The Devil in His Eye

When a personal trainer looks at you with the devil in his eye, you know you’re in for it – in the best possible way. I met with my new personal trainer, Abe, for the first time Tuesday. When I initially joined a gym years ago – a different gym from where I now work out – I had three complimentary training sessions with Cliff, the owner, to get me started. Cliff launched my fitness journey with a workout routine to meet my needs at that time, including a combination of cardiovascular exercise on cardio machines as well as a full-body weight lifting/conditioning routine using the weight lifting machines. Kudos to Cliff as that workout has taken me far; however, as I am apt to do, I have gotten very comfortable with this routine. My weight loss has tapered off and I have started questioning my workout’s effectiveness. Add to that my boredom with this stagnant plan and I felt it was time to make a change. Enter Abe.

I first spoke to Abe a few weeks ago, inquiring about my gym’s personal training packages. As we talked about my goals I discovered he has lost 113 pounds. I knew in that moment my search was over – this was my guy! He has made this journey and finished it, he knows what it takes to get through the difficult last leg and he knows how to maintain and improve physical fitness beyond weight loss. I took his card home with me that night, excited at my luck in finding the perfect trainer. Of course, I may eat these words later if I find myself hunched over a puke bucket in the back corner of Snap Fitness. Nonetheless, I met again with Abe this week for my pre-training fitness assessment.

The assessment itself ranged from pedestrian to agonizing. I answered dozens of questions about my medical and fitness history, was weighed, had my body parts measured, my blood pressure taken and my body fat percentage assessed. Next up was the Vo2 max stress test – an aerobic capacity test on a stationary bike to determine my rate of oxygen consumption. After pedaling, leisurely in the beginning and furiously right up to the end, my score put me above average for my age and gender and impressed Abe. Evidently no client of his has ever scored higher or pedaled longer than me. The next test was flexibility – did pretty well there. Then, strength, where I bench pressed 85 pounds or just over 46% of my body weight; followed by sit-ups. Oh, the sit-ups! After doing only 13 in 30 seconds, half of which shouldn’t have counted based on my form, I was acutely aware how much my old workout has neglected my core. Now we have established my baseline and can concisely track my progress from here on out.

I have high hopes for my personal training. I will have three half-hour sessions with Abe, during which he will teach me a range of exercises for me to incorporate in exciting and diverse new workouts. I know I need increased intensity, I need muscle confusion and I need complex movements to get the most effective workout from each exercise. I am anxious to work more off the machines, finally incorporating free weights, kettle bells, balance balls and the jump box – all of which are as exciting as they are daunting. More than being physically pushed to my limits, I need to feel challenged and reinvigorated. I need to walk into and, especially, out of that gym each night feeling like a badass. I need not to be handled with kid gloves, but, rather, to learn to find my current limitations and discover how to relentlessly plow through them. The first few years of my gym journey have been rewarding – I have lost over 100 pounds and greatly improved my health. But this next stage dawning is about transforming into the athlete I want to become: lean and muscular, a powerhouse of strength and endurance. I want to pin my own “she squats, bro” glutes photo onto my Pinterest fitness inspiration board.

As Abe was filling out my paperwork and he stopped to let me know I will need a physician’s note allowing me to do training he did so with a mischievous look in his eye. He said, smirking as if this were the moment half his clientele shivered in fear, “this isn’t going to be like what you are doing now – this is going to be intense.” In response, I “saw” his smirk and “raised” him a canary-eating toothy cat grin and replied, “Bring It.”

Attitude Adjustment

During my life as a dieter, I pored over fitness magazines hunting for anything that could help me to lose weight. I clipped diet plans, dog-eared advertisements for pills, supplements and meal replacers, took special note of anything that promised I would “lose five pounds in one week.” Then, in the backs of the magazines, I would find myself riveted by the success story articles – ordinary people just like me who had achieved my deepest hope. All the people in those articles, regardless of age, gender, starting weight or circumstance, had one thing in common. Each and every one attributed their success to lifestyle change. It took me a long time to learn exactly what that phrase meant.

