Burning Calories?: Weight Loss & Exercise

I hear a lot of talk at the gym about “burning off the holiday calories.”  While some of us are joking about it, I know there are a lot of people whose primary purpose in going to the gym and working out is to burn calories and lose weight. Unfortunately, we aren’t going to burn off the pumpkin pie or the Halloween candy by working out.

We’ve all heard the expression “you can’t out-exercise a bad diet.” Most weight loss professionals will tell you that what you eat and how much you eat is far more important than how much you work out. There are myths about exercising out there and people will use them to justify either what they are eating or why they are or aren’t working out. One of my favorites is “I don’t want to build muscle because it weighs more than fat and I want to lose weight!”

While I am certainly not a weight loss professional, I’ve come to a few conclusions about the importance of regular exercise.  I work out generally three times a week and it’s not to lose weight. What I eat has nothing to do with how much or how hard I work out and vice versa.  Eating more carbs than normal doesn’t change whether I decide to add or skip a workout, nor do I eat more because it was an extra tough workout.

For me, the chief benefits of regular exercise has more to do with simply staying active.  We’ve all heard the expression “use it or lose it” and it’s true with just about everything about the human body.  If we don’t keep using it (whatever It is), our body stops maintaining it.  As the Baby Boomers began aging, geriatric professionals began noticing certain trends such as decreased muscle mass, increased osteoporosis and more cognitive degeneration in the aging population.  Because the Baby Boomers are such a large demographic, they were able to reach a few conclusions that pretty much confirmed the Use it or Lose it philosophy.  If we don’t use our muscles, they atrophy and we are more likely to develop osteoporosis. The same is true of our brains: if we don’t regularly stimulate our senses and our minds, our brains will turn to mush!

When we choose not to exercise out of fear of falling, we start on a vicious cycle that can really hurt us because one of the chief benefits of exercising is flexibility. We all know what it’s like when we’ve been sitting still in a plane or a car for several hours: we get up and we’re stiff.  Imagine how stiff you would be if you haven’t moved very much in several years! For a lot of us, that’s what has happened to us: we do the same four or five movements over and over again. We stand up, we sit down, we bend down from a sitting position, we lay down and get up from a sitting position. When was the last time you got up from the floor? When was the last time you bent down and touched your toes from a standing position? When was the last time you stretched up over your head or twisted around at the waist? Have you squatted down lately? All of these are important movements that keep those joint, muscles, bones and tendons in good working order.  Calories are not the point of exercising but being able to move is!

A few weeks ago, I wrote about falling myself.  I am rapidly approaching that “falling is dangerous” age: I’m a fifty-something female nearing menopause.  I’ve already had hardware installed due a fall about fifteen years ago.  I have screws in my leg along with a plate holding my wrist together.  If anyone should be afraid of falling, it’s me! As it happened recently, I got up in the middle of the night and as I was walking around the bed, I stepped on the dogs’ tennis ball, lost my balance and ended up sitting down hard on the bed.  This is where those three nights a week in the pool paid off for me: instead of falling over onto the bed (or worse, the dresser!), I twisted when I felt myself losing my balance.  It was a natural reflexive reaction: not balanced– move! Instead of landing on my side, which could have bruised some ribs or sprained my arm, I landed on my well-padded butt.  The next day, aside from feeling a little foolish, I had a couple sore muscles from twisting rather hard and fast, but otherwise, I was fine.

In fact, since that little accident, I have fallen again.  This time I was loading my duffel bag in the car and I tripped on the dangling strap.  Since I was outside, falling on the pavement could have resulted in more injuries, but I fell on the duffel, knee first and rolled into the flower bed. Again, the shoulder and knee that took the brunt of the fall were a bit sore but no bruises and no sprains.  And in my opinion, it’s because I make a point of exercising three times a week: I was able to move when I fell and not be stiff as a board.

People think that “working out” means you have to lift heavy weights, run hard or use a treadmill for hours at a time.  You can do that if you want to and it would probably be good exercise for you, but to keep your bones and muscles in good working order, all you need to do is use them on a regular basis, and as we get older, this is more important.  We’ve all heard that as we age, we begin losing muscle mass and bone density, and then when we add in the Use it or Lose it effect, not exercising regularly is a recipe for disaster.

We all know older people who are afraid of falling or have fallen and seriously injured themselves.  This is one of the chief excuses older people use for not exercising: “I’m afraid of falling or hurting myself.”  It’s a valid fear, especially if you’ve not worked out in a long time (or never) and if you have balance or health issues.  For me, balance was a big issue and in some instances, it still is.  That doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t exercise or work out; it just means I should take a few precautions when I do. For me, one of those precautions is working out in a pool. My workout of choice is water aerobics: I get to exercise without being afraid of hurting myself by falling, and for those of people who think water aerobics isn’t a real workout, I dare you to try it!

I’ve been told by one of my trainers that most older people fall because they lose their flexibility in their core.  Essentially, they stiffen up between their shoulders and their knees, so when they lose their balance, they come crashing down like a tree in the forest.  This happened last year to my mom: she tripped on a throw rug and landed on her side, breaking her hip.  When our bodies are used to bending and twisting, it’s easier for us to protect ourselves and instead of hitting the floor on our side (there’s the cause of a lot of broken hips!), we can twist to land on our butts.  Or better yet, we can prevent ourselves from falling!

I have two small dogs along with a couple of cats, all of which increase my chances of either tripping over a toy (like the aforementioned tennis ball) or the actual pet.  One of my dogs is habitually within two feet of my two feet! I never turn around or step back anymore without looking! Still, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve gone to step over, around or next to a toy or a pet and found myself grabbing a door jamb, the wall or furniture to steady myself. I was reminded yesterday as I stepped over a moving Cockapoo that not only has the exercise increased my mobility and flexibility, it’s also improved my balance!

After three years of regular workouts, I have better balance and flexibility as a 50+ year old than I ever did in my 40’s.  It shows in my ability to walk longer and farther in addition to being able to bend, lift, squat and get up off the floor without using a chair to help myself up. When I got to my feet after falling in the flower bed, I was reminded of the last time I fell outside.  I had stepped back into a hole and landed flat on my back on the lawn.  At the time, I was in my mid-forties and went over like the proverbial tree in the woods. Although I didn’t injure myself, mainly because the lawn was soaking wet after weeks of rain, I had to use the lamp post near the walkway to help myself up simply because I couldn’t do it on my own! This time, although the wall of the house was right there, I was able to stand up in the flower bed without really thinking about it: I was more concerned if I’d cut myself on the bush I nearly hit.

Even though exercise isn’t a major factor in my weight loss, it remains one of my primary goals. Working out regularly has taught me a lot about the importance of staying active and staying flexible besides saving me from my own clumsiness. Until I had regained my balance and flexibility, I honestly had not realized how much I had truly lost and I don’t ever want to lose that again!

 

 

Making Monsters: Weight Loss, Drama & Procrastination

I am the Queen of Procrastination.  My internal mantra chants daily ‘if you can do it another day, then do it another day!’ As a result, I have gotten very good at the Last Minute Scramble for a lot of things, such as paying bills, running errands and returning phone calls.  It’s also made me very hard-nosed when I am on the receiving end of another person’s Last Minute Scramble.  We have all been in  the situation where someone is begging for a favor because they waited as long as they could before doing whatever needs to be done. The classic response is “how does your failure to plan make this my emergency?”

In all honesty, I really hate that Last Minute Scramble and one of the reasons I am so hard-nosed is because I know I put myself in that situation by putting off the task day after day.  It’s a monster of my own making and I don’t let myself slide when it comes to taking the lumps for procrastinating, so I’m usually not going to let anyone else slide either! The more I hate it and the harder it is, you would think that I would do it less often, especially when it comes to situations that can become complicated.  (Once was enough with the Last Minute Scramble on taxes, believe me!) Unfortunately, it usually takes a few times before it finally sinks in.

