“When people are ready to, they change. They never do it before then, and sometimes they die before they get around to it. You can’t make them change if they don’t want to, just like when they do want to, you can’t stop them.”
― Andy Warhol, Andy Warhol: In His Own Words
I’ve talked before about why I got started on my lifestyle change, but I haven’t really laid out the nitty gritty of HOW I got started, and I’ve had several requests for that lately. My diet and workout style has evolved a lot over the last 3 years, so what I would recommend now to someone just starting out on a lifestyle change would be quite a bit different from what I actually did…which I think ultimately just illustrates my overarching message: there is no one right way. There are many good ways, though. So what I’m going to do here is briefly go over the steps I took to change my lifestyle and habits, and then I’ll give you some generic suggestions that should work for pretty much everyone. Finally, I’ll tell you what I would do now knowing what I’ve learned over the last few years.
2008 was a pivotal year for me. I was 35, I had two young daughters who needed a good role model, and I was obese and sick. I was primed for a lifestyle change. I knew I couldn’t go on the way I had been. Three coinciding events early that year completely changed my direction.
First, I met a woman only 2 years older than me who’d recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. She shared with me some of the factors she felt had contributed to her disease, namely a diet heavy in meat, dairy and processed foods, and a sedentary lifestyle. She was on a mission not only to change her own habits, but to inspire other women to do so as well. She suggested I read The China Study (note: I no longer consider The China Study a particularly good resource and don’t recommend it when people ask for book recommendations. It’s significance for me is that it got me thinking about where my food was coming from and what it was doing to my body). More importantly, she really emphasized the importance of exercise. Aside from a stint on the local swim team as a young teen, I’d never included regular exercise in my life and, to be honest, I hated it.
Next, I happened to catch a few minutes of the Olympic swim trials on TV. I wasn’t looking for them, they just happened to be on when I turned the TV on! There was 41 year old Dara Torres kicking everyone else’s butt! I was so incredibly inspired, I vowed right then to get back in the pool.
Finally, gas prices. Remember? I had never in my whole life considered how far food had to travel to reach my plate, but rising food prices (a result of rising energy prices) suddenly brought the issue into brilliant focus. Michael Pollan had recently published “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and it somehow found it’s way into my hands. I began to realize how important my food choices were, not only to my health, but to the environment and to my community. The concept of ‘sustainability’ entered my consciousness. I realized the lifestyle I was leading wasn’t sustainable. It was making me sick, and it was supporting a social and economic model that was making the planet sick. I needed to change.
The very first thing I did was spend a lot of time thinking about and identifying the habits I had that led me to the place I was. I wrote them down. Then I identified new habits I wanted to create to take the place of those bad habits. And I made a plan.
There were two main areas I wanted to make changes in, my diet and my (lack of) exercise. But simply determining to ‘eat better and exercise more’ wasn’t specific enough. I had to set very specific long term goals, and then create short term goals that would set me on the path toward achieving those long term goals. So I thought about where I wanted to be in 2-3 years (I wasn’t sure how long it would take to reach my goals, so I gave myself a generous window): I wanted to be at a healthy weight, I wanted to be eating a sustainable diet rich in locally produced whole foods, and I wanted to be physically active every day. That life looked a LOT different than the one I was living, so I gave myself the gift of not pressuring myself to change everything right away. I decided to focus on one small change a month, giving myself time to create a new habit before moving on to another.
The first month I focused on making time to exercise regularly. At first it was only 3 times a week, although I knew I wanted to eventually be active every day. Some days all I could do was make it to the gym and sit in the jacuzzi. WHAT I was doing during that time wasn’t as important as creating the habit of making time for exercise. These days when people ask me how I find time for exercise, I respond that I don’t find time. I make the time. I schedule it into my day along with eating and working and picking the kids up from school. It’s not an afterthought, it is part of my routine. I no longer hate exercise, by the way. By trying lots of different things, I’ve discovered activities I really enjoy.
The second month I started focusing on my diet. Until then, my cooking had been very typically American. I chose a main dish (some kind of meat) and, if I had time and inclination, came up with a side dish. Most of our meals looked like a big slab of animal protein with a grain based side dish, and if we were really lucky a vegetable (that no one ate). I wanted vegetables to be the focus of our meals, so I bought some veg*n cookbooks and found some veg*n cooking blogs and websites, and set about relearning how to cook. I started basing my meal plans around vegetables. Rather than pulling a slab of meat out of the freezer and figuring out what to put with it, I picked out 2-3 different vegetables at the market and built a meal around them. Protein became either a side dish or an accent. I didn’t change everything right away, what shifted was my focus, away from meat as the base of our diet toward vegetables as the base of our diet. I learned how to make delicious soups, stews, stir fries, curries and salads that featured copious amounts of seasonal produce, accented with herbs, spices and quality protein sources (legumes, fish, pastured eggs and occasionally grassfed/pastured meat). Over time I moved more and more toward a plant based diet because it’s what made me feel physically the best, and because on a global scale I believe it is more sustainable. (FTR, I do believe meat can be a part of a healthy human diet, and even that there are small local markets where animal based diets are a more sustainable option. On a global scale, though, I’m still pretty convinced that plant-based is the way to go. If anyone reading this has some evidence to the contrary, I’d definitely be interested in seeing it.)
