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The best way to get healthy is to make it about more than your looks

It’s that time of year when everyone – from magazines, to influencers, to your mates – is starting to "get ready for summer". Very soon, we will be flooded with exercise and diet programs designed to get you in shape for the season, provide a perfect bikini body, or make you look your "best ever".

There’s nothing new about this at all. For years, diet and exercise programs have all been sold to us as a way to look our very best, fit into an outfit of our choosing, and boost our appearance. Our health is but a secondary consideration in the pursuit of what is, essentially, a very narrow ideal of beauty. It’s not the reason we get active, it’s a side effect.

Our obsession with looking healthy is making us sick.Credit:Stocksy

Does it actually matter why you live a healthy lifestyle? Who cares if you’re dieting to fit into your favourite jeans? For years, we have equated beauty and looking healthy with actually being healthy, meaning that health equals beauty. Health is chiselled abs and slender thighs. Given that 70 per cent of the world’s population will die of a non-communicable disease, you could argue that it doesn’t matter how we improve our health.

The dark underbelly with our quest for appearing healthy is that, sometimes, this pursuit is actually making us sicker, poorer and pretty unhealthy. It is imperative that we detach this perception that healthy is a look or a trend to pursue and instead focus on what true health actually is.

Despite many of us wanting to be healthier, being motivated by looks has been shown to be a fragile motivator.

Being motivated by appearance to diet and exercise has significant drawbacks including development of poor body image and dangerous dieting practices (including in men where promotion of muscular body types may even result in drug use). We aspire to look as healthy as the pictures convey.

The other major issue with appearance motivators is they lack staying power: we are more likely to keep up an exercise program for example if we are motivated by internal motivators such as mastering a skill, socialising or genuinely acting for our physical and mental wellbeing.

Social media is especially good at planting the seeds that health equals looking a certain way.

Image-heavy platforms such as Instagtam are wholly reliant on outside appearance; no matter what the caption holds below the photo, all we see is the picture. Transformation posts are standard fare for social media influencers, with "before and after" shots showing the effects of a dedicated lifestyle change.

The rise in social media as a vehicle for appearance motivators has been attributed to a number of health problems including orthorexia, a condition where people's obsession with a healthy lifestyle limits how they live their life.

Pictures are a glimpse and the promises are flimsy. There is the posed and edited nature of pictures, sure. But, beyond that, these pictures don’t take into account the fact that health cannot be determined by your appearance.

Even people with a "normal" body weight can still develop so-called lifestyle diseases, such as diabetes. There are biopsychosocial determinants of health which no number of butt-targeting moves can fully undo.

Your appearance may have very little to do you with your health, but pursuing it can be your health’s undoing.

What actually is the way forward out of our beauty-obsessed haze? It is challenging to undo a lifetime of messages that have permeated every aspect of our lives. It’s a challenge in the face of a society that is image obsessed and favours a very narrow ideal of what constitutes beauty and health.

For me, though, I think it begins with us all learning and examining what health means to us. If you really explore that, you'll discover health probably doesn’t have that much to do with the size of your waist.

If we can all start looking for things that motivate us to be healthy that have nothing to do with appearance, learn to look critically at the multitudes of programs selling us beauty, and find a way for our society to empower us to make healthy choices, it will lead us closer to true health than the pursuit of a summer body ever can.

Dr Nikki Stamp is the author of Pretty Unhealthy: Why our obsession with looking healthy is making us sick (Murdoch Books, $32.99)

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