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.