Archive for February, 2009
Getting healthy is hard, especially when you started at such an unfit condition as I did. It takes discipline, effort, and commitment. It also takes a long time, so you have lots of opportunities to screw it up. Most people can probably keep up with any kind of fitness regime for a few weeks or months.
After a while you may eat the wrong things more often, or neglect to exercise as much as you probably need to, or consume too many calories a day. You may start to plateau in your weight even though you’re eating right and exercising. Heck, you may start gaining weight back again. All of these things are extremely frustrating and hurt your long-term progress.
I’ve had some setbacks that I had to correct. My “every once in a while” foods became more frequent in the Winter, when it was also cold enough outside to make it hard to walk and otherwise be active as often as I needed to. I found myself craving high-calorie “comfort” foods. I stopped going to the gym as often. My daily feedback cycle was causing me to get even more discouraged – even on days when I did everything right I wasn’t losing weight, or wasn’t losing as quickly as I’d hoped.
What Causes Diets and Exercise Plans to Fail
As I’ve been having some success at losing weight and staying on track even after some setbacks, I’ve thought a lot about what factors contribute to my failure so I can figure out how to avoid them. I have problems with seasonal depression, and the changes I’d been making to my body only exacerbated my condition once the cold Chicago Winter came.
I was making a list of these factors when I had an epiphany and realized that they all stemmed from the same root cause. What causes people to abandon clean livin’ and start doing the wrong thing is despair. Despair about such minuscule improvements after putting so much hard work into exercise. Despair about those times when you didn’t have the self-discipline to eat as healthily as you know you should. Despair about how long it’s going to take to get healthy, and whether or not the effort you’re putting into the process really feels like it’s paying off.
Physical fitness is fueled by the hope of a healthy and attractive body; despair is the loss of hope. It’s the opposite of hope – giving into weakness and taking the easy route toward a harder life.
You’d think that everyone would eat healthily considering the benefits – looking and feeling better, living longer, being able to perform physical feats, and being the best version of yourself that you can be. So why doesn’t everyone always do the right thing?
The fact of the matter is that getting fit is going to take a lot of time and effort, and you’re going to slip because you’re human. You’re supposed to slip and do the wrong thing from time to time. It’s like holding your breath – eventually you’re going to have to take another. You can’t torture yourself or you won’t stick to the process. I’ve found that it doesn’t even help to build wrong days into your schedule, because it’s hard to tell when that craving for chocolate brownies is going to strike, and if you plan to eat one anyway when you don’t really even want one, well, that’s just working against yourself.
So the only trick to dealing with despair is to not give into it. In other words, don’t despair about despairing. Remember why you’re trying to be healthier in the first place. Here are some tips to avoid the trap of falling into despair and staying on your path to a fitter and healthier body:
- Get regular feedback about your progress. If you’re weighing-in every day you can’t gain that much weight by eating one bad meal. Or even a few. If you see the scale go up in the morning, you can reaffirm your goals for the day on the day that it matters.
- Reassess your goals at least once a week. How are you working toward getting healthier? What could you do better? What stumbling blocks are standing in your way?
- Look back. How much progress have you made so far? Look at photos of yourself from a few months ago. Do you want to go back to that?
- Remember: you’ve been doing this, which means you can do this. If you can do it for one month you can do it for another month.
Anything less than forward progress means that you did all that hard work for nothing. There is no option but success.
Shame is like everything else; live with it for long enough and it becomes part of the furniture.
— Salman Rushdie, Shame: A Novel
One of the hardest psychological stumbling blocks to overcome is a feeling of shame about your condition. Unlike alcoholism, cancer, depression, and other diseases & afflictions, anyone with eyes can see your weight problem. If you’re as grossly obese as I was, people can tell from pretty far away. “Oh look, there’s a fat person.” An overweight person’s body is a mark of shame that would make Hester Prynne blush.
Feelings of shame are manifested when trying to do common things in a world made for thin people. I had a difficult time fitting into most armchairs, theatre and airplane seats, putting a seat belt on in someone’s compact car, and so on. I’m also pretty tall, at 6’4″, which compounds the problem, but isn’t something I feel shame about, because I’m naturally tall – but I made myself fat.
Guilt vs. Shame
Guilt is the feeling of having done a wrong thing. Shame is the feeling of being a wrong thing. I see a lot of advertising for low(er)-calorie snack foods that come with the promise of being “guilt-free,” but I’ve never seen any foods as promising a release from shame.
What causes shame about our body-image? While not being able to fit into small spaces itself can be embarrassing, most of my shame regarding my weight was related directly to food and eating.
I found that eating in public, especially if I was eating something less than healthy, made me particularly self-conscious. Most of the time I don’t really care about what other people think, but this in particular made me feel really uncomfortable. Maybe it fed into (excuse the pun) my already intensely negative feelings about my body. For me, eating something like an ice cream cone at a street faire or neighborhood festival is so unpleasant that I just stopped doing it. Granted, I shouldn’t be eating those things regularly anyway, but as someone who enjoys food the shame that I feel about my weight impacts my enjoyment.
