On diet and exercise advice

On diet and exercise advice. Photo by Brady. 2019.

“All my doctor did was tell me to diet and exercise for my depression. She doesn’t need to know why I’m depressed, that’s none of her business, but… I hate that she only see me as fat. Doctors are just garbage. No offense, Brady.”

These conversations are unconscious minefields. For some, any conversation about diet and exercise, even with regard to mental health, is thought of as judgmental, as toxic, or as fat-shaming. In this way, for far too many people, having any kind of conversation about diet and exercise, including neutral and objective ones, even with people whose business it is to know, can feel degrading, hostile, or even shaming. As someone that has spent many years and countless conversations attempting to de-trigger those moments, and to prevent the projection of shaming onto the conversation, it remains a deeply personal and deeply perilous conversation for most everyone, including the professionals in the room. 

As a quick aside before I get into this any further: most conversations that include general advice target those that over-eat and under-exercise or seem overweight, and don’t quite address the concerns of those that under-eat and over-exercise, even though there is some overlap. The conversations with those that over-eat and over-exercise is also much different than ones with those that under-eat and under-exercise, but in many ways the overarching conversation for each of those subtypes about how-much-food to how-much-exercise is, for all of us, ideally a dynamically evolving conversation. The personal solution to that equation, again, needs to be different over the years, because our bodies and our lifestyles grow and change, and diet and exercise ideally grows and changes as well. But for many it doesn’t. 

Advice that only seeks to see effort along a certain criteria, will not register any other expression of effort as valid, and that’s where advice that seeks to help but effectively undermines the solution, occurs.
Conversations about diet and exercise advice tend to break down over the terms of the discussion, especially when discussing diet and exercise advice for those targeted as overweight. With this in mind, this is where I’ll focus the main points of this article. Some people, often the supposed recipients of advice, can only have a conversation, or accept advice, that centers being overweight as a symptom, and not a cause, of greater personal health problems. They’d argue that shaming is the real problem; the societal judgment is the real problem. Some other people, oftentimes the advice givers, can only have that conversation when it centers being overweight as the cause of many problems, and not the symptom of other personal health problems. It may sound far too simple, but both conversations are valid, and both are important in the overall conversation of diet and exercise advice. And yet, for many conscious and unconscious reasons, it can be difficult to have both conversations. It’s near impossible to have both conversations simultaneously, and ensuing hurt comes when either side only wants to have their own conversation.

What makes matters all the worse is how effort is often used to undermine those conversations. For example, someone might want to see another person eating only vegan and kickboxing 5 times a week and getting at least 9 hours of sleep a night as “effort,” not acknowledging how much invisible resources, finances, and support structures are needed to pull that off. With this, they are likely to lack compassion, and to see anything other than seamless diet and exercise perfection as, “lacking effort.” Advice that only seeks to see effort along a certain criteria, will not register any other expression of effort as valid, and that’s where advice that seeks to help but effectively undermines the solution, occurs. In this way, diet and exercise advice that only allows a narrow definition of success, sabotages a lot of effort to change, and to keep on living. 

I see the conversation of diet and exercise advice that centers effort along certain criteria as sidestepping the more difficult conversations about dynamically growing, and continued living. Anyone’s diet and exercise can become stagnant, ceasing to grow, and that will become manifest on a physical, but more so emotional, level. Permit me to ramble some more.

At the most neutral, if objective, level: the more a person doesn’t exercise, the more inefficient their body becomes, and the weaker their muscles, and their mind and mental capacities, follow. When a person spends more time thinking about reasons why they don’t exercise, why they are weak, why they are fat, why they shouldn’t even bother exercising, then all of these reasons to not exercise become compounded. This makes it altogether harder to change.

There’s some commingling variables here, that I think of as a compounded and cascading effect. If you are nervous about people’s thoughts on your diet, then you are more likely to not eat around others, which compounds isolation, self-defeat, and depression. If you are nervous about exercising, then you are also more likely to not exercise around others, not go to a gym or go outside for a run, again, which compounds isolation, lack of opportunities to exercise, and limits ideas of what kind of exercises to do in general. In even vaguer terms: not doing a thing, whatever it is, makes it more likely to not do that thing in the future, and on a circular level more reasons to not do that thing are created, leading to less of the thing, and even more of the problem. 

There is a stagnant quality in choosing nothing new, for sure, and an even riskier gamble: that those familiar habits can be maintained indefinitely.
As my go-to exercise examples go, it’s hard to chase around toddlers in ill-defined games of tag, or when they simply make a run for it as flight-risk toddlers often do, when you don’t regularly run. It’s hard to roll around the floor with a puppy, or play fetch with a persistent puppy, or lift a puppy to cuddle, or chase a puppy in a park, or explore a whole neighborhood through the nose of a puppy, if you don’t regularly cross train. It’s hard to dance for an hour or two with friends, or stand upright in a lounge for a few hours, without core strength and some ankle mobility. Frankly, it’s also hard to have the swinging-from-the-chandelier kind of sex a person might cinematically hope for, if there isn’t cardiovascular and endurance training to support it. There’s a lot of implicit buy-in to exercising, and yet, many times I hear conversations about exercise as exercising to exercise more, and not exercise for the purpose of living more fully. It is the exercise-to-live-more-fully part, while we can, that sadly get’s unspoken in well-intentioned diet and exercise advice. 

