Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Great Fitness Secret

It seems like everyone has a fitness secret. Boost your metabolism, suppress your appetite and lose 20 pounds in a week using acai berries! saffron extract! green coffee! grapefruit! (I'm pretty sure someone out there is thinking about giving those a try right now. "OMG! Coffee? I like coffee! Maybe that will work!")

But we all know what the horrible truth is: we need to eat less and exercise more. And who wants to do that? Eating lots of unhealthy, fattening junk is fun. Exercising is not. (If you like leafy greens and exercise, I may still love you, but I think you're crazy. And wrong. And also just not a food addict.)

Fortunately, here's the real secret that no one ever tells us: "less" and "more" are relative. I only have to eat one bite of kale to eat more than I've eaten all week. I only need to do one sit-up to do more than I've done in months. I only need to eat 5 cookies today to eat fewer than I did yesterday. (If you don't count the brownie and ice cream. Which I don't.)

I don't know about you, but trying to do just a little better is hard for me. I'm a perfectionist living in a society that values winning and broadcasts the ruthless mockery of flaws everywhere from supermarket tabloids to late night TV to every last popular spot on Internet. Nearly every message we get from the diet industry, the media and health professionals tells us that better isn't good enough. If we aren't willing to exercise twenty minutes a day, cut out all junk and sweets and lose lots of weight, then there's no value in trying. If we can't be perfect, we shouldn't bother. And we shouldn't wait for perfect to emerge slowly; we should have it now!

But over the years, I've found that when I try to make those monumental changes, I'm bound to fail, and then feel worse and more hopeless and less likely to change. So, this time around, I aimed for slow change instead. I ate "less." I focused only on eating smaller portions, not on what was in those portions. Chocolate chip cookies for breakfast? You bet! Just not a whole plate of them. And I exercised "more." For months, the only exercise I got was a short (1/4 mile) walk a few days a week and pushups three times a week. But I wasn't on the couch.

And the thing is, it works!

I was looking at a picture of myself this week. I bought some new exercise pants, and I had my daughter take a picture, so I could see how I looked. And the first thing I saw when I looked at that picture were my slouchy shoulders and bad posture. The ways in which I wasn't perfect. The negatives! Go figure. Sure, I knew I'd lost some weight and the pants looked good and I thought that maybe if I squinted, I could see some definition in my arms, but overall: slouchy!

So, I decided to compare it to a picture from a year ago. And wow! Suddenly I could see the progress. Forget the slouchy posture. Hell, yes, I could see definition in my arms! I could see layers of unhealthy fat gone. I could see a much stronger, fitter body.

My friends saw it and said, "What's your secret? How did you do it?" Eating less and exercising more!

I ate cookies every day, but fewer of them. I used MyFitnessPal to track my calories and got a kitchen scale to make sure I wasn't overdoing my portions, but I didn't worry too much about changing what went into those portions. Having a budget for calories helped me cut lots of empty calories naturally. (Do you know how much spinach you can eat for the amount of calories in a single ounce of chips? Enough to burst.)

And I exercised more than not at all. I don't have a gym membership or a personal trainer or even a workout plan. I danced to the Wii. I took the stairs. I walked. I used the program. And I didn't exercise every day. Sometimes I did nothing for months. But it was still more than I used to.

And slowly, gradually it worked, until I could look back over the year and see that those tiny changes have added up over time into something new and grand.

Any change takes effort, so I won't say that this secret, incremental as it may be, is a completely pain and effort free way to transform yourself. There have been times I've been hungry and struggled with cravings and have denied myself that one more serving anyway. There have been times I've made myself use the stairs when I wanted to take the escalator or take a walk when I didn't want to go outside or do a few pushups when I was tired.

And there have also been times when I've given in and sucked down a day's worth of calories in five minutes, or months when I kept my butt firmly planted on the couch. But those weren't really failures. They were my baseline. I was going to do all that anyway. Instead, the times I didn't (even the smallest efforts) were my successes. I was doing better than I had before. And I kept trying. And over time, enough days of better made a difference.

Eat less. Exercise more. In whatever way works for you (which will not be quite the same as what worked for me.) But don't be perfect or buy in to the myth that you must do some set minimum to see a benefit. Something is better than nothing. Do something. Imperfectly. And in a year, you will look back at yourself amazed at how far you've come in tiny steps.

1 comment:

  1. "But those weren't really failures. They were my baseline. I was going to do all that anyway. Instead, the times I didn't (even the smallest efforts) were my successes." -- I LOVE this perspective!