While I have a pretty thick skin about most things, I am more sensitive about my body. To a certain extent I can take a fat joke – and they’re usually not very clever. Yeah, I’m fat. I get it. Har har. It can be especially hurtful when you hear friends or family members make a crack about your weight since these are the people you rely on for support, but I can’t be too hard on them. We live in a society that values super-thinness and derides the obese.
My friends have been very very supportive for the most part. They ask me how my progress is going. If they do see me eating something that doesn’t help me achieve my fitness goals, they may say something about it being “not exactly clean livin’, eh?”
One of my co-workers tells me that he hopes I lose weight, but not to the point where I get super-fit, because I’ll be insufferable about it. I tell him that being smug about having lost a lot of weight is one of my primary motivators. He’s put on some weight himself since he’s gotten married, and I joke with him that he’s my own personal Dorian Gray picture – he’s putting on the pounds that I’m losing. Every Monday morning I would tell him how much weight he gained last week based on how much I’d lost. So yes, even I am guilty of making light of other peoples’ weight, although if you knew this co-worker you’d encourage me to be crueler to him. He’s one of those people who talks smack about everything (but in a fun way – he’s actually a really good guy and a friend).
This is the point where I’d usually offer a helpful tip or trick telling you how I overcame this problem, but the fact is, I haven’t. I still feel a little ashamed of my eating habits, especially if I eat something unhealthy in a public place. I don’t know if it’ll ever get better. The only thing I can tell you is that I try to use my shame as a tool to help keep myself on track. I may eat a cheeseburger and fries from time to time, but the people at the restaurant didn’t see me walk four and a half miles to get to there, or the 45 minutes of weight lifting I did that morning.
Shame isn’t always a bad thing as long as you can learn how to use it to help you meet your goals.
I’m pretty sure there’s a lot more to life than being really, really, ridiculously good looking. And I plan on finding out what that is.
— Ben Stiller, Zoolander
After a particularly brutal Chicago Winter the cold weather lifted for the first time this weekend and so everyone, including your humble narrator, was out and about. I’ve been trying to be more active, but it’s hard when the cold weather makes your whole body hurt. I’ve been having issues with muscle contractions and overall tightness in my muscles and joints all season, so it was nice to get out and walk in the (relatively) warmer air. The temperature reached a high of 55°F on Saturday.
The warmer weather came at a very opportune time for me, as I was >this close< to hitting the 700 mile milestone since I’ve been keeping track of my walking (other than incidental walking at work, in stores, etc.). I figured I’d probably be able to get out and walk the nine miles I was shy of this milestone over the weekend. Since the weather was so nice, and I’d been cooped-up for so long, I actually crossed that milestone on Saturday alone, walking a little shy of twelve miles in about four hours (an average of 3mph over that length of time is pretty good for me – it means I probably started out at closer to 4mph for the first mile or two).
I was exhausted at the end of my long walking. I also walked another mile home after meeting some friends, putting me at 704 total since the end of July. To put that into perspective, that’s about the distance from Chicago to Philadelphia, or like walking from my new home to my old home over a period of six months.
One of the tools I’ve been using to track how far I walked when I don’t start out with a pre-fab route is Walk Jog Run, run by (excuse the pun) a couple of friends and co-workers. I had checked out their site when we first met, and then didn’t really use it again until I started on my exercise routine and wanted to see how far my walk to work was (it was ≈ 2.5mi). Now I find it invaluable for logging my progress and seeing how far I’ve walked, which sadly is never really as far as it feels while I’m walking it.
An early Google Maps mashup, Walk Jog Run incorporates Google maps with custom pins and overlays to allow you to place markers on a map and show the route you’ve travelled (or are planning to travel) along with a tally of the distance of each leg and total distanced walked, jogged, or run.
One of the things I love about it are the mile markers (the yellow diamonds on the map) that make it really obvious exactly how far you’ve traveled. You can save a route you travel often (like I do with my walk to and from work) or take a look at other people’s public routes to get an idea from other users of the site. I’ll definitely be taking a look at more public routes in the future. Right now I like to just go to a new neighbourhood and get my wander-on. I’m still relatively new to Chicago, so it’s nice to get to know a place by walking around it. I also have my iPhone to keep me from getting too lost when I’m in a new place.
Walk Jog Run doesn’t really work on the iPhone unfortunately, but there is a native iPhone app in the works according to the site’s Twitter stream.
Another feature I like is the overlay at the base of the map showing you how long your current route will take to travel given your velocity (I pick an average of 3mph) and how many calories you’ll burn (approximately) based on your body weight. I know the caloric data isn’t that accurate, but it’s pretty close, and good enough for a quick evaluation.