When it comes to weight loss and working out, procrastinating has become Standard Operating Procedure for a lot of us.  You know the drill: I’ll start Monday/ next month/ after the holidays/ after whatever event or celebration.  The problem is that unlike bills, taxes or making it to the store before it closes, there is no deadline for weight loss! However skilled we might be at the Last Minute Scramble, it needs a ‘last minute’ in order to get us into gear, and when there is no last minute deadline, our weight loss and work out goals are just hanging out there in limbo. Forever.

No one who procrastinates likes to think of themselves as lazy.  Laziness and procrastination are two separate entities.  We can be lazy and not a procrastinator, and some of us put off certain tasks because we are too busy doing other tasks.  Some of us will put off these other tasks because they will require a lot of time and/ or concentration, so we wait until we can commit to them without distraction.  In other cases, especially my own, we put off unpleasant tasks because doing them is certainly not fun, i.e. taxes or bills.

For a lot of us, weight loss and working out fits all those categories: it’s a lot of work, takes up a lot of time and isn’t any fun at all! To be honest, when you look at it with that kind of mindset, I can see how it ends up on the Never-To-Do List! It’s right up there with “Colonoscopy” and “Root Canal!” When we moan and groan about “being on a diet” and “going to the gym” and having to “give up all the food I love,” we are only adding to the reasons to put it off until the second Tuesday of Never! It’s awful for us because we make it as awful as possible!

I go to the gym usually three times a week for water aerobics.  In the summertime, the classes are usually so full we run out of room in the pool, but once the cold weather gets here, the attendance drops off dramatically.  It’s cold; it’s rainy and no one wants to get out of the pool or the shower and walk out into a cold, wet parking lot.  Ugh! I thought about it earlier this week as I was hurrying into the gym and I knew it was going to be really chilly when I left class in about an hour or so.  There was a time when I would consider bailing out on the workout but now that it has become a firmly entrenched habit, the thought never crossed my mind.  Now I actually look forward to going to the gym.  It’s not that I’m a hard-core gym-rat: even though the point of going is getting a good workout, the focus is on seeing my friends. In fact, the third ‘class’ isn’t actually a class offered by the gym at all; it’s a bunch of us who show up at a pre-arranged time to work out together.  The activity itself hasn’t changed, but my mindset has.

I know there are books and other programs designed to help people with procrastination.  Building new, healthy or productive habits is a big business and for some of these, the focus is on stopping the procrastination.  In a way, it’s a little ironic: people want to do something about putting off tasks they don’t want to do! What many of us don’t realize is that it’s not your activity that has to change: it’s your focus and your mindset! When the focus shifted from ‘something I should do’ to ‘something I want to do,’ the workout stopped being a task to put off.  Why would I put off something I am looking forward to enjoying? There are times when I’m irritated because I have to ‘cram in the workout’ on a day when I have a lot to do already, but it’s not the workout that is annoying– it’s everything else that’s crowding my schedule!

The same thing is true when it comes to eating healthier.  When having something nutritious and healthy for dinner is something to look forward to instead of another chore to get done, it’s no longer something that needs to be put off.  I mentioned in a recent post that most of the time, people don’t realize how bad they feel on a normal basis because this is how they always feel.  They think they are fine because they have never felt any other way.  Example: where I live, I am surrounded by noise.  I live near a hospital with a helipad, a couple blocks from a fire station, a block away from railroad tracks and between two churches which also have schools. Between the ambulances, the helicopters, the  trains, the fire trucks, the church and school bells, there is always noise in the background at my house.  A few years ago, I went on vacation with my sister and her family and our hotel was literally across the street from a fire station.  The morning after our first night, everyone but me was complaining about “that fire truck blaring all night!” I didn’t hear a thing.  I am sure my ears heard the siren but since I hear sirens all the time, my brain didn’t wake me up.  It’s just normal background noise!

The same thing happens to us when we stop eating  junk food or highly processed foods.  Once we’ve stopped eating them for a while, we suddenly realize we feel different. We don’t feel tired or sluggish anymore; our digestive tract feels lighter or better; we have more energy and our sleep is more restorative.  Once we realize what it’s really like to feel good, we suddenly realize how bad we really felt before, especially if we relapse and go back to eating the unhealthier foods we used to eat.  After even a few days of eating more high carb/ high sugar foods than normal, I can feel a difference in my joints and my mood.  Even my sleep is different and it’s because of the change in my diet.

This realization that how I feel is directly tied to how I am eating has changed my focus.  Yes, I really want to lose weight but the real focus is “I don’t want to feel cruddy again.” Feeling cruddy isn’t something I look forward to, but feeling good? Sleeping well? Having more energy? Yes, I look forward to that! That is how I want to feel all the time, so eating healthier is not something to ‘put off for another day!’ There is also the bonus that I lose weight when I eat healthier and that eating the way I used to eat means I can start gaining weight.  I don’t need to gain weight to remember how awful I felt when I weighed 438 lbs.  Everything hurt and it hurt all the time!  So while others might think “I can start my diet in the New Year so it doesn’t ruin my holidays,” for me it’s the other way around: “I don’t want to ruin my holidays so I am sticking with my weight loss plan!”

When it comes to procrastinating, the only real Cure is changing how you think about it.  When you make it something you want to do, there is no reason to put it off.  We are used to tricking our kids into doing their homework or getting good grades by rewarding them and that is what we are doing with ourselves when it comes to things we would rather put off. Once we focus on the reward, it’s not a chore but something to enjoy.  Going to the pool gives me an opportunity to hang out with my friends.  That’s my ‘reward’ even though I also have more energy, flexibility and sleep better.  I do notice those benefits from the exercise, but honestly, I just like hanging out with my friends! In contrast, there is no reward for eating fast food or junk food for me: after eating it, I feel heavy, bloated, and cruddy.  It plays havoc on my digestive tract (not fun!) and actually causes pain in my joints.  Believe me, none of those things are ‘rewarding!’  Eating healthier and cleaner means I feel better overall and I also lose weight.  Why would I put off eating healthier and being more active for another day when I can do it now and feel great today?  All it takes is changing your focus!

 

 

 

Weight Loss & Your Goals: Fight For The Holidays You Deserve!

For those of us working to lose weight, the holiday season really is “make it or break it,” and unfortunately, this is the time of year where a lot of us give up on our weight loss and work out goals. This is the time of year when we have obstacle after obstacle thrown in our path. There’s holiday parties, edible gifts, seasonal drinks and treats and everywhere we look, there’s temptation staring us in the face. It’s also freezing cold in the Northern Hemisphere! Face it: if you’re in Australia, New Zealand or South America, you can go surfing after your big Christmas dinner, but up here, you’ll freeze your buns off in a bathing suit! For a lot of us, that’s excuse enough to ditch the workout!

While we really do want to lose weight and be healthier, more than a few of us are looking for an excuse to give up, especially this time of year.  We want an excuse to eat all the holiday goodies that are only available for Christmas and Thanksgiving.  We hate the thought of missing out on something special because we know if we do, we’ll have to wait until next year, so we rationalize why it’s okay to eat or drink this particular treat. For a lot of us, it’s just easier to give up our goals ‘for the moment’ and we promise we’ll ‘get back to weight loss after the holidays.’

Those of us who have been working at this for a while know that if you go looking for an excuse, you will find one.  I can guarantee you that right now! There will always be a reason why it’s ‘a bad time’ or why ‘this is an exception’ or how eating or drinking XYZ is a ‘necessary comfort’ for you. There is always going to be stress or exceptions due to holidays or celebrations and comfort foods to soothe whatever ordeal you are going through.  At the risk of being b*tchy, that’s just how life is!

There are those of us who always have ‘something’ going on in our lives and then there are those who like to think of their lives as simple and uneventful.  The truth is that however we think of our lives, there is nearly always a built-in excuse for why we can’t eat as healthy as we should or why we can’t make the workout that we planned on. My built-in excuse is usually my commute, although right now, I am also making twice daily trips to take care of my mom’s dog while she is in the hospital, so on top of everything else going on in my life, I’ve got this added to it! So, if I wanted an excuse to get drive-thru or takeout or to skip my workout, bingo! Here it is!

