(A long read, of course! 🙂 )
“Your body reflects what you do habitually.” I’d add, “Your life is the same.”
Choices. Habits. Focus.
Stupid buzzwords that also are true. There’s no magic formula for most of it. It’s just consistency and using our intelligence and creativity to let our bodies do what they are supposed to. It also requires silencing that negative voice in your head. You are not your past or your past choices, even though that’s precisely what most of us think when we’re alone with our thoughts. Life would be staggeringly bad if we believed that we were incapable of striking out on a new path. I look at my hands each day and find it impossible to think that I bit my fingernails for 50+ years. It’s stupid. I look back at my pictures, and even during years when I was appreciative of life, I can’t help but wonder how much more life I could have experienced if I’d woken up sooner. I can’t recapture those years, but I can tuck them away as a constant reminder.
I’m a few days away from my original year-long health/weight plan. My brother died on October 5th of last year. Following that, I had the morning where I thought I had covid and felt like I would die. It seems like five years ago. But I still feel the gong of that day in my head when I remember ‘seeing’ my new self. Over the last several months, I’ve worked on reading, watching, and absorbing as much science-based material that I could about health, weight maintenance, and exercise. For me, it is painfully obvious why most people fail in their efforts.
I know people read some of my thoughts and wonder why I feel like I can give advice. All of us have our moments and experience. I know what I learned and what worked for me. Almost everything can be boiled down to wanting to change and then experimenting with what I thought I knew versus what works. I can’t help but be a little evangelical about it because not a day passes when someone doesn’t express a desire to get control of this aspect of their lives. I’m insistent on telling them that they can, even if they do so, without disrupting their days with crazy programs and “musts” that don’t hold up to science. Major change can be achieved incrementally, one little choice and habit at a time.
I started on June 1st with pushups. Within weeks, I was doing hundreds a day, culminating in me doing 1,500 some days. That makes me laugh. A week before my emergency surgery, I decided to limit myself to 500 a day for maintenance and modify my diet to add protein and more calories, in part to shift to more muscle-building. How ironic that I’d made the shift just three days before my surgery on Monday, September 13th. It is unfathomable to me that it’s been only three weeks. For anyone who doesn’t know, my surgery didn’t result from overexertion. I had a tiny bit of scar tissue that caused my intestinal loop to get lodged in the void created by the scar tissue and cut off. The only way I could have ‘caught’ it would have been to have a colonoscopy very recently; even then, surgery would have been required.
The surgeons look out the small loop. Pain saved my life, even though I will never forget rolling around on the cement floor of the ER for hours. Being thin made my recovery incredibly faster. Since then, I’ve followed the advice of surgeons and nutritionists. I’ve used dumbbells relentlessly so that my transition back to work will be less eventful. What happened to me could happen again – or to anyone. I’m thankful it wasn’t a tumor, a heart attack, or an aneurysm. After I woke up alive, I found out that my initial CT Scan had a mass that looked indistinguishable from a tumor. The surgeons thought it was going to be a complicated surgery. They were surprised to find it was straightforward. Life’s lottery gave me a pass for another day.
In a nutshell, here’s the gist: the simplest way to stay thinner is to control what you put in your mouth. (Sounds obvious, doesn’t it?) Beyond that, move around, preferably with activity. But while you’re at it, get rid of the idea that you have to artificially block off time or engage in rigorous (and likely boring) traditional exercise. Walk your dog, cat, or opossum, vacuum, play frisbee, walk across long parking lots instead of hovering by the door. Be creative.
Anywhere from 75-90% of every calorie you burn is from just living. You burn 10-20% of your calories exercising at most, and that’s pushing it. Yet, most people jump into health kicks thinking exercise is the critical component. It’s not. Controlling your diet and maximizing your ability to consume and burn calories when you’re not moving is key to any long-term weight maintenance routine. Since most of your calories are burned from everyday living, the biggest bang for your time is derived by taking the effort to control what goes into your mouth. The second biggest results from moving, no matter how you choose to do so.
Exercise is essential for a lot of reasons. But you’re going to have to get over the mindset that it’s the single solution to weight maintenance. You’ll note that most healthy people incorporate activity into their everyday lives. It does not need to include weight-lifting, running, or other dedicated activities. If you enjoy those things, knock yourself out! If you don’t, find something that works for you – things that don’t cost you a fortune, injure you, or make you resent activity. We have so many options to entertain ourselves.
