As beach season approaches, many people are scrambling to get in shape. The goal is to minimize body fat and look good in a bathing suit.
There’s nothing wrong with looking good in a bathing suit. But there is something wrong with making it health priority number one.
For starters, expecting the perfect beach bod is often unrealistic. Most of us will never be magazine models. And when we set unrealistic goals for ourselves, we’re bound to be disappointed. We may even develop unhealthy habits along the way.
We’re not to blame, of course. The thrust to “get skinny” for beach season permeates the culture. Images of washboard abs are everywhere. We just want to measure up.
Companies prey on this desire with programs that never deliver what they promise. And even if you do achieve 10% body fat, is it sustainable? Is it even healthy?
We’ll talk more about body fat in a bit. First, let’s explore the psychology of beach body season.
Beach Body Mindset vs. Health Mindset
The beach body mindset (BBM) is all about how you look. If you don’t have a well-defined 8-pack, you’re failing.
This isn’t to say appearances aren’t important. Looking healthy can help you attract a partner, win social points, and make you feel good about yourself.
But looking healthy doesn’t demand an 8-pack. Having unrealistic or extreme cosmetic goals can interfere with more important aspects of health, such as how you feel or how your body functions.
That’s where the health mindset (HM) comes in. Having a health mindset doesn’t discount how you look, but it prioritizes how you feel and function. Notice the differences in language between the two mindsets:
BBM: I need a killer beach body.
HM: I’d like to add a little muscle and lose a little fat.
BBM: If I don’t lose 20 pounds before beach season, everyone will judge me.
HM: Everyone’s too concerned with their own body to worry about mine. I’m not going to pressure myself to look perfect or hit a crazy weight loss goal.
BBM: I just want to look good in a bathing suit.
HM: I care about how I look, but I care more about how I feel and function. If I feel lousy, what’s the point?
BBM: My number one goal is to shed body fat, and I’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen quickly.
HM: I’d like to lose body fat, but I want to do it sustainably. And I want to feel good while it’s happening.
Let’s talk more about body fat now.
Body Fat: Less Isn’t Always Better
Predatory weight loss programs always focus on minimizing body fat. The lower the better.
The only goal is to look super lean in your bathing suit or birthday suit. That’s what society wants, isn’t it?
Maybe not. We should start by admitting that everyone has a different definition of what looks good. Not everyone prefers super skinny, or even somewhat skinny.
We should also admit that we don’t know precisely what a “healthy” body fat percentage looks like. Most sources say that men should fall somewhere between 10-22% and women between 20-32%, but within these ranges, we don’t know what’s optimal for longevity, energy levels, hormonal health, etc.[*]
There’s better data on waist circumference—which is correlated with body fat percentage and body mass index (BMI)—for predicting health outcomes. For instance, one analysis of nearly 15,000 people found waist circumference to be a strong predictor of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and metabolic syndrome, which predisposes a person to develop diabetes and heart disease..[*]
The NIH suggests that waist circumference should be below 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women to minimize these health risks.[*] These are decent targets to shoot for, but they aren’t gospel. They’re based on population averages. Your mileage may vary.
On the other side of the spectrum, very low body fat can also be problematic—especially for women. Women need about 12% body fat to support normal metabolic and hormonal functions, while men need about 3%.[*] This is called “essential fat”. Hovering at or below these limits isn’t a good idea.
Having adequate body fat gives you:
- Extra energy if you want to skip a meal
- Cushion for your butt in a chair
- A substrate to build cell membranes and synthesize hormones
- Support for reproductive health
- Reserves to facilitate nerve impulses in the brain and elsewhere (a process called myelination)
- Insulation to keep you warm
- Padding if you fall
- A healthy look that most people find aesthetically pleasing
- And much more
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a fat loss goal. Losing body fat can level up your health in multiple ways. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to tackle that project.
The Habits of Health
Beach body programs focus on rapid fat loss. It’s easy to sell fast results, even if the results are unsustainable.
It’s harder to sell a program that encourages long-term health. Long-term health isn’t an overnight process. It requires becoming the kind of person who lives a healthy lifestyle.
This means focusing on habits—eating habits, sleeping habits, exercise habits, and stress management habits. If you get your habits handled, your health will handle itself.
Some fundamental health habits include:
- Getting 7-8 hours of sleep every night
- Being active every day
- Eating a whole foods diet low in refined sugar
- Managing stress with meditation, yoga, or exercise
- Maintaining your social connections
Habit change isn’t easy, but it becomes easier when you have a plan. Documenting your plan in a journal — or tracking it in an app like Carb Manager — can help tremendously. For a deep dive on this topic, check out our article on building better habits.
Improving your health habits doesn’t guarantee a “beach body,” but it does increase the likelihood of looking, feeling, and functioning better at the beach. You’ll enjoy the beach more, in other words. Isn’t that the whole point?