I’ve been meaning to write about fitness and diet for awhile because it’s something I think about a lot. I haven’t always been the type to think about fitness or diet, but I went through an enormous evolution when I got out of high school that changed me from a gym class ditching munchie machine to a weight-obsessed gym junkie. I suffered through hunger and endless gym sessions hoping to be thin and beautiful because I didn’t think either of those descriptions would ever fit me. I pushed and pushed and pushed until someone eventually asked the right questions and I found myself in a therapist’s office trying to peel back the layers of uncertainty and fear that were dictating how I treated my body. I got to the heart of the matter and tried to move on, but the desire to be thin has never faded.
After all these years I now assume it won’t fade, so I try to keep a positive attitude and make exercise and healthy eating a part of my life rather than tools I use for torture. Torture still happens, but the fitness culture of late, with its Tough Mudders and CrossFit, seems to encourage torture, using advertising that shows fit young people working themselves into a hot mess, pushing through injury, and recharging with electrolyte water all in the name of fitness. Torture is commonplace and if you’re not torturing yourself, you’re not trying hard enough. At least that’s what they want you to think.
For the average person who has regular obligations, fitness takes a back seat and food isn’t so much fuel, but more of a salve for all the stress. If you’re reading this you likely have a full pantry and fridge, money in your pocketbook, and maybe even an unused gym membership. In my observation, many people try to make healthy eating and exercise a part of their life, without much success because of the glitchy thinking we have about what those things actually mean. What is healthy eating? What counts as exercise?
Is healthy eating a low-carb diet? Primal, caveman, Atkins? Is it cabbage soup or grapefruit? Meal-replacement shakes and diet pills? What about salads, skinless chicken breast, fat-free devil’s food cake? Should you cut out sugar or fat or starchy vegetables? Which fats are good? Is it better to eat margarine or butter? What do those calorie counts on menus mean? These are confusing questions because one diet contradicts another and nothing is one-size-fits-all. So what do we really need to know? There are some helpful facts that should be kept in mind for deciding what and how much to eat.
Protein is the so-called “building block of our cells”. We need protein to grow, to heal, and to survive during food scarcity (not that this should ever be a problem), so it’s obviously essential, but so are fat and carbohydrates. You need roughly 0.36 grams of protein for each pound of body weight if you are sedentary. You shouldn’t be sedentary, so up this amount relative to the amount of physical work you do, i.e., you exercise a little, you need a little more protein; exercise a lot or have a very physical job, you need a lot more protein. You also need more protein as you age so you have the resources to maintain cell function. Anytime you’re feeling sluggish, heavy, foggy, and dull, try adding some more protein to your diet. Dieticians, which I am not, recommend approximately 20-30% of your calories come from protein.
(I’m an ethical vegetarian and I coast the line on veganism, so I’ve been doing this for over seven years and I have never had an issue with protein intake. I tell everyone to just try cutting out meat for one day during the week or one meal every day. No meat on Mondays, no meat at breakfast, whatever you can do, you’ll make a difference for the animals. That’s just my two cents about vegetarianism. Just remember: if you want to give it a go and something doesn’t feel right, try to figure out what your diet might be missing. For vegetarians/vegans, it might be protein, but iron and vitamin B12 are more likely culprits.)
Carbs are the body’s favorite energy source. Whatever you eat turns into fuel for your cells and the best fuel is glucose (complex sugar). The brain absolutely needs glucose to function, you need carbs to have energy, to think, to be active. Your body will use carbs first, then fat, then muscle (protein) for fuel. That’s the idea with low-carb diets: if your body isn’t getting a regular influx of carbohydrates to keep it going, it will start using fat. This is also the idea with low-calorie diets, but people like talking about carbs more than calories for some reason, so carbs have a bad name and protein is considered superior. But like I said, the brain uses glucose to function. It’s a caloric hot house for sugar! The rest of the body needs carbs, too, but the brain is made of fat and nerve tissue, so it has to have a fuel source other than fat: carbohydrates. At least half your calories should come from carbs, but those carbs should be so-called “good carbs” which means they should have fiber and not be derived from refined sugars like white and brown sugar. Fructose in fruit, lactose in milk, glucose in whole grain foods.
Fat protects our organs, helps keep things flowing smoothly through our digestive system by serving as a lubricant, and is the second choice fuel source for our cells. We need fat, but fat is calorie-heavy and should only make up about 20% of our daily intake. Fat is important, which flies in the face of almost all 1980s diet fads, but moderation is the key here with everything. There are healthier fats, such as olive oil and coconut oil, and healthier fatty foods, like avocados and nuts. But go ahead and use butter on your toast and have an egg or two for breakfast, just don’t fry the egg in bacon fat (and avoid the bacon entirely for the animals). And opt for olive oil and vinegar on your salad, then toss on some toasted almonds or walnuts. Have some cheese! Just not a ton and not all the time. Spread the fat out over your day and enjoy it because it tastes good.
