Hang On- It’s Going to Get Bumpy! Weight Loss, Chaos & Staying Motivated

It would be nice if weight loss were smooth and linear, and while I’m wishing for the impossible, how about a million bucks, too?  We all know it’s easier to lose weight when nothing crazy is going on at work and you can eat the healthy lunch you brought without phones going off and people popping into your office asking “where are you on the Saunders project?”  It’s the same thing at home: when it’s calm, it’s easier, but usually the boys’ ride to soccer practice has to reschedule, the dog loses the fight with the neighbor’s cat and your spouse’s trip to Boston gets bumped up a couple of days to today.  Yay, chaos- also known as the Real World! This is pretty much how it is for most of us at home and at work.

It’s so so tempting to tell yourself “I’ll lose weight when it’s less stressful!” So…. let’s put it on our calendar for the second Tuesday from Never? Because that’s when it’s going to be ‘less stressful.’ There will always be fussy, high-maintenance clients, bosses and coworkers who hijack your time, and fly balls coming out of left field to disrupt your carefully orchestrated schedule.  And that’s just at work: when you have a family, especially with kids, you’ve pretty much joined the circus with every day being opening night until they move out.  Yup: the Real World is pure chaos!

I’m not telling you this so you get discouraged: I’m telling you this because most of us like order and schedules and plans.  We plan our healthy meals; we schedule our workouts and we make grocery lists full of nutritious whole foods.  Sounds lovely! We’ll be losing weight so fast…. until our meticulous plans meet our actual lives and suddenly, we’re doing the Seat of Our Pants Weight Loss Plan.  Instead of sauteed broccoli with meatballs and marinara, we’re suddenly doing frozen bunless burgers with bag salad.  Instead of the turkey lettuce wrap for lunch, we’re having hardboiled eggs with carrot sticks.  Instead of our water aerobics class on Wednesday, we’re doing laps in the pool on Thursday night.  It feels like we’re running to catch up and, even worse, it feels like we’re failing at weight loss.

Not true!In Real Life most of us pride ourselves on being flexible when it comes to work and family life.  That’s pretty much the way life works- things happen, we make an adjustment and keep on going.  Rigidity is what happens right before something breaks!  But when it comes to our weight loss, healthy eating or working out, we stubbornly adhere to a rigid plan of How It’s Supposed to Be, and when it breaks, we’re surprised, disappointed and think we’ve ‘screwed up royally!’  I will admit that in the beginning of a new lifestyle, routine and predictability are a true benefit. It makes it easier for us to make the adjustment, but we all know it’s going to be short-lived at best and before long, we’re going to be bobbing and weaving as usual.  The trouble is that no one has ever told us that changing our weight loss and work out plans on the fly isn’t failure- it’s adaptability! We all know and accept that sudden changes happen at work and with family, so we need to write that into our weight loss plan too!  How many times do we get stuck working through lunch? Is that going to stop just because we decided to ‘eat healthy?’ Not hardly! So plan for it: when I have to work through lunch, I have X planned! When I have to work late and don’t have time to fix dinner or go to the store, I’ve got X in the freezer. When I can’t make my scheduled workout, I’ve got my gym bag in the car so I can stop in the next day that I do have time. This is how the Weight Loss meets the Real World, and it’s not much different from how we deal with other Real World occurrences. When the ride to soccer practice gets canceled, instead of canceling your plans, you make a shift and do your errands or shopping after you’ve dropped them off and then swing back to pick them up. You probably don’t even think about this as a problem: it’s a normal occurrence! When you have to work through lunch, you probably have a similar shift in your repertoire: either you skip lunch, eat later or have something delivered. So when you start bringing something healthy, you still have the same options either to skip lunch or eat later and if you do opt for delivery, order a salad or veggie wrap or something similar to what you brought.

It seems fairly obvious but our mindset gets in the way and tells us we’ve failed or screwed up because we’re ‘not sticking to our Weight Loss Plan’! That would be that rigid inflexible plan that can’t exist in the Real World. This is inflexibility is why so many weight loss plans are unrealistic- they don’t allow for adjustments. Making healthy high protein breakfast smoothies for breakfast is great until we don’t have time to make them because ‘something comes up,’ as it always does, and if we’re supposed to changing our smoothie ingredients on rigid schedule, we just blew our plan. (My mom gave me one of those smoothies-on-a-schedule diet books!) I know my schedule: I didn’t even try it! Too inflexible and too complicated!

Staying flexible with our healthy eating, weight loss and activity plans lets us continue to make progress. We have to approach our weight loss goals with the same mindset we have towards everything else in our lives. If we didn’t make adjustments in our jobs and families, would we still have jobs and families? Would we throw up our hands and say “I just blew it with the kids! Guess I have to give them away!” Or quit our jobs when we missed a deadline or didn’t hit it out of the park on a project? That’s extreme overreacting and no one would seriously consider giving either of those actions. But that’s exactly what we do when we’re talking about weight loss. Allowing ourselves to adjust not only keeps us on that bumpy road to better health, it gives us a fighting chance to reach our goals, so bob, weave, and hang on!

It’s Time to Eat! So Should I? Umm, Maybe…..

This really seems like a complete no-brainer.  Unless you’re fasting, most of us don’t even think about it: it’s lunch time, it’s dinner time, it’s time for breakfast, so let’s eat! We usually don’t stop to think: am I actually hungry?  Even if we do, I have learned that my body will lie to me and, sometimes, my body gets tricked. Smelling food, especially if it’s something we really like, is one of the ways we get tricked into thinking we are hungry.  We’re sitting in traffic and the wonderful smell of Chinese food wafts in through the vents.  After a couple of minutes our stomach growls and we start thinking “I’m kinda hungry.”  We probably really aren’t hungry- we’ve just smelled something that’s triggering our digestive hormones and enzymes.  It’s a biological reaction: food is available so eat it!

My body will also lie to me by telling me I’m hungry, even if I’m not,  because it is “time to eat!” I’ve noticed it happens a lot around lunch time and again about 3:00 p.m. I call it ‘snack memory.’ Lunch time is pretty obvious, but I usually get off work about 3:00 and this is when I normally make a Starbucks run or if I stop for gas, I’d get sunflower seeds or some jerky.  So in addition to eating breakfast, lunch and dinner, my stomach expects a snack around 3:00!  The funny thing is that if I tell my stomach no, I stop being hungry about about 20 minutes or so.  That’s how I know it’s not “real hunger”  and I think that’s the important difference.

We’ve pretty much been taught to eat according the to clock rather than determining whether we’re actually hungry.  We’ve also been taught to eat in certain situations.  We meet up with friends and they’re all drinking mochas, lattes and having brownies: want a brownie? Sure!  It’s polite.  Saying no draws attention to you ‘being good’ or ‘being on a diet.’  Why can’t I just not be hungry? It’s a social situation, so coffee, drinks, snacks are expected.  It’s how we socialize, so there’s a feeling of ‘not being social’ if you say no to whatever your friends are having.

It’s a catch-22: if we listen to our body when it says it’s hungry, we’d eat every time we smelled something good or food was available (isn’t that how I got to be 438 lbs?!) or we don’t eat when we’re hungry and eat when ‘it’s time’ instead (even when I’m not hungry??) So how do we find the right answer? Is there a ‘right’ answer? If it sounds like I’m being obnoxious, maybe I am a little, but as fitness and nutrition consumers, we’re constantly bombarded by advice along these lines: eat when you’re hungry! eat on schedule! And after being utterly confused by the internet, we decide to ask a live health care professional, like our doctor.  Doctors unfortunately are pretty much in the same boat we are in.  Unless they have a specialty in diet and nutrition, most of them have had about 12 to 24 hours of nutrition education.  (That’s about one semester to give you some perspective.)  They are as confused as we are, so don’t be surprised if they refer you to a nutritionist or a dietician.  Even then, the question of when to eat is less of a issue for them than what you eat.

I’ve listened to many experts discuss the merits of fasting, eating on a schedule, and eating only when you’re hungry. There are those who insist that we need to eat three times a day with snacks in between.  The logic is that eating on a schedule keeps your metabolism ‘revved up.’  I’ve also heard experts say that eating on a schedule or when you aren’t hungry keeps your body from burning any stored body fat, because rather than letting it draw from its stores (ie the fat in you’re trying to lose), you keep fuel in the bloodstream (that snack you just ate). They argue that constantly feeding your body keeps your glucose high and promotes fat storage rather than fat burning.  It also keeps you craving foods on a regular basis (like my 3:00 p.m. snack memory).

There are those who promote eating only when you’re hungry (also called intuitive eating).  Your body knows when it needs fuel and when you’re legitimately hungry (not tempted by sights, smells or snack memory), you are feeding your body appropriately.  They argue this means that your body has burned through whatever fuel is in the bloodstream from your last meal or snack and now it needs more.

Then there are the fasting advocates. When most of them talk about fasting, they mean Intermittent Fasting (IF), which can take different forms.  The one most of us are familiar with is pretty simple: you limit your ‘feeding window’ to certain hours and don’t take in any calories the rest of the time.  Example: you only eat all your calories for the day from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and the rest of the time you fast.  Sounds pretty ordinary, doesn’t it?  The fasting experts say this is pretty much what we did in ‘the old days,’ and that’s why we were a lot healthier.  (It’s kind of hard for me to argue with that because it’s what my grandfather did and he lived a long healthy life to age 96!)  Another way to do Intermittent Fasting is what they call ‘alternate day fasting,’ which is just like it sounds: you eat on Monday, fast on Tuesday and so on.  There are also other patterns like five days eating and two days fasting, etc.  Most fasting proponents like to move the hours or days around to suit their lifestyles, and there are some who are also fans of ‘extended fasting,’ as in not eating for several days at a time. (If you think fasting might be something you want to try, the best book on the topic is The Complete Guide to Fasting by Dr. Jason Fung and Jimmie Moore.)

Then there are those who just offer advice, such as don’t eat within three hours of bedtime, or eat your biggest meal in the early part of the day, or wait until noon or later to eat instead of eating breakfast. As if eating weren’t complicated enough!

