Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Obesity, Self-Worth and Why Annual Health Checks are Great

This photograph was shared in the Facebook group "I Fucking Love Science". I do not know who owns the copyright for the image, but if you do please let me know. The caption it was posted with read: "These two pictures show body scans of two women approximately the same age and height. The one on the left weighs 113 kg (250 lbs), while the one on the right weighs 54 kg (120 lbs). Accumulated adipose tissue is not the only difference between the two; the obese woman has an enlarged heart and her lungs are somewhat restricted."

My employer is required to provide me with an annual health check (this is standard in Japan). I think it’s great, and I wish Australians had something similar. Try going to a GP in Australia and saying you just want a check-up… most will be weirded out and a few will flat out turn you away. The annual check system without a doubt saves live every year with early detection of diseases, especially cancers. It gives a warning in time to do something about future issues; for example, a co-worker is being careful to increase her calcium intake after being warned that her bone density is not good for her age.

For me, the most informative part of the check is comparing each year’s results with the previous year’s and seeing the negative health that has coincided with my weight gain. I’m phrasing that carefully; in my case I have made a few negative lifestyle choices that have resulted in both poor health and weight-gain. The weight-gain is a correlative not causative factor in this case, but given much longer it will undoubtedly begin to cause additional problems in and of itself. The stats are really clear.

When I started this job I was at a healthy weight, my diet was healthy and I exercised more than thirty minutes a day. My blood and urine work was impeccable. Despite being surrounded by thousands of kids and their germs, and having no immunity to local strains of viruses, I only had one sick day in my first year here. Two years and fifteen kilos later, with a dramatic decrease in vigorous exercise, stress through the nose and a diet that revolved around carbs with few fresh vegetables and almost no fruit: cholesterol, higher blood pressure, a boosted white cell count… I even scored lower on the eye sight test. I get colds more often and recover from illnesses slower. My moods are darker and my skin would suit a fourteen-year-old. Now here’s the thing. In Australia, I would never see my weight and my other scores side by side like this. Actually, I wouldn’t be getting annual tests at all. A doctor might venture a vague suggestion about healthy “lifestyle”, but they are understandably wary about “calling a patient fat”.

Health and ‘body image’ have become so separated from each other that I remember reading an interview with one woman who had been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant for years having literally never been told that her obesity was impacting on her fertility. Poor diet is now linked to almost half of all premature deaths in Australia. Children are growing up with dramatically reduced life expectancies because of their diet. Kids are simultaneously obese because they are consuming more calories than they can burn and malnourished because the calories they consume don’t contain the nourishment they need. We don’t talk about the health implications of obesity enough because the second you open your mouth it turns into a body image discussion. Here’s a wonderful post from Pigtail Pals that perfectly sums up a healthy way of treating our bodies and out self-image:
I’m all for loving our bodies, and that’s exactly what a healthful diet and invigorating exercise are: loving and caring for your body. 

If Australia had the same kind of annual check-ups Japan does, I wonder how many people would be inspired to make a change?

Edit: Between drafting and posting this I read a couple of things I wanted to share links to as well.
What these two very different posts made me think about is what I love about my body. For me, loving my body has nothing to do with how it looks and everything to do with what it does. You know how recently the trend in parenting advice is to compliment your child on their actions not their inherent worth? As is, not “you’re a good tidy girl” but “you did a good job of tidying up today” or not “An ‘A’? you’re so smart!” but “An ‘A’? You studied really hard for that test!” I don’t love the way my body looks (or my face for that matter), but it very rarely occurs to me as something to worry about. My body can turn food into energy, that’s amazing! I can hike for hours without getting tired. I can swim and feel the sun on my skin. I can scratch my dog under the chin and kiss my husband and rock the babies at the orphanage to sleep. I love that I can do and experience those things with my body. For most of my life my body has done whatever I asked it to do with relatively little complaint. As I have gained weight and lost fitness, I have begun to experience a gap between what I intend to do and what my body is capable of achieving for me. I will my leg to go down on the bicycle peddle, but somehow I don’t seem to move up the hill at all. That bothers me. Having extra chins? That allows me to make this face. 
That's a lime wedge, not my teeth. Honestly.

Yeah, it’s ugly, but it’s pretty funny! I’d rather get a laugh from the friend I’m sharing a G’n’T with than waste time worrying about whether I have more lines around my eyes today than yesterday.
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  1. Hey Soph,
    I totally agree with the desire for health checks like this. My friend from China has a similar test every year when she goes home to renew her visa. Although she is generally loaded up with all kinds of traditional Chinese remedies, I think the blood work and overall fitness test is very beneficial. I wish America had something like this. I go for my once yearly appointment, and they will do some overall blood work if I ask, but the results aren't discussed very well and you're only left feeling helpless.
    I saw yesterday that less than 5% of Americans get their daily, 25 min, of exercise... I can't say I'm in that group, but I know I have no reason not too. You do feel so much better when you exercise and eat well, but dang it is so hard to get going and to continue!

    1. It is, but I'm sure the new puppy will help get you outdoors!
      For me seeing the year-to-year comparison (they include a series of graphs) has been such a great bit of information and motivator. In Australia I rarely saw the same doctor twice, so something like that would have been impossible.

  2. The only thing I don't like about health checks in Japan is that my boss and other employees are privy to the information. With all the discrimination about Cancer in Japan (google Neil Grainger for a recent example) I like being able to choose what I want to reveal about my health to my boss.
    Julie (openprivate)

    1. Yes, there certainly isn't much privacy and I'm glad my health checks never included anything too intimate.

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