Editor’s Note: The following column contains a discussion of eating disorders.
Students at Yale, like the institution itself, tend toward perfectionist attitudes. We are all susceptible to a paradox of wellness, in which our pursuits of health undermine our actual well-being. Treating health like we treat other markers of success can have serious consequences. All-consuming, fear-driven pursuits of health are simply unhealthy.
A few weeks before fall break, signs popped up in my residential college common room and library. Below the title, “Take a Stand,” the sign claimed that “Americans sit an average of six hours per day. Studies show that prolonged sitting may be as bad for health as smoking.” Underneath a graphic of sneakers, the sign claimed, “Alternating between sitting and standing while you work or study can … burn calories and reduce risk for cancer and diabetes.” Many of my peers did not notice these signs. Some agreed with the message. For me, the sign elicited a very real discomfort, and I am willing to bet that I am not alone.
My immediate frustration may have been an emotional response, but my issue with the signs is backed by recent research. The article the signs refer to is an opinion piece written by a doctor at Arizona State who irresponsibly describes the act of sitting as “lethal” and “an addiction.” A 2018 peer-reviewed scientific paper published in the American Journal of Public Health refutes the claims that “sitting is the new smoking” and describes such statements as dangerous.
The paper states, “Given the current state of the evidence, equating sitting with smoking is unwarranted, misleading for the public, and may serve to distort and trivialize the ongoing and serious risks of smoking.”
Generalized and prescriptive health advice is problematic because what is “healthy” for some people can be dangerous for others. Moreover, some physical health advice can be harmful to one’s mental health. Yale students are stressed enough. We do not need to worry about contracting cancer or diabetes because of the hours we spend writing essays and reading textbooks. To give an example of the dangers of “one-size-fits-all” health advice, I will share a bit of my own health history.
I spent the Tuesday night before fall break last year on the cardiac floor of Yale-New Haven hospital. My doctor at Yale Health had detected heart arrhythmias in my EKG that Monday morning. My eating disorder was taking a serious toll on my body. I ended up spending the next three weeks in full time treatment, missing two weeks of classes in October. I was forced to return to class at the beginning of November to avoid a year-long medical leave, at minimum.
I do not regret my decision to return to Yale so soon, but it was extremely difficult to balance my recovery with life at Yale. With the help of a professional treatment team, I spent most of my energy during my first year trying to heal my body and rid my mind of a deep-rooted diet mentality. While some of my peers tried to avoid the so-called “Freshman 15,” I was desperately pursuing it. During that time, the healthiest thing I could do was sit down and drink lots of sugary drinks, but it still felt shameful to reject social “health” norms. I had to push away irrational worries about the “wrongness” of my recovery behavior every day.
I am in a stable recovery now, but I still get very angry when I come across the types of messaging that contributed to my sickness. I have the coping skills to ignore advice to “burn calories” posted on the wall across from my regular seat in the Branford library. I am fortunate to have received the treatment that has allowed me to fact-check our generation’s anxiety over wellness. Over the past year, I have changed my thoughts from “what is healthy?” to “what is healthy for me right now?”
My eating disorder started as a pursuit of perfect health. I wanted to be “good” at eating and exercising. I absorbed the advice I learned in health class, through my family and on the internet with research-like vigor. Unfortunately, I cannot perfect my body the same way I perfect my history papers. The more I scrutinized my behavior and choices, the more my mental and physical health suffered.
To be clear, my reaction to the posters is not just about my own background, but about others who might be experiencing similar challenges. Further, not every victim of the wellness paradox has a diagnosed eating disorder. Anyone who has ever felt guilty for eating “junk food” at night or gaining weight over the holidays has been affected by this pressure. Four years at Yale is not enough to waste time trying to achieve an ideal body, whatever that means to you. Health and shame should not be conflated. Ads on Facebook about the newest diet trend, your friend’s daily gym routine and signs in the library should not make you feel ashamed or “unhealthy.”
I am not saying no one should run on a treadmill or eat salad. I am certainly not saying that we should spend endless hours sitting in front of problem sets every day. If a certain food or exercise feels good for your body, go ahead and enjoy it. Health is different for everyone, and in my experience, the first step towards health is self-compassion. Healthy bodies are not designed to sit down in the library all day, but pseudoscience and fear tactics telling us to get up can muddle our intuitive desires for movement.
Sitting in front of the sign in the Branford library, I have reflected on what it might be like for someone in a wheelchair to be told that sitting for over six hours per day is worse for them than smoking. Or a cancer survivor, seeing the suggestion that they could have prevented their illness by moving more. The Yale population represents an amazing assortment of life experiences, and all of us have different struggles, passions and needs. With such diversity, it is important to remember that you know yourself and your body better than many who claim to be experts. I do not know anyone else’s experience, but for me, trusting my body’s ability to be well has gotten me farther than fearing unwellness.
EMMA KNIGHT is a sophomore in Branford College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .