Health and Fitness:
A Guide for the Unobsessed
by Bill Bruzy
I see them, the obsessed, in health food stores. They are svelte and quick, dressed in form fitting clothes baring midriffs that look like shrunk wrapped relief maps of the Appalachian Mountains. They pick knowledgeably through a million products finding the non-GMO spirulina enfused, protein powder. At 6:30 in the morning they run in packs along Lake Austin Boulevard to the Hike and Bike Trail. We, the ordinary mortals in the health and fitness quest, admire them. We would like to be obsessed too. But we’re not. We don’t have hours a day to work out or study supplements, which, when I think of it, might be a psychiatric diagnosis anyway.
But still, we want to be healthier and in better shape because it makes sense. A study done at Harvard and recently published in The Journal of the American Medical Association compared women who did not walk regularly to those who walked regularly at least one hour a week. That very minimal exercise decreased rates for heart disease by 14% in the 40,000 women studied. Increasing that walking to a still moderate pace of one to one and a half hours a week at 3 miles an hour (twenty minute miles), accounted for a stunning 51% drop in heart disease in those studied.
Clearly exercise is good for us, and moderate exercise in amounts we might think don’t do much good, can have tremendous benefits. In fact, many studies suggest twenty to thirty minutes of exercise three times a week is optimal for fitness. Of course more exercise gets you other kinds of benefits but for basic fitness that works. We can take heart that a small investment in our wellbeing can make a huge difference. No obsession required.
The key to success in health and fitness for most of us is making small lifestyle changes in exercise and eating (I didn’t say dieting) and maintaining them for a long time. Starting small, starting slow, and following through, is a powerful and life changing approach.
We overlook the value of small and slow because we live in culture of lightening speeds and can easily get discouraged by the idea of taking time. Small, slow and steady effort seems downright wrong in a world where a carton of orange juice now comes with a pull top because it’s faster, by microseconds, than the older pull-off aluminum seals. If it takes a minute for a web page to load we feel like we’ve just waited for a geological process to finish. In many things fast is good and slow is bad, but not with our bodies and health. Fast and dramatic changes in weight and exercise just don’t stick. They are a shock to the system, damage us physically and often break our spirit and willingness to keep on trying. Fast results are a devil’s bargain.
I started to learn this many years ago when I made a deal with myself to meet a ridiculously small exercise goal. Fat and about as strong as wet newspaper I knew I needed to get healthier but I didn’t have much in the way of drive, knowledge or means to make a difference. There weren’t many role models and I didn’t see people running on the streets back then. Where I lived in Detroit guys only ran on the streets when they were running from the law. Health food meant lots of meat.
But I knew I needed to do something so the ridiculous goal I set for myself was five sit-ups, five pushups and five back lifts a day (with one day off a week and a silent agreement to not hassle myself if I missed two days some weeks). That sounds dumb. I thought I should be running seven miles and bench pressing Volkswagens but at the time I couldn’t run a block or bench press a house cat. This ridiculous routine took about fifty seconds to do. Struggling with my own inertia I would lay in bed thinking about how much I didn’t want to do it, usually for 10 minutes or so.
Eventually this struggle was a small battle I could win. That new little habit became the cornerstone to much better things. After that I decided to make it a goal to be able to run a mile. It took months but I got there. I still do those exercises, and others, thirty-five years later.
An even better twist on this strategy is to choose something we are willing to make part of our lives because it’s something we enjoy for its own sake. The more enjoyable the better. Forget the “no pain no gain,” school of thinking, unless you’re a fan of the Marquis de Sade. We can learn from joy as easily as pain. If you want to play for the NFL then maybe pain is in your future but for us average types fun helps a lot with motivation.
It helps to make a specific goal of some type of exercise. The more concrete and specific we are about it the better. A vague goal like losing weight or being in better shape isn’t clear enough. Walking three times a week for one mile is concrete and specific. Three stretches, a ten minute breathing exercise, five pushups, taking a yoga class, swimming once a week, any goal will do at first because the exercise is not really the most important exercise at that stage. The exercise is learning to learn how to establish a healthy habit. Once you’ve got that it’s a tool that can be used for a million things.
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute suggest setting both short and long-term goals. Want to get to thirty minutes of cardiovascular exercise three days a week, which would be optimal? Start with a five-minute walk three days a week. If you want to be able to run a mile, start with walking a quarter mile. Establish the pattern of exercise first. Then ramp up slowly and steadily.
Once we get moving we can also use the ordinary activities of our lives to bolster our energy and fitness. Use the stairs instead of the elevator. Park a little farther away from the store (it’s easier to find a spot and you get fewer dents in your doors as a bonus.) When you take a break at work do something active like a short walk or stretching. Pick up the pace with housework and yard work. Dance!
The sit up you do to get out of bed is an exercise, try two in a row. If you threw away the TV remote you might get a thousand sit-ups a year done just changing channels. If you have a choice of where to live, choose somewhere you can walk, or ride a bike, to shop, eat, and visit friends.
