Getting a Healthy Body Starts with Healthier Thoughts

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Kate Clemmer, LCSW-C

This blog post is sponsored by The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt.

Much of the mainstream messaging around health promotion isn’t nearly as healthy as it claims to be.  Weight loss diets, fitness programs and detox programs are abundant but most of them come with restrictive eating habits, a big dose of weight shaming and a level of obsession around food that is neither healthy nor sustainable.  Typically, these programs have less to do with improving public health and more to do with making a profit. But how often have you heard someone say “I just want to start getting healthier”? If you have people—especially teens in your life who are expressing a desire to improve their overall health, it can be difficult to know how to support positive change without exposing them to messaging that promotes disordered eating and body dissatisfaction.   

It can be helpful to start with a conversation about balance, reiterating that health encompasses all of who we are—body and mind. Make sure your friend or loved one knows that health is more than any numbers on a chart or the size of your clothing. Let them know that getting physically healthier must begin with thinking in healthier ways. This includes the way we think about our bodies. Health looks different for each person, but the following tips can help you or the person you’re supporting begin to work towards better overall health. 

Start by just noticing all the times people around you make negative comments about their own bodies or someone else’s appearance.

This includes things they might think are compliments like “You look amazing. Have you lost weight?” or comments on social media like “omg, I look huge” or “I wish I looked like that”.  As you begin to notice how frequently appearance or weight loss is equated with happiness or worth, you can make an effort to disengage from those types of conversations. Over time you might even choose to let people know how their comments impact others—potentially triggering a chain of body comparisons and negative thoughts for everyone who hears and sees them.   

We can all work to incorporate new health behaviors if we want to do that, but weight is not a behavior.

As people begin to take better care of themselves, their weight may change or it might not. Genetics, sleep quality, access to resources, stress levels, gut bacteria, family history, and many other individual and community variables all serve to interact in different ways for different people.  These things influence weight differently in different people, and we ultimately have very little control over the weight our bodies will be.  If you’re really interested in improving your health, it’s best to focus on adding more positive behaviors, not to set arbitrary goal weights.  Consider, instead, working to improve your sleep patterns, experimenting with new foods or cooking techniques, and getting more fresh air each day.    

Contrary to popular belief, setting public or private weight-loss goals or posting #fitspiration pics is not an effective way to motivate yourself or other people on a quest for health. When people feel badly about their appearance or body, it’s actually much harder to take good physical care of it.  Regardless of actual weight, adolescents who are dissatisfied with their bodies are at higher risk for disordered eating and other harmful behaviors like smoking, substance abuse and risky sexual behaviors, and they report lower levels of physical activity (Neumark-Sztainer, et al, 2006).

Exercise is not meant to be a punishment or a chore, and it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

If part of your health improvement plan includes moving your body more, be sure to find movement and exercise that is fun for you and leaves you feeling energized and proud, instead of depleted or shamed. For example, grab some friends and conquer a new hiking trail each weekend or ask someone to go ice skating with you instead of doing sit-ups alone in your room. 

Remember, becoming healthier looks different for everyone and includes the mindset we have associated with the health behaviors we’re engaging in. For some people, becoming healthier might mean decreasing their activity levels, finding stillness, and learning how to properly rest and recover. 

6 out of 10 girls say they stop doing things they love because they don’t like how they look.

Make a promise to yourself not to let body anxiety take you out of the game. If you’re struggling with negative appearance thoughts on a particular day, it’s even more important to raise your hand in the class discussion that day, to keep showing up to volleyball practice, and to sign-up for that debate team.  It may feel like the only way to avoid the discomfort or anxiety is to avoid the situation, but the truth is when you give in to self-defeating thoughts, they only get stronger. Every time you skip out on something or cave to negative thinking, the thoughts get reinforced in your brain and you miss out on joyful or beneficial opportunities.  Don’t let your own mind—or anyone else’s opinion—convince you that how you look is more important than who you are or what you love to do. The world needs you, and you need to keep showing up. 

Make a point to surround yourself with other people who are body positive.

If you are constantly surrounded by friends that waste energy or time hyper-focused on their own weight and shape or other people’s appearance, you are likely to get sucked in to those thoughts as well.  Having a healthy, compassionate and relaxed relationship with your body as it is right in this moment—instead of criticizing it or comparing it to people around you—is called being body positive or practicing body acceptance. This can sometimes feel like an impossible goal, since we live in a culture that encourages people to be dissatisfied with their bodies and to strive for an impossibly “perfect” or Instagram-worthy physique. But remember that when it comes to our physical form, “perfection” is an ever-changing illusion. 

Keep making conscious choices regarding who you spend time with and prioritize people who don’t engage in fat-talk or weight shaming.  Eventually, you might be someone else’s positive body image role model and they will want to spend time with you for the same reason!

Make a list of all the awesome things your body DOES.

Hang it in your room or at your desk, tape it to a notebook or text it to yourself each morning so you see it often. How do the following statements make you feel? 

My graceful fingers help me play my instrument. My strong arms let me hug my little sister. I love the way my legs move me through the water during a swim meet. It’s amazing how I can feel a deep breath move through my lungs. 

Focusing on these functional aspects of your body—instead of simply how it looks—can help you experience healthier thoughts and a healthier body over time.  

Seek help from professionals who are committed to a definition of wellbeing that goes beyond weight.

If you’re having a lot of negative body image thoughts throughout the day or they’re impacting your behaviors around food and exercise, it might be time to seek more support. Changing the way you behave can be hard, and asking for help is a sign of strength. When seeking therapists, dietitians, or physicians be sure to ask about their treatment philosophy. Be wary of coaches or influencers who promise big things in their ads or gimmicky products on social media. Instead, look for licensed clinicians who show a commitment to non-diet philosophies, Health at Every Size® (HAES®), and weight-inclusive practice models.  If you’re seeking treatment for an eating disorder, you’ll want to ensure the providers are specialized in this area and offer evidence-based treatments such as Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and Family Based Treatment (FBT). 

Bodies are diverse in appearance and abilities but all bodies are good bodies. Focusing on getting to a specific weight or trying to change how your body looks is associated with decreased health and may lead to harmful behaviors like dieting, bingeing, or isolating from friends. Whether for you or a friend, let’s spread the word that taking small steps each day to cultivate healthier thoughts about your body is ultimately a big part of improving overall health and wellbeing.  

Reference: Neumark-Sztainer D., Paxton S. J., Hannan P. J., Haines J., Story M. (2006). Does body satisfaction matter? Five-year longitudinal associations between body satisfaction and health behaviors in adolescent females and males. J. Adolesc. Health 39 244–251. 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2005.12.001 

Kate Clemmer is a licensed clinical social worker at The Center for Eating Disorders (CED) at Sheppard Pratt in Maryland where she has served as Community Outreach Coordinator for more than a decade. Prior to joining CED, Kate provided school-based therapy to adolescents in Baltimore City and coordinated a multi-school health education and tobacco prevention program. At CED, Kate serves as a therapist, project coordinator, writer and editor, event planner and liaison to the community. She is frequently invited to speak about eating disorders, body image and media literacy and is passionate about advocating for the prevention and treatment of eating disorders. Kate’s favorite part of each week is facilitating CED’s free support group, which draws a diverse and inspiring group of individuals from across Maryland and surrounding states, all supporting one another in the recovery process.