Over the next 18 months I gradually reduced the amount of processed foods I ate, started tracking my diet daily to make sure I was getting all my nutrients and to determine my true calorie needs, added running, cycling and weight lifting into my exercise routine, switched to more natural household and personal care products (plug here for Dr. Bronners’ products), planted a garden, cut way down on my driving, connected with local farmers and artisan food producers, discovered crossfit and paleo, both of which have influenced and enriched my lifestyle (although I’m not an evangelist for either), and so much more. The key is that I changed my lifestyle, and I didn’t do it all at once. This wasn’t a diet. It wasn’t a temporary measure. I created a healthier lifestyle, and that led to a healthier body. I slowly lost weight, gained strength and stamina, my migraines, blood sugar swings and panic attacks subsided and eventually stopped. Again: creating a healthier lifestyle led to a healthier body. This is so important. Take the focus off your body and put it on your lifestyle. Your body will follow.
So there you go, a brief history of my lifestyle change. If I were to distill it down to a few key points they would be:
1. find a physically demanding activity you enjoy and do it every day, or at least most days
2. eat less processed food and more vegetables
3. get enough sleep
If I were to get more specific, based on what I’ve learned, here’s what I would do now:
1. EXERCISE: focus on finding what you enjoy. Don’t be afraid of weights, they are a very effective tool, and the quickest path to a stronger body. (Ladies: don’t worry about bulking up. I know that I am more bulky than a lot of women wish to be, but I PROMISE you that it isn’t lifting weights that made me this way. It is a combination of eating (LOTS of food, lots of protein), and lifting WITH THE INTENT of building muscle mass, over the course of several years, that made me this way. I don’t look like I do by accident, and you will not look the way I do without trying to look like I do. Simply lifting barbells will make you strong, but not bulky). Squat often and heavy, for doing so now will mean you can go to the bathroom on your own when you’re 90.
2. DIET: protein and vegetables are GREAT and you should try to get lots, but eat fat and carbs too! Carbs are not the devil, but get them from real whole foods like fruits and starchy vegetables for the most part, and grains if you tolerate them. Fat is your friend, it fills you up and makes food taste good, and your body needs it for proper nutrient absorption and hormonal function. Make a habit of tracking your diet on a website like caloriecount.com, sparkpeople.com or fitday.com (there are many others as well). It’s not just about calories, regular tracking will help you learn to meet your energy requirements with foods that also provide the vitamins, minerals and adequate amounts of fat and protein to support good health and weight management. It can be a pain at first, but over time it helps build good eating habits and gives you control over your weight and health. Calories DO matter, but most of us can eat a lot more than we think we can. Tracking calories is NOT about restriction, and reaching/maintaining a healthy weight is NOT about being hungry and denying ourselves proper nutrition. Quite the contrary, it is about feeding ourselves adequate amounts of (mostly) nutritious foods that support health, energy and vitality. Here is a tool that will help you determine how many calories your body needs to function properly. Many of you will be surprised at how high the number is. Mine is as much as 3500 a day. Hardly restrictive. Aim for, at minimum, .5 – 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight a day. Fat should make up at roughly 20-35% of your calories (some people do well on lower or higher fat percentages, but 20-35% is a healthy range for most of us). The rest of your calories can come from whatever macronutrient you prefer (macronutrients = protein, fat and carbs). If you’re doing a lot of endurance exercise, go for more carb dense foods. The only ‘bad guys’ are refined seed oils and trans-fats (even refined sugar can be helpful under certain circumstances such as recovery from anorexia and digestive malabsorbtion issues), and by reducing processed food consumption you will be reducing your intake of those. So after all this, I come back to: eat real food, but don’t obsess.
3. Get enough sleep. I can’t really elaborate on that, it really is that simple.
So there you go. Identify your goal. Make a plan. Make one change at a time. Don’t expect instant results, although you will probably FEEL better almost immediately once you start making changes. Focus on small and measurable successes: how much further you can run week to week, or how many pounds you can lift, or how many more servings of vegetables you are getting, rather than on how far you still have to go. Keep at it and be patient. Don’t let one bad day (or even a bad week or a bad month) derail you. You are building a healthier life and that takes time: you don’t have to be perfect every day, or punish yourself when you feel like you’ve failed. You’re still alive? Then you haven’t failed. Progress is progress, no matter how small or slight it may seem at the moment. Focus on THAT: progress is progress. Keep making it.