely – rent, food, keeping the lights on. Let’s assume we have a decent income, enough for bills + a little extra. Subtract what we absolutely have to pay out, and we are left with some money we can spend on fun stuff if we want.

Your daily intake is a budget that has to have basic components in it so your body doesn’t fall apart — so you have a place to live and can keep the lights on. Those components are a mix of protein, fat, and carbohydrate, plus micronutrients like vitamins (and, of course, water). Most people can meet those basic requirements in fewer calories than they need to keep their weight the same – eating mindfully still lets you have some fun. Where most people have trouble is in the quantities and the proportions, both figuring out what they should be and knowing when – and how – to say “when.”

What does it mean to move more?

This is both the easy part and the hard part: “move more” means almost anything. It’s walking to and from a bus stop instead of driving door to door – or at least parking at the far end of the lot. It’s taking the stairs instead of the elevator. It’s getting up from your desk once an hour to take a walk around the office, or doing a bit of calisthenics when your brush your teeth. The hardest part about this is narrowing down what will work best for you. The good news is you don’t have to have a perfect plan from the get-go, and you don’t have to stick to the plan perfectly even after you have it.

There’s a single dominant feeling out there about exercise, too – that it’s a punishment or, if not actively painful, a distasteful medicine. No wonder people are so sedentary! Your body actually likes moving around, and regular activity has good effects on almost every health and well-being measure you can look at. Most people adapt quickly to exercise if they are consistent and a little bit organized about their approach – there is certainly no one way to make progress, and if you’re just starting out, it’s even easier to get going in the right direction. There’s a million ways to get your heart rate up and get your muscles working, so you can find a few that you enjoy.

What Do I Want to Accomplish?

Occasionally I do something unusual, like an Olympic-distance triathlon just because I have the the day off, or 46,000 meters on the rowing machine because it’s my 46th birthday. And people say “How do you do that? I wish I could do that.” Maybe, but probably not – there’s no particularly great reason to do stuff like that. I think the best way I can help other people is with my complete understanding that you almost certainly don’t want to do things the way I do them. At least not in a direct step-wise fashion. But I know how I came to understand what works for me, and I want to help others start that process, too.

Here are some questions I like to help with:

  • “How do I know what I should be eating?”
  • “Is [some particular food] harmful?”
  • “I have to eat less! How?”
  • “I have to exercise more! How!”
  • “I though this [diet|exercise] would solve my problem, but I hate it. Now what?”
  • “What does that knob on the side of the Concept2 rowing machine do?”

I’ll visit and explore those questions during the rest of the month (and, I hope, keep going).