You can't tell how healthy someone is by looking at them

Rose Stokes

I want you to consider this: weight is only one indicator of your overall health (Picture: Rose Stokes)

A few years ago I was minding my own business working out on a crosstrainer at my local gym, when a trainer approached me. 

Nearing the end of my routine, I was moving slowly to get my heart-rate down, and was — I imagine — quite sweaty. We chatted for a while and then he asked if I’d like a complimentary session with him to assess my fitness plan. Not one to turn down the offer of free help, I agreed.

When I turned up a few days later, he insisted on weighing and measuring me — before putting me on a scanner that (apparently) assessed how ‘healthy’ I was.

As a UK size 14 and in the best physical shape of my adult life, I was shocked (but not surprised) when the results came back suggesting I was ‘unhealthy’. 

You see, I’d lost a lot of weight. Five stone in fact, in 10 months. But, despite being fitter and thinner than I had ever been — or probably will ever be again — I was miserable. 

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The machine was right – I was unhealthy – but not in the way it measured. 

At the time, I was overexercising — and teetering on the edges of an eating disorder. I’d cut out a lot of major food groups, was visiting the gym a couple of times a day, as well as cycling 20km a day in and out of work.

At night I was drinking like a fish to drown out how I felt. 

But my trainer was too preoccupied with the physical to think about that. He assumed, by looking at me, that it was my fitness levels that were in need of some TLC.

When he put together what he thought would be a ‘challenging’ workout for me, he was surprised at every turn when I achieved everything he asked me to do with minimum effort. 

The weights were far too light to require any strain, the cardio wasn’t fast enough or long enough to shorten my breath, and I could do all of the requested burpees and squats without breaking a sweat.

I say this not to brag about my herculean strength — as I mentioned before, I was not well. But more to make an increasingly urgent point. 

Because when I asked the trainer why he had approached me that day, it soon transpired that it was because he’d noticed I wasn’t a size 10, and assumed I needed help getting fit.

You cannot judge how healthy someone is by looks alone.

I’m telling you this story because many of us will be emerging from months of hibernation in bodies that don’t look like they did in March. 

Whether that’s because your work, family or living circumstances precluded your ability to maintain a regular exercise routine.

Whether it’s because you, like many others, ate more owing to the stress of the pandemic and being stuck at home, or simply because you were bored.

Rose Stokes beach

Despite being fitter and thinner than I had ever been — or probably will ever be again — I was miserable (Picture: Rose Stokes)

Or whether staying thin wasn’t — understandably — at the top of your priorities during an objectively stressful period both financially and emotionally for humankind. 

What I do know is that for many of us, any unplanned change in the shape or size of our body carries a huge emotional toll. 

And why wouldn’t it? There’s been a lot of chat in the media of late around obesity and the pernicious impact it has one our health and — by extension — our NHS. Lose weight! The Government says. Get healthy! 

As if those two things are mutually exclusive.

Not hard, then, to see how people feel stressed by fluctuations in their weight. And that’s before we even consider the insidious fatphobia that exists in every area of society, which teaches fat people that they are not enough: not beautiful enough, not small enough, not healthy enough, not worthy enough….not lovable enough. That they are deserving of scorn, shame and worse — abuse.

In such a context, it’s not hard to see how this sort of messaging can erode someone’s confidence in themselves and — by extension — their motivation to pursue activities that might make them feel better in themselves. Like, I don’t know, maybe exercise. 

In the years since my run-in with that gym instructor, the number that I read when I stand on the scales has increased fairly significantly. But I can still run, swim and cycle just as far. I still train just as regularly.

And while his machine may not agree, I am now much healthier than I was. 

So if you are chastising yourself for gaining weight during lockdown, looking at your body with scorn, disgust or worse — feeling guilted by the Government’s recent messaging on obesity  — I want you to consider this: weight is only one indicator of your overall health.

If you want to lose weight or get fitter, then the only way it’ll work in a sustainable way is if you do it from a place of love. I haven’t worked this all out myself just yet — but I’m trying. 

At the same time, we as a society need to reconsider what we view a healthy body to be and how we talk about health and how to look after ours.

Because I can tell you that every single person who has ever considered themselves to be fat — either because they’ve been told it in a medical context, by a bully, or because they are suffering from a mental illness that tells them they are — knows only too well that the weight of other people’s opinions about their body is much more significant than anything that can be measured on a scale.

Rose Stokes bicycles

If you want to lose weight or get fitter, then the only way it’ll work in a sustainable way is if you do it from a place of love (Picture: Rose Stokes)

And that type of weight requires much more than a bit of exercise to shift.

Unfortunately, my trainer wasn’t alone in his narrow-mindedness. At my thinnest, friends, family members and strangers stopped feeling the need to give me unsolicited advice about how to lose weight, like they had done before.

But they queued up in their hundreds to tell me how much better I looked. How much more attractive. No longer did I hear the palpable absence of the words ‘at least’ lingering in the air when people would give me a consolatory smile when saying ‘you’ve got such a pretty face!’

The collective relief of many people in my life about my new appearance only added to the pressure to stay thin.

And so inside, I was a mess. I became consumed by fear about putting the weight back on. I was exhausted, wracked with anxiety and panic, and worse — I felt guilty for the overwhelming sense of anticlimax that came upon reaching the thing I’d been taught to yearn for my entire life. 

I soon realised as the weight began to creep back on that while it may have changed my appearance, I was as physically as able as I had been before.

But more importantly — much more importantly — I was so much healthier mentally. I found equilibrium in my relationship with my body the moment I began to use feeling good as a motivation for exercise — rather than a desire to fit into smaller clothes.

I was no longer having panic attacks all the time. I was much more relaxed in myself. I was comfortable in my own skin.

If our goal truly is to help people to be more ‘healthy’, we first need to reconsider how we define what ‘healthy’ looks like. Because the reality is that while we are living in a pandemic, we are also in the grips of a mental health crisis.

Teaching people to hate their bodies won’t make them healthier — it’ll just shift the burden onto mental health services, which doesn’t make logical or even good economic sense.

It certainly won’t ‘protect the NHS’ in a context of chronic underfunding. No amount of spin can substitute for a lack of Government investment.

But it will have a hugely damaging impact on many people’s mental health — and they don’t deserve it.

Do you have a story that you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing [email protected]

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