It’s tempting to say “I can get back to eating healthy once this is over,” except that would be giving up on something that is important to me.  Obviously, it’s better to be healthier, thinner, stronger and more flexible than to be overweight, eating junk food, and sitting around instead of being active.  I can rationalize that ‘doing those thing for a couple weeks won’t kill me,’ but it will set me back on reaching my goals.  It’ll mean I will have to make up for the time I lost as well as any weight I might gain.  It also means that I will probably have to ‘get back into the healthy habits’ again and that can take some time and some work.

Is it worth it to give up on something that is valuable to me in exchange for something that is easy and expedient? Obviously, eating fast food is easy and expedient since I can get it cheaply almost anywhere.  There’s nothing I need to prepare; I just take it home and eat it! The same is true for skipping my workouts.  If I’m not at the pool exercising, I have more time to do everything else I need to get done and I don’t have to walk out of a gym fresh from a shower into the freezing cold November night! (That can be a bonus!) Class attendance usually drops off in the holidays since everyone has more things to do and frankly, I’m not the only one who doesn’t like walking out into the parking lot in the cold! So skipping the healthy eating and working out gives me more time to cross other items off my To-Do List! I’m not driving home in the freezing cold; I’m not running around for healthy groceries or busy preparing healthy meals at home.

So what is it exactly I am giving up when I give in to excuses and rationalizations? I am giving up everything I have worked for in the past years and everything I want for my future. Frankly, that’s a lot to give up. Even worse, I am just throwing it all away in exchange for momentary treats that aren’t worth these goals. It takes work to reach your goals and that work usually includes a lot of sacrifice. We all know about making sacrifices, even if that’s not how we think of them.  They were all those nights we stayed up studying or working on school projects when we’d rather be asleep or out with friends. It was all those times we passed on spending our money on a movie, a night out or something else we wanted so we could save it for something special like a vacation or a down-payment on a car.  It’s about trading our goals and values for those momentary desires.  Yes, a brownie would be good but is it worth giving up what I really want and have been working for? No it isn’t.  We don’t think of a brownie in those terms but maybe we should.  When we were saving for a new car, how many times did we weigh a night out with friends spending money against how much that would set us back on the new car?  Seventy-five dollars on dinner out, a movie and a night at the pub is $75 less in the New Car Fund! Believe me, that makes you pay attention! It only takes a few of those “$75 nights out” before your New Car Fund is gathering dust or worse, dwindling away.

Losing weight, being healthier, and being more active aren’t just goals for my future: they are my goals for life right now too! I remember how icky I felt after overeating, eating junk food and sitting around all day. Not only was I not making progress eating better, feeling better and losing weight, but I physically felt bad: my hands hurt; my knees hurt; my back hurt and I just didn’t feel well! It’s bad enough to give up on my progress and my goals, but to give up something so valuable in exchange for something that makes me so unhappy? How foolish is that! It’s like trading in your New Car Fund for a used car with bald tires and 100,000 miles on it. Not only are you not making progress on getting something you really want and need, you are giving it up for something that is just going to end up costing you!

And if you think giving up on your weight loss and workout goals isn’t going to cost you (or cost you that much), you aren’t being realistic. It’s not only going to cost you on time and progress lost towards those goals, it’s going to cost you every time you feel cruddy because what you ate wasn’t the best for you or when your knees or back or whatever else stiffens up because it isn’t getting exercised like before.  And those clothes you like wearing? What about when they don’t fit as well as they used to? The truth is that for most of us, we didn’t realize how bad we actually felt eating junk food and sitting around until we have something to compare it to.  Once you’ve gotten used to walking around the mall without huffing and puffing, realizing you are doing it again is shocking.  When you realize the fast food makes you feel like crap, you really notice how good you felt eating healthy.  You notice how much energy you had after working out instead of sitting around on the sofa in the evenings feeling like a slug. This is the real cost and it’s not just what you are giving away for your future– it’s what you are giving away for your present! It’s ultimately up to you: do you want to spend the holidays feeling like celebrating with family and friends or do you want to spend them on the sofa–again–wishing you felt like you did before?

The Pain Scale: Weight Loss, Discomfort & Pain

One of the expressions I really really hate hearing is “no pain, no gain,” as if in order to make any kind of progress, you have to hurt yourself! That seems a little counter-productive: “let me blow out my back lifting 150 lbs so I can have really great biceps!” I know that no one really thinks like that, but it does happen.  We’ve been told by countless trainers and fitness programs that we need to “push past our comfort zone” to make progress! Pushing past the Comfort Zone, yes; pushing into the Pain Zone, no!

Anyone familiar with the medical profession or even just medical shows is likely familiar with the Pain Scale: “on a scale of one to ten, ten being the worst pain you’ve ever felt and one being no pain, where is your pain at on the scale?” If you’ve had surgery or broken a bone, you are no doubt familiar with the scale numbers up past five, and if you’ve sprained a muscle or a joint, you are probably familiar with the numbers on the lower half too, but what isn’t on that scale is Discomfort. I really believe that we need to add that to the scale (maybe as – 1 or -2?) to keep people from confusing Pain with Discomfort.

Pain is usually sharp or stabbing or a deep ache because it’s our body’s way of telling us we have an injury! If you are out running or you are lifting weights and you feel a sharp pain in your arm, leg or shoulder and it hurts to use it, that is pain! If something starts swelling, like your wrist or ankle, or if it stiffens up, you have obviously injured yourself.  A tearing sensation is another indication that there is something wrong and that what you are feeling is really pain.

I can hear you thinking it: duhhhh! no-brainer! But before you click off the page, let me give you this scenario: you are working out with dumb bells and you do a lot of reps with a lot of weight and the next day, your shoulders and arms hurt a lot. Is that pain or is that discomfort? Obviously, your upper body is probably going to be a little stiff and really sore from the workout, but did you injure yourself? The only way to answer that question is how much pain you are in and how long it takes you to get over it.  Achy muscles aren’t really pain (injury): they are discomfort.  When you’ve been walking a lot and your legs and feet are tired or you have burning in your muscles from exertion, or even if you are a little short of breath and your heart is pumping, you are feeling Discomfort, not actual Pain. Granted, it probably hurts to walk and you will probably be a little stiff the next day, but compare that with an injury. Say you fell and sprained your ankle while on that walk: your ankle would likely swell and you would not be able to put much weight on it, if any at all. If you’ve ever twisted an ankle or sprained any joint, you know that’s much higher on the Pain Scale than sore feet and legs!

If something you are doing causes pain, that’s a clear indication that you need to stop what you are doing, but many of us are in the opposite end of the equation: we are so afraid of Pain that as soon as we feel Discomfort, we stop.  While you don’t need to work out to the point of causing Pain, Discomfort is neither Pain nor Injury.

I admit I have hard time with the Pain Scale, mainly because it is highly individualized.  I was recently at my doctor’s office for a routine check up and we went through the Pain Scale as it relates to the arthritis in my knees and back.  I was asked to “rate my pain”: average day; bad days; better days; blah blah blah.  My problem is that I have a high tolerance for pain: when something ‘hurts,’ I ask myself the question I’ve put to you here. “Is this Pain or is this Discomfort?” Most of the time, it is just Discomfort, as in sitting causes an ache in my back or walking a lot causes an ache or stiffness in my knees.  Does it hurt enough to keep me from walking or sitting? When it does, it’s actually graduated to Pain.  That is how I differentiate between the two: when it keeps me awake at night, again it’s grown from Discomfort to Pain.