A lifestyle change isn’t merely tweaking daily behaviors – it is modifying the beliefs and values that drive our behaviors. Most of us know, intuitively, the habits associated with a healthy lifestyle. We may try to cut corners, find gimmicks and quick fixes, seeking out the path of least resistance – what will make the greatest possible change with the least possible effort. However, we intrinsically know we need to eat proper portions of healthful, nourishing foods, become physically active and drink lots of water. Once you honestly and objectively assess which changes need to be made, plenty of nutritional and fitness-related information is mere keystrokes away. The key to finally beginning to make successful lifestyle changes for me was in changing the way I felt about foods, fitness and myself. Only then could I change my behavior and lose weight.

Changing one’s views on food is extremely problematic. We live in a food-obsessed culture. Holidays, milestones, weekends, and even moods all seem to require ceremonial or celebratory involvement of food. We reward and console ourselves (and each other) with food. We easily rationalize every bite. We live to eat and it’s killing us or, at the very least, making us miserable. I had to divorce myself from this way of thinking and state of mind. First and foremost, I mentally changed the objective of my diet. No longer is it geared toward satisfying a craving or participating in a social norm. It is to fuel my body as effectively as possible so that I might live life to the fullest, in optimal health and with as few physical limitations as possible. I love the foods I eat, I get excited about them (as anyone unfortunate enough to have to tolerate my steady stream of Facebook food photo uploads can attest), but I do not need them all to be multi-course masterpieces of culinary pyrotechnics. I changed my attitude about food and diet and learned to appreciate not only simpler foods but also a life simplified by the knocking down of food off its pedestal. I now view healthy foods and small, frequent meals as a joy and a delight, not as deprivation, punishment or suffering.

My ideas about exercise had to be overhauled as well. In the past, the first week at a new gym was invigorating but it soon became a tedious and felt like my penance for becoming fat. I loathed it and would start mentally searching for an excuse to skip it. Workouts, if done right, are physically exhausting, they can leave your muscles spent and sore. Workouts ate up an hour or more a day of time I would have preferred to spend on the couch watching Jeopardy reruns. It was expensive and inconvenient. Flip the attitude switch! Workouts may leave me physically depleted, but they also leave me mentally charged with a brain full of swirly happiness-inducing endorphins. I find the feeling of fatigued muscles delicious and savor the feeling of sweat dripping from the tip of my nose onto the treadmill speeding by beneath me. The gym is my time, uninterrupted by emails, social media and outside thoughts. Each time I go, I challenge myself to push my body to its limits. Why? Because, time and again, it shows me I have no limits. And it doesn’t end with the gym. I enjoy unwinding after a long day at work with a stroll through the neighborhood or a meandering bike ride – no longer settling into my divot on the couch. I do yoga, run in charity races and dance in Mardi Gras parades. I am planning some hiking in the autumn. I see people in the park playing softball and badminton and think to myself, “I want to do that!” None of this would have been possible had I not reevaluated my feelings about physical activity and turned them on their head.

The biggest change of all, and perhaps the one responsible for my ability to look at food and exercise in a new light, is the change I have made in how I feel about myself. Just as it may be difficult to do something nice for someone you don’t care for, it is difficult to make any serious endeavors to improve your health if you don’t love yourself. Most of my life, I have pursued people, relationships, habits and scenarios which could reinforce, in my mind, my feelings of worthlessness. As much as I protested, declaring my desire to lose weight, I felt unlovable and undeserving and would, ultimately, sabotage my efforts. A number of factors helped me to turn this around including therapy, an amazing support system of encouraging and loving people, and my own success. Now, I can see my body is not my enemy – it is not my jailer, not my penance – it is the greatest gift I have and will ever receive in this life. Despite my treatment of it, my body has forgiven my every abuse and responded brilliantly and gratefully to the changes I have made. My spirit, once dour, stifled by my self-loathing, has been restored to the childlike, independent, mischievous and life-embracing one of my youth. My eagerness to try new things, my utter lack of concern regarding what others may think of me has returned as if it never left. This is the body, this is the essence of myself I love freely and care for above all else.

