“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 6 years as I’ve learned more about what works and doesn’t work, and my fitness and nutrition knowledge have increased. 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 forthe general population (obviously if you have special considerations like a medical condition, these recommendations may not apply to you, and working with a medical professional is advised). 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 how it may be affecting my health). 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 ass and taking names! 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 that my food choices affected not just me, but the people around me, and the environment. 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 wasn’t in line with my values. 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’d tried that hundreds of times before and not succeeded. 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 what I wanted my habits to look like 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 eating a healthy diet that supported my goals and values, and I wanted to be physically active every day, and I wanted to be modeling a healthy lifestyle and a healthy body image for my daughters. 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, because I made a habit of making time. 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 vegetarian and vegan cookbooks and found some cooking blogs and websites, and set about relearning how to cook. I started basing my meal plans around vegetables. Rather starting with meat 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, while still important, played more of a supporting role than the headliner. 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 lots of different vegetables, accented with herbs, spices and protein (legumes, fish, eggs and occasionally meat). Over time I moved more and more toward a plant heavy diet because it’s what made me feel physically the best and what I enjoyed. In the years since, we’ve gone through phases where we increase the amount of animal foods in our diet, but we always seem to trend back to a more vegetarian palette. Will this work for you? I have no idea. That’s something you’ll need to discover for yourself.
Over the next 18 months I gradually increased my family’s intake of fruits and vegetables, 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, planted a garden, cut way down on my driving by focusing more on walking and riding my bike, 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 physical activity you enjoy and do it most days
2. eat more fruits and 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 so 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, and fruits, vegetables and whole grains are a great source of this awesome fuel source. 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. If you want to change your weight, 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. And no, you won’t have to track for the rest of your life! Long enough to build good habits, yes, and then you can rely on those habits. 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 3000 a day when I am active. Hardly restrictive. Aim for .5 – 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight a day, the more active you are the more protein you’ll need. 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, and is the recommendation of public health agencies). 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. So after all this, I come back to: eat mostly whole foods, lots of fruits and vegetables, 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.
Sean and I created our Habit Project following these simple recommendations: change one small thing at a time. I am passionate about it because I know it works. I know it works because I lived it. Come join our supportive community and change your life, one habit at a time.
Originally posted 11/13/2011