by Dr. Randy
There are two sides to our interest in maintaining a healthy body. One side includes the goal of achieving and maintaining good health for as long as we can. This is a path that can potentially prevent much suffering. The second side is our concern with the way we appear, especially as we compare ourselves to other people.
Let’s explore fat as one focus. Being overweight has many negative connotations and health effects. Fat cells stimulate inflammation and thus increase the risk for many chronic diseases, including cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Taking measures to prevent and reduce fat stores in the body will increase the likelihood of persistent good health. Exercise in itself will tend to decrease fat and prevent aging of cells. On the other hand, our culture values strength and good muscle tone, equating being lean with good looks. This can give rise to a hyper-focus on appearing lean and attractive, and negative feelings about anything resembling excess weight. As metabolism slows down with aging, it becomes nearly impossible to maintain this ideal, and much personal suffering ensues.
The concern with appearances is a slippery slope that can lead to obsession with our superficial material form and our fragile egos. Pride and vanity can become weights that pull us down into a continual quest for clearer complexions, more firm and muscular bodies, and a more youthful appearance. Of course this quest is ultimately doomed because we will all age, sicken, and die. Our culture places great value on the youthful qualities of smooth firm skin and hardened, toned bodies, and many industries exist to fulfill and encourage these longings. This pursuit can occupy inordinate amounts of time and distract us from some more worthwhile pursuits. Perhaps we should leave youthful appearance to the young who are busy attracting mates and achieving athletic success. Some would argue that developing a spiritual practice that fosters kindness, self-compassion, and generosity as we age might provide a better use of our time than chasing after good looks. We may want to prolong the appearance of youth, but a more balanced resignation about inevitable aging will lead to greater happiness.
What to do
A middle ground represents a more balanced view. Create good health through a healthy diet and lifelong exercise, but also recognize the natural tendency to age, and eventually to die. A frantic pursuit to stave off the inevitable may give us a little more time, but also waste precious resources on a deluded quest. Happiness will not come from having a lean body, but prolonged good health just might.