Having listened to lots of experts and their arguments, my own choice is to eat on a loose schedule with a little IF thrown in.  Truthfully, the IF tends to happen more if I am some place that doesn’t have great food choices for me or if I am caught up in the middle of something.  For me, eating every two hours is a recipe for disaster (yeah, it’s a bad if apropos pun!) It keeps me feeling hungry and my energy level (ie blood sugar) tends to crash if I can’t or don’t eat ‘on schedule.’  There are some days when I don’t exactly ‘fast,’ but my calorie intake is less than normal simply because I’m not hungry or I’m just too busy or there isn’t anything available that I like or want to eat.  There is also the flip side: days when I eat a little bit more than normal because I’m really hungry.  [I’d like to say that all these ‘experts’ agree on how much we should eat, but again there are those who say we should eat to satiety (no longer hungry but not full), and those that say we should eat a minimum number of calories daily or we start breaking down our muscle tissue to burn that! Another argument for another day!]

The best common sense advice I can give you: do what works best for you and fits best into your lifestyle.  I tried some of the more conventional methods of IF, and it just doesn’t work out for me.  However, it works out great for my sister and some of my fitness friends.  I also know people who eat according to a schedule and they are successfully losing weight.  The only thing they all have in common is that they are doing what works best for them.  I know this seems like a cop-out answer, but it’s the only answer that works for you.  We each respond better to different foods so why should it be so odd that we each respond better to different eating schedules?  This is one of the reasons so many of us have trouble losing weight: we try to cram our needs into someone else’s schedules.  If eating intuitively is working for you, then stick with it! If it’s not having the results you want, then find something you like better. Too many of us are looking for The Right Answer and there are a lot of companies that will happily sell it to you with no guarantees attached! Their Answers tend to be quick simple little Cookie-Cutter plans.  Unfortunately, I’ve never met any Cookie-Cutter people.

 

“No Thanks! I Choose Life!” Weight Loss Starts with You

Every now and then, I hear people talking about how it’s nearly impossible to lose weight once you get ‘older.’  I have been overweight pretty much all my life.  I was a pudgy kid and then when I was in 6th grade (thereabouts) my weight really began getting out of control.  I was around 200 when I was in my 20s and for each decade thereafter, I added roughly another 100 lbs.  By the time I was in my mid-forties, I was about 375, +/- 10 lbs.  I’d lose some weight, gain it back, gain some more, lose a bit, and repeat the process.  I’d gained and lost the same 40 lbs for several years.  Most people would be thrilled at losing 40 lbs, and frankly, I was too, but when you’re going from 375 to 335, it’s a little less thrilling: “Yay! I’m under 350!” Essentially, I’m still sinking, just not as fast as before.  Unfortunately, even that little glimmer of hope soon faded away.

Most of us chronic dieters are pretty good at making bargains with ourselves and rationalizing our choices.  I remember when I realized that I had been over 350 for so long that even if I lost weight, I would need surgery to remove my excess skin.  “I don’t want surgery, so I won’t lose weight.” Great! Now I no longer need to worry about losing weight! Except….. my weight was still a problem.  I remember thinking “not everyone is cut out to be skinny, so I guess I’m just destined to be fat.”  Great! Now I no longer need to worry about losing weight! Except…. I still kept gaining weight.  “I’m still happy and fairly active even though I’m overweight.” Except…. I wasn’t happy and I wasn’t very active.

Honestly, I spent about ten years or so- most of thirties and the first half of my forties- being about 375, and for most of those years, that last rationalization was true.  Despite being so overweight, I was independent and fairly problem-free.  I could do just about anything I wanted to do and knew how to get around the activities that were a little more problematic.  If I wasn’t truly happy being 375, it wasn’t a big issue in my life.  But unfortunately, I was still gaining weight and so every year or so, I would add a couple more pounds or so.  I think if it hadn’t been for the changes in my job, I would probably have kept gaining about that same rate and probably would have hit fifty closer to the 400 lb mark but still under.

But, when I was about 46, things changed at my job, which led to changes in my lifestyle, which led to me gaining about 65 lbs over the course of two years.  I remember being 48 and realizing I was not only over 400 lbs now, I was beginning to make some serious progress into that weight range: I was 438. That is some serious weight. Even worse, I was completely miserable.  I couldn’t walk for any distance or stand for any length of time.  It hurt to move around, to sit, or lie down.  While being 375 is far from healthy, those additional 65 lbs really put extra stress on my body physically and I started having health issues I’d never had before.  Family and friends started talking to me about getting a gastric bypass.

Frankly, I hated this idea.  I’ve never been a fan of surgery but having your guts rearranged seemed crazy.  I remember meeting with a bariatric surgeon (mainly just to tell others I’d considered it) but the idea was always a no.  [FYI: that surgeon was a real butthead!]

So what happened? Long story short: I decided to make myself a priority.  One of those goofy movie lines that sticks in my head sometimes: Ice Age– Sid looking at Diego’s ‘short cut’ and saying “No thanks! I choose life!” Yeah, it’s goofy, but it’s pretty much what happened to me.  I was looking down the barrel of a very short and painful future, and “no thanks! I choose life!” I quit the Job From Hell and that was the first of a series of choices that put my welfare first.  That lifestyle change led to others: no more fast food; eating healthier; slowly being more active; getting more rest; and those small changes alone had huge consequences.

And I mean Really    Huge    Consequences.  Like the small changes in my job that led to my being so unhealthy and so utterly miserable, those small decisions to eat less processed foods, eat more whole foods, get more sleep and be more active led to my losing roughly 100 lbs in about a year.  No surgery. No weird diets.  Nothing extreme.  I just decided to eat more whole foods, be more active and put my health first.  I picked a food and lifestyle plan that I liked that was also sustainable and I followed it.  If this were a movie, it’d be easy and my weight loss would have been consistently linear and there would have been no cravings, no difficulties (and I’d be happily married to a great guy who looks shockingly like Russell Crowe,) but- alas!- it’s not a movie.  There were lots of cravings at first.  It was hard work following the diet (Paleo), learning what works better for me and what frankly does not work at all.  I did a lot of research, mainly because that’s one of the things that works to keep me focused and I just like it.  It also gives me access to some new ideas, but while people will fret that “it’s impossible to lose weight after 40!”, I am here to tell you that it is not impossible.  I’ve not only lost the equivalent of an entire large sized adult, I am still losing weight.  I didn’t even start losing weight until I was nearly 50! Yes, it was a lot of work at first, but it gets easier the longer you stay with it!  It’s just like any other habit you learn: harder at first, then you learn the little hacks and it’s not so hard anymore.

I’ve lost 184 lbs and I now weigh about 250 lbs.  I am much more active and I feel so much better physically and mentally.  Yes, I do have some excess skin, but it’s not a problem right now.  Maybe eventually, when I either stop losing weight or it becomes a problem, I might have to deal with it surgically.  But the excess skin is less of a problem than my weight ever was! I know this isn’t a movie, but it still has a happy ending for me, and I know that there can still be a happy ending for everyone else who is over 40, overweight and thinks they are destined to be the ‘fat guy/ girl.’  You don’t need a fairy godmother, but you do need to choose yourself first.  (And if you’re a great single guy who looks shockingly like Russell Crowe, give me a call!)

Hyperpalatability: The New Taste Sensations!

Hyper: a prefix appearing in loanwords from Greek, where it meant “over,” usually implying excess or exaggeration

Palatable: acceptable or agreeable to the palate (the sense of taste); adj. palatability

Just so we are clear from the start, hyperpalatability is NOT  a good thing.  We have all had hyperpalatable foods: they are the super yummy delicious foods that make you want to eat them over and over again until either you run out or you can’t eat another bite without throwing up.  Seriously.  These are foods that were created in laboratories, not nature.  It’s not enough that we grind the corn into a paste, toast it in little triangles and sprinkle them with some salt; now we coat them in all kinds of chemical flavors designed to light up the pleasure centers of our brains so we eat them over and over again.  This is called the Dorito Effect (from the book of the same name by Mark Schatzker.)

The food industry has spent billions developing chemical flavors and food textures designed to keep you eating and getting the maximum enjoyment from your food.  They run tests on human lab rats to determine what flavors and textures excite the brain more than others and then figure out how to get those into our food.  It would be great to think that they just wanted us to enjoy what we are eating but we all know the truth: the more we eat, the more we buy and the richer they get while we just get fatter and unhealthier.  This is why we have loaded baked potato flavored potato chips, salted caramel everything and ice cream with pretzels and peanut butter in it.  Food manufacturers have realized what many of us have known for years: different flavors taste good together and switching from one to another makes us eat more.  How many of you remember the old joke about pregnant women craving pickles and ice cream?  It’s because sweet and salty taste good together.  When I was in college, my favorite trail mix was sunflower seeds, M&Ms and raisins and almonds: it was the Sweet & Salty Mix.  The idea of taste diversity (ie, sweet + salty) is now being mixed with more hyperpalatable foods and the result is a disaster for us consumers.  We are getting fatter and more unhealthy by leaps and bounds, and more of us are losing control of our eating.  Experts go back and forth about whether “food addiction” is a real thing, but frankly if you get urges to eat mindlessly until you are bloated and nauseated and still feel the urge to eat, I think that qualifies as an addiction for me!

The combination of these two new food trends, taste diversity and hyperpalatability, is now all over the media and worse, in our supermarkets.

Taste diversity: This is the idea of pairing two foods together to complement each other.  We do this when we put salty nuts on our ice cream sundaes, pair fried chicken and waffles, or pair a sharp cheddar with apple pie.  These pairings, among others, have long been traditions in our culture, but now food manufacturers are finding ways to market similar combinations (like the sweet & salty trail mix I frequently bought during college).

Hyperpalatablity: This is how food manufacturers to hook our taste buds.  They develop flavors and food textures (it’s called ‘mouth-feel’) to trigger the pleasure centers in our brains.  This is the same thing that happens when we engage in almost any kind of addictive behavior.  This is literally what causes addiction, whether to drugs, alcohol, video games, sex, shopping, cigarettes or salted caramel peanut butter fudge brownies.  When that pleasure center lights up, we feel the urge to keep lighting it up again and again and again. Food manufacturers are designing the foods chemically.  It’s not just a matter of adding more butter to make the cookies taste richer; they are adding in chemicals that most of us would not recognize as food.  Most of recognize things like cheese, corn, wheat or butter as a food, and even things like oil, salt, spices and roots like ginger or turmeric as food, but disodium inosinate? Disodium guanylate? Acesulfame potassium?  That sounds more like a chemistry test, but these are now common ingredients in our foods and they are designed to either enhance flavor or add sweetness. These aren’t just the chemical names for food, like calling lemon juice “citric acid.”  These are actual chemicals which were developed by scientists.  (Incidentally, saccharine was originally a by-product from coal mining and its sweetness was discovered by accident by a scientist who didn’t wash his hands when he went home to dinner. Yay…..?)

