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New Year, New Healthy Mindset

Five Fitness Terms to Know Now

With the new year upon us, there is no avoiding the messages telling us to Get fit! and Lose weight! – along with products promising to help us get there quickly. Society places a lot of pressure on us to look a certain way, sets unrealistic expectations, and expresses judgment – and discriminates – if we don’t fit the mold. There is also a lot of misinformation about ways to achieve fitness and health. Perhaps setting some health and fitness goals is appropriate. But before you click ADD TO CART or embark on a dieting plan that’s unlikely to lead to lasting change, let’s take a collective pause, reflect on where we are, and approach this new year with a healthy dose of self-compassion. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has made healthy living even more challenging for many of us, with dramatic increases in screen time, disruptions to eating routines, canceled activities, and increased food insecurity. No one
was prepared for these lifestyle shifts! And we cannot underestimate the increased stress, which can set off a cascade of processes that increase the risk of weight gain. 

Before the pandemic, rates of overweight and obesity in children and adults were already alarmingly high. Experts anticipate that the effects of COVID-19 on obesity (and associated health risks like diabetes, heart disease, and depression) will persist long after widespread vaccination. Thus, although the new year can be a great opportunity to set some health goals, please remember that these are not normal times. 

Let’s examine some terms to help us approach making changes using kindness and science-based information to lead our families down a healthy path. 

Acceptance 

Our genes determine characteristics like bone size, frame, and shape, and people come in all shapes and sizes. It sure would be boring if we all looked the same! Body acceptance sets the foundation to treat your body with respect. Pay attention to the awesome things your body – and your kids’ bodies – can do. Celebrate them! Not for what they look like, but for what they can accomplish. Starting from this place of acceptance can help focus your energy on healthy ways to treat your body instead of being critical, which can lead to unhealthy attitudes and behaviors, and sadly, can be modeled and passed on to children. 

BMI 

Although it’s not a perfect tool, calculating your body mass index, or BMI, can help determine potential risk of health concerns due to weight. For children ages two to nineteen, BMI percentile is used, which takes a child’s age, sex, height, and weight into account. Calculators for both children and adults are available on the CDC website.  

When it comes to BMI, there are a few things that are important to note. 

1. There is a wide range of what is considered a healthy weight.

2. Healthy can look very different across individuals, and you can’t and should never try to judge a person’s health solely by looking at him or her.

3. It is very common to fall in a healthy weight range, yet still fall short of other recommended guidelines (such as getting
enough exercise).

That’s why focusing on behaviors, never weight alone, is important in your health journey. As noted, this tool isn’t perfect, but knowing your BMI can serve as a starting place that might help you determine if some lifestyle changes or speaking with a medical provider could be beneficial.

Calories

Healthy weight management occurs when we balance the energy (or calories) we take in with the energy we use. Both diet and exercise play a role in weight management, but calorie intake from food and drinks are the much bigger driver of weight change. There are many amazing benefits of exercise, like improved sleep, reduced stress, and heart health. However, it is impossible to out-exercise an unhealthy diet in order to lose weight. Here’s the math: There are 3,500 calories in one pound of fat. The average person burns about 100 calories per mile. So, if you don’t change anything about your diet, you would need to walk or run thirty-five miles to lose one pound. (Who has time for that?) In contrast, making dietary changes that result in cutting around 500 calories per day from your diet will also yield about one pound of weight loss per week. 

A good place to cut calories? Start with the empty ones that don’t fill you up, like sugary drinks. Making small, sustainable changes can get you there. A dietitian can help you determine the calorie range that is right for you, as each person’s needs are unique. 

Of course, exercise is absolutely still important, and most of us don’t get enough of it. Find ways to build exercise into your family’s routine. Schedule it, like you would a doctor’s appointment, then keep that appointment with yourself. 

Diet

Focus on diet – not dieting. There is a dangerous culture of dieting in our society. We’re often looking for a quick fix and end up spending a lot of money and time on ineffective and potentially dangerous strategies that ultimately do not lead to sustained weight loss. In fact, dieting is typically associated with a short-term loss and then weight re-gain, which results in feelings of failure and frustration. 

Parental dieting models these unhealthy practices for children, increasing their risk for unhealthy weight-control strategies. In contrast, focus on making sustainable and realistic lifestyle changes to your diet and your family’s. A healthy diet includes a range of foods including lean protein, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. It also includes occasional treats! Balance and moderation are key. Fill half the plate with fruits and vegetables to naturally control portions and calories. 

What’s the best diet? One with a good balance of foods that provides adequate nutrition, leaves you feeling energized and satisfied, and most importantly, that you can maintain over time. 

Environment 

The home environment can make it easier or more difficult to stick with healthy choices. Set up your home to make the healthy choice the easier choice. This means keeping sugary drinks and high-calorie, low-nutrition foods out of the home or in places that are out of direct sight. Make healthier choices more visible – like fruit in a bowl on the counter. Add in cues for exercise – like placing sneakers near the door or creating a standing workstation. Remove cues for sedentary activity by taking TVs, tablets, and laptops out of bedrooms. These small changes can go a long way to prompting healthier choices each day. 

Whatever your fitness goals are for this new year, approach them with kindness – toward yourself and others. There is no magic bullet and no one-size-fits-all approach to healthy weight management. Take some time to think about your goals and what you want for your family. Remember, small changes add up; you just need to take the first step! 

Melanie Bean, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist, associate professor of pediatrics and co-director of the Healthy Lifestyles Center at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU. She lives in Richmond with her family and loves to hike in the Blue Ridge with her husband and two daughters.
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