The Integral Fitness Solution
As a professional fitness trainer, my job usually involves helping people lose weight. I get the occasional person who wants to build some muscle or get stronger, but most often the goal is to lose body fat. People who join a gym and hire a trainer are actually the minority among those who are seeking to lose weight. My clients are willing to work their bodies as part of the process.
Most of the people wishing to lose body fat are looking for a magic pill. The underlying belief is that fat loss is a matter of making our bodies do what we want them to so that we can continue to eat badly and avoid exercise. The magic pill might be literal, or the newest fad diet, or some kind of gadget advertised in an infomercial. It is not surprising that most of the people who begin a fat loss program fail to follow through with the plan for more than two weeks.
However, if we take a step back and look at all the issues involved in becoming overweight, it is apparent that there is more to it than poor diet and lack of exercise. There are actually four major areas of our lives that contribute to our issues with body weight: our bodies, our psyches, our cultural beliefs, and our social structures. Addressing all four areas of our lives is the foundation of the Integral Fitness Solution.
The obvious place to begin is with our bodies. There are two major areas to look at here, diet and exercise. We all know we eat badly, consuming too much sugar, the wrong kinds of fats, and too much junk food. We also know that most of us don’t get enough exercise. Those are the easy ones. There is also disease to consider, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. All three of these are usually caused by poor habits in diet and exercise, but once they manifest, they can impact the ways in which we work with our bodies to get healthy again.
Another area to look at is genetics. Biology is certainly not destiny, but it provides limitations on what we can expect to accomplish or how we work toward our goals. Some of us are designed to be bigger and some thinner. A woman can be healthy and fit and still not be a size two. A man can be healthy and fit and not have visible abdominal muscles. Beyond the obvious physical considerations, there are also other factors to look at, such as hormones, age, body structure, innate energy levels, and so on.
Yet the solution begins with exercise and healthy nutrition. As little as an hour a day, five days a week is all the exercise it takes to make significant improvements in cardiovascular fitness, cholesterol levels, and blood sugar metabolism. A program of moderate cardio exercise and weight training can improve body composition, depression, self-esteem, sexual desire, bone density, strength, flexibility, and an assortment of other physical and quality-of-life components. Additionally, simply eliminating sugary beverages from the diet can produce weight loss of between five and fifteen pounds in a single year. If fried foods are also reduced and baked goods eaten in moderation, cholesterol levels would improve for many people.
The second area we must look at in understanding how we become overweight is the psyche. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to place several distinct areas of inquiry under the umbrella of the psyche: emotions, intellect, soul, and spirit. Each of these is a unique developmental line in our lives, each with a unique impact on weight issues.
Emotions The emotional self is the most powerful aspect of the psyche factoring in weight issues. For most people who are more than twenty pounds overweight, fat loss is not merely a matter of better diet and exercise -- there are patterns of emotional eating that have contributed to weight gain. Emotional eating may involve something as simple as gravitating toward the snack table at parties as a way to deal with social anxiety or rewarding a positive behavior with a favorite treat, or more often, soothing difficult emotions with “comfort food.” I know many people, women and men, who hit the ice cream or cookies when they are angry, depressed, or sad. Among men, the tendency is to grab a few beers and order a pizza or some fast food.
Emotional eating serves one key purpose for those who engage in it -- it allows us to bury our emotions beneath a flood of soothing neurochemicals. Look at the foods most people favor for binge eating: ice cream, chocolate, cookies, cake, potato chips, soft drinks, and so on. All of these foods are predominately carbohydrate based, and the resulting change in brain chemistry is an increase in serotonin. Serotonin is known to be a calming substance associated with relieving depression, inducing relaxed states, and facilitating sleep. Many of the prescription anti-depressants work by making more serotonin available for uptake by brain cells.
Once we learn that certain foods can produce specific chemical reactions in our brains (a learning that is often unconscious), we can become addicted to the mental state produced by those foods. Over a period of months or years, emotional eating becomes a way to avoid dealing with difficult emotions. All of those emotions that are not worked through go “underground” in the psyche, and occasionally leak out in ways that totally baffle us. Over time, an emotion that is buried will gain in power until it eventually becomes a psychological complex that can act as a distinct personality all on its own.
Many of us feel our emotions in our bodies. Anxiety is felt as butterflies in the stomach. Stress is tension in the back or shoulders. Anger is often a clenched fist or general contraction of the body’s musculature. Sadness or depression is often experienced as a loss of energy in the body that results in slumped shoulders and a rounded back, as though we are carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders. Over time, as we engage in emotional eating to bury the emotions, we develop a layer of fat that serves to insulate us from our feelings. We become less able to feel our bodies. Instead of our bodies animating our emotions and feelings, they become dead weight we drag around with us. Many seriously overweight people have a lot of repressed emotions that will surface as they lose the weight.
The situation is made worse by a cultural sanction of “comfort foods.” As often as not, this is a tradition passed down from a mother to her children, although it can also circulate among friends. I cannot count the number of times I have seen women I know or work with share chocolate as a way to deal with a broken heart. Of course, now we know there is a chemical in chocolate that triggers the same part of the brain that is active when we are first feeling the flush of new love. Not only is this behavior shared among friends, it is also culturally sanctioned -- it is something we see on television and in movies.
Intellect For some, intellect or education can also be a factor. In fact, despite the efforts of the media, few people really know how to eat healthy. Maybe because of the media overload and the contradicting studies that come out nearly every day, most people don’t know how to make sense of the information available. Few of us are actually taught how to think discriminatingly and to separate useless information from what is valuable. Should we follow Dr. Atkins or Barry Sears The Zone, Dean Ornish (low fat) or Bill Phillips Body for Life? Few of us know how to choose the correct approach for our own goals.