Most people don’t stick to unnatural attempts to exercise. Much of the gym universe is predicated on taking financial advantage of people’s inability to stick to life changes that become habits. All that time you spend driving to and from the gym would be much better served walking or finding ways to stay active during your day. (IF you’re not going to stick to it long-term, I mean) And if you do enjoy the gym, by all means, go! If you find that the routine of the gym galvanizes you into continuing with exercise, don’t think I’m saying it’s a waste. It’s not. Any routine that works for you is worth the effort, no matter what it is. If you’re willing to learn new comfort zones, you’ll more likely stick to what works for you. Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing.
And if you don’t, find inexpensive equipment to achieve the same result at home. Most of us are not athletes. Feel free to run if you want to. But a 180-lb person burns about 170 calories running a 10-minute mile. You burn roughly 100 calories walking a mile. This isn’t a cardio-versus-exercise post. The point is that if you commit to a sustainable diet and activity, you’ll be more likely to be successful. Sheer bouts of willpower don’t work very well. And they contribute to that creeping feeling of failure or disappointment when you fall off the wagon.
Quit fighting the science that tells us that slower-paced exercise yields almost the same benefit as intense bouts of bone-wearying exertion. If you do activity or exercise that builds muscle, you’re going to burn more calories when you do give in and sit on the couch. You don’t have to spend an hour at a time to get healthy. However, you have to commit to making habits that make staying fit and healthy an inevitable consequence. Taking six ten-minute walks yields almost the same health benefit as an hour-long walk.
If you do build muscle mass, you’ll burn a lot more calories than by simply losing weight. It’s one of the reasons you need to keep in mind that muscle will increase your weight and keep you healthier and adjust your metabolism. And you’ll look better and feel better. I’m not anti-weights at all. I’m anti-starting-what-you-can’t-always-continue-to-do. Every activity you choose pushes other alternatives out. If you’ve got the time and stamina for weight training, that’s great! I don’t want you blaming your perceived ‘failure’ for not going to the gym. You don’t need a gym if you have the motivation to do things differently.
Recently, someone I know was lamenting that she hadn’t “went to exercise the entire week.” I asked, “But if you’re at home on the couch, you can do 1,000 exercises. Pushups, dumbbells, walk in place, run in place, etc. If you can watch four hours of tv, you can definitely do 30-60 minutes of activity – and still watch tv while you do it.” She looked at me blankly, knowing I’d eviscerated her excuse. “Yes, but a couple of those evenings I was at sporting events or with a friend.” I paused. “Okay, but you can still do a lot of activity when you’re at a sporting event or a friend’s house. Or, heaven forbid, while you’re working. Instead of getting out your phone, do sets of exercises. How is that any ruder than ignoring your friend while you’re on the phone? You can still talk to your friend even if you’re on the floor doing pushups. You have to normalize your choices and stop normalizing your excuses.” My sermon was over.
Use incrementalism to achieve the same objective without devoting your precious time to artificially forcing yourself to exercise. If you can’t do it the rest of your life, you’re making it worse for your future self.
Pick something you know you don’t need. Doritos, for example. Eat less of them. Just that tiny step will, over time, reduce your weight and improve your health. Keep adding small changes by choosing differently. If you’re not hungry, stay out of the kitchen. If you can, don’t bring home things that you know you can’t resist. Use them as treats rather than staples. In our world, there are so many options we can choose from instead of empty calories. You’re not going to get where you want to be by doing the same things; change is mandatory.
It’s day one for you, rather than “one day.”
Keep moving. Eat less.
Find ways to make food both enjoyable and rational. If you don’t choose to do this, your hard choices are already made for you – and the person you’ll be next year will have to deal with your current inability to focus.
Food is not going to stop being delicious. Food manufacturers are beyond incredible at what they do. They design foods that make you want to eat more. Don’t feel wrong about being normal and loving such foods. Feel bad that you know it and won’t choose a different way to react.
So what if you binge on terrible foods? It’s more about the arc of your effort than a single day. Eat a large pizza or a pan of lasagna. A single day’s extravagance will not derail you. It’s all mental.
Choose your hard until it becomes easy.
I’m just a few days away from October. I started my journey and promised myself I’d take a hard look after a year. Despite having surgery, I’m more convinced than ever that I’ll never be fat again.
It’s just math: keep my intake lower than my exertion. It’s not much of a secret formula, is it? You already know all of this.
WW, Jenny Craig, and the hundreds of other programs are out there if you need them and if they work for you. But it is entirely possible to achieve your goals without paying for an extra program.
The secret is a desire to be the person you want to be and find a way to get there.
Put it into literal action.
P.S. Yes, that picture behind me is of a monkey seeing my reflection in the handheld mirror..