Patty Thille: The determination to be thinner and fitter this year will not save you

Did you make a New Year’s resolution this year? In this case, you participate in both a social and a personal ritual. The collectively considered patterns of resolution show what many of us think are virtuous.

You would be in the majority if you chose to work on a “healthy life” in some way. Eating healthier and being more active are two of the most popular resolutions for the new year. What drives this particular version of virtuous life – healthy life as virtue – and not the many alternatives?

Would you be surprised to hear that the root is Protestantism?


The early Protestants believed that the road to salvation was through hard work and self-discipline. Max Weber, one of the early sociologists, argued that this “Protestant ethics” became the core of capitalism.

While Western society has become less religious over time, we continue to value hard work and self-control. We occasionally justify letting go, but resolutions bring us back to this original Protestant core value: self-discipline.

We could discipline ourselves to watch less TV, shop less, reduce the use of disposable plastics, or do more voluntarily. Why do eating and exercise get so much attention?

We are told that fat is rotten and eats sinfully

Chalk that up to the common messages that fat bodies are bad and thin bodies are good. Thinness has long been considered virtuous, an idea that also has its roots in Christianity, where fatness has been associated with laziness (the opposite of hard work) and eating with carnal pleasure and sinfulness.

Pro-thinness and anti-fatness are based on two basic assumptions: All bodies can be thin through self-discipline with food and exercise, and body size simply reflects personality and a commitment to social norms.

Neither are true. We are kept being told that if we eat less and exercise more, we can all be thin, but this assumption is unscientific. In one of the most resilient studies to support long-term changes in lifestyle, only 27 percent of participants were 10 percent lighter over an eight-year period. A 10 percent weight reduction is significant, but does not necessarily mean a slim body.

A current example is the follow-up studies of The Biggest Loser participants. Thirteen out of 14 participants regained body fat. In addition, the dramatic eating and exercise routines featured on the show slowed participants’ metabolism over time!

If you exercise and eat like 30 years ago, you are likely to have a body that is significantly heavier and fatter. So what’s still in the game? The answer to this question is still in progress. Trying to map the various influences on weight gives a much more honest and complex picture that is still incomplete.

Genetics, drug side effects, exposure to pollutants, hormonal changes, stress and poorer sleep patterns are part of the answer.

Stir disgust and shame

Unfortunately, unsanitary and harmful ideas about slenderness and obesity remain through the constant messages of the big institutions. Governments, public health organizations, corporations, and the media regularly reaffirm the message that self-discipline leads to thin bodies, that we are in an obesity crisis, and that it is up to us to remain thin, regardless of the unhealthy pressure on us body is exercised.

Companies sell us unhealthy food and then run campaigns about the importance of moderation. They even campaign for governments to recommend their unhealthy foods to the public.

There are many judgmental and dehumanizing messages about obesity in the media. This applies to both news and entertainment media. Consider the latest offer: Netflixs Insatiable, a show about a girl whose body has to lose a few pounds after her jaw contracts, and then revenge on her rackets. The show is something of a long fat joke.

Governments continue to allow the sale of non-nutritious foods and support public health campaigns that focus on self-discipline. Health promotion campaigns continue to use visual messages that cause disgust, shame and disgust for body fat, although it has been shown that such campaigns are less effective and deepen stigma, which worsens health.

All of these social messages shape our feelings and thoughts about our own body and that of other people.

We feel responsible for the size and shape of our body, despite the many influences on the design of our life and our body. We are encouraged to view our body and health as personal projects and failures unless they match a certain ideal.

New visions of virtuous life

What would it mean to reject such pressure?

For some, this is a rejection of the social norms that create solidarity. People may feel uncomfortable or defensive if others refuse to participate in moral conversations about food, exercise, and body – a conversation that sounds like “I can have this piece of cake because I trained this morning.”

But what if we decided to show social solidarity for the rest of 2019 while strengthening other virtues?

For example, we can choose to be friendlier to each other and to ourselves. We can decide to learn something new in the next three months or to start a new voluntary performance.

Together we can invite other visions of a virtuous life together.

Patty Thille is an assistant professor of physiotherapy at the University of Manitoba. Jen Wrye, an instructor at North Island College, BC, co-authored this article.

This article originally appeared online at, an independent source of science and research news and opinions.

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