It’s up to you to determine your threshold between Pain and Discomfort.  You are the one who lives in your body and if your workout instructor wants you to do more than you feel comfortable with doing, then tell her! Even if it’s just more Discomfort than you want to live with, you are allowed to say no. One of the exercises my trainer likes to do really aggravates an old shoulder injury of mine, so I modify it to keep my shoulder from hurting the next day. I am reasonably sure it’s not an actual injury, but it bothers me enough that I don’t like dealing with it.  Does that mean I am slacking off on my workout? Not at all since I am the one who has to deal with a shoulder that hurts when I raise my arm over my head or reach for anything.  Is it Pain or just Discomfort? While I don’t usually take anything when it happens, I’d call it Discomfort, but at the same time feeling the twinge each time I raise my arm or reach, it is still uncomfortable!

This brings us to the other issue when it comes to Pain and Discomfort: how we medicate ourselves.  Many of us are told repeatedly that if it hurts, take a pill! “There’s no reason to be in Pain!” That is correct.  Pain is debilitating and depressing and chronic pain drains victims of concentration, energy and happiness. There is no reason to suffer with it if you can alleviate it.  But again, Discomfort is not Pain, and while you are the judge of what counts as Pain or Discomfort in your body, we should not be afraid of feeling a little Discomfort, especially if our fear of ‘hurting’ is getting in the way our being active. Sore muscles and a little stiffness should not be anything to be afraid of and if it’s too much Discomfort for you, it is a temporary condition! There is a reason trainers shout No Pain, No Gain at their clients: the more you use those muscles, the more you have to work to make them sore. In short, if you keep moving those muscles and joints, they will get stronger and eventually, they will hurt less, so while it’s not exactly “No Pain, No Gain,” it’s close enough to make the point.

 

 

Feeling the Burn?: Fitness Isn’t About Weight Loss

One of the myths about weight loss is that we have to exercise if we are going to lose weight.  Exercise and being active are great things and they can really improve our quality of life, but when it comes to losing weight, exercise is only about 10% of the equation.  The truth is that our diet and nutrition make up the other 90%.

We’ve all heard the expression “you can’t out-exercise a bad diet,” and it’s the truth.  When you think about that burger and fries you had on the weekend, it’s likely over 1100 calories.  How many sit-ups, crunches and miles on the treadmill will it take to burn off 1100 calories? Depending on your weight and muscle mass, you could spend all day in the gym working to get off those calories, let alone burning anything else you ate that day!

What really drives weight loss is a consistent healthy diet. What foods go into that diet is up to you.  There are always people who promote one style of eating over another but the real test is you and your body.  If you can lose weight and feel healthy on a vegan diet, then go for it! Personally, I can’t do the “vegan thing” but I do manage vegetarian on occasion. I am a fan of Paleo, which contains a whole lot of veggies contrary to those people who think it’s all about meat, but whatever works for you is the only thing that counts.

The first thing about weight loss and diet everyone thinks of is calories of course.  We need to eat fewer calories than our bodies burn so that it can burn the stored calories aka ‘fat.’ Too many people take this Calories In v Calories Out (CICO) thinking to the extreme and do a starvation diet and heavy exercise to lose as much weight as fast as they can.  This is the kind of thinking that got The Biggest Loser ‘winners’ into trouble.  Our bodies have a one track mentality: stay alive! So when it comes to low calorie input and heavy calorie expenditure, it turns down all the other systems it controls in order to conserve resources (aka ‘fat) so that it has calories to burn later on.  This is why we often feel tired or cold when we go on the Crash diet: our body is reacting to the drastically reduced calories.  It is also why people like those Biggest Loser ‘winners’ can exercise over two hours a day, eat 1000 calories and still gain weight: our metabolic set point has been lowered by low calorie input + high calorie output.

The fact is that eating a healthy diet consistently is what works the best without our feeling fatigued all the time, working out all the time and starving all the time.  Our bodies don’t turn down the metabolic set point and we can still lose weight.

So why exercise? Because another truth about our bodies is “use it or lose it.” If we don’t use the muscles and systems we have, our bodies stop putting in the maintenance.  Remember when you broke your arm or leg and after six weeks in the cast, your arm/ leg was a lot smaller than the other one (not to mention hairier?) It’s because for those few weeks, you didn’t use the muscles in that limb, so they atrophied. The same thing happens with our bones: not being used? The body sends those minerals to somewhere else in the body where they can be used or just expels them. This is the reason working out with weights has become a hot issue for older people who want to save bone mass: it not only builds muscles but bones as well! When we get out and move our muscles and bones, our bodies keep maintaining them. It’s when we stop moving and lifting and walking and bending and stretching that our bodies stop putting resources into our bones and muscles, and seriously, other than bones and muscles, what else are we made of?

The other benefit to exercise is that it keeps our joints lubricated, so to speak.  You know when you’ve been sitting for a long period of time and when you stand up, you feel stiff? Imagine how stiff you’d feel if you’d been sitting for days!  There is a science behind how our bodies begin creating a sitting framework that we have to break out of once we begin moving again, but the simple truth is that if we don’t move, our joints, muscles and bones forget how to do it.  They are out of practice and this is dangerous because this is where people get hurt. We all know that one of the biggest dangers for older people is falling and breaking a hip. These fractures usually result in surgery and it’s the beginning of a downward spiral for many of these patients. The sad part is that many people stop being active because they are afraid of breaking a hip or a bone, which leads to decreased bone and muscle mass and stiff joints, which just makes them more vulnerable to falling and breaking a bone.  Talk about a downward spiral!

I have heard trainers advise that it’s the stiffness in the waist and hips that cause most people to lose their balance.  They don’t reach, bend, twist or squat so the middle part of their body (the torso or core) loses the ability to do so, and when they are knocked off balance, they fall instead of twisting or sitting or reaching.  Result? Broken bone!  While I am not a young thing anymore, I like to think I’m not exactly “old” yet (yeah, I’m deluding myself!) but I recently had a similar experience which really added to my understanding of how this happens. I got up in the middle of the night and as I was walking around the bed to get to the hallway, I stepped on one of the dogs’ tennis balls and lost my balance.  Instead of falling like a tree straight on the bed on my side, I twisted and ended up sitting down hard on the bed.  While I don’t think hitting the bed would’ve broken anything, my butt still has a lot more padding than my ribs or my arm so instead of ending up with bruises, I ended up with just a little muscle strain from the hard twist and in less than a couple of days, it was forgotten (after I picked up the tennis balls!) When people fall, they usually don’t have time to think “how can I fall so I don’t hurt myself?” but our bodies react to protect themselves. I didn’t think “twist so you land on your butt!”; my body just did it once I realized I’d lost my balance. The fact that I was able to move to minimize any injury is due to regular exercise: two-three times a week in the pool.  Even if you can’t get to a gym or exercise regularly, all you need to practice squats is a chair: sit down, stand up, repeat as often as possible! If you can add a stretch to the other side of your knees, even better.

There are some benefits to weight loss with working out: you do burn calories when you exercise and you maintain or build muscle, which burns more calories than fat, so the more muscles you build, the more you exercise, the more calories your body can burn.  Many people also find that the more they move, the more they want to move! Honestly, I dreaded the thought of working out even in the pool, and I am still reluctant to change clothes and take time out of my day to work out, but once I am there and afterwards, I have to admit that I feel much better and frankly, it’s a lot of fun to move! Unfortunately, when people believe that exercise is going to be the key to weight loss, they get angry or disappointed when they spend a lot of time at the gym and lose only a minimal amount of weight.  That’s because they are still eating most of the same foods that caused them to gain the weight.  Real weight loss begins and ends with what goes into your mouth! Exercise and activity are important components in a healthy lifestyle, even if they don’t have major parts to play in weight loss. Staying as mobile and flexible as possible is the best thing you can do for yourself and your weight because a body in motion tends to stay in motion while a body at rest just gets stiff.

The Comfort Zone Workout: Weight Loss & Pushing Your Boundaries

Yesterday I was talking to one of my friends about her college age son.  He was in the enviable position of being offered two job opportunities: he had been offered a promotion at his current job and also offered a position at his church’s community outreach program.  While he definitely does not plan on a career in food service (his current job) and being active in his church is a major role in his life, he is not sure about taking the community outreach position because it is out of his comfort zone.

