on health and happiness

Not only did I finish my GRE recently — but I also finally got off the strict diet and exercise wagon. Hallelujah.

Since February, I’d been working out nearly every single day and closely monitoring my diet. I realize this might seem laughable, since every other entry on this blog appears to be written by a competitive eater… but it’s true! Since February, I’ve completed three full rounds of the Insanity workout and one round of the Insanity Asylum I program, with some swimming sessions and 10k jogs thrown in for fun. I’ve also been religiously counting calories, making sure to adhere to a daily intake limit.

I did all of this in the name of one thing: a wedding. I was to be a bridesmaid, and I wanted nothing more than to squeeze into that size 00 dress. When the big day came around, I was over the moon to find that I’d more than met my goal. But — oh, and it’s a big but(t) — it’s much more complicated than just a dress…

These past eight months have been a journey of highs and lows, peaks and valleys. I had no idea that this sort of physical experiment could have such emotional and mental impact! I have so much to say (some of which I covered in my reviews of the Insanity workouts), but will try my best to summarize the real take-aways of this whole experience. Allow me to ramble…

1. Progress is possible. 

There was a time when I weighed a good twenty pounds more than I do now — and that kind of baggage adds up fast on a frame like mine! I used to believe that I couldn’t do anything to change myself physically. This is categorically false. It’s true that genetics play a large part in determining your body type, but it’s your lifestyle habits that truly matter. In reality, I had just grown complacent and “let go of my figure” after starting a relationship. After losing a bit of that happy weight organically, however, my belief system changed; I realized I did have control over my body (and life?).

Since beginning my fitness regimen, I’ve lost ten pounds, give or take, and several inches all over. I’m much stronger; at some points, I could even see ab muscles lurking underneath my lil’ tummy. It’s been amazing and self-affirming seeing how daily habits could produce such significant change. With this understanding came another realization.

2. The body is ever-changing.

While I was ecstatic to observe my body growing fitter, I also became paranoid that it would backslide. Deliciously indulgent meals were often accompanied by major guilt and fear that I would pack on pounds. I really didn’t want to undo all those 7 AM workouts.

I soon came to realize, however, that there will never be a true “end point.” Yes, I can set a temporary goal (such as a wedding), but life is so long, and there is so much room for change! What am I really working toward? When is enough, enough?

I’m now learning to adopt a mindfulness approach and accept that my body will naturally gain and lose weight over time. It will always be a work in progress. I’ve also realized that my body can sometimes be unpredictable — I may eat a little and gain a lot, eat a lot and gain a little, eat a lot and lose a lot. It’s okay not to know, and it’s okay to change as a result. I think of my body as a breathing organism (which it is, and I am), continually and incrementally expanding and contracting. This kind of thinking made it easier for me to acknowledge a very obvious fact.

3. Food is meant to be enjoyed.

Well, duh. There is almost nothing I enjoy more than a good meal. However, dieting undeniably puts a damper on things. It sucks a lot of the fun out of eating when you’re trying to figure out exactly how many grams of protein you should be having. It’s particularly frustrating when you’re dining with friends and family — all that mental math really limits you from engaging fully in a shared experience. I’m sure we all know that one person whose diet-rooted misery spills over and sours everyone else’s meal.

Relatedly, food should not be seen as an enemy. Vilifying carbs seems to be the new fad nowadays, but I’m not sure that extremism is totally healthy. There are plenty of people in this world who subsist on extraordinarily different and/or diverse sources of nutrition. There’s also a distinction between avoiding a food group due to medical necessity and ostracizing it baselessly.

Confession: I say this now, but there were times when I went against all the advice I just wrote. I denied myself from partaking in family meals, nixed out entire food categories, and essentially tried to control my diet exhaustively. As you can imagine, this kind of thinking made me a little miserable. Others pitied me. I mean, present-day-me pities me! The pleasures in life are often few and far between. It’s a shame to deny yourself something as joyful as food. Now, my priority is to partake happily in the things I eat, while keeping one thing in mind.

4. Moderation is key.

UGH. It annoys me writing out such an ubiquitous cliche… but it’s so painfully true that it bears repeating. I’ve realized that it applies on many different levels, too.

