There are some older fitness and dieting trends that women now understand are baloney. Others that have more recently emerged, however, threaten our health and fitness in new, unanticipated ways that throw us off our game. Today, we will take a magnifying glass to the unfortunate, latest trends in fitness that threaten our efforts to become fit. We will also discuss how to live your own life by rules that work for your body’s personal needs.
Post-Baby Expectations and Pressure
Almost every woman has an immediate interest in feeling like her “old self” again after having a baby. Whether you’ve given birth to children before (perhaps many years ago) or have a female relative or friend, you can empathize with the emotional and physical struggle that can ensue post-natal months of sleep deprivation, crying through the night, dirty diapers, and hasty efforts to satisfy family needs at meal times.
Recent pressures from the media, to lose 20-30+ lbs of baby weight in under 30 days, are unrealistic. While it’s helpful to lose the majority of the weight in under a year, it’s also a challenging prospect when hormones are experiencing a daily rollercoaster ride. Every woman’s body will respond differently according to oh, say, 1,000,000,000 factors during those initial post-natal months.
While it’s inspiring to see that baby weight CAN be lost and a flat belly CAN be regained (in some cases), weight loss should not be a measuring stick of maternal success nor an opportunity to shame one another for less successful efforts.
Maria Kang, a mother of three young boys turned social media celebrity, became famous for a picture she posted of herself in her underwear, posing on her knees with her three adorable sons alongside her. They’re all under the age of three…so at least they won’t remember this photo-opt with mostly naked mommy. Across the top of the professionally done, glossy photograph, and just above Maria’s perfect smile, perky boobs, and tight tummy, is plastered the question that spawned media attention, debate, admiration, and ridicule: “What’s your excuse?”
Maria, to her credit, intended to inspire women, not ridicule or shame them, and she has. Her latest mission is the “No Excuse Mom Movement” where women support one another through workouts and keep each other accountable to goals. The movement embraces ALL different body types. This is the important, critical point – women of all different body types have babies and women enter the motherhood journey with different obstacles in their paths.
Tips to encourage women (yourself or loved ones) to feel their best post-baby:
- Be patient with your body and its terms – motherhood is tough.
- Enlist a woman’s help to buddy up for gym/workout time – maybe even just a simple walk during lunch a few times a week.
- Although day one is not the time for a tough workout, don’t delay the simple things like clean eating and minimizing stress – these will both go a long way towards your health and your baby’s health too.
- Keep a journal of positive moments both for you and your growing family and for you on your personal journey of health – celebrate even the small feats like drinking more water, getting a few minutes of extra shut eye, and eating more vegetables.
- Keep focused on your personal journey rather than comparing yourself to someone else’s experiences and “failing” before you start due to intimidation.
The Thigh Gap Controversy
I must be living under a rock because I only recently heard of the “thigh gap.” A friend asked me if this was something women can achieve through exercise or if it’s just something else to add to the long list of unrealistic standards women impose on their bodies.
When she asked me, my mind immediately jumped back to middle school when I was in a swimming pool with a friend one night. She compared her legs to mine in the underwater light that cast shadows of our lower bodies across the pool floor. She said “perfect legs have space in the middle like mine when my knees are touching.” I looked at my legs in the water…no space. I remembered in that moment, that when I was even younger, in elementary school, a friend commented that my legs were a lot bigger than hers.
Now, it will come to no surprise to you that I still have nice “sizable” thighs to this day and frankly, I’m okay with it. It’s how I’m built. My legs are muscular and have allowed me to work out for the majority of the days of my adult life. They also hold more body fat than my stomach and mid-section, which is my body’s way of staying fertile and protecting against disease.
For women with my body structure, pining after a “thigh gap” is a waste of time. Only through drastic, unhealthy measures will this be achieved. “Reportedly, some teenage girls have taken the view that the bigger the gap, the more beautiful the girl. However, some have resorted to extreme dieting and surgery in order to try to obtain it. Critics are concerned that young women may develop an eating disorder by trying to obtain a body shape that is unnatural for them.”
There are some women, however, who have this body structure naturally. That’s okay, too! Everything must be framed around the question “what is natural for my body?” Katherine Timpf wrote for the National Review, “I have a thigh gap. Guess what? I’m also a healthy weight for my height. I’m not disgusting or scary, and I don’t look this way because an industry oppressed me into believing that I have to. I look this way because of my body structure: thin legs and wide hips.”