In the past, most of us would buy a bag of pretzels, a jar of peanut butter and a pint (or gallon) of chocolate ice cream and we would mix the three things together at home to make a chocolate peanut butter pretzel ice cream sundae.  There was a little work involved and for most of us, it was an indulgence.  What food manufacturers are doing now is packaging that ice cream for us, so now we just need to go to the freezer section and buy it already mixed for us.  We just scoop it into our bowls, or eat it out of the carton- let’s be honest here! We buy chips with the flavors already on them, so we don’t even need to make a seven-layer dip anymore.  For most consumers, it’s a great thing: we get all the tasty indulgent treats we like with little work and little extra cost (no more having to buy an entire bag of pretzels, jars of salsa or peanut butter or marshmallows- whatever we are going to put on our chips or ice cream.) I confess, it was easier for me to buy the bags of Sweet & Salty trail mix rather than mixing it up myself (and trail mix sure isn’t brain surgery, but it’s a bit expensive making it yourself!) Yay for convenience!….. Until, it’s not only too convenient, but it’s addictive as well.

This is something that I believe food manufacturers were counting on.  I have no evidence to support this allegation; it’s just my opinion, but I think it’s a reasonable conclusion. When you are given a choice between plain ice cream and a more taste diverse/ hyperpalatable ice cream, which one do you choose?  Remember the last time you bought ice cream? What flavor did you buy?  This was the actual choice you had: in that store’s freezer, you had a choice between plain vanilla, chocolate, strawberry (at least) and the more complex flavors like raspberry cheesecake, rocky road, and many other flavors with other tastes mixed in, such as marshmallow topping, nuts, chocolate chunks, pretzel pieces, toffee bits, cookie dough and cookie pieces.  Which one ended up in your freezer?  Even if you were buying it for someone else in your family, they chose it over plain vanilla, chocolate or strawberry.  I will confess, when I used to buy ice cream, my favorites were Ben & Jerry’s New York Superfudge Chunk or their Brownie Batter. Now when I buy ice cream, I buy another brand because it comes in single serve cups and I usually buy plain vanilla or strawberry since I share it with my dog (his favorite is strawberry.)

One of the major problems with hyperpalatability is that is overstimulation.  It’s similar to what happens with violence in tv and movies: the more graphic violence and gore you see in the movies, the less it shocks you, so if the next film maker wants to shock their audience, they have to add in more violence and gore to get the same shocked reactions the previous film gave the audience. Example: when I was a kid, absolutely no one used profanity on tv.  I distinctly remember the first time I heard it because it was such a shock (Alan Alda said ‘son of a b*tch’ on a M*A*S*H episode).  Now, I can’t tell you how many times I have heard worse on regular tv, not ‘late night’ or something I streamed or downloaded.  It has lost its shock value.

This happens with our food: when we are used to eating sugar sweetened anything all day long, when we eat a banana or orange or apricot, it doesn’t taste sweet to us.  The natural sugar in the fruit cannot compare with the artificially sweetened whatever we had before.  All processed foods have ‘natural flavors’ that have been added to enhance the taste, in addition to some of those other additives mentioned above (disodium inosinate is a flavor enhancer found in nacho flavored Doritos). [Incidentally, just because it says ‘natural flavors’ on the label doesn’t mean it came from food: some ‘natural flavors’ come from wood products or other ‘natural’ sources.  To qualify as ‘natural’ it can’t be something man-made, even though it is ‘man-derived’ from whatever natural source it started in.] So the more processed, ‘super flavor boosted’ foods we eat, the more bland, boring and tasteless whole unprocessed foods taste to us.  Most of us notice it most with things like sugar and salt, but it affects our entire palate. We get used to complex flavor combinations boosted by sugar, salt and chemical enhancers and then to get more flavor, more pleasure, more excitement out of the foods, we have to keep pursuing more and more, like an addict chasing the high they crave.

This behavior not only keeps us eating hyperpalatable foods but keeps us away from eating whole foods.  After eating pepperjack burgers on onion rolls with cheesy garlic fries, roasted chicken and sweet potatoes seem really really bland, and they don’t have the same ‘flavor pop’ in your mouth as the processed food.  The pleasure center in your brain doesn’t light up like a Christmas tree, so there isn’t a big draw to have the chicken and sweet potatoes again. But, wow, that pepperjack burger was yummy! So were those garlicky cheesy fries!! This is why so many people give up on eating whole healthier foods after a few days or so: “it tastes awful”; “it’s boring;” “I don’t like it.” (Try getting kids to eat broccoli after garlicky cheesy fries! Ugh!)

Fortunately for us, our palates change over time. We got used to eating hyperpalatable processed foods, and we can get used to eating whole unprocessed foods again too.  It takes some time to reset your taste buds, but you can do it, and once you do, I think you’ll be a little surprised.  (I know I was!)  As some of you may know, I was on first name basis with the Jack in the Box drive thru guy and after several months of not visiting, I happened to drive thru and I ordered the burger I used to get regularly: what a change!  I was expecting the yummy crunchy delicious burger I remembered, and it was just barely edible.  It tasted nothing like I remembered and I haven’t been back since (going on two years now). For the months in between, I had been eating whole foods and I had gotten used to them.  The whole foods taste good to me now and the processed foods just taste really weird and a little gross, some of them.

I don’t miss eating the super flavor boosted processed foods: now they all taste really sweet, salty, chemical-ly and just ‘off.’  They don’t taste right anymore and knowing that they are full of chemicals, preservatives, additives and ‘food-like’ substances doesn’t make them more attractive, or delicious.  On the other hand, eating fresh plain strawberries is a real treat, especially since they aren’t available all year round. They also taste a lot better than anything ‘strawberry-flavored.’  It takes a little getting used to, but the real food flavors are worth the effort, and they are better for you too.

 

 

Excuse Abuse: How Blaming Others is Holding You Back

We’ve all heard a lot about the Abuse Excuse.  It was very popular with criminal defense attorneys in the 90’s. Basically, the person who got killed or injured deserved it because they had repeatedly abused the person who was accused of doing the hurting or killing. The defense would use the Abuse Excuse to try convincing the jury that the defendant was so messed up by the abuse, they didn’t know or couldn’t help what they did.

When it comes to weight loss and making healthy choices, we do something similar.  We keep finding excuses for why we can’t lose weight or eat healthier or work out.  We abuse our excuses by using them over and over again to give us permission to keep eating badly, for skipping our workouts or for just not doing the work. We all know the excuses: “I’m so busy!”; “I’m so tired!”; “My knee/ back/ whatever hurts!”; “It’s been a really tough day/ week/ month!”; “I’ve got a lot on my plate right now so I can do it when X is over”; and our all-time favorite:”it’s someone else’s fault.”

I’m not going to discuss the validity of your excuses because I am sure some of them are valid at times.  We all are really busy, we have a lot going on, many of us have chronic pain or bad joints, and a lot of us generally feel pretty cruddy most of the time.  Welcome to the modern world! We all need a break and for most of us, adding in healthy eating and working out is just adding more things to do on a list that is already too long.  I know the feeling: I work out twice a week, I commute 4 hours each workday, I live alone so all the household duties are also on my plate, and I crammed in another workout recently plus I post to this blog twice a week.  Just the list of things I need to do is a bit long and then there’s whatever I want to do that I try to cram in there also. I’m not complaining, because I knew what I was getting into when I signed up for all of this.  It comes down to a matter of priorities: what we need to get done- what’s important to us- those things get done and the things that are less important or that can wait a little get shoved to the back of the line. It’s normal. That’s how priorities are supposed to work.  The problems come when our priorities are skewed and the tasks that really should be waiting a while are pushed to the front in favor of those that are more important. It’s excuse abuse: instead of abusing alcohol, drugs or food, we abuse excuses, and like too much alcohol, drugs or food, they end up hurting us too.

Our excuses are our way of justifying why things like losing weight, eating healthier and working out are not priorities and why they should get shoved to the back of the line.  That is what it boils down to: if these things were important to us, they would get done. Our excuses are how we justify to ourselves why these goals are not important to us or why something else is more important. Really, how important is it to lose weight, eat healthier and stay active?  It’s critical.  That’s how important it is!  It’s not about “looking good” or “being thin.” It’s about being healthy and if you aren’t healthy, not only are you not going to feel good, but you are opening the door to disease and physical disorders such as heart disease, arthritis, diabetes and inflammation, just to name a few.  Inflammation is now thought to be the source of a host of illnesses, including heart disease and thyroid conditions. All of these conditions stemming from poor eating choices and lack of activity will make your life more difficult if not downright unpleasant and frankly, some of them can kill you.  I think that qualifies “eating healthier, losing weight and being active” as critical priorities. Obviously, you don’t have to drop everything, quit your job and make your health your sole priority (even though that’s kind of how I handled it, but I was pretty much knocking on Death’s door at the time), but how hard is it to take a few hours a week to improve your health?  That’s what it comes down to: a few hours a week.  That’s all it takes to buy and prepare healthier foods and add in some more activity. It’s not hours each day (although at first new habits take a little longer).  It comes down to a couple hours of shopping each week, a couple hours of working out each week and about 45 minutes to an hour each day cooking and prepping food (about the same time it takes to drive out to a fast food place or a restaurant).  Since I cook at home, I’m usually watching tv, playing with the dog, on the phone or online while my food is cooking- not any different from when I’m eating the take out!

