This morning I watched with interest a virtual debate on the latest UK government proposals to tackle the obesity crisis in the UK. I rarely watch the tv, let alone early in the morning , but it was on when I walked into the lounge and I had some ironing to do ( ah the glitz and the glamour...)
WARNING: these are my opinions based on my own experiences and in no way do I intend to be offensive to anyone, most of this blog is NOT yoga related however I feel compelled to open a debate on this important topic and get people reflecting and talking about it
I am not a doctor, nutritionist or a health coach , I am a yoga teacher.
The panel was well balanced with 4 different views but you could roughly divide the 4 speakers into the "your health is your responsibility" and "we all need help to rescue us from ourselves". There were stereotypes and generalisation thrown from one side and the other and some would say a fair amount of judgemental,paternizing statements aimed at overweight people... that made me think about my own position on this very important topic : do I judge people on their appearance? do I make sweeping statements ? am I open to listening to others without wanting to force my point of view as the only one that is right ? the answer to all of these questions is sadly yes ... I can certainly hear judgy voices inside my head because sadly they are the voices I have been hearing myself since I was born ...HOWEVER ... the mindful mind can detect these unhelpful thoughts and move towards a kindness lead vision of the world we live in and with practice one learns to doubt those thoughts as the truth and see the wprld and people through the eyes of compassion.
Take Mrs S for example, she has always been the chubby one at the back of the running PE class, she was always interested in sports but never truly managed to make the important connection between nutrition and physical activity and so when the teen years hit she just kept putting weight on.
Her family always had a double edge sword attitude towards her : on one hand they would comment negatively on her not wanting to eat what everyone else was eating and make fun of her when she tried to start running regularly, on the other hand they would point out often that she was looking rather round and that she could do with loosing some weight. I think you would agree with me that this kind of behaviour is far from supportive for a young woman or indeed a young man.
Things improved when she went to university and she was free to choose her diet and experiment with fitness clubs and gym classes.
Fast forward 20 years , Mrs S had two kids and every time gained weight , at her heaviest she was almost 100kg , she was told that she should eat for 2 now that she was pregnant, she was also told NOT to exercise as it could be bad for her and the baby etc... etc... the babies became toddlers and then independent young adults but Mrs S never managed to shift the weight she gained, too busy running a household as well as juggling 2 jobs to help with the family budget. When Mrs S climbs out of her car at the supermarket struggling to breath, she often feels the eyes of people on her, passing judgement on her looks or even looking into her trolley as she gets to the till. If she is unlucky she may even get some cruel teenagers commenting on her shape in a crude and nasty way right to her face.
This is just one story ... one made up story that could be 100% true and for so many IS true...those who judge know nothing about Mrs S and the pain she feels every day not only in her body but also in her mind.
Now for the facts : obesity is the number 2 root cause of death by cancer and heart disease second only to smoking and can knock 20 years off your life expectancy. These are scary numbers but some that we should consider when discussing this with your loved ones or friends ... being overweight is not a cosmetic issue , it is a health issue. The body positive movement has done a lot of good work in terms of shifting our perspective in this sense ... fat shaming is NEVER ok , abusing overweight people is NEVER ok , productive conversations on the risks associated with being overweight ARE.
COVID-19 has thrown this topic right into the spotlight once again but make no mistake, this is a problem that has been discussed for the last 20 years and despite several attempts from the government to turn the tide it looks like things are well and truly out of control with over 60% of the UK population now overweight or obese. (NHS numbers from 2018 can be found HERE)
So what CAN we do ? In my personal experience most overweight people do not enjoy the experience of being in their bodies and they also don't know how to make a change when faced with challenges which are much more complex than just simply eat less and exercise more. Many resort to trying pills and potions that promise a quick and painless change, some join support groups or programs and have good results for a period and then Christmas comes and they are back to the start or sometimes even worse! I totally agree that many of us need help and support and that the government has a role to play in creating an environment that fosters communities where citizens can thrive but I am not sure what else they can do. They have installed open air gyms everywhere , there are parks, paths and cycle routes, you name it ... they have educated the population through the traffic light system for many years now and introduced healthy school dinners ( all hail Jamie Oliver !) . Could it be that WE now need to take responsibility for our own health and well-being? Could it be that WE need to commit to change for good for ourselves, our health, for our loved ones and the health of our loved ones ? Could it be that WE need to take advantage of the opportunities that already exist before expecting more? These are important questions and I am sure that there are many ifs and many buts ...