While most of us have never been in his position, we are all extremely familiar with our comfort zone and our reluctance to leave it. My friend knew right away that her son was nervous about trying something new.  While he is not a shy and retiring sort of person, this position at his church was just enough out of his comfort zone to make him give it serious thought. Many of us feel similar trepidation when faced with heading into unknown or unfamiliar territory, and that’s a good thing.  We should take such situations seriously, but there are a lot of us who automatically balk at leaving our comfort zone.

I admit: I am reluctant to the point of balking in some situations, especially those that have me driving somewhere I am utterly unfamiliar with, and the only thing that can make that situation worse is to put a deadline on it, as in “I must be at a certain location by X time and I have no idea where I am going.” [Insert pic of me screaming in terror here.] I know I can use Google Maps and MapQuest to get there, and both of them are on my phone, but the anxiety about trying to get to an unfamiliar address remains.  In fact, I faced it earlier this week having to drop off my car at a location I didn’t know in a town I am unfamiliar with by a certain time. While the anxiety and accompanying stress weren’t overwhelming, it was enough to put a dent in my week.

A funny thing happens when we do things that make us uncomfortable: these activities become more familiar and more comfortable. They stretch our comfort zone and by definition, our comfort zone grows and so do we. When I first started going to a gym, all I used was the treadmill. We all know how much equipment is at any gym, but it could have been nothing but treadmills for all I cared.  When I moved to my current gym, it was because I needed to work out in the pool. I was familiar with using one for physical therapy exercises because of my physiotherapist. Doing them on my own was a little out of my comfort zone, but not enough to hold me back.

Water aerobics however was another animal entirely! The gym had classes posted on their website: all I had to do was show up but I didn’t know anything about what the classes were like, what the trainers were like, what the other students were like, so I didn’t go. It was scary and unfamiliar and just enough out of my comfort zone that I didn’t want to try it… until the day I showed up at the gym to use the pool and it was full of people using water weights and pool noodles and there was a trainer putting them through their exercises. Obviously, it was a class and I sat on the bench waiting for them to be done.  The students didn’t look that different from me: most of them were in their forties or older and some were overweight, some weren’t and some had obvious mobility issues.  After about twenty minutes of waiting around, the trainer asked me if I wanted to join them, so I did! And it was a great workout, a lot of fun and I’ve been going every week for the last three years! But if I hadn’t shown up in the middle of a class, I might still be too entrenched in my comfort zone to try the classes on my own.

We’ve all heard the expression “try it- you’ll like it!” but most of us take that only as far as we feel comfortable. We’ve got our boundaries marked and beyond them we will not stray. We know our limits, when it’s okay to stretch a boundary and when it’s not.  For me, that’s usually exercises and workouts and there’s a very obvious reason for that: I’ve never been particularly athletic. Athletics, exercise, working out: they are all in unfamiliar territory for me, so I don’t like going there.  Food, on the other hand, is way too familiar for me, so if you want me to try a new yogurt flavor or a new vegetable or spice, then no problem! I am in the habit of trying new foods and flavors, even though some have been pretty awful! But trying a new exercise? Balk!

It goes back to comfort and familiarity.  If you are used to doing something, it’s no longer strange or difficult! It’s just the ‘getting used to it’ that makes us balk. It’s pretty much a no-brainer: we’re not comfortable, we’re not sure we’re doing it right (whatever ‘it’ is) so we don’t like doing it and we end up doing those things as little as possible or not at all.  I know: duhhhhh.  But what gets missed in that thinking is that the only reason we aren’t doing those things is because we aren’t used to doing them! The more we push out of our comfort zone, the more comfortable that strange territory becomes until it becomes normal for us.

When I started cutting carbs out of my regular diet, it was nearly unbelievably difficult. They were a major staple of how I had been eating.  Breakfast was a bagel or breakfast sandwich, lunch was another sandwich or rice bowl and dinner was usually rice, pasta or more sandwiches, and don’t forget dessert: cookies, cake, pie. More than half of what I ate was bread, pasta, potatoes or rice.  What else is there to eat? Coming up with low carb/ no carb replacements took more work than I was used to putting into shopping or cooking. Getting groceries took over an hour: is this low carb? does this have carbs or sugar? what about peas? are they Paleo-friendly? OMG! It took forever!

But again, the more I did it, the more normal it became. Instead of automatically thinking of dinner as meat and pasta or meat and rice, it’s meat and veg or meat and salad, or even just salad! Grocery shopping takes me a half an hour if there is a line for checkout and less if there isn’t. Going out to eat with friends isn’t a huge ordeal anymore: it’s another no-brainer instead of another anxiety-filled appointment like the one I had earlier this week. It’s not strange or difficult anymore because I am used to doing it.  It’s just getting over the ‘getting used to it.’

That’s where we need to push ourselves and that’s why we have to do it. We don’t need to take risks to be healthier, but we should push our comfort zone a little so that it keeps growing and we can keep growing with it.  Whether it’s trying a new food or a new way of eating or working out, we shouldn’t be afraid to grow.  Who knows? You might like it and you might even make some friends along the way.  The friend I mentioned above? I met her in my water aerobics class.

 

Weight or Water? Weight Loss & Retaining (or Not Retaining) Water

I hate it when this happens: I get on the scale and it looks like I’ve gained weight.  My first thought? “It’s water weight! Right? I must be retaining water. Right? Because I can’t have gained weight?”

Yeeaahhh, riiigghhtt.  I couldn’t have gained weight so it must be water!  ……except it’s not.  It’s weight aka fat! But my first thought is pretty much the Number 1 excuse for why the number on the scale went up! Unless we made some kind of planned deviation from our eating plan, like a celebration or a holiday, gaining weight means we messed up somehow, either by eating the wrong things, too much overall or both.  Most of us know it’s not water, even if that’s the excuse our minds hide behind, and for me, after facing the grim truth that chocolate chip cookies are not Paleo and on my food list, I once again ban them from my shopping cart!

However, that doesn’t mean that our bodies don’t ever retain water. In certain circumstances, we do retain a certain amount of water in our tissues.  It’s not twenty or thirty pounds of water or maybe even ten, but depending on how much you weigh and the circumstances, it can be as much as 5 lbs. Five pounds can be a lot for but, again, it’s dependent on the circumstances, so you can’t just automatically dismiss that 5 lb gain as “water weight.”

Our weight fluctuates under everyday normal circumstances, even if we are ‘behaving ourselves.’ Water retention tends to be the biggest component in that fluctuation so if we find we’ve gone up a couple of pounds, it could really be that retained water.  Of course, the same holds when we find we’ve dropped a couple of pounds: it could be that water coming off! This is why so many weight loss professionals discount the scale or regular weigh-ins. Unfortunately, the scale is the easiest tool for us to use on a regular basis, so what we want to see is the downward trend over time. We want to see our weight going down, even if it does ‘bounce up’ a couple of pounds as long as it’s followed by a loss of the same amount or more.

However, depending on what we are eating, how we are moving and who we are, we can try to minimize our water weight.  The biggest culprits for retaining water are: 1) our diet; 2) our exercise; 3) our hormones; and 4) our stress levels. When we pay attention to these factors, we can have a better idea if that number on the scale is because we ate that pasta primavera last Tuesday or if it’s because it’s ‘That Time of the Month”!

Number 1 is number one for a reason, but not exactly like most of us might think.  When we think “water retention and diet”, we tend to think Salt.  Yes, salt is a big factor.  Salt is an electrolyte and our body keeps it in solution, so it’s not uncommon to eat a big bowl of salty popcorn and then feel puffy the next day. Usually in a day or so, we pass the water and we feel less puffy.  However, the other factor in that salty popcorn might take a bit longer to fade away.  That is the carbohydrates in the popcorn.  When it comes to carbs and retaining water, the best description of them is “little sponges.” Carbs soak up the water and it stays with us a while. No wonder you feel puffy after eating it! Between the salt and the carbs, hello! You’re retaining water for sure! When we eat a lot of carbs, even if it’s something not salty, if it’s a carbohydrate, it’s going to hold water, so a diet rich in carbs is going to show it on the scale.  Not only does your body store the excess carbs as fat, they also hold more water than protein or fat, so your weight will go up the more carbs you eat, salty or not.  I know from my own experience, after I’ve binged on carbs and then gone back to low carb/ no carb, after a couple of days it feels like I’m always running to the loo! It’s my body getting rid of all the stored water.