On a micro level, eating moderately during the day prevents many a negative outcome. Eat too much, and you’ll probably experience discomfort and remorse. Eat too little, and your willpower and/or body might just break down later. For me, this often resulted in some major midnight snacking and stuffing myself silly. I would’ve been much better off had I always simply always eaten reasonably.

On a larger scale, though, moderation determines the overall success of your health habits. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that my whole diet-and-exercise model was the absolute antithesis of moderation. As a result, it was, in no way, shape, or form, sustainable. A lovely bonus to its extreme nature was that I completely rebounded once I’d reached my goal. The minute the wedding was over, I was ready to figuratively unhinge my jaw and swallow junk foods whole (no joke — we went to Wienerschnitzel for some chili fries that same night!). I was also so dependent on my calorie counting that I had trouble recognizing when I was sated; I had to retrain myself to learn to recognize my body’s signals. While my program helped build the physique I wanted, it didn’t necessarily create an infrastructure for lasting health.

Learn from my mistakes. The beauty of moderation is that you can avoid crazy fluctuations of this nature. You can build health into your every day and increase your quality of life in the long run. Life is a marathon, as they say — not a sprint. Essential to running this race is one final factor that simply cannot be overestimated.

5. LOVE YOUR BODY. (!!!)

I just wanna be real here for a second. I could probably write a novel on society, weight, food, and my complicated relationship with all three. I’ll spare you my life history, but, suffice to say, I am body conscious.

It’s about to get serious, y’all.

If it’s not already obvious, I was motivated, in large part, by vanity: a desire to look good. Because I prioritized my appearance, rather than my physical well-being, my emotional health also got the shaft. I found myself obsessing about what I was eating, what exercises I was doing, and what I was weighing. I put an inordinate amount of significance in the words of others, feeding off of their compliments (“Did you lose weight?”) and even, sometimes, their concern (“You don’t need to lose any more weight.”). I was devoting way too much mental energy towards my fitness, constantly calculating the nutritional facts of my meals and rearranging my calendar around my workouts. As someone who works in clinical psychology, it was easy for me to realize: I was having some unhealthy patterns of thought. Paradoxically, while I was looking “better,” I was frequently feeling worse.

I know that I am not alone in my struggles. The world has a funny way of putting pressure on women. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with peers who feel similarly self-critical, despite being really and truly beautiful. An anecdote, to demonstrate… People often seemed surprised when I told them about my fitness regimen, asking me why I felt such a need to change. My response — “What woman is really happy with her body?” — elicited an empathetic, understanding nod and ended the thread of conversation 100% of the time. That type of universal, implicit agreement confirms to me that all of us internalize this harmful message: we are not good enough; our bodies are not meant to be accepted.

Nothing could be further from the truth. If there is anything that I have learned from this experience, it is that my body deserves love. It deserves so much: nourishment, in the form of proper sustenance; stimulation, in the form of movement and play; respect, in the form of rest and relaxation; and affection, in the form of unconditional positive regard. My body deserves all of this, as does yours and everyone else’s. What it does not need is punishment, criticism, and negative regard. Life is too short to feel anything other than happiness.

This is not to say that the past eight months have been horrible or damaging — not at all! My health habits and quality of life have improved tenfold; my belief in myself has skyrocketed. I’ve become a much more health-conscious and happy person on the whole, and I would do this all again, given the chance. I’m only trying to be authentic and emphasize the very real consequences of misaligned priorities. I know now that my approach to well-being must be more tempered and holistic — rooted in self-care.

I’ve realized how resilient, how adaptable, and how strong my body is… and, ergo, how resilient, how adaptable, and how strong I am. It’s extraordinarily gratifying. I’ll admit that the path to these truths wasn’t easy nor perfect, but I’m thankful I got here. I’ll also say that, while I can write this long-winded, motivational screed, it’s not as though I’ve reached enlightenment. Far from it! Loving one’s self takes practice, and I’ll have to constantly, continually remind myself of all of these aforementioned messages. It’s an uphill battle in this strange little society of ours. Nonetheless, I’m determined to take the lessons I’ve learned in the short term and apply it to the long term. I think this refreshed state of mind is more beautiful, more worthwhile, than squeezing into any size dress.

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