When it comes to our priorities and excuses, we can tell ourselves we are doing our best, but the all-time favorite is usually our fallback excuse for why it wasn’t done: “someone else is to blame!” After all, there is only so much that’s in our control and we can’t control anyone else, so when they mess with our schedules, what can we do? This is how our priorities end up skewed: we put the blame on someone else.  “I wanted to eat healthy but my family only wants junk food/ fast food/ take out.”  The blaming-someone-else excuse is classic on My 600 lb Life.  Frankly, I’m a little surprised there isn’t a poster in the doctor’s office that says “Blaming someone else is not a valid reason not to lose weight.” Yes, there are things that are out of our control; the only thing we can do is control our response to these things.  Example: last summer I was invited to a birthday luncheon at a restaurant I had never heard of.  There was no menu online and all I knew about it was “the pizza’s really great!”  Pizza is not on my list of preferred choices, so my options were; 1) not attend; or 2) take a chance on the menu.  So I took a chance on the menu and there weren’t a lot of great choices for me: most of them were sandwiches with a whole lot of bread, pastas, the pizzas, and deep fried appetizers.  So rather than say, “I had to eat those things because someone else chose the restaurant even though I really wanted to eat healthy,” I said no thank you to offers of deep fried appetizers and pizza and had a really great salad and a sandwich minus the bread (which left the meat, cheese and veggies).  It wasn’t my preference but I made the best choices I could in the situation. Blaming someone else was not an option: no one was going to force me to eat deep fried cheese, calamari and pizza! I did split a brownie á la mode with one of my friends, but I chose to do that, just like I chose the salad and the breadless sandwich and not eating the appetizers!

Yes, changing your priorities is work and sometimes it’s more work than we wanted.  Confession: I am really REALLY lazy.  I’m that cliché where you open the dictionary to “Lazy” and there’s my selfie! If I could stay in bed reading or playing with the dog all day, I’d do it.  On some weekends, I don’t even get out of my pajamas until late Sunday afternoon (only because I have to!)  Yep, I am that lazy! So you can imagine the idea of “working out” went over like gangbusters with me.  It’s right up there with cooking my own food, grocery shopping and housework:”Really? you want me to go out someplace and do a lot of activity and have nothing to show for it but ‘good health’?  Or you want me to go to the store, buy a lot of whole foods, then lug them all home, put them all away and then take them out later and cook them?!  Have you not heard of ‘restaurants’ or ‘take out’???”  That’s pretty much how my brain works.  I hate that every Sunday I have to go through the whole grocery shopping ordeal, and that each night I have to set up my breakfast and lunch for the next day, and depending on what day it is, I have to pack my gym bag for my workout.  I hate getting home late from exercising, usually cold and wet, and then having to cook or at the very least heat up dinner.  Do you know how many take out/ fast food places I pass on my way home from working out? The biggest draw for me when it comes to eating out isn’t that “oooh, it’s so yummy;” it’s that I don’t have to cook the dang meal or clean up afterwards! So when it comes to priorities, “eating healthier, losing weight and being active” were always pretty low on the list and as for excuses not to do those things, I have always been extremely creative! I am the epitome of the couch potato. Give me a task to do and I will whip up an excuse faster than Martha Stewart whips up another “Good Thing”!

The easiest, simplest and most often used excuse for not eating healthier, not losing weight and not being active is blaming someone else. Except it’s not valid 99% of the time. What is the real reason for not doing those things? “I didn’t want to.”  That’s the bottom line, what it boils down to, and where the buck stops: I. Did. Not. Want. To.   We make excuses to make ourselves feel better and to give ourselves a pass on the bad behavior.  We tell ourselves I wouldn’t have overeaten but they kept pushing the food at me.  They chose a bad restaurant. There was nothing at the party but chips and cookies.  All they had to drink was sugary sodas.  We blame someone else for our acquiescence.  Rather than choose not to eat/ drink things we know aren’t good for us or aren’t on our preferred eating plan, we give in and blame someone else for our failure to make progress.  Frankly, that was my excuse for gaining/ not losing weight when I worked the Job From Hell.  I handled the increasingly stressful situation badly and rather than do the “hard stuff” (grocery shopping, cooking and exercising), I did the “easy stuff” instead: I sat around, wasn’t active and ate all the take out and fast food I wanted.  That was when I learned about what is really hard: it nearly killed me. I’m not kidding. My health went down the toilet and it hurt to walk, to sit, to stand, to breathe and it kept getting worse.  It didn’t matter if I blamed myself, the Boss From Hell or anyone else: I was the one who was getting hurt, and  was the only one who could change that. Your body doesn’t care who you blame; the only thing that matters to your body is whether or not those priorities are getting done.  Are you eating healthier? Are you taking care of yourself? Are you being active?  If not, your body does not give you a pass– your health just keeps getting worse. You need to stop shifting the responsibility to others and take control of your own decisions.  (This goes for others things in addition to health and eating, too!) You don’t want to eat burgers and fries, so tell the family or whoever that you’re voting no on the fast food, and if you get outvoted, you still don’t have to eat the burgers and fries!  FYI: most fast food places have salads now, so if you’re stuck at McDonald’s or Jack in the Box, get a salad! Or eat a burger without the bun (Carl’s Jr. is advertising that very menu choice now!) You can even decide not to eat anything! Yeah, it might not be fun, but if nothing there looks appealing to you, then choose not to eat! It might be a little uncomfortable, but I’m pretty sure you won’t die! (although if you do have a medical condition that requires you eat, then eat something, even if it’s just a little thing.)

Taking responsibility sucks.  It’s right up there with grocery shopping, cooking and housework. It’s part of being an adult but I’m telling you truthfully, the cost of not taking responsibility is far too high and there are no refunds.  It’s terrible health, physical misery and growing despair.  You are the only one who can change that by taking responsibility for your decisions, by not making excuses and by not blaming others for your choices.  Your body will not give you a pass, but it will give you inflammation, extra pounds and a lot of pain. You can blame everyone else all you want: you are still one who hurts.

 

 

 

 

Keeping Your Resolutions Part 1: Change Your Mind- Change Your Behavior!

The most basic truth about permanent weight loss is that you must change your behavior.  We hear that over and over from all kinds of experts: “diets don’t work because they are temporary behavior changes! Losing the weight and keeping it off needs lasting lifestyle changes!” That means we have to make a new habit and we all know how much fun that can be (ugh).

The actual practice of making a new habit is one thing, but here’s a little trick that will help you with that: you need to change your thinking.  All our behavior starts in our head, whether we consciously think about it or not.  It’s been programmed in, usually through years of reacting the same way to the same triggers.  I realized this a few days ago when I was at work and my boss sneezed.  The first thought that popped in my head was “you can’t get sick!” This is a joke leftover from the Job From Hell: whenever anyone sneezed or coughed at that office, my boss would automatically respond with that exact phrase. The meaning behind it was obviously we all had to work until we literally dropped in our tracks and it became a joke among my co-workers since our boss’s concern wasn’t our health but her inconvenience if the office was short-handed.

I have not worked in that office since 2014, but still, whenever someone sneezes or coughs, the same thought still pops in my head. It’s a response programmed over seven years of the same triggers and it’ll probably take a while longer before it disappears entirely.

This is what makes changing behavior so difficult, because in order to change the physical actions, we first need to change how our brain reacts to various triggers.  This is how I ended up staring into the fridge after a stressful phone call from my mom.  I had just eaten dinner and I wasn’t the least bit hungry, but the trigger went off (stress!!) and the brain went into reaction mode (eat something!!) and the next thing I know, I’m in the fridge wondering “what the heck…..??” It’s a lot harder to stop your thoughts and send them in a different direction because they are so fast and so automatic.  If I were to order you “stop thinking!” your brain would still be going forward, probably along the lines of “great! how do I stop thinking about not thinking?” Even when meditation gurus mellifuously tell you to “empty your mind,” how empty does your mind really get? Your brain is a lot like a modern day computer: even when it’s off, it’s on.  The screen may be blank and it may not look like it’s doing much, but the battery is still holding a charge and the clock is still running, the memory is still there and if it’s connected to wifi, it’s probably downloading or updating something.

If you want to change your responses to triggers or even just build a new habit, you need to start in your head.  I’m not going to give you the “you need to see a hypnotist/ shrink / behavior modification therapist,” but you do need to be a little more aware of how you react to things and how you can begin making changes.  It’s not just about triggers (certain situations that cause certain reactions): it’s about changing how your world view and maybe even how you think about yourself.

Way way back when I was in college, I took a women’s health course that required us to do some outside learning, and so I took a self-defense seminar.  One of the things the instructor told us was that, as women, we have to stop thinking of ourselves as victims.  When we walk out into a dark parking lot, if our attitude is “I’m a scared little rabbit trying to get across this big empty field before a mean vicious coyote eats me,” then that’s what others are going to see.  He said we need to walk out into that parking lot with our heads up, aware of our surroundings and if there is a potential threat, we need to make sure we look them in the eye and are not afraid. Many of us, men and women, think of ourselves as victims when it comes to food and eating.  We go to the grocery store and keep our heads down as we pass the racks and racks of potato chips.  We do the same thing in the candy aisle and the bakery and wherever else we see food we used to eat with such pleasure and abandon. We are the scared little rabbit trying not to see the vicious Doritos coyote and slip past without getting caught, but if we look those Doritos right in the label and tell them, “I’m not afraid of you and you can’t make me eat you,”- yeah, I know it sounds silly- but it’s the beginning of changing our thinking and ultimately changing our behavior. There are some things that are obviously beyond our control, but there are many things in our lives that we can control, and we let them take control over us.  Food is one of those things. We hate it when we show up at a potluck and someone has cheesecake on the buffet or if someone brings cookies to the office: OMG! they’re just going to call my name all day! This kind of thinking has already programmed you for several things: 1) it is preparing you to fail at ignoring/ not eating the food; 2) it is telling you that the food controls you; 3) it is telling you that you are helpless to change.  None of those statements are true! We just need to remind ourselves of that.

I know it’s hard to look at or smell something you really enjoy.  When I came to work at this office, almost every morning my cubicle neighbor made crunchy sourdough toast in the office.  I’d smell it and hear him crunching it almost all morning and truly, bread was my hardest craving to break (sometimes it still is!)  But now when he makes it, it’s not as big a distraction as it used to be.  In fact, I made it into a game: we’d swap cooking stories or discuss the various jams we both like. Yes, the warm bread smell triggers a biological reaction in my digestive tract because that’s what food does, but when I don’t focus on it or eat anything in response to it, it eventually goes away.  The food does not control me because I have changed how I think about it.  It takes a long time, because thoughts are hard to change and on top of that, we are working on building a new habit, but it’s work worth doing.