This simple approach can apply to change in our eating and weight control too. Diets don’t work, in the long run, for most people. 95% of dieters regain the lost weight and often gain more then they had in the first place. Sure you can lose a lot of weight in a crash diet but ask people who have done them all. You lose it, your body metabolism gets MORE efficient from the minimal caloric intake and when you go back to normal eating you gain MORE weight. Honest. Then you crash. That’s the real meaning of a crash diet.
There are sensible eating plans that give us an idea of what is a reasonable amount and appropriate balance of foods. The American Heart Association, Weight Watchers and others provide guidelines where you get a certain number of servings of protein, vegetables etc. You keep track of how much you eat in a simple fashion that you can use in real life, travelling, restaurants, airports, home, wherever you are. But even without changing your entire approach to meals starting long term change can be as simple as making a commitment to eat one green thing a day, a salad, a veggie. The new green M&M’s don’t count.
One unhealthy dietary pattern emerges consistently in a high percentage of people who are overweight and is easy to change. Breakfast. People don’t eat breakfast or maybe they will just jam down a pastry in the morning and often skip lunch too. By the afternoon they are pretty much in shock from hunger and low blood sugar and then when they get home (or in the car on the way home) they start eating and usually go to bed on a full stomach. It’s a cycle.
In the morning you feel bad about eating too much at night and you’re not hungry anyway. It feels better to go hungry in the day because, and these are the secret thoughts that go unnoticed, we feel some control over food. Then the resolve, if we have any, falls apart late in the day. Once we give in to the eating we are pretty much on a ride to the end. It’s impossible to stop in the middle and just be reasonable with food.
The solution to breaking that hunger/satiation cycle is to eat protein in the morning even if, especially if, you are not hungry. We usually think we need to fight the hunger and bingeing at night, but we fight hunger best by changing a part of the cycle we can more easily change, the buildup of hunger from morning starvation. We are too tired to fight ourselves in the evening anyway. Stabilizing the cycle of hunger by adding protein in the morning, not missing lunch, and keeping a more even and balanced intake of food, the overeating at night can just disappear. It’s an Aikido kind of fight where we cooperate with the enemy to win.
I believe we, as a culture, get so crazy and distorted about food and weight because they have an enormous emotional component. If you think about it, our first experiences in life were being fed by totally loving gods. Being held in the loving embrace of this huge, all powerful protector mother filling our mouths and stomachs with soothing warm fulfillment in complete connection and love. Wow. Who wouldn’t want that feeling again. But somehow too much ice cream late at night for an adult just doesn’t have the same benefit, although the urge may have the same source.
Then we also associate being loved with looking good (thin and muscular) with attracting a lover and mate. The shorthand version of our conflict is we eat to feel love and we want to lose weight to feel loved. That’s a conflict. Often there are secondary gains that we are unconscious of in being overweight anyway. We might not want to attract sexual attention because we are uncomfortable with it. We might be swallowing our anger or pushing people away or making ourselves feel safer by being bigger.
We might idealize being in shape as the grand avenue to love and the solution of many of life’s problems. It isn’t. Being in better shape is better and yes, I know supermodels get more perks than middle aged fat guys but still, being in shape is not a magical solution to all life’s difficulties. It’s just being in better shape which means feeling better physically, having more stamina, being better able to cope with stress, having a better immune response, living longer, looking better. But we can still be neurotic and miserable it’s just that we look better doing it. If weight and food are emotional issues we need to deal with the emotional issues as emotional issues and weight as weight.
One last thing I’ll mention is an aide to fitness and health that takes almost no effort and suits the unobsessed very well. Drink plenty of water. Physically speaking, we are mostly (60-75%) a bag of water. Like any body of water we need water flowing through us so we don’t get stagnant. It’s water we need though, not just fluids. There is a difference between fluids, which can be Pepsi or beer, and water. Fluids come with their own issues to resolve in the body. Alcohol does, no matter how many beers you drink, dehydrate us. Caffeine drinks are diuretics which flush water from the body. Think water by itself. It cleans out the system and keeps it functioning well and recent research even suggests hydrating well can reduce the risk of breast, colon and urinary tract cancers. It also helps with blood flow and digestion.
In our hot climate we lose a lot of body moisture. Being thirsty is often too late a sign that we are dehydrated. Drink consciously and for a while, until you’ve established the habit, count how many glasses of water you drink. Most authorities recommend eight cups a day and more if you exercise. Remember to hydrate before you exercise and afterwards too.
So these simple things, a little exercise, a little dietary shifting, a little introspection, and a desire to change, can make dramatic improvements in our health and fitness. We don’t need to compare ourselves to Lance Armstrong or the midriffs singing on TV and then get so discouraged we don’t do anything. Just do something. Keep doing it. It is enough. No obsession required.
For information on exercise, eating and health start by checking out the following web sites.
National Institutes of Health at www.nih.gov/health
Dr. Andrew Weil at www.drweilselfhealing.com offers a lot of alternative health information and you can order his newsletter, “Self Healing.”
Bill Bruzy is a counselor and writer in Austin, Texas.