Most people know to watch their diet for any water-retaining culprits but we don’t usually think of exercise as one.  When we exercise, especially more strenuous than usual, it causes ‘damage’ to our muscles, which then need some time to repair themselves.  This is how our muscles get stronger and why we need recovery time.  That ‘damage’ is normal: our muscles build themselves up during the repair. But to do that, muscles need water, so after exercising, our muscles retain water! This is why some people don’t weigh themselves the day after a workout: they know their muscles are full of water! This is one reason our trainers are always pushing us to drink during and after a workout: we’re sweaty and our muscles need the water too! Even if it feels like it wasn’t a strenuous workout, if your muscles feel a little sore, you are probably retaining a little water!

Hormones are another no-brainer for most of us (and the guys can skip this one!) If you are a woman of child-bearing years, you are eminently familiar with this scenario. For most of us, the week before our period, we puff up like a balloon as our body stores water in preparation either for growing a baby or getting ready to shed the uterine lining.  If you are pregnant, congratulations! And get ready for some major changes in your body! If you aren’t pregnant, your body will start shedding a lot of water in a few short days.  All of us women have been through this more than a few times, and if you are one of the lucky ones who doesn’t turn into a water balloon, you are the envy of every woman who does! That said, most of us know when not to weigh ourselves in order to avoid the appearance of weight gain.

Stress is another sneaky culprit with water weight.  When we are chronically stressed, either physically or emotionally, our body just recognizes it as “danger/ stress” and will hang on to the Basics to make sure you survive whatever stress you are facing.  For the body, those Basics are water and fuel aka fat. This is why so many health and fitness gurus are pushing stress management.  Incidentally, it’s also why they are pushing more sleep, since our body treats poor sleep quality and sleep deprivation as a stressor.  We all know how crappy we feel when we don’t sleep well or enough, so it takes a physical toll on our bodies beyond just exhaustion and low energy headaches: our body stores fat and water as a result! The problem is that most of us have a hard time knowing when we are getting enough rest and managing our stress, so when we get on the scale and see the number isn’t budging,– or worse, going up– it just seems to add to our frustration and stress! This is one of the benefits to adding a proper sleep schedule and stress management routine: they not only help feel better mentally and physically, they also help you lose weight!

When it comes to managing our water weight gain, it’s really just one part of a healthy lifestyle.  If we manage our carb intake, get enough sleep, relaxation and keep our bodies moving, we should be able to identify if the number on the scale includes a few pounds of water or not. We also need to know that water is not bad! Many pro athletes know that diuretics (“water pills”) are a quick and easy cheat for losing a few pounds in order to make their target weight.  But a “cheat” is exactly what they are if you are taking them just to lose weight! Dehydrating yourself either by not drinking enough or using diuretics can be dangerous.  Our bodies are dependent on water to send chemical signals to organs, including such vital organs as your heart, lungs and brain. No water, no signal, no life! Like so many other necessities, our bodies function properly in a narrow band of the Right Amount: too little water can cause as many problems as too much water. Our bodies are pretty good at keeping our water where it needs to be to keep you healthy: now it’s just up to us to do our part (and put down the popcorn and chocolate chip cookies!)

 

Weight Loss & The Best Intentions: Plans Are NOT Action

We all know what they say about the road to Hell. They might as well cross out that destination and replace it with Weight Loss.  We all intend to eat better; we all intend to exercise more and we all certainly intend to stop snacking on junk food.  Those intentions and a $1.08 will get you a cup of coffee at McDonald’s! We can “intend” all we want but until we actually DO something, it’s all just talk!

I realized again how important it is to follow up our intentions with our actions while I was watching the most recent episode of My 600 lb Life: Where Are They Now?  This episode featured an update on Sean, the young man in his late twenties who lived with his enabler mom. Following his surgery, now in the third year of his weight loss journey, Sean has had a tremendously stressful and difficult few months.  He loses his mother to renal failure and then many of his belongings and his apartment to hurricane Harvey. During these difficult months, he begins to gain weight, eventually reaching 600 lbs again. While this kind of stress and tragedy are certainly triggers for emotional eating, Sean’s biggest stumbling block continues to be his lack of action.  Although he has a therapist, he stops treating with him and pressures Dr. Nowzaradan to get him admitted to a care facility rather than live on his own.  He is forced to move into a smaller apartment, but continues to view it as ‘temporary’ until he can move into a care facility.  His father comes from California to help him move, but Sean seems disappointed that his father is unable to take care of him himself.  Sean has to live on his own which means doing things on his own.

He gets back on his feet in a new apartment largely due to the generosity and assistance of others but once he has passed the ‘living situation’ crisis, he goes back to the emotional eating while continuing to justify his need to ‘take a break’ to ‘recover’ from everything he’s been through. That’s the first Red Flag!

I’ve fallen into that particular trap myself so I know how inviting it is! It’s the Weight Loss version of a Honey Trap: it looks warm and safe and comforting when it’s everything but! It lures us in and before we know it, we are right where Sean is: gaining weight without really paying attention! I am not going to point fingers at Sean since I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to suffer such devastating losses. Even Dr. Nowzaradan gave him a pass for the weight gain following his mother’s death; however, he also reminded him to keep treating with his therapist to find constructive ways of dealing with his emotions.  Having a resource as insightful as Dr Paradise is not to be thrown away so thoughtlessly; but that is exactly what Sean seems to do.

As Dr. Paradise had pointed out in an earlier session, Sean is intimidated by Dr. Nowzaradan as an authority figure and it is quite possible that Dr. Paradise has become a similar authority figure, which means he is also to be avoided as much as possible.  Why? Because both of them will hold him accountable for his overeating and poor eating choices. This is part of the danger involved with the Taking a Break scenario: once you have indulged until you feel safe, you have to deal with the consequences of your indulgences, which is usually weight gain! I am actually involved in the process of extricating myself from my own particular Honey Trap, so I know it’s not easy and it’s more than a little humiliating!

However, Sean continues to avoid both of his doctors because he’s ‘taking a break to get back on his feet’ but actually he is spending a lot of time sitting down.  I don’t mean to be flippant, because one of his complaints is how difficult it is to move around.  For those of us who have seen the earlier episodes, this is the second Red Flag! The last time Sean complained about how hard it was to move around, he’d gained almost 100 lbs, reaching a mind-boggling 1003 lbs.  When his mother passed away, Sean was fairly mobile in the 500’s but when he went back to see Dr. Nowzaradan, he was essentially 600 lbs again.  Anyone who has been overweight knows we don’t need to gain 100 lbs or be 600 lbs to notice unpleasant changes in our bodies.  When our knees ache a little more, when our pants or tops are a bit too tight, when we feel a little winded walking across the big parking lot– that’s our body telling us we’re carrying too much weight! When ‘squeaking by’ the file cabinets really is ‘squeaking,’ we know we’ve put on a few pounds.  This is when we need to stop talking about losing weight and start doing something about it!

For Sean, the first clue is that it’s harder to get around.  This is where Dr. Nowzaradan essentially gives him the pass on his weight gain, but rather than take action during his housing crisis– an admittedly difficult situation– Sean continues eating badly and overeating.  By the time the situation is resolved (a couple months), Sean is having a very hard time moving around.  He is content to sit on his new chair with a sheet spread over his lap so he doesn’t have to get dressed with a bucket to function as his toilet ‘when it gets too hard to get to the bathroom.’  As he opens the door to get his pizza, ‘dressed’ only in the sheet, he admits it’s not on his diet, but he really needs to take a break right now.  He laments that the Personal Care Assistant doesn’t come every day like she’s supposed to and on the days she doesn’t come “my bucket doesn’t get emptied.” He called Dr. Nowzaradan primarily to get the Personal Care Assistant assigned but also about the rashes on his skin becoming worse due to his lack of poor hygiene (which Sean denies)  because bathing has also become much more difficult. How much clearer can it be that he needs to stop talking about “going to get back on the diet” and just do it already?!

