Person A, let's call her Janet, is not in the habit of exercising. She occasionally enters her week with good intentions but for the most part considers herself, quite happily, "not a gym person".
Her diet is average. She could do with more vegetables and perhaps fewer refined carbs but it's far from terrible. If you laid her weekly food intake out on a table it would be nothing like those vast heaving smorgasbords of beige stodge with which Gillian McKeith once shamed and frightened fat people into tears of submission. No, there'd be green things in there, and protein too. It's just that she doesn't really spend any time thinking about what she eats. There are far more interesting things in the world and when she's on her death bed she doubts she'll regret having that almond croissant in 1997.
She probably has a stone to lose. That'd be nice. But the prospect of that extra effort, restriction and planning gives her a heavy, sinking feeling. The thought of missing nights out with friends or fretting about having some chocolate just doesn't seem like a worthy trade. She is surrounded by people she loves and who love her. She travels, has hobbies and a fulfilling, challenging job.
Person B, let's call her Dorothy, is a hardcore gym addict. She is up at 6am most mornings for an hour of cardio before a breakfast of greens powder, coconut water and hemp protein. Plus her fish oils, vitamin D and magnesium. In the gym changing room she stares and squeezes anxiously at her stomach, wondering if she can already see the evidence of the one square of 90%dark chocolate she had last night, her reward for doing two training sessions that day.
At the office she feels virtuous for declining the biscuits being passed around, brought in by a co-worker recently returned from a weekend break. At lunch the others gossip over lattes and white bread sandwiches while she eats chicken and broccoli from her Tupperware box.
It's a Friday and she declines the invite to after-work drinks to get an extra gym session in and get to bed early. She read some where that the hours of sleep before 11 are twice as beneficial as those after.
She rarely goes out, and rarely travels, as the lack of control over the food that's available in those circumstances gives her an anxious, sinking feeling. She feels a little separated from her friends, but she read online that if you feel your friends are not supportive of your weight loss goals then you should get new friends, and if they need to drink to be interesting then maybe they're not such good friends after all. Sometimes it's an effort to stick to her regime, sometimes she wonders if it's all worth it. But then she reads her written goals, and visualises her future body, that bit more toned like the model on the cover of Women's Health, and she pushes the negative thoughts away.
My question is this; who is healthier? Person A or person B? Janet or Dorothy?
Obviously, the answer depends on what we mean by healthy. If we define health in terms of aesthetics, body fat percentage and fitness, Dorothy is the clear choice. But is that all health is? The absence of illness and an arbitrary number on a scale?
I don't think so. I'm not saying that training hard and paying attention to nutrition is a bad thing, of course not. I have a certain image in my mind of how I want to look, so I make choices in my life to keep me looking that way. I eat protein and vegetables, I lift weights. But this has more to do with vanity than health. If I'm a guest at someone's house for dinner and pasta is on the menu, I don't push it away and whip out a tupperware dish of boiled salmon, I say thank you and eat. If I am heading off on a weekend away I don't stress about a lack of control over food, I just make the best choices I can. Could I get to 5% body fat? Sure, I just don't want it bad enough to live in a world without Argentinian Malbec, steak and chips and whatever else I feel like having on occasion.
I'm not saying either Janet or Dorothy is totally right. I've been on both sides of that fence, and, while I don't have all the answers, I like to think I'm closer to that mythical place of "Moderation In All Things" than its twin-town, the often mistook Land of Do-As-You-Please (I just referenced Enid Blyton in a fitness article. For God's sake won't somebody tell me how clever I am?!)
We can draw an analogy with money. It's often said that money can't buy you happiness. This is false. If you are struggling each month to make ends meet and constantly stressed about paying for vital utilities, then money will absolutely make make you happy. It will get your head above water, allow you to relax and provide a few creature comforts. But at a certain point, when your basic needs are met, more money ceases to correlate with more happiness (unless, according to research, you give a large amount of it away) This doesn't mean you shouldn't pursue more money. If you want a nice car and a big house there's nothing wrong with that. But it may not make you happier, and if you have to hurt people, pass up other life experiences or neglect your friends and family to get there it certainly won't make you "better".
The same can be said of fitness. If your body is restricting you from doing the things you want to do, then being fitter will make you happy. Where it becomes unhealthy, in my view, is when we begin to tell ourselves things like "when I weigh x amount I'll be happy". This is no different to a depressed millionaire telling themselves if they could just make another million they'd finally be happy.
We will all have our own ideas of what constitutes health, and where to draw the line between moderation and laziness, between dedication and unhealthy obsession.
My friend Sam talks about health in terms of reducing, as much possible,the self-imposed restrictions on your life so that you can have the experiences you want to have. If you want to rock climb don't be obese. If you want to be around to play with your grand kids, look after your heart. But if you're already fit enough to do the things you want to do, then the barrier to happiness is not your body-fat, it's something else.