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Being obese is a risk factor for bad health outcomes, but it’s far too simple a story. Anyone, whatever their size, can improve their health with exercise. Exercising won’t necessarily cause weight loss, but anyone can improve their heart function, blood sugar, sleep quality, and bone density. Exercise even improves cognition and mood.

So why don’t we get that message? Partly it’s because exercise is oversold as a way to “control weight” — even in presentations that discuss its other benefits. If you are gaining weight, exercise can help you stop gaining — while making you healthier — but that message is also often downplayed in favor of claims of losses.

It’s no surprise — weight loss is a perennial favorite on lists of New Year’s resolutions, and an immense industry has grown up focusing on this very specific goal: simply making the number on the scale go down. Cleanses, wraps, any number of water-dumping tricks — countless fads spring up to exploit this wish, even though any losses are almost guaranteed to be followed by regaining the weight, and then some. The focus is so intense that people may not even be able to hear the message that “exercise improves health, no matter your size” without accusing the speaker of “promoting obesity.” That’s harmful nonsense — people’s insistence on shaming others over their weight makes things worse.

Anxiety about size and weight is common, even among people who look “the way they are supposed to,” and it kicks in early. In addition to causing needless suffering, it holds people back from getting even modest exercise by making them self-conscious. “In good enough shape to go to the gym” (most in sentences about how the speaker is not, and always as if the idea somehow makes sense) has over 8000 results on Google — even though actually going to the gym anyway is the best way to get there.

Life is too short to be afraid of your bathroom scale, and if you’re sedentary, it’s even shorter. Don’t put off living better — start now by moving more, sleeping better, and easing thoughtful nutrition changes into your life. Here are some suggestions if you are starting from scratch.

Mary The Trieu stretching before a workout. Photo by Annabel Clark for The Wall Street Journal

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