How “Health at Every Size” Is Making Fitness More Inclusive
Exercise is for everyone—and one organization has made it its mission to make sure that message is heard.
Having a six-pack. Flexing your toned biceps. Keeping your BMI between 18.5 and 24.9. For years, health and fitness were defined by variables that could be quantified with a measuring tape and scale. It was convenient, sure, but it was also problematic: How you exercise and what you eat—the cornerstones of good health¬¬—aren’t just things you do to hit a number on the scale. You do it because it feels good. You do it because it makes you happy. And when you’re feeling happy, sweating hard and eating well, your health improves—no matter what size your jeans are. Health is way more than a checklist list of prescribed numbers, and it’s about time people saw the light. And that’s where a growing movement called Health at Every Size® (HAES) comes into play.
Health at Every Size (HAES) is a social justice movement and weight-inclusive approach to health supported by the Association for Size Diversity and Health, an international non-profit organization with a mission to promote size acceptance. HAES rejects the idea that more body weight always leads to negative health effects. At the same time, HAES argues that traditional weight-loss interventions, like dieting, don’t always lead to positive health outcomes.
According to this framework, gaining weight doesn’t automatically mean your health is at risk. “Weight is only one component of our health,” says Brenna O’Malley, R.D., founder of The Wellful, a nutrition and wellness website in New York City. “People of all body sizes can adopt health-promoting behaviors, which have a greater impact on our health than weight alone.”
HAES is guided by five principles: weight inclusivity, health enhancement, eating for well-being, respectful care and life-enhancing movement. “Weight inclusivity” means that you accept and respect all body shapes and sizes, whether you’re straight as a stick or shaped more like a pear. In this mindset, there’s no perfect weight or ideal body shape—so whether your sports bra is a size 3X or an XS, your body deserves respect and admiration for what it’s capable of. You don’t need visible abs to justify wearing a crop top: Wear what makes you feel great.
Eat Healthy, Be Healthy
According to HAES, lifestyle changes like working out regularly and eating nutritiously are still important for their health benefits, even if they don’t result in weight loss. “Anti-diet doesn’t mean anti-health,” agrees Taylor Wolfram, R.D., a licensed dietician in Chicago. “We’re so conditioned to believe that weight drives health, so it can be tough to conceptualize an approach to health that empowers folks to support their well-being through methods other than weight loss.”
The shift comes with the “why” behind making those health-enhancing choices. Rather than having a breakfast smoothie because you think it has fewer calories than other options, have it because you know it’ll keep you full and energized until lunch. And instead of signing up for a HIIT class as punishment for all the cookies you ate last night, don a pair of chic track pants opt for a cardio hip hop workout that make you smile. A big benefit of HAES, says O’Malley, is allowing people to find the joy in moving and eating, rather than anxiety. For example, instead of asking yourself, “Will this make me gain or lose weight?” ask yourself:
● How will this make me feel?
● Would I still do this movement even if it wouldn’t change my body?
● Do I even like this food?
Questions like this play into the bigger picture, exploring how health and politics are intertwined. “The HAES approach is to acknowledge our biases, and work to end weight discrimination, stigma and bias,” says Wolfram. To that end, HAES practitioners explore how socio-economic status, race, gender, sexual orientation, age and other identities impact weight stigma (a.k.a. prejudice against people with excess weight).
HAES vs Diet Culture
“Diet culture tells us that we have the ability—and moral obligation—to be in pursuit of a certain body size that fits society’s ideal,” O’Malley says. “Our bodies naturally change over time, but diet culture teaches us that changes in the scale or our bodies are something to be feared, leading to a disordered relationship around food and body shame.”
The HAES approach separates weight and health, promoting the idea that people can and should love and respect their bodies, regardless of what the scale says. If your favorite leggings don’t fit the way they have in the past, that’s not a reflection on you as a person—or even your health status. It simply means you need different leggings.
In its most basic form, HAES is about celebrating your body, not punishing it. Whether you’re looking forward to a kick-ass boxing class or you’re craving a greasy burger from the local neighborhood joint, HAES empowers the individual to make choices without labeling them as “good” or “bad.”
Bringing It Home
There are easy ways to work HAES principles into your own day to day. For instance, “scrub your social media for diet-y and weight loss content, and work with licensed health care professionals who use a HAES approach,” advised Wolfram. On a micro level, start keeping a journal of the ways you move and how you fuel yourself, noting how you feel emotionally and physically before, during and after these activities. This might also be a great time to try different workouts that you’ve been intimidated by before. Throw on a lightweight jacket or layer a cozy cropped sweatshirt and tackle the highest peak near your home, sign up for your first 10k or take a day off from hard-core cardio and spend some time doing gentle stretching or meditation in your most comfy clothes. Learn what your body likes, and use that information to build routines that make you feel like your best, healthiest self.