So what is the answer? It is a complex subject that involves psychological, social and behavioural factors and in this post my intention is to give my perspective on what worked and still works for me, nothing else. I am not a nutritionist and I am not inviting you to contact me to discuss how I can help you. This is simply an invitation to self-awareness and self-love with some practical tips.
I have always battled with my weight and in the past I have been concerned about looks, now all I want is to be strong and healthy for myself first and foremost and for my family and the wider community. Here are 10 things you might want to reflect on.
ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR POWER : some days you may feel out of control, you may feel like you have no will power but the reality is that it is all about habits, acknowledge that you have the power of choice and that it is always at your disposal when and if you want to use it, you are NOT a victim, you can DO it, it will just take time and you may not succeed 100% of the time but you can learn and keep trying.
USE YOUR POWER every day : knowing that you have the power to choose how active you are or how you nourish yourself is one thing, using this power is another. Let's not kid ourselves, we live in a society where medias and retailers alike celebrate indulgence as if it is self-care. Happy people swigging wine,dancing whilst eating sweets and enjoying deliciously exotic ice-cream whilst ordering meals of dubious origin on-line to consume with our families and friends: this is the image of what it means to be happy that we are fed through the media every day. Making a change will require you to be serious about making a break from this fake world and re-claim your freedom from the deluge of excess food 24*7 and the false sense of happiness it proclaims to offer
DECIDE TO MAKE A CHANGE: and I mean really decide! visualise what you want to achieve from this change and make a contract with someone in your household so that you have someone to be accountable to or make a contract with yourself through a journal.
COMMIT TO A REALISTIC GOAL and be kind: to make sure you follow up on your decision it may be helpful to set a goal date by which you will have made some progress, maybe a charity walk or run, a family gathering in a few months or maybe a beach holiday you have booked ( if only!) Remember to be kind to yourself and to keep focused on the desired outcome, how would you like to feel in your body in 4 weeks time? If things don't go to plan one day do not worry or beat yourself up, resolve to stay on track the day after, no need to punish yourself either, be kind.
STAY OFF THE SCALES : the obesity crisis is real but looking at people's weight through the outdated lens of BMI is simply wrong, if you have committed to make a change and you follow through with positive daily actions, you will notice that change starting to happen within a couple of weeks in the way you feel, the way your clothes feel, the way your skin looks, your moods etc... you do not need a scale to tell you how you are doing, tune into your body
MAKE IT EASY for your-self: now that you are awake , that you are committed and that you have started to see changes , this may not be enough to keep you motivated , in fact look at what happens every January , we all flood the gyms with our good intentions and after 4 weeks, or earlier, we relapse into old habits...remember for most of us it is what we buy in our weekly shop that we end up eating so make it easy for yourselves . I don't think you need me to suggest what to stop buying but here are a few suggestions that work for me : crisps, biscuits, cookies , chocolate, sweets, healthy ranges (full of sugar) and any other sort of snack need to stay out of your home. Look for alternatives in the protein world! When I feel that need to eat something I still go in the cupboard where the biscuits used to be and I find nothing but I am still hungry so I go to the fridge and have some high protein, low fat, low sugar yogurt with berries or an apple with nut butter, sometimes a boiled egg. The same with your activity goals, make it easy for you to get ready to attend that yoga session or go for a walk or a light jog by preparing your kit the day before. The most difficult thing IS to begin, once you have taken the first step you are on your way.
GO IT TOGETHER OR GO ALONE : if you are in a relationship it may be tricky to make the change but remember the most important relationship is the one you have with yourself, love yourself first. If you have a family it may be even trickier but not impossible, if this step is too much go back to step 3. Resolve to make positive changes , plan, follow through repeat ...the rest will follow.
