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The Healthy At Every Size (HAES) movement is a reaction against the current paradigm in the treatment of overweight and obesity. Many wellness experts see excess body weight as essentially a problem in itself for wellbeing, impossible to separate from associated health consequences such as diabetes and heart disease. Therefore, those who are overweight are encouraged to slim down, using a direct short-term focus on weight reduction.
According to those in the HAES movement, when you look at the long-term results of this approach, the benefits rarely last. Moreover, this approach to treatment can often cause you to experience collateral psychological damage, feeling a certain sense of stigma about your body and being more or less set up for failure. As an alternative, HAES aims to nurture healthy habits of activity and eating in overweight and obese people, regardless of how these habits affect body weight.
When you think about skinny people who eat junky diets and do not exercise, you can see the HAES rationale. These people are just as unhealthy as overweight individuals who do the same, and so it may stand to reason that overweight people who eat well and exercise are as healthy as skinny people who do the same. That is not to say that weight loss isn’t an outcome of the HAES approach, but it is still treated as a side effect – not a goal. The explicit HAES objectives are the healthy habits themselves, as well as improvements in chronic disease symptoms and risk factors.
But does the philosophy that underlies HAES apply to endurance athletes? While you can argue that the relationship between body weight and health is controversial, there’s no denying that there’s a relationship between body weight and endurance performance. And yet, ideal racing weights and body fat percentages differ widely between individuals. The top male and female runners maintain a six to 13% body fat level, but that’s surely not possible, at least not healthily, for every runner. Plus ideal racing weight is defined by performance, meaning that, by definition, you’re at your ideal body weight when you achieve the best race you can possibly have. Thus, maybe weight loss in athletic training should be seen as HAES sees it – a likely side effect of a healthy lifestyle, but not the overall goal.