TORONTO - Erica Schenk has been a runner for 10 years, but a single snapshot of the curvy athlete may represent her most significant strides yet.
The plus-size model is captured mid-sprint as she covers the August issue of Women's Running. The latest edition is focused on body positivity and highlighting that runners' bodies don't all fit one specific mould.
Both the model and the magazine have made international headlines and earned widespread praise, with editor-in-chief Jessica Sebor calling the reaction "completely unanticipated."
Coupled with the kudos, she said they've also received emotional responses from women with larger bodies who said they hadn't felt accepted as runners, but can now "see themselves" on the cover because Schenk was showcased.
"We're such an image-driven culture," Sebor said from San Diego, Calif. "We assume we know everything about someone by looking at their picture and that's just not true.
"Health is about what you do — not about what you look like."
What's more, the "obsession" about body weight and composition has little to do with actual health, said Dr. Arya Sharma, chair in obesity research and management at the University of Alberta.
"We live in a society where people who happen to carry a few extra pounds are looked down upon and face a lot of bias and discrimination — especially as you come to higher BMIs — and that makes their lives miserable. It's not that they actually have health problems."
While many are quick to use weight as a key measure of fitness, Sharma said there are many misconceptions about what the numbers actually indicate.
"Stepping on a scale is not a measure of health. It can be a measure of risk for health problems," said Sharma.
"We do know some health problems become more common in people as they gain weight. But we've also learned that perfect health is also possible across a wide range of BMIs or body weights."
Determining whether excess weight will be a factor also can be related to genetic predisposition, such as diabetes or other weight-related health problems, he noted.
Sharma also notes on his website that abdominal fat is different than the fat accumulating on the hips or buttocks. Abdominal fat can be a major risk factor for diabetes, high blood pressure and abnormal cholesterol levels, and can lead to heart disease and stroke.
"We also know that health behaviours are much more important than the weight on the scale," said Sharma, founder and scientific director of the Canadian Obesity Network.
"What will determine your health ultimately is going to be your fitness level, the amount of sleep that you get, how you feel about yourself, the quality of your diet.
"You could be doing all of those things right with no impact on your body weight and still be a lot healthier than you are now."
Michelle Pitman is vice-president international for the Association of Size Diversity and Health. The professional organization is committed to the Health At Every Size principles, which support acceptance of people regardless of size or shape.
"Health is more than just body size," said Pitman, wellness coach with Define Me Wellness.
Pitman said if she's seeing a new client who wants to lose weight to be healthier, she seeks to help them reframe what health means to them.
"Think about weight in terms of an outcome as opposed to a behaviour. Things like: 'I want to have improved energy,' 'I want to have a better sex life,' 'I want to complete this 10K race for a sense of personal accomplishment' — and taking weight out of the equation."