As my body carries me through life, I want more and more each day for that life to be long and unmarred by chronic disease or disability. When I place that kind of value on my physical and emotional well-being, changing my attitude and incorporating consistently healthy changes to my lifestyle, is the easiest thing I do in a day. Yet, I am still fallible. I will still enjoy cake on my birthday, I may still have days I don’t want to workout, and I will always have days when the old self-doubts creep back in. I’m human. It isn’t perfection I seek in making lifestyle changes, either to my routine or to my attitude, but progress. Every day I make decisions about what I value most, what I will strive to achieve or maintain. I feel that is, truly, the best any of us can do.

Fringe Benefits

I love fresh flowers – the scent, the beauty, the happiness I feel when I walk into a room and see them. They have always seemed reserved for women in relationships, flowers appearing at the office on holidays, birthdays and anniversaries. As a perpetually single gal, the only time I had received flowers was when my mom sent them. One day, while pushing my cart through Whole Foods, I was passing the floral department and stopped, literally, to smell the flowers. Then it occurred to me… why not? I’d had a great week the week before – lost a few pounds, eaten healthy and hit the gym right on schedule – why shouldn’t I get some flowers? Thus began a new tradition.

I certainly didn’t come up with the concept of rewarding myself for my success; however, I am a big supporter of the idea. Some would argue that weight loss, increased fitness, improved health are all their own rewards and those people would be right. Personally, I feel adding more tangible “lagniappe” takes nothing away from one’s achievements. If your child studies all week and aces a difficult algebra test, you could argue that excelling in mathematics is its own reward when it serves them later in life. Or, you could reward your child with additional praise and perhaps a treat. Which is more likely to encourage your child when it comes time for the next test? We are all just big children at heart and the actual still feels more real than the abstract notion of future wellbeing. I work very hard to keep on track, avoid temptation and put myself first – I certainly deserve to treat myself with love and encouragement, to celebrate my victories. And so, I buy myself flowers.

The specific milestones and efforts you choose to reward are totally up to you. I reward myself for two types of accomplishments. First is simply small, inexpensive somethin’-somethin’ that brings me joy at the end of a good week of hard work and dedication. This is when I would buy affordable grocery store flowers or, another favorite of mine, Lush brand bubble bars to add to my weekly recovery Epsom soak. Manicures, pedicures and spa days are great little indulgences to make you feel special after doing so many great things for your body. Maybe downloading new music to power your workouts is the best treat for you. Perhaps taking yourself out to the movies (but skip the snack bar!) is just what you need to honor your achievement. The one thing I never recommend is rewarding yourself with food. Cupcakes are delicious but most likely counter-productive to achieving goals. Furthermore, a huge part of having success in a healthy lifestyle change is divorcing oneself from food motivation thought patterns.

My second reward comes after achieving a bigger pre-set goal. I love setting short term, challenging but achievable goals along the path to my ultimate goal – examples of my short term goals have been training for a 10k, fitting into a too-small blouse and meeting a certain weight goal by a certain event or date. For meeting these bigger goals, the rewards are a bit bigger as well, but they are also geared towards further encouraging my new lifestyle. This is when I treat myself to new workout clothes, a great new vegan cookbook or training equipment. My most recent goal and reward was fulfilling the promise I made to myself that when I reached my lowest adult weight I would treat myself to personal training sessions and reinvigorate and revive my workout routine.

For some reason, we seem to live in a world that wants our successes to go unnoticed. So afraid of appearing immodest or being accused of flaunting our triumphs, we let them pass quietly and obscurely. We treat the truly remarkable as unremarkable and pedestrian. We think we should just be happy with doing well and not seek to celebrate that. We don’t “toot our own horn.” Personally, I think that is absurd. By all means, celebrate! We are amazing people, doing amazing things – we are doing things we probably thought unimaginable at one point in our lives. Enjoy the process, by all means, but feel free to honor your progress with experiences and tokens that bring you joy and remind you of just how awesome you are and how far you have come.