Part of the solution is to become better educated. For some this will simply mean reading food labels or one of the many books published each year that offer sound advice on healthy eating. For others, there may be a need to learn to think more rationally or discriminatingly. For all of us, the more we know, the better the decisions we can make about how best to feed our bodies.
Soul & Spirit I firmly believe that soul and spirit (simply “soul” for our purposes) play a crucial role in optimal health, as well. How and what we believe about the nature of reality has an impact on our health. If we dismiss soul as woo-woo mumbo-jumbo, we are not likely to believe our efforts amount to anything, so why bother? However, if we believe that we are here for a reason, we are more likely to put forth the effort to be healthy. Failing that, we at least might see that dying young of a heart attack would prevent us from fulfilling our purpose on this planet.
No matter what our belief system, if we cultivate an inner peace through some form of contemplative practice, we can build an inner strength that will serve us well as we struggle to overcome defeating emotional patterns and physical habits. In fact, contemplative practice can offer us a unique tool to assist in our efforts. One of the first things that happens as we meditate or pray, practice mindfulness or walk in nature, is that we begin to develop an observer self. The observer is a part of our psyche that can disentangle itself from our behaviors and watch them as though it is an impartial observer. When we gain the ability to observe our own behavior, we have much more power to identify limiting behaviors and replace them with expanding behaviors.
A third area to examine when trying to understand weight gain is the cultural influence on our beliefs about food and our bodies. As mentioned above, our culture rewards and promotes specific beliefs and behaviors that run counter to having a healthy body, such as emotional eating and comfort foods. There are other cultural influences, as well. Each year, around the holidays, many offices become a heaven for baked goods lovers. Cakes, cookies, pies, fudge, and many other forms of delicious and unhealthy food appear in the break room each morning. To refuse this generosity of our co-workers is seen as rude and (this is the sinister part) perceived as though we are depriving ourselves of the good things in life. There is an unstated cultural rule that says we must indulge our every whim or else we are depriving ourselves. This is not the reality. I personally enjoy almond butter on celery as much as most people enjoy Krispy Kreme (quite possibly the unhealthiest food on the planet, short of eating lard dipped in sugar), and my almond butter is great source of healthy monounsaturated fats.
If our ideas about social eating are strange, our ideas about healthy bodies are even stranger. For most of the '90s, the “anorexic model” look (also known as heroin chic) was the ideal for women. Not only is this ideal twisted (the women look like adolescent boys), but that level of thinness is a sickness and is in no way healthy. Until the last ten years or so, men had been immune from these unrealistic ideals of how bodies should look. Now there is a rising trend in teen and young adult males of eating disorders. The ideal has become the “ripped abs” of the models in men’s style magazines or on billboard advertisements. Magazine cover models are inspiring young men to starve themselves, spend crazy hours in the gym, or use steroids so that they can have the “shredded” look these genetically gifted models obtain only for the occasional photo shoot.
We must look at how these beliefs shape our behaviors. Do we believe comfort food makes us feel better when we are sad or hurt? Do we think we need to lose 10 more pounds to be attractive? Do we need cosmetic surgery because we feel inferior to the cultural standard for beauty? None of these things is inherently wrong. However, if we hold these beliefs unexamined, they can shape us in ways that are beyond our awareness and, therefore, beyond our control. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. The truth is that the unexamined life is not our own, but is instead a life shaped and controlled by cultural beliefs.
Finally, there are social structures that contribute to our problems with weight control. How many of us have time to cook healthy meals each day? Fast food is prevalent and easy.
Our capitalist society is set up to reward those who work hard and make sacrifices to get ahead. Further, capitalism also rewards corporations who can create products that the public will consume. These two basic tenets of capitalism create a dynamic in which most of us are struggling to have enough time in the day, a situation which forces us to look for quick and easy meals that taste good. Most fast food is among the worst choices a person can make when trying to eat healthy foods. This is changing a little bit with the introduction of items on many menus designed to attract those who eat healthier.
Still, capitalism also rewards the cheapest production with the highest profits. Many of our foods could be made healthier, but it would cost more money and reduce their market share. Take produce, for example. We know that pesticides and fertilizers sometimes leave toxic residues on our produce, but organic production costs more and reduces the beauty of the produce. Until more of us demand healthy alternatives (and only ten percent of us buy organic foods now), production sources will not see a need to offer healthier choices.
“Sin taxes” on junk food will not solve the problem either. The government needs to quit taking money from lobbyists for the food industry and make some tough choices, such as banning trans-fatty acids from our foods (a cause of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer), rewarding organic produce growers with tax incentives, and providing incentives for meat producers to raise free-range poultry or cattle.
All four areas of our lives -- our bodies, our psyches, our culture, and our social structures -- must be examined when we attempt to understand our nation’s struggle with being overweight. We can seldom solve any problem by addressing a single area, or even two areas. Different people will have different needs in working with these concepts, but in general, we must address all four quadrants of our lives. The approach I am advocating is an integral approach to fitness -- The Integral Fitness Solution.
After nearly 30 years of fad diets and fitness crazes, we have seen that simply addressing the physical quadrant of our lives is not working. Addressing the psychological without working through the other areas also will not work. Both of these approaches focus on the individual, but we must also look at how our cultural values and social structures impact our health. All four quadrants of our lives are interconnected in uncountable ways. Only an integral approach will ever solve our obesity epidemic.
[For a deeper look at Integral Theory, please read Ken Wilber’s A Theory of Everything, Shambala Publications.]