How To Overcome Metrics-Obsession and Be Healthy Without Shame
Coach and writer Amy Clover helps clients focus on healthy behaviors and sees health in terms of quality of life rather than metrics
Amy Clover (@stronginsideout) is a writer, coach, teacher and the force behind Strong Inside Out. After struggling with depression, anxiety, suicidality and eating disorders, Amy found movement practice effected in turning her life around, and eventually became a personal trainer to share her love of movement with others.
Fitness, for a long time, was a double-edged sword for her — after she got into it, she developed an exercise addiction, and her obsession with “eating clean” fueled her OCD. She’s struggled with clinical depression, eating disorders and body dysmorphia.
Nowadays, Amy has gotten a handle on things and learned to live a balanced life — one in which she exercises and watches what she eats in moderation and allows herself to feel good about it. She no longer feels the need to be perfect or compare herself to others.
In this interview, Amy tells her story and shares some advice for overcoming orthorexia, health shame, and the obsession with metrics-based fitness.
What made you start Strong Inside Out?
I started Strong Inside Out (SIO) as a plain old fitness blog. In 2011, I was looking for a way to take my personal training business into the interwebs when I met Steve Kamb from Nerd Fitness, who encouraged me to start SIO.
After I got up the courage to share my story, it became the blend of mental and physical health that it is today. I shared about my lifelong struggle with depression and suicidality, and how movement helped me manage them and turn my life around.
The response was eye-opening. So many people came out of the woodwork to tell me how they related to it and how much they appreciated someone talking about it in such a public forum. From then on, I knew that I wanted to give this dark, stigmatized corner a voice.
John: I still think it should be called Strong Inside And Out, because Strong Inside Out makes me envision her as a hulking monster with her internal organs on the outside of her skin, like the Irish folk hero Cú Chulainn. Anyway, there’s your history lesson for the day.
What kinds of people do you work with, and what are the main problems they deal with?
I work with people who have realized that diet and extreme fitness culture no longer serve them, and who want to get find what healthy means for them (because I believe “healthy” isn’t a singular mold for all of us to contort ourselves into).
A lot of people who come my way are either burnt out, recovering from eating disorders or exercise addiction, paralyzed by being overwhelmed, or just plain confused by all the fitness and diet rhetoric out there. I help people cut through the shaming, judgy BS to build individual health no matter what their body shape, fitness level or amount of knowledge.
You oppose the use of metrics to measure health. How do you gauge how healthy you are?
This is such a great question because it brings up a common misconception about what I believe. Yes, I stand for a version of health that isn’t metric-based — but metrics in and of themselves aren’t “bad.” What causes many people trouble is the fixation on metrics as the determiner of their worthiness. Metrics do have a place in health as a guide, but they’re not the end-all, be-all, nor do they make anyone good or bad.
It’s also important to note that many of the metrics that we use to gauge health are flawed. BMI, for example, doesn’t take into account muscle mass or bone density. Many heavy lifter’s BMI’s read as overweight or even obese, but their health is in tip-top shape!
To answer the latter part of this question, I measure health in a few ways. When I work toward health with a client, I aim for the following:
- The body functioning as they wish for it to function.
- The mind functioning as they wish for it to function (including mindset).
- Long-term health is kept in mind (which is where the balance of metrics without judgment or obsession comes in).
I also don’t assume what level or kind of health a client wants. In the past, I would push every single client to be a master of all things health because that’s what I believed health meant. Many of us in the health and fitness industry assume that every single person wants to be a fitness machine or super-clean eater.
It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing in order to be healthy. What I’ve found in my coaching practice is that underneath all the “shoulds” lives everyone’s personal preference as to their level of health. As a coach, it’s my duty to get to that, not to force my beliefs of what they “should” do on them.
Many people have trouble eating just for fun without either overdoing it or feeling bad about themselves. How can someone learn to eat for fun, in moderation, and be okay with it?
I wrote a whole article devoted to this very thing! It’s my belief that eating for fun is part of a healthy relationship with food.
The essential answer to this question is: it takes time and practice. The first step is to recognize that eating for fun isn’t unhealthy or bad; it’s a natural thing that healthy people do without shame or judgment. It doesn’t mean anything about you.
The next step is to either build boundaries around what amount of food you’re comfortable eating or to practice eating for fun consciously depending on whether you’re a restrictor or overeater by nature. You can read all the details in my article here.
What can people who feel guilt or shame over their health habits do to improve their “self-talk?”
So many things! One of my favorites is to start taking notes of your judgments. Every time a thought comes up that makes you feel less-than or bad, write it down. Then, journal through these questions for each thought:
- How does this feel to think this?
- Does this thought serve me?
- Does judgment, shame or harsh criticism make me feel good?
- Am I expecting too much from myself? Would I expect someone I love to live up to these expectations?
- What’s a gentler way to approach this?
- Can I center this thought back into why I want to get healthy in the first place?
Getting clear on how exactly your negative self-talk serves or doesn’t serve you is the first step in changing it for good.
You talk about doing things because you want to do them rather than because you’re supposed to — but what if what you truly want to do just isn’t healthy for you? Do you have any methods for consciously changing what you want?
Another great question. There’s a balance to be found with all things. It doesn’t need to be all or nothing. Say you really like fast food, for instance, and that’s all you want to eat. In my program, Strong Inside Out Health Essentials, I teach people how to balance what they want in the now with how they want to feel and what they want in the long run.
The fact that you want to change why you eat tells me that there’s a desire rooted inside you to feel differently than you currently feel, so in truth, you actually don’t just want to do what isn’t healthy for you. You want to change why you’re eating this way for a reason. Getting in touch with that desire and making it super clear is the answer to consciously changing your eating habits.