By the time he goes back to the hospital, he has obviously gained more than a few pounds and appears to be back over 700 again. The rashes have now become open infected wounds and forced his hand. Doing nothing and ignoring the infection could kill him and will kill him faster than his overeating. He tells Dr. Nowzaradan that this is a wake-up for him and he’s ‘going’ to get back on his diet, but the doctor’s reply is frank and a little harsh: “I’ve heard that before from you.”

That statement, more than the painful open wounds, is the real wake-up here.  How many times have we said that to ourselves? “It’s time to get serious about the weight loss/ poor eating choices/ blowing off workouts?” I know I’ve said it to myself through much of the last two months:” Okay, no more banana bread!” “I need to stop eating candy!” “I’ve got to get back to my regular eating plan!” And…. we all know how that turns out….

While Sean is obviously an extreme example of The Best Intentions, ‘going to do something’ is NOT the same as doing something! ‘Planning to make healthy changes’ does NOT mean you are implementing those changes! I’ve been ‘planning’ on eating right for the last 8 weeks or more and it wasn’t until the past three days that those ‘plans’ actually became actions!  Of course, my metabolism didn’t give me credit for those 8 weeks’ worth of plans: it didn’t tell me “your plans were pretty good so I’m deducting 10 lbs off this weight gain due to those good plans!” Like Sean, I have to deal with the consequences of my poor eating choices and my ‘taking a break’ mentality.  That means I have to deal with cravings and weight gain and admit to the doctor that I screwed up! It’s not fun and it’s more than a little humiliating.  However, once we begin actively doing something, we begin to feel better almost immediately, mentally, emotionally and physically. I’m not stressing over my ‘plans to eat better’ because now I am actually doing it! I’m not feeling guilty about eating bread and popcorn because I’m not eating them anymore and physically, my joints don’t ache because of the grains and my knees pop a little less and if my clothes are a little snug right now, I know that I am already doing something to fix that!

We all make plans to eat better and eat less and be more active, and plans aren’t all bad unless they stay plans.  Planning fools us into believing we are doing something but planning is NOT doing! We all intend to be the best versions of ourselves and we make plans to implement those changes.  No one plans to end up alone eating pizza in an arm chair and peeing in a bucket. But if we don’t turn those plans into actions, sitting alone with peanut butter cups in a recliner is a very real possibility.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Laughter, Fear & Weight Loss: Taking a Stand

Humans are bit of a paradox: we like to think we stand out as individuals in a crowd, but at the same time, we don’t want to stand out too much. We don’t like to think we are just ordinary but then we don’t want to be “that weirdo” either.

This is especially true when it comes to our weight: being as plump or chubby as everyone else is okay, but being really big? Not okay.  This idea of being too far outside the norm becomes a real problem just at a time when we think we’d be getting over it. I’m talking about going to the gym.

We’ve either started losing weight or we’ve made the decision to be more active so we head to the gym, and once we’re there, we realize it’s full of athletic, toned sweaty people in tight fitting clothes who know what they are doing.  Our first thought: “holy sh**! what did I sign up for?” It’s bad enough not being familiar with the gym itself, where things are, and how to use the equipment, but we’re also aware that we look a lot different from everyone else.  Now when we fumble with the equipment or get lost trying to find the weight room, it’s obvious that we’re chubbos who’ve never been in a gym before! This is pretty much why Planet Fitness’s slogans are “No Gymtimidation” and “The Judgment Free Zone.” They’re marketing to all the chubby gym newbies who are scared of sticking out!  (Planet Fitness was the first gym I joined, although their motto had nothing to do with my reasons: they were cheap and they were close to my house.  The gym I belong to now (In-Shape) is also close, though twice as much but it’s got a pool. If Planet Fitness had had a pool, I would still be there!)

There’s really not much you can do about learning how to use the equipment and where things are in your gym except experience and asking for help when you need it. The more you are there, the more you do, the more at home it becomes.  In this respect, everyone at one time or another was new to your gym and was wandering through the locker room looking for the showers or the towel bin.  It’s that being so much bigger, so ‘out of shape,’ that makes us feel even more self-conscious. It feels like everyone is looking at us and laughing.

As I mentioned before, I had been a Planet Fitness member and had gotten relatively comfortable with the treadmill, but when my doctor and physical therapist recommended a pool for me, I moved to In-Shape (the therapist’s suggestion). So about the time I was feeling pretty comfortable with my old gym, I had to start all over with new one, and on top of that, I had to wear a swimsuit in a public area, where everyone could see me!

It’s bad enough feeling like an idiot trying to figure out where everything is in the gym and then feeling like a fat lazy blob when you walk in and now you’ve got to wear a swimsuit so all your chubby parts and muffin top are visible to anyone who walks by the big glass walls of the pool. Ugh! Talk about torture! Isn’t this one of the top five nightmares that terrify most people?

In all honesty, being unfamiliar with the equipment bothers me the most.  I’m afraid of breaking equipment or injuring myself because I am doing the move incorrectly. As for wearing a swimsuit in public or a tank top or shorts? Not a problem! I remember years ago, I went by a weight loss company (something like Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers) to check it out and the ‘counselor’ asked me if I wore shorts or tank tops in public. I remember telling her yes and being a little confused: “am I not supposed to wear them because of my weight?” She appeared equally confused because at the time I was easily about 375+ and apparently people “my weight” normally don’t wear revealing clothes in public out of fear of ridicule and embarrassment.

What this counselor didn’t know was that when I walked into her office sometime in the late 1990’s, I had already spent a lifetime being laughed at in public.  I went to a private grade school full of thin affluent white/ Anglo kids with ‘normal’ names like Jimmy, Molly, Kathy and Scott.  I, by contrast, was a poor overweight Mexican girl with a weird first name! In fact, outside of being overweight since grammar school, my name was the biggest target: Koren. (It really didn’t help that the teachers and administrators couldn’t spell or pronounce it either!)  Since childhood, I’ve been Karen, Koran, Korean, Korine and Koreen until the boys in the class finally settled on Korndog.  The teachers were completely aware of this appalling nickname bestowed upon me, but since it was the poor fat Mexican kid with the name no one could spell or pronounce– meh! whaddaya gonna do?

As I said, the teachers and administrators were completely unconcerned and neither my sister nor I mentioned this humiliation to my parents who would probably have raised a huge embarrassing stink with the principal (whose son was in my class and one of the offenders) so it went on for several years. My choices were either let the nickname bother me or go on with my life. In this day and age, this would be called bullying and harassment, neither of which would be tolerated at the school for fear of a lawsuit, but in the late 1970’s & early ’80’s, bullying and harassment were a part of every day life in grade school.  It’s just the way it was!

So when I walked into that weight loss center, I was pretty much over the whole ‘fear of being laughed at,’ at least for my weight. Being laughed at for doing something stupid was– and still is– a much bigger fear, and in these days of names like Jaeden, Brookline, Hadley and Genesis for little girls, having a different name at my age just puts me ahead of the curve!  The idea of changing what I wear so I won’t ‘look fat’ was a total non-starter.

All of us who are overweight know you can’t hide obesity.  Yes, you can wear clothes that minimize the pudgy parts and hold in that muffin top.  You can wear colors, patterns and designs that are more flattering and I think we should, because the better you feel about yourself,  the more confident you are.  Feeling bad about yourself because you are overweight is not a requirement for obesity or weight loss!