I see deteriorating mental health, a cascade of problems, when a person doesn’t exercise, loses strength, loses a desire to move around, gradually becoming a shut in, only working, getting the same drive-thru food, and going home, until there is a tipping point and then they can’t ever leave the house. From another angle, this is similarly a problem when a person eats the same limited foods, the same alleged “comfort” foods likely from childhood, and they stop growing and discovering new foods and cuisines to grow into. There is a stagnant quality in choosing nothing new, for sure, and an even riskier gamble: that those familiar habits can be maintained indefinitely.  

In these cases, where new habits aren’t formed, I don’t see a lack of effort. No. In fact, I see far too much effort to hold onto a way of being that was outgrown years ago. The effort to hold onto the past, to hold onto an idea of how things were, of what comfort tasted like, of where your happy place was, of who you were, and so much that a person doesn’t want to, or can’t yet, grieve, is undeniably there. 

I see conversations about exercise and mental health breaking down at this vulnerable level as well. One person is likely having a conversation to encourage exercise and thinking forward into a still attainable future to enjoy; the other person is often having a conversation about their inability to even imagine a future. It really is hard to imagine a future, of more hilarious dancing, of more toddler wrangling, of more puppy hijinks, of gossipy conversations over a cup of coffee and a chocolate, of more cinematic sex, of more long walks at sunset, if you’re not even doing it now, and many times both parties in the conversation struggle to see that.  With this, giving or receiving advice on what to do to have the strength and fuel to live a full and adventurous life, can’t exactly land.

I don’t see a lack of effort. No. In fact, I see far too much effort to hold onto a way of being that was outgrown years ago.
I realize that a large part of this post may seem to be written for an able-bodied audience trying to give advice to those targeted as overweight. And in many ways it is. What I’ve alluded to, but may need to make explicit, is that when I write about diet and exercise even for those seemingly able-bodied persons, it is also with the caveat that those who are able-bodied, are in truth temporarily able-bodied, because injury, age, and illness come to us all. For those that routinely exercise and physically move about more freely in the world, it can be a serious challenge to their mental health to lose that ability to exercise, to run, to lift heavy things, to walk, to eat certain foods, or simply to hold… anything. 

As a small example I’ve encountered more than a few times: a person may have had surgery or an illness and can no longer sleep comfortably on one side of their body, and no longer able to do what they have done for several decades; fall asleep holding their loved one. Their inability to sleep comfortably on that familiar side most always leads to feeling defeated, unable to love, worthless, and immobilized with depression. They may never consider switching sides of the bed, and sleeping on the other side, embracing their new limitations, adapting, but still finding a way to do something close to what they want. 

This, more than anything else, is what is important to me in regards to exercise as it relates to mental health: a knowing in your body and bones how to move, and with that comes a tested ability to adapt to one’s changing landscape, and to keep moving forward. Otherwise, a person consciously or unconsciously decides to stagnate, no longer exercise, no longer move forward, and simply wait to die. Because I have this conversation quite often and steer the conversation to this level, I therefore give a lot of diet and exercise advice looking at this long game, and acknowledge how we can all, incrementally, live smaller and smaller lives until we die. I also don’t believe I’m the only one attempting to have this conversation on these terms either, because I hear a ton of advice trying to prevent this self-defeated long game. I can hear the love in a lot of diet and exercise advice… and many people are too hurt, too defeated, to hear anything but inevitable defeat.

Unsolicited advice time? If a friend encourages you to go for a walk, or do yoga, accept it, or counter-offer with a more preferable physical activity. Then, at another time, return the effort, and ask them to go for another walk, or another round of kickboxing, or exploring a neighborhood with them and their puppy, if that’s more your style. That’s living, and furthering a relationship, and a life. If a friend offers to go out to eat with you at a new restaurant, accept it, or counter-offer with a more preferable place to eat; somewhere new too. Then double-up and try something new to eat, maybe that you’ve never eaten. Then, at another time, return the effort, and ask them to go eat at a different place. That’s living, and furthering a relationship, and your life. 

Choose a different chocolate treat, make it your new favorite, and make it even more special by choosing to eat it only with one special person. In this, create a new tradition and make it matter to you, and to more than you. Consider it one exercise, and one part of your diet, that can have a deeper reward than only ever eating the same standard box of chocolates, similarly alone, in another forgettable moment.

Going back to the premise of this article and giving advice; if advice is to land, then it needs to center living and moving forward with life, with others. Otherwise, it comes across as hollow if circular: diet and exercise simply are needed because diet and exercise is good. Therefore, not following the advice is seemingly bad. The same narrow perspective holds on the other side as well: refusing to be controlled by advice for the sake of refusing is good, and following advice is bad. However, hearing all of the advice, even from doctors, on diet and exercise as empty, as shaming, as simply controlling, and not hearing in the advice how others may want you to have a more full and enjoyable life and future, well, is more on how you hear the advice, than on what advice is being offered. 

About the Author

Brady

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I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

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