You suggest taking a rest day if you feel tired — how do you distinguish between feeling tired for physical vs. psychological reasons? Or do you not think it’s important to do so?
This is another thing I teach in Health Essentials! To answer your first question, distinguishing between feeling tired for physical vs psychological reasons can be tricky because both manifest in similar ways.
You can be tired from overtraining and feel brain fog, just like when you’re psychologically exhausted. And on the flip side, you can be psychologically tired and experience physical exhaustion just like you would if you were physically tired.
While they both show up in similar ways, it’s important to note what kind of tired you’re experiencing so that you can give yourself a break on whatever’s making you tired. You can’t recover from something if you keep doing it over and over again.
If a client came to me to find out what was making her so tired, I would first ask her what led her to feel this way. Was it a workout, job stress, or something else? Usually, this will identify the culprit, but if it doesn’t, some free writing journaling could help get to the bottom of it. You can read about how to do it in this post.
The sorts of problems you help people with seem to be far more common among women than among men. Why do you think that is?
I think there’s such a strong emphasis on the importance of female beauty and thinness in our culture that it’s hard to escape it as a woman. We’ve grown up with TV, movies, magazines and the like showing us who happy, successful, worthy women are, and until recently, the majority of them had one particular look that, suffice it to say, didn’t represent most of us. It’s impossible for us as children not to integrate those images — we’ve been inundated with them from such a young age.
There’s also something to be said about the way we’ve been raised as women. I and many other women I know were raised as people-pleasers. People pleasers will do anything to keep the people around them happy, including fitting their bodies into a mold that isn’t realistic for most of us. I could go on and on about this, but I think there are a bunch of other people across the interwebs who are doing a much better job at highlighting this than I can in this interview!
If someone comes to you who is eating and sleeping poorly, not exercising, anxious, depressed, and completely overwhelmed, and clearly doesn’t have the bandwidth to tackle everything at once, what do you have them start with?
If someone is dealing with being overwhelmed, I have them start with one small thing. A mistake I used to make (and one that many coaches make) was that I used to give people so much at once that they’d start at a sprint, only to crash and burn hard into a steaming pile of shame and guilt. That crash often leads to giving up.
Starting with one small thing builds confidence so that the next action step can be a little bigger without overwhelming the person. In my experience, gradual change is actually the most effective and long-lasting.
All of your “fun eating” examples seem to be things like cookies, cupcakes, and donuts. Do you see a place for changing your taste in food, such that you genuinely lose the desire for sweets — and something a bit healthier like pizza or burgers becomes your “fun” food?
Hahaha! That’s my sweet tooth for you. I’ve never read or heard anything reliable on changing the desire for sweets, but it’s probably possible. My stance is just WHY?
The point is not to get rid of the foods you love, or to label foods as “good” or “bad,” but to integrate the foods you like into your life in a way that makes sense for your health. I write all about the danger of placing moral value on food and other elements of health in this post if you want to learn more about my point of view on this.
What sort of metrics do you find useful for clients who can use them without getting obsessed? For instance, do you look at body fat percentage, resting heart rate, inflammatory markers, frequency of sick days, sleep time, or anything like that?
Most of the clients that come my way have a not-so-great history when it comes to body-focused metrics, so I usually don’t have them focus on those. If a client wants to lose weight for their health, I instead have them focus on behavioral change. Focusing on the outcome tends to overwhelm or breed obsession in the clients I serve.
The metrics I usually have clients focus on have to do with behavioral goals, not outcome goals. As an example, I have many of my clients do journaling as a tool to reframe their mindset. We’ll aim to journal X days a week for Y minutes each day.
I also keep in mind the metrics that I’m given by clients that have come from their doctors or naturopaths. As those change, they can be a sign of progress or regression depending on the situation, and I use that to inform the direction of my coaching with them.
I’ve mostly seen you talk about the effect of mental health on physical health, but I know that goes both ways. What effects do your clients typically see on their mental health when they take better care of their bodies?
You’re right; it definitely goes both ways. Taking care of one’s physical health always affects mental health as well. It’s not always a “cure,” but it has an effect.
For instance, clients with anxiety almost always feel relief from the workouts that make them feel good during and after. Clients with depression can exacerbate or relieve their symptoms with the food they choose to eat on a regular basis.
On the flip side of that, the mindset they have around what it means to eat or work out in such a way could trigger depression or anxiety—so it’s important that I keep both physical and mental health in mind when I create their programs.
There’s a widespread belief that people should get healthy for themselves and not for anyone else. Do you think this is necessarily true, or do you think there’s a place for, say, getting healthy for the sake of one’s family?
I believe that health is a highly personal thing and that the root goals one has to get healthy depend entirely on them. When it comes to why a person wants to get healthy, I believe that it should be up to each person.
There definitely are some people (especially those who struggle with depression) who feel that getting healthy for someone else is actually a more powerful goal than getting healthy for themselves. Just because it starts that way doesn’t mean it will always be that way.
When I was really struggling with depression, I focused on my recovery not for myself but for my family. I wanted to get better for them because I didn’t care as much about myself as I did about them.
Since then, I’ve grown to value myself through the very work I did in my recovery. Our goals evolve and shift just like we do. I don’t think it needs to be black and white — much like anything else in health.
Amy’s foundational program, Strong Inside Out Health Essentials, is open for enrollment now! Tear down extreme, shaming belief systems about what it takes to be healthy, and learn how to build True Health without judgments or scales in this 6-week online program. To sign up and learn more, click here!