Elizabeth Benton likes to remind her listeners that between the stimulus and the reaction, there is a pause, even if it’s just a microsecond, and in that pause is the power to change our reactions.  I admit, that it’s hard to stop our automatic reaction and decide to do something different (hence, my staring into the fridge), but once we know what our triggers are and we learn to use that pause, we are the stronger for it and it’s the beginning of changing what we used to think of as “helpless” reflexes. Knowledge really can be power, if when we feel the urge to do something we know it’s good for us, to make a thoughtful effort to use that pause to stop ourselves and do something more constructive.

Easier said than done, right?  It always is! This is what makes it so hard for people to change their habits.  We need to learn what our triggers are and plan a response that is different from what we normally do. For example, instead of eating something when I get stressed, I make a conscious effort to do something other than eating that relieves my stress. This can be posting a rant online, playing with my dog,  calling a friend or cleaning something.  It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it distracts me from my stressed out situation and it doesn’t involve eating something.

The triggers also don’t have be stress-related.  Sometimes they are in response to a celebration or just plain opportunity, as in the cookies at the office or the cheesecake at the buffet.  Those can be a bit harder to counteract, since it may involve more than just distraction, but we know ourselves better than anyone else. The key to success in these cases can be something as simple as reminding ourselves that we are not helpless when it comes to food, that it does not control you and that you are more than capable of making changes.  If you choose to eat a cookie or piece of cheesecake, it does not mean you are weak: it means you made a considered choice.  Choosing to eat something is very different than helplessly giving in because “I know I’m going to eat it anyway!” I have noticed that when I was struggling with things like cheesecake and cookies, it helped if I had one or two bites and then threw the rest away.  It reminded me that I chose to have only those two bites and decided not to eat the rest. When it comes to cookies, I get mine from a store that sells individual cookies, so I buy two and only two. I don’t want more than that and I’m not stuck with ten more cookies growing stale in the cupboard. This way, I get used to eating only two (actually one and a half, since I split one with the dog) and I only get the cookies I think are really great, because why waste the calories on a treat that’s only so-so?  And if the bakery is out of the great cookies that day, oh well, no cookies for me!

As I said, it takes a little work and a lot of repetition before we finally manage to change our programmed response.  It took me a long time before I was able to look at the cookies, cupcakes and breads and make a considered choice rather than slink by without getting caught by the bakery coyote. My automatic response was to start choosing what I wanted most and how many calories is it and what can I swap out to make it fit? Or worse yet, start rationalizing why I needed or deserved it: “it’s one piece of cake/ cookie/ bread!” Very true and even if I ate it, it’s not the end of the world or a catastrophe.  It just means that I need more practice.  For a long time, I didn’t eat any of those things and even today I still don’t eat them very often. The difference is that now, when I eat them, it’s not because I gave in or that I couldn’t control myself, it’s because I chose to eat it and enjoy it as the treat it was meant to be.  These are treats for me now, not major portions of my diet like they used to be. But slinking by them in the store didn’t really help me change my response to them.  It took a lot of looking at them, agonizing over why I was choosing not to have them, and walking away without them before I was able to walk by the bakery without even noticing.  Now when I look at them, most of the time I walk away without them without the agonizing, because I really don’t want them, no matter how stressed I am, no matter how much I want to ‘celebrate’ or whether I ‘deserve’ them or not.  They don’t taste as good as they used to, mainly because, for me, the whole ‘stress relief’ aspect is no longer there.  They no longer have the same ‘rush’ they used to have because I am no longer eating them in response to a trigger.  They are regular food to me now, and not the sweet taste of stress relief.  This is actually a good thing for me, because when I do choose to eat them, they don’t have the same pull and as a result, now it’s easier to ignore them in the stores.

Changing your thinking can take a long time, but it’s definitely worth the effort.  In changing our thinking, we change how we view ourselves and our reactions to food (among other things) and this is the first step in developing healthy new responses to old painful triggers. Be patient, be consistent and the changes will come.  Too often, people give up in the middle because they think they aren’t doing it right or that it’ll never come, but we learned these responses over years and it may take nearly as long to undo those learned responses.  Seriously, it’s taken me almost two years before I could not look at carrot cake and really really want it.  Was it worth all that agonizing in the grocery store? YES!! Now when I have it, it’s because I want it- not because it was a bad day and I need it or “it somehow ended up in my cart.” I know the urge is to make changes as fast as we can so that we can lose as much weight as we can in the shortest amount of time, but in order to make the results last, we need to make the changes permanent. We need to make the healthy new responses as automatic as the unhealthy old responses were. We are worth the effort and the agonizing.  After all, it’s a really just a piece of cake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Basics: Don’t Make it Harder than Necessary!

Occasionally, I see posts about people ‘starting again’ or I hear people talking about how they want to get started eating healthier and being more active and sometimes they seem a little bit lost or a little vague about how they want to or how they can do this.  Sometimes they start by ordering some exercise DVDs or they’ve joined the gym and went to the XYZ class which really kicked their butt! Apparently, their idea of being healthier and fitter involves getting their butt kicked regularly.

Really, there are only a few things you need to do in order to be healthier.  These work whether you want to lose weight, be more fit or just be healthier in general, and you don’t need to buy boxes of supplements, exercise DVDs or expensive shipments of diet food.  All you need to do is 1) eat better foods; 2) be more active; 3) get good sleep; 4) stay well hydrated; and 5) manage your stress.  If they sound simple, it’s because they are.  That is, the concepts themselves are simple; it’s the putting them into practice that gets a bit complicated!

Eat Better Foods: This is number one because nothing matters more than what you put in your body. I usually compare this to putting cheap gas in your car and expecting peak mileage.  We all know that ain’t happening!  Cheap gas = bad mileage! It’s the same with your own body: cheap processed foods yield poor health.  Yeah, you can eat the boxes of pasta mix and the potato chips and the frozen dinners, and just like your car, your body will still function, probably with a few knocks and pings just like your car.  You won’t have the same acceleration and after a few miles/ hours, you will need to refuel because that mileage just ain’t there.  Face it: there’s no substitution for the good stuff!  I hear some of my fitness friends commenting on how they stopped eating ‘insert processed food here’ and started eating ‘insert healthy whole food here’ and wow! they feel so much better! they have much more energy! they aren’t hungry after a couple hours! That’s because they put in the premium fuel, whether it’s cage free eggs, grass fed beef or organic sweet potatoes.  When you stop eating food that is full of chemicals, preservatives and already broken down, your body gets more nutrition from it and it runs better for longer.

Stop and think for a moment what happens when food is processed.  The food is made to last longer than it normally would, so chemical preservatives have been added, and it is made to be easily prepared and eaten, so in some cases, it is essentially “pre-digested.”  It takes your body less time and energy to break it down to extract whatever nutrients might be left in it, since processing removes a lot of the nutrition naturally in the food itself.  This is why much of our processed food has been fortified.  In many commercial breads, for example, the wheat used to make the flour has been broken down into a literal powder.  All of the fiber and germ and most of the vitamins have been stripped away, leaving essentially only the starches.  After the flour has been mixed with the other ingredients to make the dough, the manufacturers add vitamins, minerals and fiber to make it more ‘nutritious.’

This doesn’t mean that you have to give up your snack cakes or whole wheat toast and snack solely on crudité! As Elizabeth Benton (Primal Potential) often reminds us, it’s a spectrum: all you have to do is begin to make improvements. This can start as simply as giving up the breakfast bagel and eating a banana for breakfast (this is what I did). Yes, the banana still had a lot more sugar and carbs than I needed in the morning, but it was a whole food and it was better than the bagel. I stopped eating takeout for lunch and started bringing a lunch with leftover meat and veggies from dinner the night before.  You don’t have to make changes according to anyone’s schedule except your own.  When you are ready to take the next step, take it and if if that’s a week or a couple of months or longer, no problem!  You are still moving forward eating better foods!

Be More Active: This concept generally gets misinterpreted as “exercise your butt off!”  It’s part of the Calories In Calories Out (CICO) mentality: “if you burn off more than you take in, you are going to lose weight.”  The disclaimer is “until your body and metabolism adjust to the extra activity and lower fuel intake.”  Your body is designed with one primary goal: to survive as long as possible.  To do that when you are working your butt off four nights a week in the gym and eating only chicken, broccoli and protein shakes, it will lower your metabolic rate so you burn less calories to make those few you are taking in go farther; it will make you as hungry as a bear emerging from hibernation; and it will leave you absolutely exhausted. This is why the CICO method usually doesn’t work long term for most people. After losing some weight, you start to plateau and unless you make some changes, that’s where you stop.  Unfortunately, the lowered metabolic rate is usually permanent.  This is how Biggest Loser ‘winners’ end up having to limit their calories to ridiculously low amounts to keep from regaining all the weight lost.

So how do you do this without causing metabolic damage? You make slow changes.  Yes, to lose weight you do need a calorie deficit: you do need to burn more than you take in, but it doesn’t have to be a crazy high amount of exercise or crazy low intake of food.  Generally eating the same amount of calories (or a normal amount) is still okay and then you just put in some healthy exercise two or three times a week, or maybe just increase your daily amount by a small margin.  For example, if you normally get fewer than 5000 steps a day, try upping your steps to 10,000.  Even if you don’t make it that high (it can be tough if you have a sedentary job), your increased activity will burn more calories and your body won’t freak out since you are still eating a good amount of food. Lifting weights (strength training) is also a good way to be more active.  While it doesn’t have the intense calorie burn that cardio has, it has the added advantage of building muscle (you won’t blow up like Arnold- I promise!) and as we’ve all been told a thousand times, muscle burns more energy than fat, so while the act of lifting will only burn a few calories, you will put on more muscle which will raise your metabolic rate.  This means that just sitting around at your desk, your new muscles will burn more calories than your love handles do! The more muscles you have, the more calories you burn and smaller your love handles become!

