I’m not sure if you noticed but our culture is insane about food. Insane. I don’t just mean that we like a lot of it. And mostly the least healthy kind. We are also obsessed with finding that magic combination of foods that will make us all look like supermodels. And a lot of us think that never eating anything at all is that magic combination – water and an occasional saltine cracker and an occasional celery stick – oh ya! And don’t forget a few kale chips. A lot of us swing back and forth between eating any & everything we want and starving ourselves out of guilt and desperation. We drink “kale juice” that tastes like…well… “kale juice” and we say to ourselves, “well if that’s what eating healthy is, it’s for the birds!” and we go back to deep fried chicken wings dipped in bleu cheese dressing. We are not right.
I think the first thing we need to do is realize that eating and exercise are personal.
My sister has told me several times that early on in her work as a dietician she realized that people’s food choices (diets) were as personal to them as their political opinions, religious beliefs, and spending habits. Whether we are aware of it or not, food is personal. And exercise is no different. Our minds, emotions, physical body are all ONE system. How we feel about our bodies (which comes from a complex web of a lot of different sources) plays out in whatever activities we choose to do. Whenever we move our bodies, we are confronted with such a vast number of emotionally charged signals and values about them, that just exercising becomes a very personal space.
What makes matters harder is that we, as a culture, seem hell-bent on acting like we are unaffected by anything. We are all “too cool for school,” as my friend Jeremy would say. Taylor Mali actually wrote a poem about how this uber-coolness affects our language choices and the way we converse with one another. Indeed, I have become most aware of this phenomenon while realizing how much most of my students resist being moved by texts – poems, stories, articles, essays, films. They resist being moved because they don’t want to have to face what this new information means in their lives. They don’t want everyone around them to think they are “uncool” and they don’t want to change. In most classes, there is a small handful of criers or seekers or especially sensitive students that I’ve caught at just the right time but many of my students are not moved, refuse to be moved because, ultimately, it’s just not cool.
So food and exercise is personal but we don’t want to admit that they are personal. We want to believe we can just let go of old eating behavior, swear off our mother’s lasagna forever, force ourselves to eat tofu even if the thought turns our stomachs. We want to believe we can just get up off the couch and start powerlifting, running marathons, win body competitions – even if just walking up a flight of stairs gets us winded. But food and exercise are so connected to our emotional and spiritual lives that it simply doesn’t work like that. If you swear off your mother’s lasagna, force yourself to eat tofu, drink only raw juice for a week, head into the gym and hit the weights and treadmill as hard as somebody who’s been doing it for 15 years – chances are, you’ll make yourself miserable. And the only result is going to be you feeling like a failure, telling yourself, “I can’t eat healthy” and “I don’t like to workout” and feeling disdainful of all those people who can and do.
This brings me back to Brendan Brazier who gives the most radical fitness advice I’ve ever read: If you don’t like to exercise, don’t (right away). What? I had to read this entire paragraph five times over to make sure I understood what he was saying correctly. And, indeed, he means what he says. If you don’t like to exercise, don’t (right away). Wow.
See, overall, Brazier’s book is really not that much different from any other book about exercise. They all boil down to roughly the same points (move your ass, within reasonable limits) BUT his initial approach is wildly different from most books on the subject. That’s because he seems to begin with the basic premise that health is personal. Brazier begins with a discussion of how stress is related to physical fitness, exercise and willpower. He explains how willpower is related to enjoyment. We gain the willpower to do things we dislike doing by doing the things we enjoy doing. For some of us, working out IS the thing we do so that we have the willpower to do all of those things we dislike doing (like grading essays). But for many of us, especially those of us just trying to start a new fitness regimen from ground zero, exercise requires willpower. Brazier’s point is that if exercise requires a great deal of your willpower – you’ll need to build up some willpower first before you even try to do it. He doesn’t say it directly but this is, in part, a description of how and why exercise is personal.
What we eat and the way we move our bodies are both physical manifestations of our mental and emotional selves.
Friends tell me all of the time that I’m a “healthy eater” and they don’t mean this in the way that my dad or my friend’s parents’ used to mean it when I was a kid – back then, I was a “healthy eater” because I ate A LOT and like a “good girl,” cleaned my plate. Honestly, I’m not exactly sure what my friends mean. I think they mean I eat a shit-ton of vegetables and I’m conscious about how much meat, saturated fat, and nutrients I’m taking in. I think they mean I’m often counting calories and making sure I don’t overeat. I think they mean I cook almost all of my own meals at home. For me, that’s healthy. So, that’s cool that they notice that I guess.
There are probably millions of books and websites with an explanation of “how to eat healthy” but they all boil down to three basic rules: 1) eat real food; 2) do not eat too much of it; 3) eat mostly plants. These are the three basics found in Michael Pollan’s “Food Rules” (which I HIGHLY recommend for anyone who thinks that healthy eating is confusing). I would tweak Pollan’s rules in this way (though he mostly covers these points too in his book): 1) eat real food that you enjoy; 2) be aware of how much food you need and don’t eat more or less than that; 3) eat mostly plants (this one is hard to improve upon); 4) realize food is personal and be gentle with yourself when you make what you perceive to be, "a mistake."