That’s actually the point with all this diet stuff: food should taste good and if it does, you won’t need a lot, hence you’ll cut calories. If you’ve convinced yourself you can’t diet because you love cheese and ice cream too much to give them up, don’t give them up. Don’t give anything up to your diet (except meat), just learn how to moderate your intake. I love sweets, I eat chocolate and candy every day, but I eat them in moderation, cutting out calories elsewhere to make room, so to speak, for those higher calorie foods. I also throw caution to the wind sometimes. But I do workout a lot…
Do you workout? I actually don’t know very many people who do traditional workouts regularly, except my friends who are in the military, but even they might only put in real effort when physical test time rolls around. What counts as a workout? Some people might say you have to go to the gym, for which you pay a fortune every month, every day and sweat for at least an hour either on a machine or in a HIIT class, then lift weights and do a yoga class. If that’s your thing, that’s your thing. This used to be my thing: I would get to the gym, hop on a machine for fifteen minutes, then take an hour-long Pilates class, followed by an hour-long Nia dance class, then round it off with an hour-long Tai Chi class. The rest of the week I would row for five minutes to warm up, then use an elliptical for forty-five minutes, then swim for an hour. Like I said: torture.
But I liked it and I liked the results. Then we moved and the awesome YMCA we had was replaced by an overcrowded, overpriced gym with few classes and nowhere near enough machines. And zero parking. And there was so much else going on at that time in my life that I barely went to the gym and was definitely eating for comfort. Needless to say, I gained some weight. When we moved again I decided it was time to stop paying for a gym membership and start assembling our home gym. This is obviously not an option for everyone, whether it be because space is limited or the volume of equipment you want access to is quite expensive. If you have a gym membership and you like it, use it, and couldn’t replicate your go-to routines at home, keep at it. But if you’re like me and you use an elliptical or a bike for cardio and a small selection of weights + body weight exercises for strength, maybe cashing in that super expensive gym membership would be worth it. My husband is the same way, so we have several pieces of equipment, including a heavy bag, kettlebells, and a Voss system (like TRX).
The other thing we do every day is go for walks. We establish a walking routine as soon as we’ve arrived at a new destination. And not just because we have dogs; we have always walked a lot, even before we had our older dog. In fact, our older dog and our puppy can’t handle our long walks, so they ride in the stroller with the Toddler. She sometimes wants to walk and will go like crazy for a little way, but she’s tuckered out quickly, so she’s in the stroller with her two dogs. It’s stupid-cute. So I take everyone for a long walk in the morning and then we take the Toddler alone at around dusk to relax her enough to go to sleep without a struggle. One of us will take the dogs on a quick stroll so they can do their business, as well. On days when I’m not sure I’ll get a chance to do a full workout, I’ll take an extra long walk, hit a couple hills, all while pushing a stroller filled with two dogs and a toddler. Last Friday I did two long walks, my full workout and some other stuff outside the house, which resulted in my first 25,000 step day since I started wearing my FitBit.
My point here is to say that exercise doesn’t have to be hard or take a really long time. It also doesn’t have to be something you hate. I am not a great runner. I’m knock-kneed and I have short legs, so trying to get up to run every day would be pretty annoying. I do like watching a program or reading a book while I workout, so I really like interval training on an elliptical. If I had to do it without any kind of entertainment? Not gonna lie, I would hate it and probably wouldn’t do it, so I make it fun for me, I make it about me. If I can carve out forty-five minutes every day to run and watch a show, that might be the only time I get to myself all day. I could nap, I could watch a show or read without being on my machine, I could even get some stuff done, but I like the way I feel after I step off the machine. I know it reduces stress for me and gives me more energy. I do skip it sometimes, but not often. I try to have one rest day a week, but it’s occasionally two or three days of rest. I accept it and keep moving. I also love pilates and dancing, doing hard labor to actually feel my body working, and kayaking, so I’ll do those things, too. With a FitBit on my hip, I feel even more motivated to make that little sucker tick upwards. Movement is good! Just move!
That’s me when I was seven months pregnant. I didn’t work out much while I was pregnant, but I also didn’t eat a lot or gain excess weight, so I bounced back and even lost extra weight quickly, which was nice. My weight does fluctuate due to stress, sometimes up and sometimes down, but I’ve been within the same range for several years now. Back when I was torturing myself I burned several pounds quickly and had a hard time turning it around. But I’ve maintained a healthy weight, for the most part. I do work hard, I do choose to workout instead of having another snack. I have made these habits a part of my everyday life. It’s not hard, you just have to choose to do it. If you have a goal in mind, make it specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and put a timeline on it. Also plan a little reward for reaching it, like new running shoes or a massage. Make the time for fitness, cook at home for yourself to control your calories, brag your ass off when you start seeing results, but spread the joy and tell people what you’re doing to change. Revel in how good you feel and remind yourself of that every time you doubt yourself.
Now go for a walk and listen to a podcast.