The “health at every size” movement
Words Kaisha Scofield
Photography Lia Crowe
Model Alicia Worobec
The January 2022 issue of Runner’s World magazine featured Martinus Evans, a marathon runner and coach. Evans is a serious runner—like, five marathons a year serious. He has completed countless races and all of the coveted marathons like Big Sur, New York City and the Boston Marathon.
It’s safe to say that Evans is an athlete. He is also better known by his handle, @300poundsandrunning. Yes, Evans is a professional marathon runner and, yes, he weighs around 300 pounds. Evans represents a very important type of athlete, one that forces us to question the parameters of athleticism, sport and, most importantly, health.
The dictionary definition of the word athlete is “a person who is proficient in sports and other forms of physical exercise.” There is no mention of the physique, weight or size necessary to participate in athletics, and yet there is an assumption that fitness and health are reserved for a very specific type of body, certainly not larger- bodied people like Evans.
But athletes do come in larger bodies, like Olympian weightlifter Sarah Robles, yogi Jessamyn Stanley, track and field Olympian and world record holder Amanda Bingson, and of course, the queen of tennis, Serena Williams. These athletes are all absolutely remarkable but remarks about them are often about their body size first and their athleticism second.
Why is it that we are so stunned by larger-bodied athletes, and why do we struggle to acknowledge the health and fitness they have achieved?
Let’s start by looking at the systems currently used to determine health. The body mass index (BMI) is something we have all likely experienced and dreaded, the calculation of height and weight, divided by a magical number that then determines your fate as a healthy human. This may sound dramatic, but the BMI is extremely influential. It is the most commonly used measuring system for health and is used in many important institutions.
Many of these measurements result in a celebration and reward for those who are able to reach the lowest BMI. The Body Mass Index is, however, ineffective. It is an antiquated measurement system that was not developed by a medical doctor but by an astronomer and mathematician named Adolphe Quetelet in the early 1800s. He developed it for a system called anthropometry, in an attempt to define the “average man.”
Anthropometry would go on to be used to guide eugenics, a horribly inaccurate and deceptive system of categorization. In the 1970s, the BMI was popularized by controversial American physiologist Ancel Keys, who later became famous for fudging data outcomes in his international nutritional studies and bringing us the low-fat, high-sugar diet of the 1990s. We all know how well that worked out.
Both men admitted the BMI is inappropriate for individual evaluation, and yet this is the exact manner in which it is currently being used. One of the main flaws of the BMI is that it fails to account for individual variations in muscle mass, bone density and overall physical conditioning. According to the BMI, muscular actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson would be categorized as obese.
While it is true that many people in overweight or obese BMI categories have elevated health risks, the same is true for people in smaller bodies. The number of health risks for those in the extremely underweight category are as dire as those in the extremely overweight category, and even those risks are very general.
Without looking at the individual details of one’s activity, nutrition and lifestyle habits, these sweeping classifications cannot determine overall health. We simply don’t have a one-size-fits-all health or fitness model, nor is there an ideal weight, caloric intake or physical movement level that works for everyone.
Health can not be defined by an equation; it is far more nuanced than that. For this reason, people are starting to move away from traditional and categorical measurements and toward a more holistic and individualized health model. We are stepping off of the scale, rejecting the “weight loss at any cost” mentality, and recognizing the importance of individuality in size, shape and fitness.
Health at every size (HAES) is a movement that calls for the de-emphasis of weight-loss as the primary goal toward health and the removal of weight stigma. HAES instead focuses on individual health markers and goals outside of generalized weight classifications.
The five principles of HAES are:
• Weight inclusivity: accept and respect the inherent diversity of body shapes and sizes and reject the idealizing or pathologizing of specific weights.
• Health enhancement: support health policies that improve and equalize access to information and services, and personal practices that improve human wellbeing, including attention to individual physical, economic, social, spiritual, emotional and other needs.
• Respectful care: acknowledge our biases, and work to end weight discrimination, weight stigma and weight bias. Provide information and services from an understanding that socio-economic status, race, gender, sexual orientation, age and other identities impact weight stigma, and support environments that address these inequities.
• Eating for wellbeing: promote flexible, individualized eating, based on hunger, satiety, nutritional needs and pleasure, rather than any externally regulated eating plans focused on weight control.
• Life-enhancing movement: support physical activities that allow people of all sizes, abilities, and interests to engage in enjoyable movement, to the degree that they choose.
The HAES model is seen as a radical movement that has been accused of promoting obesity because it rejects the idolization of certain body types. However, the size of one’s body should not limit their enthusiasm for movement. The reality is, people exist in all shapes and sizes, and everyone deserves to move their body, regardless of their weight, size, or health level.
By rejecting outdated and inaccurate generalized categorizations of health and instead empowering people of all shapes and sizes to enjoy movement, we are redefining athletics and promoting health and movement for every body. We can combat the exclusivity of athleticism by promoting the representation of diverse bodies, therefore welcoming all people into sport, movement and health.
So if you have ever talked yourself out of joining that soccer team or attending a run club because you thought you weren’t fit enough or didn’t have the right body type, think again. Every body can move and as Martinus Evans says, “If you run, you are a runner and have a runner’s body.”