These rules are simple but if you eat nothing but processed food or fast food all day long, they are not easy to adhere to. The one thing EVERY healthy diet has in common is to cut as much processed and fast food out of your diet as possible. So, if that’s all you eat – these rules are a personal attack, these rules will piss you off – which is why I’ve added number 4. Part of “eating healthy” and “being healthy” has to be accepting yourself for where you are right now and accepting the fact that there are only so many changes you can reasonably make at one time.
And here’s this: There is no magic diet. There is no magic workout. Paleo. Vegan. Gluten-Free. Low-Fat. Atkins. Mediterraean. Cross-fit. Zumba. Soul Cycle. Whatever. What do YOU like? What does YOUR body want? Start there.
Someone tells you that P90X is the best way to get into shape and you try it and hate it (I mean, really, who can listen to that guy's voice for an entire hour!?), TRY SOMETHING ELSE. P90X is awesome for your friend but not for you. This doesn’t make you a terrible, unhealthy person. It makes you different from your friend. Guess what? You are a unique individual – there’s no one like you on this planet. Wake up to yourself!
Someone tells you that you have to try a Gluten-Free diet because they’ve tried it and it made ALL of their problems disappear? You try it and after 24 hours and half-a-loaf of millet bread later, you want to start hurting small animals? Guess what? It’s NOT FOR YOU!
I became curious about Brendan Brazier’s Vegan lifestyle and athleticism NOT because I want to be vegan –though I’ll fully admit, I’ve always admired Vegan philosophy—but because I’m trying to figure out how not to eat dairy (because I’m at least mildly lactose intolerant) and because I just read The China Study which is about the link between cancer and animal protein. And, because I like to cook, I like to find new ways of getting the protein my family and I need without it all coming from meat. Whatever changes I make in MY diet based on Brazier’s book will be changes that will be right FOR ME, not necessarily for anyone else. In my own triathlon training, too, I’m struggling with the relationship between eating and working out – finding the right balance of fueling for workouts but knowing when enough is enough (which, again, is difficult because of my propensity toward compulsive overeating) – particularly with regards to protein. While reading Brazier, I may have accidentally discovered that somewhere along the way I also started forgetting to have fun with this triathlon thing. So, now I’m also on a mission to regain my attitude of fun towards my workouts instead of just forcing myself through them.
I have wanted to be a group fitness instructor for a very long time – I think the first time I thought about becoming a fitness instructor, I was twenty or twenty-one (20 years ago!). But, here’s the thing, I’m curvy and my weight fluctuates so while I’ve always wanted to teach fitness, I’ve been worried that I don’t “look” like a fitness instructor. Ironically, I remember first wanting to be a group fitness instructor for this very reason. I wanted other curvy girls to know that they didn’t have to be a stick figure in midriff-exposing spandex (which is what EVERY fitness instructor in the late 80s- mid 90s looked like, at least to me) to be “fit.” Over the past few years, I have worked toward my ACE group fitness instructor certification, I’ve also completed nine sprint-distance triathlons and a handful of other races and I’ve discovered the awesome health benefits of strength training. My journey toward health and wellness has been a very long one -- it probably began sometime around the time that I joined the track team in sixth grade. Each time my weight has dipped down into a place where people might consider me “thin” they always assume I have just recently found some magic diet or magic workout that is making it happen. They want to know my secret. Inevitably, when some of the weight comes back, they assume that I’ve failed at whatever trick I was trying and that I am no longer “healthy.” But I have been “healthy” (and gradually healthier and healthier) by a lot of standards for a long time and it has taken me all this time to realize that my weight, alone, doesn’t make me “healthy” or “unhealthy.” When I look back at the long continuum of the journey that I’ve been on, the times when I felt the best and probably looked the best (and there have been a couple of occasions where I was too thin – so I’m not just talking about thinness) was when I was happy. I was enjoying myself. I was having fun.
When I am having the most fun, I'm active all day long. I'm active with my kids. I workout. I walk briskly at work. I break up my desk-work with little bouts of exercise. I'm walking the dog regularly. I eat sanely. I have energy and I'm almost constantly active. I've recently learned about a phenomenon among athletes that causes a fair amount of unhealthiness, even in people we'd imagine are "fit," wherein they become sedentary in every other aspect of their lives outside of their sports. I've probably only recently learned about this phenomenon because I've only recently started thinking of myself as an athlete and started reading articles and books geared towards athletes. This is definitely what was happening with my tri-training. I would push myself so hard in my "workouts" that I was too tired to play with the kids or walk at work or be mindful of my food intake or break up my desk-work with little bouts of exercise or even to walk the dog! So, this is MY new challenge. How do I hold onto the training but keep all of the activity and thus, the fun and happiness? Oh, I'll figure it out. The roller skates are definitely helpful.
I feel like this post should end with advice. Because most writings about food, exercise, health, etc… end with advice. As an English instructor who has to teach people how to find reliable sources, I would urge you to find reliable sources when it comes to questions about your health and happiness. As a newly certified Fitness Instructor, I believe Brendan Brazier is one such reliable source so I’ll end with his basic advice. Reduce unnecessary stress in your life and find whatever it is YOU enjoy doing (& eating) and do it. Accept who YOU are (first!).
I, for example, am a mermaid. There’s nothing insane about that.
Namaste, your QP