One caveat here: if you don’t do a lot of exercise now, it’s extremely important that you don’t jump into an intense workout regimen all at once. That’s how people get discouraged, and more importantly, it’s how people get hurt! Going from a couch potato lifestyle to a spartan-type exercise program at best can leave you thinking you’ve bitten off too much (because you have!) to actually causing a serious injury to a muscle, joint, or worse, a heart attack! You need to take some time to learn the proper techniques, especially if you are going to be lifting.  There are ways to do exercise correctly, not only so that you get the maximum benefit but also so that you don’t injure yourself.  If you can’t afford a personal trainer or a gym membership where classes are taught by trainers, there are a lot of training videos available free on YouTube or you can invest in a DVD that is reputable and within your abilities.  Finding someone reputable is key!  Generally, if I have questions about training, I go to MetabolicRadio.com.  The hosts (Shane & Taylor) have been in fitness nearly all their lives, and if they can’t answer your questions, they will point you in the right direction!

Get Good Sleep: Yeah, I know I sound like a broken record, but this is something that really gets overlooked and it is personally one of my own bête noires.  As most of you know, I am a night person and keeping ‘normal’ hours isn’t normal for me. If I could do my job at night, I would, but there is no denying that when I get enough sleep time and it’s quality sleep (meaning I’m not waking up every couple hours or lying in bed playing mah jongg on the tablet), I have more energy, I am more alert and I feel better overall.  I also lose weight more consistently. Sleep in an important restorative component of health for your brain and your body.  When you are sleep deprived, your body is not producing the hormones necessary to repair your body and keep everything functioning at its best.  Using another car analogy, if you don’t get the oil changed on a fairly regular basis, you end up broken down on the freeway with some big expenses for towing and repairs!  Seriously, sleep deprivation is a torture technique used by some of the most ruthless regimes in history. Why do you want to do that to yourself?

There are a lot of books, blogs and podcasts that will give you some good tips on how to get quality sleep, but since I know I am atypical and that I am not alone in being atypical, here’s my advice to you: track your sleep patterns.  If you have a Fitbit, most of those will track for you as far as hours asleep, waking, and restlessness, but you will need to make your own notes about how you feel the next day. Most experts will tell you that you should sleep in a cool, dark, silent room and avoid electronics, eating and drinking for about an hour or two before you go to bed. Personally, that would be torture for me: I prefer a warmer room, with some kind of noise (even if it’s just a sleep sounds app) and I usually have some kind of nightlight showing (pets who like to sleep on the floor). I have tried the typical scenarios which usually leave me wanting more blankets on the bed, waking at every small sound I hear and staring wide awake at the dark (FYI: the pets don’t think much of it either!) Whatever works best for you, do it, even if all the ‘experts’ say it’s wrong: I have been known to sleep comfortably and well while my pets literally have a wrestling match on the bed. You will feel better when you get good sleep, your exercise will be easier and you will lose more weight (it’s a hormone thing)!

Stay Hydrated: This is my bête noire le deux! I generally don’t drink enough water, and by water, I don’t mean soda (diet or otherwise), coffee, tea or any other beverage.  I mean plain old H2O. Getting enough fluids overall is important, so even if you drink several bottles of diet soda, you are doing yourself more good than not drinking anything at all, so if it’s a choice between nothing and tea, soda or any kind of beverage, take the beverage, but if it’s a choice between ‘beverage’ and water, choose water.  It has no calories, no preservatives and it’s good for the body!  It keeps joints, muscles, the digestive tract and the brain happily humming along. We are mostly water, don’t forget, and we expel more water than we think on a daily basis.  I don’t just mean through the urinary tract and sweating: every breath we exhale has water vapor in it.  Try exhaling on a mirror: that fogginess on the glass is water vapor. We all know that dehydration will kill you, but just being chronically mildly dehydrated puts a strain on the brain, heart, kidneys, and digestive tract.  The body shows the lack of water in your hair, skin, eyes and mouth. (This is another torture technique.)

There are just as many sites that will tell you how much you should drink a day and the various formulas and minimum requirements. If I followed the last formula I found, I’d be drinking nearly 22 glasses of water a day (171 oz)! Most people follow the 8 glasses a day rule or 64 oz.  The rationale is that if you drink other beverages in addition to the eight 8 ounce glasses, you’ll be well hydrated.  Other people go for the urine test: if it’s clear or light yellow (barring any B vitamins you just took), you’re okay.  The darker the urine, the more dehydrated you are.

Personally, I have noticed that poor sleep and poor hydration go hand in hand for me: when one of them is bad, the other usually is also, and my weight loss stalls, my energy lags and my mood is pretty cruddy.  Conversely, when I get enough water, my sleep is better, my energy level and my mood improve and I lose more weight.

Manage Your Stress:  This is another stealthy saboteur. Personally I think it gets away with sabotaging us because we let it.  We hear all the advice and it’s “yeah yeah yeah, I know!” and then we don’t do anything about it. Stress is another one of ‘those hormone things’ that ends up robbing our sleep and keeping our cortisol elevated and we stop losing weight and we keep feeling really lousy.  Cortisol and adrenal fatigue aside, stress robs us of our happiness in life. We are always on edge, always worried about whatever is stressing us out and it leads us on a vicious circle- a seriously vicious circle! When we are always worried and stressed, all our bodies feel is the cortisol surge.  It doesn’t matter if it’s the suspected mugger in the parking lot or the boss buzzing us every day about that report she needs on her desk.  It’s like the goofy robot from that old tv show flailing its arms around: “Danger, Will Robinson!  Danger, Will Robinson!” It may not be life and death, but it could be, so your system is on high alert. The problem with always being on high alert is that it doesn’t get any rest.  Think about it: if you were told that at any time, a killer could jump out of the shadows, so you had to be on the lookout for this killer ALL THE TIME, how would you feel after a couple of hours?  Would you just want this situation to be over already?  I know I would. This is why people get so stressed in hospital waiting rooms: they are waiting for news on their loved ones which could come AT ANY MINUTE! They are on heightened alert and it wears on the body, even though they are literally just sitting there!

When you don’t manage your stress, the same thing happens to you.  You don’t have to start transcendental meditation or yoga in order to manage your stress: you just need to find some way to relax for a few hours every day. There are a lot of law enforcement and other high stress job professionals who make a practice of leaving work at the office.  Whatever they have going on at the office, when they come home, there is no “office talk” and they don’t bring work home with them.  I know not everyone can be that lucky, but if you don’t have to bring your work home with you, leave it at the office.  This was one of my problems when I worked the Job From Hell: when I left the office, my boss would call/ email/ text me at home, evenings and weekends, and telling her “no” was a hard thing to do. It’s on me, because I rarely told her no and just put up with all of this stress, until it began to kill me and I quit.  My boss now is much more sensible (he respects boundaries!) and when something pops in my head when I am out of the office, I just remind myself that I can take care of it tomorrow and there’s nothing I can do right now, so stop worrying about it!  I admit, it takes a little practice, but it’s worth it!

Sometimes, it’s not the office that is stressing you out and this is where an OFF switch comes in handy.  Find something in your life that is relaxing and enjoyable to you, and make a practice of doing it regularly.  For some people it’s going to the gym, reading a good book, walking the dog, or just some alone time.  It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it’s enjoyable to you!  I spend a lot of time playing with the pets, reading, doing my water aerobics, even just taking my time doing the weekly shopping.  When I am feeling particularly stressed after work, I take off the Bluetooth to my phone and turn up the music on my playlist. No one can reach me and I’m in my own little happy place at least for a little while.  In fact, one Friday night, I got stuck on the freeway behind a particularly messy car fire and it took me four hours to get home (instead of the usual hour & forty-five minutes).  There was nothing I could do about it, so I rolled down the windows and turned the music up really loud (I remember thinking “I hop they like The Lord of the Rings, because too bad!”)  Didn’t help move the traffic along, but it made me feel better! Letting go of the stress not only improves your health but it improves the overall quality of your life.  Being the most stressed out person in your family or office is not a badge of honor, it’s a slow and painful death.  It robs your life of joy and peace and makes spending time with you miserable for your loved ones.  It’s not worth it to lose what you love most in life.

So, getting started is as simple as going through the list above and making positive changes.  Take a look at the list: better foods, more activity, better sleep, staying hydrated, managing stress.  Find the areas where you can make improvements and start making them!  Don’t do a whole transformation at once: that will just add to your stress!  Try making one or two positive changes a week, and be patient.  The goal is not to change as fast as you can: the goal is to make permanent lifestyle changes that will improve your health and your life overall.  You will also find that the more healthy changes you make, the easier they become and you will be able to move faster once you get started.  It’s in trying too fast when starting out that most people stumble and give up.  Don’t try to run before you can walk and even if you stumble, don’t give up.  Just get up and keep going!

Food Addiction: The Real Addiction & Committing to Recovery

Recently I heard someone scoff at the idea of food addiction: all those people really need to do is stop shoving food in their mouths! All they need is discipline and self-control!  Of course the person making these remarks is of normal weight and has probably been in the normal range all of her life.  It was all I could do not to ‘educate’ her about the facts: if that were true, all drug addicts, smokers and alcoholics would need would be some “self-control and discipline,” and we all know that’s not true.  I know that there are chemical dependencies involved with nicotine, drugs, and alcohol, but there is also a dependency with food as well, even if it isn’t exactly the sugar, the chocolate or the carbs.  Those do have an effect on the body and brain, but on the most fundamental level, whenever someone is indulging their addiction, be it alcohol, food, meth, or nicotine, the pleasure center of the brain lights up and dopamine is released.  While we don’t exactly go into chocolate withdrawal, we do experience a kind of withdrawal.  Most of us eat in response to a trigger of some sort, usually anxiety, stress, anger or some other emotion.  These are a lot of the same triggers that cause alcoholics to drink and smokers to light up, and the pleasure center lights up in the brain as well.  We get our dopamine and whatever other chemical fix we’re indulging in, even if it’s chocolate or potato chips.  The emotional trigger is ameliorated and we can relax.  Kicking food addiction is just as hard as kicking cigarettes, alcohol or drugs, and some people say it is actually tougher: what other addictive substance do we need to survive?  You can avoid drugs, alcohol and cigarettes for the rest of your life; you will always need some kind of food to live unless you plan on being hooked up to an IV forever.

