This morning I read a blog post on A Beautiful Mess, a blog I’ve been falling in love with lately. In the post, Emma details how she made some lifestyle changes that helped her become healthier, and incidentally, happier. She talked about how important it is to make small, reasonable changes that can be sustained over a lifetime, and implicit in her piece is that fact that when you incorporate healthy habits because of how they make you feel, not how they make you look, you’ll make yourself much happier.
Emma’s story prompted me to share my own circuitous path to a healthier life. I think women don’t often talk about health and fitness in positive ways. We have learned to focus on what we look like, how skinny we are, rather than how we feel. We are taught all about crash diets and extreme boot camp fitness routines so we can lose 10 pounds in a week or whatever. I’d love to hear more women talk about how they feel in their bodies, and how they found a way to live positively in them, so I’m sharing my own story, in the hopes that you’ll share yours.
I was never an athletic kid, growing up. I didn’t play team sports, I didn’t take dance classes. I walked, and rarely ran, the mile in PE class. I thought that being a jock was diametrically opposed to being a nerdy reading girl, which I most definitely was. I also didn’t know what nutritional eating was all about. My mom did her best to feed us well-rounded, healthy meals, but I gorged myself on fast food and Pepsi when I was outside of the house. So by the time I was 18, I didn’t exactly have a solid set of health habits (let’s not even talk about the fact that I started smoking at 15, because I was clearly dumb and rebellious).
I did occasionally do aerobics in high school: I had the Cindy Crawford work out videos, and the Susan Powter work out videos, and even the Jennie Garth work out video. But I didn’t do any of this often enough or consistently enough to make any difference in how I felt about my body. I worked out because I thought I was fat, not because I wanted to be healthier.
I took my first yoga class my first year of college, offered through the campus Phys Ed department. And I surprised myself by loving it. I also took a few modern dance classes, which were totally fun, even though the ab workouts the instructor made us do were nearly impossible for me. But by my junior year I didn’t have time in my schedule for exercise. And I was still eating pretty terribly: nachos and burritos were probably the staple part of my diet.
When I graduated, I weighed 165 pounds, and I am 5’2″. I’m not a naturally thin person, and since adolescence have never weighed less than 135, but at 165, I was decidedly overweight. And I wasn’t healthy.
I moved to Boston after college, where I didn’t have a car, and I was broke broke broke. I lost a lot of weight fast because I walked everywhere and I couldn’t afford to eat as much as I had been. But I still wouldn’t characterize myself as healthy, merely thinner. I had no endurance for physical exercise, I was a weakling, and I was still smoking, so yeah. Health? What as that? I was 23 and more concerned with hanging out with my friends and drinking beer than exercise.
It wasn’t until I was about 26 or so that I realized I had to make some changes. I didn’t feel good. I was tired all the time. I was depressed. I hated my body, not only for how I thought it looked, but for how it felt. But it seemed so daunting. When I got an office job and realized that I would be getting even less exercise than I did as a waitress, I knew it was time, and I joined a gym. This was the first time I started to get real consistent exercise in my life.
And I LOVED it. My gym offered a great variety of aerobics classes, and I fell in love with step. I realized how much I like to dance, and how much I wish that I’d done it when I was younger. I started going to the gym three times a week, then four, and soon, I was going almost every day. I felt really good, and started to notice that my endurance and strength were increasing. My hour at the gym became a routine part of my life, and I missed it when I didn’t go.
Around the same time, I started reading books like “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “Fast Food Nation.” I started to think more critically about what I was eating, and I taught myself how to cook. Incorporating healthier eating habits into my life was a lot harder than the exercise part, and I’m still learning and working on balance and moderation. I know that this will be a lifelong process for me, but I also learned what I need to do to ensure that I’m eating well most of the time.
Of course, graduate school meant that I had to quit my expensive gym membership, and I was suddenly so busy that I didn’t have time for exercise anymore. After two years of grad school, I had gained back all the weight I’d lost, and was once again feeling lethargic and weak. That’s when I realized how quickly and easily good habits can disappear if you don’t pay attention.
When I finished grad school and moved out of Boston, I was the heaviest I’d ever been. I was still smoking, and I knew that, at 30, I had to quit. That would take another three years, but as soon as I settled into my new town, Walla Walla, Washington, I joined the only gym option that was available to me: Jazzercise. I slowly incorporated regular exercise back into my life, and soon was back to my five day a week routine. I had time again to cook healthy food, and after six months of regular exercise, I was feeling better than ever. And I really loved Jazzercise. Again, I learned that it is absolutely dance that keeps me engaged and exercising regularly.
When we moved again, I was afraid that another big life change would derail the progress I’d made. But I was determined not to lose my good habits. I’m still looking for the right gym for me in Oakland, but when we moved here, I slowly took up running. I was NEVER a runner, and never thought I would be one. I was convinced that my body was just not suited for running. But my good friend Crystal taught me that you’re allowed to slow the heck down, that running doesn’t have to be a race. I’m not fast, but last month I ran a 9K, and I managed to run the whole thing, without walking, and even made decent time for slow little old me.
I can’t even describe how great it felt to achieve a goal that my younger self would never have believed I was capable of. Pushing myself to do something outside of my comfort zone, and succeeding at it, was a real triumph for me, and a moment when I realized that fitness isn’t just for “jocks,” but is for everyone.
Now, I’m regularly taking Zumba classes, my new love, and I’m even thinking of becoming an aerobics instructor. I feel strong, and rather than hating my body for what it isn’t, I’m grateful to it for the things it does. I’m not going to pretend like a lifetime of being conditioned to be critical of my body has been wiped away. I still have moments of doubt and insecurity, but those are far outweighed by pride, and the sheer exhiliration that I feel when I’m moving.
Emma offered some extremely helpful advice to those of you who are trying to develop good habits, like starting slowly, and not trying to do anything drastic or extreme, because you won’t be able to keep it up. This is all true and such smart advice. But I wonder a lot how we can get younger women (and men!) who aren’t athletes to become physically active.
When I was a kid, PE was dreaded. I hated team sports, and because we cycled through every sport in six week intervals, I never actually learned to play any of them or enjoy them. Not to mention that most of the time in PE, kids are just standing around, waiting for their turn, or assiduously avoiding it. I’ve often thought that, at least at the junior or high school level, kids would be much better served by having a gym-like place on campus. If kids who aren’t involved in sports could instead spend an hour of their day taking an aerobics class, or running on a treadmill, or taking a strength training class or a yoga class, they might learn at much earlier ages how great it feels to be physically active. Instead, we make fitness seem like torture. We reserve it for the kids who are jocks, and leave everyone else to stand around on dusty fields, waiting for the hour to be over. If my high school self could have taken a step class or a zumba class every day, I would have found out how much I love it and developed those healthy habits way sooner in life.
I wish that women could learn from an early age how to move our bodies, and feed them well, and appreciate them for what they can do, rather than loath them and try to change them. I wish that the default in our society didn’t isolate young women from our bodies. I wish that I hadn’t had to wait until I was 30 years old to learn that I, too, can be athletic.
And yes, regular exercise has helped me maintain a healthy weight, not to mention given me clearer skin, shinier hair, and a stronger body. Yeah for fitness!
So, what’s your story? How do you feel about exercise? Have you found the thing that makes your body sing?
PS – I did quit smoking finally, four months ago. Quitting was another thing that I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do, and am so proud of myself for achieving. If you’re afraid quitting will be hard, let me tell you that it doesn’t have to be. Maybe someday soon I’ll share my quitting story here, too.