Run for Your Life

Running is often used as a metaphor for life. It is a metaphor for struggling to overcome obstacles, for digging deep and achieving goals, for perseverance through pain, going the distance. In so many ways, running is far more profound than just putting one foot in front of the other. For every runner, there is a runner’s story and this is mine.

Running was always something I simply could not do. At my heaviest, I could barely walk the length of the shopping mall without swollen ankles and sore feet. Over time, running became the symbol of all the things I “couldn’t” and would never do because of my weight – it represented all my limitations, perceived and actual. The only time running ever entered into my vocabulary was when I would make some insulting fat joke at my own expense: “I only run when chasing the ice cream man.” I would solve world hunger, climb Mt. Everest, find Jimmy Hoffa’s body before I would be able to run. Large, lumbering with a waddling gate, I would have been embarrassed for anyone to see me even try. Yet, as I started to lose weight, I started to feel a tiny flicker — an inkling.

Sitting on my front lawn each year, cocktail and sugary pastry in hand and mired in my unhealthy lifestyle, I watched everyone from elite Kenyan runners to costumed walkers towing ice coolers in red wagons participate in New Orleans’ Crescent City Classic 10k and, in 2009, I thought “someday, I’d like to do that.” So I tried running a few times at a local park, each attempt ending in less than 500 yards and always with me hunched forward, hands on knees, chest heaving, breathing through my mouth, stomach threatening to dislodge my breakfast smoothie into the bushes, discouraged and, again, convinced I couldn’t run. But something in me wouldn’t give up. On an early morning in July 2010, after losing about 55 pounds, I decided to try again. Nervous and jittery, I walked to the park. At the head of the trail, I took a deep breath, put my head down and started running – nice easy pace, watching my own shadow and counting my steps per inhale/per exhale until I zoned out. After a while, I finally looked up from the path and spotted my starting point directly across the lake. I had run halfway around – much father than ever before. Even more amazing, I felt great. I had plenty of gas in the tank to keep going so, I put my head back down and did just that. That Saturday I ran all the way around Big Lake at City Park – three-quarters of a mile. It wasn’t a long run, it certainly wasn’t a fast run; however, when I finished that loop I broke down in tears. Everything had changed. Everything. What was once impossible was suddenly possible and so was everything else. In that moment the switch flipped and running became the symbol of the fact that I could do anything I set my mind to.

I have been running regularly since that day, amassing a collection of t-shirts, medals and personal records. In April 2011 I did what I said I’d do and ran/walked in the Crescent City Classic. In fact, I have participated in that race every year since, setting a huge personal record this past April by running the entire thing. Sure, running is hard and most people think I’m a little crazy – especially when I skip driving and show up to events decked out in running shoes and a few layers of sweat. I freely call myself a runner, despite the fact that some enthusiasts (snobs) would call someone moving at my pace a jogger. I spend more money on running shoes than any other pair of shoes in my closet. I pin inspirational running quotes to my Pinterest board. I keep an extensive calendar of local charity runs on my computer. I get positively giddy at the Crescent City Classic Health & Fitness Expo, shopping for no-slip headbands and Thorlos running socks with my people. I have great runs that make me want to run again tomorrow and the day after. I have difficult runs that leave me wanting to set my running shoes on fire. I have finished races in tears of joy as well as tears of disappointment. All that, I believe, is to be expected – these are the challenges of running and these are the ways running truly is a metaphor for life. Regardless of those ups and downs, I owe the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other for blowing the doors open to possibilities. Running, and all the things I believed were out of reach for me, became reachable in just three-quarters of a mile, just 15 minutes. Which begs the question… which 15 minutes will change your life?

About to cross the finish line of the 2014 Crescent City Classic!
About to cross the finish line of the 2014 Crescent City Classic!