I calmly explained to this person that it’s not exactly the food that people are addicted to: it’s the behavior. For many people, eating is their coping mechanism.  Instead of choosing to drink or smoke, they’ve chosen to eat.  The situation is the same: trigger goes off and the addict follows the same behavior pattern, either pouring a drink, lighting a cigarette or opening a box of cookies.  This is how they deal with something they don’t want to handle.  It’s an avoidance behavior: I’m changing my focus to something I like when something bad happens.  (FYI: no one criticizes the exercise addict who does the same thing with running or working out because they are perceived as ‘healthy’ until the addiction starts to hurt them as well.)  The withdrawal they (we) feel is that if we don’t do this addictive behavior, we are stuck having to deal with emotions we neither want to deal with nor know how to handle: “Aack! What do I do?! What do I do?!” I am not trying to make light of this situation, because this is how it feels.  Emotionally, we are panicking because we can’t go to our coping mechanism. When people give up other addictions, they are taught other ways to cope.  This is why 12 Step meetings work so well for many addicts; it is their new stress release valve: something happened, I want to drink, I need to find a meeting!  It is a healthier alternative to cope with whatever triggers they have.

When people try to control their eating, it can be a lot harder, especially at first, because you still need to eat: you need to keep coming back to your ‘crutch’, and it’s a fine line between eating what you need to live and eating a little bit more because today was such a cruddy day.  What a lot of outsiders don’t realize is that it’s not just about having discipline and self-control: it’s about finding another coping mechanism to deal with those triggers. Like any “addiction,” some people have a harder time with it than others.  Sometimes a person needs therapy, especially if they are having a difficult time making the connection between the trigger and the addictive behavior.  It can also be that the patient needs help coming to terms with some of the root causes of their behavior, as many addicts are using their crutch to fill some kind of void in their life: “If I’m drinking/ smoking/ using, I can forget that I’m alone in life/ my mom abandoned me/ I feel like a failure.” Again, it’s avoidance behavior and eventually, we have to deal with whatever we are trying to avoid, but until we can do that, we need to change our coping mechanisms to something that is not destructive.

One of the other misconceptions about food addiction is that sometimes outsiders in an attempt to be helpful, will try to ‘save’ the addict from themselves by throwing away the ‘bad foods’ or refusing to buy it for the addicts.  The idea behind this is laudable, but in reality, all it does is trigger the addict to eat more by causing shame, anger, and stress.  This is the same thing as refusing to buy alcohol for the alcoholic or emptying out the liquor cabinet.  Until the addict commits to changing to their behavior, their addictive behavior will not change!  It does not matter if the food is in front of them, in the kitchen or down at the grocery store, they will find a way to get the food.  In fact, with phones, websites and vendors that deliver, the addict does not even have to leave home to get the foods they want.  Even a super morbidly obese bedridden food addict can get it delivered to them without ever leaving their bed. Denying the food to the addict is only postponing the inevitable: you can only delay their eating- you cannot stop it.  The food addict (like every addict) has to want to change and then commit themselves to the behavioral changes.  You or anyone else cannot force a food addict (or any addict) to change.  They have to come to that decision on their own and just wanting to change is not enough: there must be a commitment followed up by positive action.  Until they figure out why they want or need to change their behavior, the addictive behavior will continue.  Generally, once they figure out the Why, they will find a way to make it happen.

As for all addicts, there are various stages of addiction.  For some, admitting they have a problem is the hardest part; for others, it’s finding a reason to quit; and for almost all, making the commitment is an ongoing struggle, even once they have started down that path. There are days when not overeating is easy and there are days when it will be very difficult. As an ‘overeater,’ practice and routine make it easier for me. When I am in my comfortable routine, it is easy for me to walk into a convenience store, walk by the candy, chips and soda and get what I came in for without a struggle. Most days I can do the same thing in the grocery store: I can pass the bakery to get to the eggs and milk without wanting the cake, muffins or bagels.  And there are days when it’s harder to do.  But each time I pass by successfully, I am reinforcing the positive changes I have made and success feeds success.  The emotional triggers are more difficult to handle, since I have to make a conscious decision to change my behavior. It may take years for the urge to eat my negative emotions to fade away completely.  That is not surprising since it took years for that response to become firmly set in my psyche.  But the plain simple fact is that all the ‘bad foods’ in the world are not going away, and every day I have to choose not to eat them, the same way a recovering alcoholic chooses not to drink. It doesn’t even have to be my ‘drug of choice’ (breads): I can overeat broccoli and chicken breast the same as I can scarf ciabatta rolls!  I have to reinforce my commitment not to overeat every day, and as difficult as it sounds, it is as hard and as easy as I make it out to be.  I can get up every day groaning about how I have to go out and fight the urge to gobble all the chocolate and bear claws, or I can get up every day reminding myself of how great it feels to move and be active without being in pain (my Why).  I have to make the decision and no one can make it for me.

Sadly, I think the woman I was talking to about food addiction just wanted to hear that she was right and that obese people are just lazy and weak. This attitude isn’t helpful to any kind of addict. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were all as perfect as others would like us to be? All of us have some kind of crutch to get us past the bad emotional moments, even if it is something as benign as writing a scathing entry in our private journal or posting a scathing comment on social media.  For some of us, those crutches end up hurting us more than they help us.  What I would have liked to tell this woman is that calling us names and criticizing us is YOUR crutch: it makes YOU feel superior to us.

I know I am as guilty at passing judgment as everyone else  is and at times like this I need to remind myself of Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote: “with malice towards none, with charity for all.”  I am also reminded of another expression: “there but for the grace of God go I.” It’s easy to stand in a safe place and pass judgment on those whose faults are readily seen, especially when we are so good at hiding our own, even from ourselves.  I know I have quite a list of flaws, and I do my very best to keep them buried as deeply as possible! But they are still there, and they keep surfacing from time to time. I like to think they keep me humble and they keep in touch with other people’s points of view.  It is in seeing the world from another’s point of view that I find I learn the most.

A Bad Aftertaste: Dealing with Emotional Eating 

Emotional (or stress) eating is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for those of us trying to lose weight. It’s the proverbial sneak attack straight out of left field, the unseen pothole on the path to success, the sucker punch to our healthy eating plan. We can make provisions for just about everything else: the treats that come into the office/ home; the impromptu lunch/ dinner date; the dinner party full of unhealthy choices, but emotional eating? That’s not our heads talking: that’s something more primal, more visceral and more out of control.

All of us develop coping mechanisms to deal with difficult situations and emotional eating is one of many possibilities. Emotions and stress are part of everyday living. We have a fight with a family member; our boss gets on our case; unexpected bills or bad news: our anxiety and stress levels hit the stratosphere and we turn instinctively to our pressure release valve. Some of us chew our fingernails, pace, smoke, go for a run or eat our emotions. It’s a distraction like all of the other stress relievers: we’re so busy being focused on what we’re doing, we aren’t thinking of the problem that just got dumped on us that we don’t want to deal with. That’s the whole purpose: I’m avoiding my problem as fast as I can! All of these avoidance behaviors have drawbacks, some worse than others, but for those of trying to lose weight, emotional eating is a major pitfall.

In addition to distracting us from whatever our problems are, eating just plain tastes good. We aren’t focusing on whatever is upsetting us and we’re enjoying (usually) what we’re eating, so it’s a double benefit to us. The first and most obvious drawback is that avoiding the problem does not solve it, so even after we’ve finished the donuts, potato chips or whatever, we’re still stuck with whatever stress inducing issue triggered the eating in the first place; the second drawback is now we’ve probably overeaten and as result, we feel guilty, so the vicious cycle continues. The third drawback is that when we eat our emotions on top of what we normally eat, we have a tendency to gain weight, and the more problems we have, the more we stress-eat, and unfortunately the poor health that comes with obesity becomes one more trigger: we’re worried about our health, so we eat to relieve stress and the vicious cycle gets even more vicious.

Emotional eating is almost uncontrollable for a lot of us. Even if we try to be aware, how many of us find ourselves staring into an open fridge or pantry looking for anything to eat just because something stressful happened? If we become aware of our behavior at that point, we’re actually doing okay- we still have time to stop ourselves from mindlessly putting food in our mouths, but how many times have we suddenly found ourselves staring at the bottom of an empty carton of ice cream or an empty box of donuts? It’s almost an instinctive behavior that’s become ingrained in us over many years. It’s how we

console/ distract ourselves, when something bad has happened and how we reward or celebrate happy news. Food is our trusty go-to sidekick and even though we know that it’s hurting us to eat our emotions, breaking this deeply ingrained habit is not at all easy. Quitting emotional eating is on par with quitting smoking or any other addiction. Again, we’re running in circles: stress triggers the eating and the guilt over eating triggers the stress which triggers the eating. The band-aid approach is to replace the eating with something less harmful like walking or meditating, but ultimately, we have to find a way to deal with our emotions. Positive action is always the best way: a problem comes up and we move to solve the problem rather than avoiding it, i.e. the boss jumps all over us about