The problem is that’s what happens when you slink around the gym trying to be invisible!  When you try to hide how you look or that you’re uncomfortable in the weight room or you wear baggy t-shirts and shorts into the pool to hide your belly and thighs, you are shaming yourself.  You are telling everyone who sees you that you are not proud of yourself or that you are ashamed to be at the gym.  When I first started using the pool, the swimsuit I had was a tankini: shorts and a long tank-style top.  I had gotten it at Target in the plus size department and all they had were tankinis, so I had two of them.  Once those wore out, I went online and bought a regular two-piece with shorts and a bikini top– NOT a tankini!  Yes, they hide the muffin top and some of the pudgy thighs but overall, they get in the way of the workout! So when I walk out of the locker room headed to the pool area, going right by the weights and the sauna and the steam room and tanning beds, everyone can see me in my two piece: there’s the muffin belly, the saggy skin on my legs, thighs, bingo wings and my great big butt.  I don’t wrap my towel around myself on the way to the pool (on the way back, hell yes! It’s cold in that hallway!) I’m there to get some exercise and have some fun, just like everyone else in my class and everyone else in the gym.

Having been a regular at gyms for a while now, I’ve noticed a few things: those toned athletic young people are just about out-numbered by the older chubby less-toned members.  For every shirtless young guy in shorts is an older guy with a belly, age spots and cut off sweats.  For every tanned young woman with sculpted arms and legs is an older grey haired woman with chubby thighs and a double chin. No one points at anyone else and most members are happy to help someone new by pointing out the locker room or how to use the equipment. I admit the first time I walked into a gym, I was nervous. I didn’t know where anything was or how anything worked, and it took a little time before I got comfortable with everything.  Being nervous is okay but being afraid isn’t.  If you let your fear of being laughed at dictate what you do and where you go, you will have a very narrow and lonely life. Being overweight isn’t a crime any more than being poor, Mexican or having a different first name. Being afraid of being laughed at or being ashamed of who you are has no place in the gym or in our lives.  I learned that in grade school.

Do One Thing, Do It Well & Move On To The Next: Weight Loss & Repetition

Like most people my age (50+), I grew up watching M*A*S*H and one of my favorite characters was Major Charles Emerson Winchester, III.  He was a pompous snob and obviously meant to be the butt of Hawkeye & BJ’s jokes, but he was also very well read and educated and when he went on about opera or authors, I usually knew who he was talking about.  I admit: I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to great literature too!

During his first episode, he made it clear that he does things his way.  He pompously announced to everyone in the operating room: “I do one thing, I do it well and then I move on to the next.”  Despite all his arrogance and ego, he was not wrong about that.  One of our biggest mistakes when it comes to making New Year’s Resolutions or any kind of ‘self-improvement’ changes is that we try to do too much at once.  Instead of doing one thing, doing it well and moving on to what’s next on our list, we decide we are going to do it all now and save some time and effort!

Big Mistake!! Biiiigggg Mistake!! Huge!! I honestly can’t say it enough.  Remember when you were a kid and you saw the jugglers at the carnival? Five or six balls or batons in the air all floating easily like it’s no trick at all?  Remember when you tried juggling tennis balls and just got hit in the face by all of them? YUP!! That’s pretty much what happens to us when we write our list of resolutions and then try doing them all at once.  The only difference is that if we were hit in the face by them, we would probably learn something (like we did when we were ten and tried juggling) instead of trying to do them all again the next year or the next time!  Sometimes bruises are good for something, and I really think if New Year’s Resolutions came with bruises when we screwed up, we might learn a little faster!

The trick isn’t that different from learning to juggle or even Maj. Winchester’s pompous pronouncement: do one thing, do it well and then move on!  When novice jugglers learn, they start with one ball or baton: toss it, watch it, catch it.  Repeat.  It’s harder than it looks, really, because it means tossing it straight and knowing where it’s coming down. So once you can catch it blindfolded, you get to add another ball/ baton. As in, one ball/ baton.  Now you get to catch two of them! Repeat until you’re about to die from boredom, and when you can catch both of those blindfolded, you get to step up to the Big Leagues and add in a third ball/ baton.  Now you’re really juggling! You’ve got three objects in the air and once you’ve got all three going, then and pretty much only then, you appreciate all that super boring practice with balls one and two!  Because you practiced until you could toss and catch without even thinking about it, now that you actually have to think about # 3, not thinking about # 1 and # 2 makes it look easy and almost effortless.  Really, even though you’ve got three balls in the air, you really only have to think about ONE.  That’s the secret with juggling and that’s the secret with weight loss and ‘self-improvement’ habits: you do one thing until you do it well, and then you add another.

I wish I could tell you it’s glamorous or exciting or even funny like on M*A*S*H, but it’s not. The behind-the-scenes truth to juggling, working out and weight loss is just more of that super boring repetition. When you watch the jugglers or any kind of performance, what you are seeing is the Finished Product. It might be five minutes or less of a trapeze artist flying through the air or two jugglers sending batons back and forth with flawless ease, but what you don’t see is the hours of dropped batons, getting smacked in the face or the trapeze artist missing her hold and falling into the safety net.  That’s the whole point: they make something extremely difficult look amazingly easy!

This is what happens when we are presented with the infomercials and diet books/ plans and exercise programs.  They make it look like it’s just so simple and all you need is fifteen minutes or less! Everyone has fifteen minutes! No counting, no meetings, no measuring! It’s just fun delicious food and fifteen minutes of walking! Anyone can do this and have rock hard muscles, a chiseled six pack and lose twenty lbs in six weeks! Really! Just sign here!

Ummm…….NO. It’s never that easy because you have to do it. Consistently.  The fact is that even if it is as easy as opening a box of diet food and eating it or using your new machine for fifteen minutes, it’s still a change to your regular routine. How easy is it to say “I’ll do it later”? Even if it’s only a few minutes, you have to find a way to stick into your day: before or after dinner/ lunch/ breakfast? After work? Before work? Does walking the dog count? The same thing goes for opening that box of microwave diet food: it’s not what you normally eat and it’s one thing if you live by yourself, but when everyone else at home is doing “make your own taco night,” you’re there with your diet pasta.  Everyone else is having ice cream for Netflix night and you’re okay with your diet chocolate brownie?

I don’t mean to make trouble with exercise and diet plans but eventually we get tired of the repetition. It’s work! That should be obvious to us but what we were sold was “simple and easy.” If you want to buy the machine because you don’t want to go to the gym, that’s great! Just remember that the machine only works when you use it and you’re going to have to use it. Again and again and again. It’s the same thing with whatever diet plan you choose: it only works when you follow it, whether it’s make it yourself Paleo or frozen diet food from wherever. If you give in and decide to have taco night with the family, and then the ice cream and then the fried zucchini and burgers on the weekend, it’s going to cancel out the diet breakfast and lunch you’ve been eating. Unless your office had pizza at the weekly meeting or bagels at the Friday conference, and you didn’t want to look different by not eating. Then, you’re consistently not-eating your diet food.

Consistency is the monkey wrench in learning anything new and the secret to being consistent is the super boring repetition that makes the jugglers, trapeze artists and everyone else look awesome.  No one wants to hear about being boringly consistent doing the same thing again and again.  Where we get overwhelmed is when we try to be consistent with too many things all at once: again, if dropping our new healthy routines ended with a bruise on our face like a missed tennis ball, we’d probably be more sensible about starting new healthy habits!

Making one change to your regular routine is easier than making two, three or more changes. Whether it’s going to the gym, eating your new healthy meals or even just going to bed earlier: choose one, and do it until you don’t need to think about it anymore. Once it’s a complete no-brainer, move on to what’s next on your list and repeat. It’s not glamorous or exciting but it works! FYI: the exciting part comes when your waist gets smaller, your arms get cut and you can fit into the same size jeans you wore in high school. It’s the equivalent of the flawless rhythm of batons flying through the air with the greatest of ease! No one has to know it was day after day of being boringly consistent: show off the amazing results! You worked hard for it so enjoy being awesome for a while!