Tips to know what is normal for your body:
- Look at your family members’ bodies – yes, everyone is different and our lifestyles may differ somewhat but genetics do play in. For example: I’m pretty sure my dad appreciates my mom’s lower body “assets” and I have no doubt that probably 25% of why my husband married me is thanks to my similar body shape, haha.
- Consider consulting with a fitness professional who can discuss what various measurements mean for your body and health – weight on the scale, circumference measurements, and body fat measurements.
- Consider what your body type is – pear, apple, hour-glass, triangle, etc.
- Ask yourself (and answer sincerely): “Can I feel better and be more confident in my body if I eat better and exercise?” And next “What is a realistic size I want to be and can stay, healthfully, for years to come?” If you answer in truth, rather than based on societal pressure or an extreme body type, you will figure out where and if there is a difference lying between your actual body size and a size that will help you live happier and healthier years.
Exercising and/or Bulking too Much
Just as women can go too far with dieting or overeating, we can also go too far with exercise. In the past 5-10 years I have noticed that more women are excited to demonstrate that they can hit the gym 7x/week, run marathons, or weight train for bikini or figure competitions. These efforts are awesome and show how far we’ve come as a gender – just decades ago women were criticized for working out if it gave them muscle because it “isn’t feminine.” Pssssh. On the flip side, these hardcore efforts also deplete our bodies and can be just as unhealthy as other extremes.
Over-exercising, overeating, or under-eating are all different faces of the same monster. It’s the same monster that kept our hunter-gatherer ancestors alive and supporting one another: dopamine. This hormone triggers us to repeat behaviors that we deem positive for our survival. In modern times, since we’re equipped with easy grocery store access, modern-day appliances, and fast ways to socially connect, we don’t fear survival so much…instead, we often fear not meeting modern day, self-imposed standards for what we “should” do and how we “should” look.
Here are a few examples of how this works:
- A woman makes herself throw up to become thinner and feels good, like she is closer to her goal afterwards. Ding!! Shot of dopamine in her system.
- A woman is stressed about her job and knows that the rich taste of gooey brownies makes life feel better so she decides to eat three at once. Ding!! Shot of dopamine in her system.
- A woman exercises regularly and feels she must set herself apart from the throngs of gym-goers, striving for higher excellence, so she decides to work out for twice as long as usual, taking creatine to power her workout, and fueling up on protein-powder based shakes afterwards. Ding!! Shot of dopamine in her system.
As you can see, dopamine makes us feel “safe” even when our behaviors are risky. Thanks to this feeling of safety and accomplishment, dopamine is the most addictive hormone in our bodies. We crave it more and more AND MORE. As you can imagine, this spirals into extremes that threaten our health if we aren’t careful.
Women realized years ago that amenorrhea (i.e., loss of a menstrual cycle) due to over-exercising (typically excess cardio exercise) and under-eating is dangerous. Unfortunately, we haven’t yet realized that losing a cycle because of weight-lifting may also be potentially dangerous for our long-term health. “Bulking” is increasingly popular in the fitness realm and involves regular heavy lifting and eating excess protein calories while minimizing carbohydrate intake. This causes stress to the kidneys, sometimes causes excess proteins to be present in our bloodstream (which they shouldn’t be), and may cause amenorrhea.
Amenorrhea indicates that you aren’t presently fertile and may be accompanied by such symptoms as milky nipple discharge, hair loss, headaches, vision changes, excess facial hair, pelvic pain, and acne. Developing this condition appears to be more about low energy availability for the body than being merely underweight. So, even women at healthy weights can develop it.
Focusing on intense goals such as running a marathon or bulking for a season or so is okay. Heck, I’ve done both before! But we must be careful that we’re not hurting our health or ignoring our optimal needs.
Finding a balance is tough. I get it. So, here are a few questions you can ask yourself to help stay in check:
- Have you been eating enough fruits and vegetables or are the majority of your calories coming from animal and plant proteins?
- Have you given yourself a few days off from the gym over the past few weeks to month or do you feel like you “have to go” every day?
- Are you feeling more sore and tired after your workouts and never “bouncing back?”
- Is your sleep becoming disturbed or restless?
- Are you exercising through physical ailments with the mentality; “no pain, no gain?”
- Are you obsessing over your goal to the extent that it is hurting your personal life or your professional obligations?
I hope reading this article, and its many nuances, can help you and/or the women in your life find health and happiness! You deserve it. She deserves it.
Have you ever had challenges with your health because of pressure you feel about how your body “should” look? Please share your story or share this article! Let’s all pay it forward.
Yours in health and wellness,