a project, and instead of not dealing with it, we take steps to move forward on the project. Unfortunately not all problems can be solved by us or anyone, i.e. a family member becomes seriously ill. This is the unpleasant truth and we have to learn to deal with unpleasant truths. Bad things happen; it sucks but there’s nothing we can do about it. Eating our emotions isn’t going to change this and it’s only going to compound our problems. Of course anyone who has ever had to deal with emotional eating knows it’s waay easier to say “deal with it!” than actually dealing with it! It’s like telling a lifelong smoker “ stop smoking!” and expecting them to quit cold turkey the next day. “Stop shoving donuts in your face and deal with whatever nasty issue is driving you to eat!” Not terribly effective, is it? Again, it’s a process. The first step is being aware that you are an emotional eater. How can you not be aware that you eat your emotions? Because even though there is the emotional connection (bad feeling + food = feeling better), there may not be the mental connection. I had never really considered myself an emotional eater. I was aware that I ate out of boredom and I took steps to change that behavior (this blog was actually one of those steps), but it wasn’t until I found myself staring into the open fridge after an angry phone call with my mom that I realized emotion was the only reason I was even looking for something to eat (I wasn’t hungry or bored, just upset).
Once you make the connection, it makes it a little easier to catch yourself before you finish the Ben & Jerry’s. When something emotional happens (especially something stressful), you know the urge to eat is coming and this is where you can begin taking steps to counteract it. The band-aid approach is usually the easiest way to begin tackling it: find something else to distract yourself from the negative situation. In my case, after the phone call with my mom, and I realized was looking into the fridge to avoid dealing with the stress, I knew I had to substitute something else for eating. Since I had already done a similar process with evening boredom, I used one of those techniques: blogging, journaling, doing my nails, posting online, etc. Finding an enjoyable new (or not so new) distraction is the key. It’s a baby step, but it gives you a stable if temporary place where you can feel safe while you begin to do the real work of learning to deal with your emotions. When you feel the stress and emotions building and there’s the urge to find something to eat, that’s when you make the switch: instead of eating, open up Facebook, take a long hot shower, practice deep breathing or yoga, Tai Chi or whatever your safe substitute is. If you miss that moment and catch yourself in the middle of a cookie or bag of chips, don’t berate yourself, because learning a new habit takes time. Getting down on yourself is just one more stress that will drive you back to the chips and cookies. When you do catch yourself, put away the food and dig out the yoga mat (if your life is really emotional, just leave it out! I have my go-to MFP on all of my devices, so it’s easy for me to log on!) Awareness is the most important step because you can’t fix a problem if you don’t know what the problem is! Once you are aware of your emotional triggers, that’s when you start making the positive changes. Start substituting the better behavior for the emotional eating. Once your emotions start making the connection (stress + yoga = feel better), emotional eating becomes less and less of the go-to pressure release valve. Then you can start dealing with your emotions from a safer place. Instead of feeling guilty for eating, you are actually doing something positive. For example, yoga has its own benefits aside from keeping you from overeating. It really is a good way to center your mind and body, strengthen your core and relieve stress, but sooner or later, you are going to have to deal with whatever problems you have. That may require counseling or some kind of therapy or maybe just a lot of yoga and meditation. Only you can make that decision, but one thing is certain: eating your stress and negative emotions just creates more problems than solutions.

Going to the Gym: High School Revisited

One of the most intimidating experiences for most of us is walking into the gym for the first time. Is there any other experience that can send you right back to high school faster? You walk in and right away, it feels like everyone is looking at you. Since you’re new at the gym, you’re probably not going to be feeling secure with the equipment or with your work out. In short, you’re that awkward geeky freshman again surrounded by cool confident seniors who know what’s what.

As your parents and counselors reminded you back then, even seniors were freshmen once! But telling yourself that is one thing and being confident in new surroundings is something else. It’s seems like a silly thing: “it feels awkward! I feel dorky! I don’t know what I’m doing!” But this is one of the biggest obstacles people have when it comes to going to the gym. Because we feel awkward and uncomfortable, we make excuses to avoid it, so we pay for the membership and don’t go. We mean to go, but we keep coming up with reasons to avoid the awkwardness. Not only are we wasting our money, we’re wasting opportunities to improve our health. Why? Because we don’t want to be embarrassed! The awkwardness is robbing us of our money and our chance to be healthier.

We’ve coined a new word for this awkward feeling: gymtimidation. It’s actually part of the slogan for Planet Fitness (No Gymtimidation).  I used to belong to PF and it was a very comfortable atmosphere. Most of the people I saw in my local PF were a little out of shape and wearing old sweats (much more my speed). If it weren’t for the fact that it had no pool, I would probably still be a member and I wasn’t as circumspect when I chose my new gym. The atmosphere was less important than my biggest concern: it had a pool. I was willing to put up with the gymtimidation but I started noticing a few things about the people I see at my current gym (In-Shape City), and honestly, they’re kind of amusing. Just like in high school, a lot of the people are more interested in how they look and who’s looking at them than they are in actually working out. Is fixing your hair really what you’re worried about before you exercise? Other than making sure my hair is pulled back and out of my way, I don’t care what it looks like. Ditto makeup. I definitely don’t reapply anything before getting in the pool or using the equipment.  I’m going to be wet and/ or sweaty: do I really want my eye shadow, eyeliner, makeup, etc running down my face?

There are a lot of men and women who spend a lot of time sitting around at the gym, focused on their phones and there are a lot of people who spend a lot of time making sure their workout clothes are stylish, neat and showing off their best atributes. They look more like they spent time getting ready for a date rather than getting ready to exercise and they seem to wander around the gym a lot not-exercising. (I can see a lot from the pool!)

I’m not being judgemental: they pay for their membership so they can use the gym however they want. But you can see the ones who come to work out: they may also have “cool” workout clothes, but they are the ones actually using the equipment and they are the ones who leave (or head for the locker room) looking rumpled and sweaty, usually wiping their face with a towel.  They are the ones moving from station to station in the circuit training or waiting for my water aerobics class to finish so they can swim their laps.  They are the ones who aren’t looking around to see who’s looking at them: they’re looking for the next piece of equipment they are going to use!  They are focused on their fitness, not everyone else. One of the best t-shirts I saw at the gym was on a young woman helping out a friend use a piece of equipment; it said “Gym hair don’t care.”  That phrase seemed to sum up her and her friend’s attitude: they didn’t care who was looking at them.

This is the attitude we need to work on if we do feel awkward at the gym.  We’ve paid our dues (literally) and we are just as entitled to use the facility as anyone else. Confidence, like everything else, gets better with practice.  If you aren’t confident with the equipment, ask one of the trainers to show it to you. You pay for their services and it’s to their advantage that you use the equipment safely.  Especially since the more you use it, the more you come, the longer you stay a member and the more you refer others to their gym.  (Being an unhelpful unfriendly place is not going to boost their ratings on Yelp!)  So, if you have a question, ask someone.  Most gyms have a website (or an app) so spend a little time both at the gym and online.  Classes have their pros and cons.  There’s not a lot of individual attention from the instructor, but then you also have the opportunity to blend in with the crowd.  Sometimes watching others can boost your confidence: you can get some pointers on how the exercises are done and there’s usually a little reassurance that you aren’t the only ‘newbie’ in the class.  If you are doing circuit training or another individual workout, it may be helpful to make note of the times when the gym is less crowded so there’s less competition for the equipment and fewer of those non-exercisers who might want to giggle at your rumpled sweats.

Clothing is also something to consider.  While it’s nice to have workout clothes that match (I’ve got a couple of outfits that do), the most important thing is that you’re comfortable.  You need to be able to move freely and hopefully, the clothes breathe so you can cool down and not get overheated.  My outfits match because I bought the tops and pants at the same time so, why not get a matching set?  They breathe and fit well- not too tight but not too loose so I trip.  When I leave my water aerobics class, I merely put on some dry clothes over my bathing suit since I live nearby and would rather shower at home. The clothes I put on are an old t shirt with a frayed collar and an old pair of sweats that have a safety pin permanently attached because they are too big for me now.  Now that it’s colder, I also put on a worn out hoodie with a hole in one sleeve.  As you can see, I don’t care that I don’t look cool (or maybe look a little homeless) because I’m there to get in my workout and go home.  I don’t hang around the gym to see who’s looking at me or who I might be ‘looking at.’ Unless I’m chatting with a friend from my class, I get in the pool, do my workout and then go home.  I would never work out in my old pool cover-ups because they don’t fit well enough for that but that is the only reason. I don’t want my worn out t shirt or sweats getting caught in the equipment which is why I invested in some work out clothes.

You remember when you were in high school and your parents told you that you need to learn to stand up for yourself? Ditto what mom and dad said! You own that gym. You are a paying member and the staff are your staff, so don’t be afraid to ask for help or ask questions. One of the issues that comes up occasionally in my water aerobics class is non participants trying to use the pool when class is in session.  Sometimes this is a problem because our class can be a bit large and sometimes we use the entire pool.  Our trainer is not shy about telling people who are getting in our way of working out that they need to exit the pool area until class is over at 6:30 p.m. But on at least one occasion, we had a less confident (code for b*tchy) trainer subbing in and the group of young people in the corner, while staying out of our way, were getting so loud we couldn’t hear the trainer’s instructions.  After she had to repeat herself louder and hearing others grumbling about the loud kids, the teacher in me took over and in my loudest ‘teacher voice,’ I told the kids to “keep it down over there!” and they did.  I wasn’t embarrassed about it (I was more embarrassed for our sub who was not much older than the kids).  It’s my time they were messing with.  I pay to use the gym and take this class so, knock it off, guys!

The same holds for the trainer.  It is not unusual to have a substitute trainer for our class and one of the most recent trainers was an enthusiastic young woman who was very fit and very strong.  (By the end of the session, most of us were dying to ask her when she left the Corps or if she was still a reservist!) Generally, most of us like having the occasional sub since it gives us an opportunity to try something a little different, but some of the exercises she wanted us to do were frankly out of our league.  One of them was a ‘pool-side plank’ in which we swim to the side and hoist ourselves out of the pool and hold ourselves there for 20-30 seconds.  It doesn’t sound like a long time or a difficult move, but as one of my classmates mumbled “if I could do that, I wouldn’t be in this class!” It was only one of the exercises our class had trouble with, and we were not shy about letting her know what we couldn’t do and what we were willing to try.  Most of us in this class are retired and have been doing these classes for a few years (I’m still considered a bit of a newbie).  Being shy about voicing our opinions is a rarity for us.

Thinking back to when we were those awkward scared to death freshmen, did we ever stop to consider just how those seniors grew to be so cool and confident? (I know I didn’t!)  It came through practice and familiarity.  By the end of their freshman year, they knew which teachers were hard-nosed, which could be snowed, where the best tables were in the cafeteria and where to sit in the auditorium if you didn’t want to be seen.  In short, they learned the ins and outs of the school because they were there everyday.  Unlike going to the gym, school is not exactly optional (if you want an education, at least) and it’s in showing up regularly that we learn how to use the equipment, when the gym is super-crowded and which trainers are the most helpful.  We have to put in the hours to become the ‘cool seniors’ and like being a freshman, there might be a little bit of growing pains.  The trick really is in the attitude. If your focus is on how you don’t fit in and you worry more about the cool kids liking you rather than just being yourself and working on getting good grades, you are going to have a tough time in high school.  It’s a little awkward at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty easy. Just like high school, you can make friends and develop healthy habits that will last you a lifetime (and no one will give you a wedgie in the locker room!)