MAKE SURE YOU ARE IN GOOD COMPANY : surround yourself with supportive people that truly care about you and your health. Going out can be very tricky as you not only have to check in with your own level of commitment to making a change but also with the level of pressure that comes from those who are out with you. I have always been very good at making good choices when dining out, mostly thinking about how I want to feel when I go to bed or the morning after but it is not as easy when I visit my dad in Italy. I was brought up with the idea that food is life, food is how we celebrate togetherness and special gatherings and there is an expectation that togetherness means massive plates of pasta with unspeakable amounts of other highly calorific delicious food and of course lots of wine. Over the years and with education I have persuaded my dad that if he loves me and my family the best way to show us is to care about what we eat, how much we eat and not just throw food at us. Occasional blow-outs are of course allowed but remember consistency is key, if you reduce the blowouts from weekly to monthly for example, you will see a massive difference already. Which brings me to point number 9
FOLLOW THE 80/20 RULE : if you are overweight right now or have been told by the nurse or GP that you are obese (except for if you have certain medical conditions that sadly encourage weight gain in your body) you are very likely to be at what I would call the 100/100 level , 100 percent of the times you are living your best life, not watching or limiting what you eat or drink in any way. Now imagine for a moment that following point 1,2 and 3 today it's the beginning of the rest of your life and you are going to make a change , one small change today so that the 100/100 level turns into 10/90 , in other words you think about what you are putting into your body and how it effects you 1 time out of 10 or 10 percent of the time. An easy way to start this is to look at your snacking habits and change just one of them over a period of a week.The second week you feel good about that small change you have made the previous week and move onto 2 times out of 10 or 20 percent of the time and so on , within 2 months you will be up to 80/20 and you will have transformed a one off experiment with one single snack into new daily habits. Imagine the difference across an entire year or 5 years. Think sustainability, think long-term!
BE KIND ...this does not in any way mean that excuses are ok , quite the opposite. If you want to be kind to yourself, look after the body you have as none of us is issued with a replacement. When in doubt ask yourself : is this going to nourish my body, is this going to help me achieve my goal? Keep in touch with your determined self and don't let auto-pilot sneak in. This can be awfully tiring so look for support from a qualified coach if need there is, or someone who will follow you in your journey with an open heart and hold you to account when you are struggling.
A YOGIC PERSPECTIVE
As I mentioned at the start this blog is not Yoga related but it is in so many ways, Yoga teaches us to be present with our body and our thoughts. All our actions were once thoughts .
With every breath we take we experience a pause , a gap , a space between inhales and exhales, that gap , that space is where we can decide if our thoughts will indeed become words and actions.
If at times your efforts seem to be an uphill struggle, let the acient widom f Patanjali come to the rescue with the Yamas and Niyamas ...
The Yamas( the first limb of Yoga) support us on our journey reminding us of the moral obligations that come with being a conscious being
AIHIMSA: non violence , be kind to yourself, look after yourself and if you are one of those people who is already fit and healthy remember to treat others as you would like to be treated yourself
SATYA :truthfulness, be true to yourself , do not lie, acknowledge the challenges you are facing rather than hiding behind excuses
ASTEYA : non-stealing, take responsibility for where you are right now and make a commitment to change if it is not where you want to be, do not steal the opportunity to be healthy and live a long life from yourself
BRAMACHARIA : non greed or restraint, moving away from greed and mindless excess. Find balance in your mission to a healthier you, leaving your old habits behind does not mean going totally the opposite direction as this can also be dangerous. Find balance in your efforts, excess is never a good idea. Small, consistent steps are better that 1 large leap into sure crashing and burning out.
APARIGRAHA : non-attachment , the art of letting go of clinging to things that we may find comforting , this frees us to find our strength within ourselves which in turn makes us appreciate and enjoy life more. Let go of shame, regret and hurt to find space for self-love , enjoyment in new things such as healthy meals and new activities that keep you moving
The Niyamas ( the second limb of yoga ) teach us how to look after ourselves using the following guiding principles
SAUCHA : clarity of thoughts, are you clear in what matters most to you? cleanliness of body , is the food you are eating close to the earth? is the activity you are undertaking going to assist the body or hinder the body ?
SANTOSHA : contentment , can you shift your perspective on what makes you feel alive and full? what is the nature of happiness and contentment in your life? do you ever feel content ?
TAPAS : discipline, zeal. Stay the course, cultivate your ability to do what you said you were going to. Be determined in your efforts. Every day is a new day!
SVADHYAYA : study yourself. Know what makes you tick and when you are most vulnerable and change your daily routines to support your efforts. You can do anything you put your mind to! It just takes time!
ISHVARA PRANIDHANA : surrender to something bigger than yourself. You are not a single unit separated from the rest , your actions matter and have consequences. Being as healthy as you can is the ultimate responsibility towards yourself, your loved ones and the wider community you live in.
May we all be happy , may we all be healthy , may we all be free from pain
PS : if you would like a confidential, informal, free chat I am here for you ... x