Intentionally Healthy

Intentionally-Healthy
When we first arrive to Jamaica for Peace Corps and a recent photo from a friend’s wedding.

“You look good.”

“Wow. You’ve lost a lot of weight.”

“You look stronger.”

“You lost some weight around here.” (a friend says as she points to the sides of my stomach)

These are the comments I’ve been getting from people who haven’t seen me for two years while we were in the Peace Corps. Apparently, I look different now since we’ve returned, which begs the question:

What did I look like before?

In all seriousness, the comments have been nice and flattering. I am probably in the best shape of my life, at least since my high school days. I actually probably weigh around the same as I did in high school as well. But the most important thing is how I feel today.

I feel healthy.

Like many, college was the start of my decline in health. The combination of $5 large pizzas from Pizza Time (my college mates know what I’m talking about), the belief that I can eat anything without any effects, lack of sleep, and no exercise slowly and literally added weight and pressure to my life. At my peak I was about 185, breathing heavy, and unable to do many physical tasks without tiring easy. I don’t feel that I was ever at a point where I was too concerned and, thankfully, I never had to confront any of my unhealthy habits because of health related reasons. In fact, I didn’t even realize anything was wrong because (and here’s the most important thing) I didn’t think anything was wrong.

In the summer of 2007, I met Michelle. She was active. She probably wouldn’t describe herself as athletic, which is fair. She’s also not competitive like me. She doesn’t work out for any other reason other to be healthy.

Our fist date was a hike. I remember it being physically challenging and whether she was aware of my physical condition or not,  she asked if I wanted to run with her. Daily! I liked how active she was and had been wanting to take better care of myself. Like most Americans, I knew what I needed to do (say it with me): eat healthier and exercise more.

I just wasn’t doing it.

A lot of people have been asking me what I’ve done to get healthy, and so I thought I’d share my story and some tips:

Tip #1: Choose to be Healthy

It starts with a choice. Almost everyone knows or should know the magic formula for a healthier lifestyle (say it again): eating healthier and exercising more. So if we know what we need to do, why don’t we do it? You’ll hear many reasons for this. “I don’t have the time to exercise,” “I don’t like exercising.” “I don’t like the gym.” “The gym is too expensive.” “Healthy food tastes awful.” “Healthy food is too expensive.” These are all of my own reasons that I have used to justify my choice for an unhealthy lifestyle. The thing is, I didn’t realize that being unhealthy was a choice. I knew being healthy was a choice, but I never thought about the fact that all of my reasons (excuses) for avoiding a healthier lifestyle was because I was CHOOSING to avoid it. I was choosing to be unhealthy. It got me thinking, “Do I really want to be unhealthy?”

The biggest hurdle anyone faces regarding a healthier lifestyle is the choice to do something different, especially if it means fighting comfort. For me comfort is food and idleness. I love food and I love vegging out. I confess. I can be extremely happy watching Hulu/Netflix all day and eating. That’s it. I’m sure many people would agree. That’s my comfort. I avoided exercise because of the pain and physical exertion it gave me. Eating and doing nothing didn’t give me any of that.Thus the main predicament: Do you choose comfort, which leads to an unhealthy lifestyle, or do you choose a healthier lifestyle full of activity and healthier meal options? It’s a choice.

In the beginning of my mindset transformation (because that’s what it was), I thought that a healthier lifestyle meant giving up comfort in its entirety. Goodbye, fried chicken. No more desserts. No more Wicked Tuna episodes on Hulu. In all actuality, it was more about balancing out my lifestyle. I came to see that I was spending more time and energy engaged in unhealthy choices than healthy choices and activities. It was as simple as that. I needed to balance the equation. But it started with a choice:  I wanted to be healthier.

Tip #2: Set Realistic Goals to Achieve Bigger Goals

EXERCISING
On our first run I suggested that we go for 3 miles. Michelle- who regularly ran 4 to 6 miles per day- said, “How about 1.5?” Thankfully, I listened to her. This was the start of a very important lesson.

You often hear of failed dieting attempts. Exercise programs that don’t work, etc… One of the biggest reasons for these failures is unrealistic goal setting. Every single workout or diet programs will show you pictures of successful results. We Americans are result-driven. We want to see tangible results before we do something. This isn’t bad, but it inflates and distorts our definition of success. Wanting to look good or lose weight aren’t bad goals. But many people don’t consider other factors such as time and physical capability, and most importantly, one’s personal efforts that increase or decrease a person’s chance of achieving their goals. You may want to lose 20lbs but is it realistic and healthy to do it in one or two weeks? Probably not. I may want to run a marathon at some point but am I physically able to at this moment? No. You have to be realistic.

So let’s say your goal (like mine was) is to run a half-marathon. Is that realistic? At the time, it wasn’t for me. So the first realistic goal I set was to start running 6 days a week, between 2-3 miles. Once I got into the routine of running, I then set another goal for myself: use a training schedule that would get me ready for a half-marathon in 3.5 months. Here is an example of one. There are a lot of different training schedules out there with varying time lengths, based on how fit you are, or how busy your work/life is.

These little victories added up, which meant I had the confidence I needed and the experience to take on bigger and bigger challenges. Every time you set and accomplish your goals, it feels easier to set new goals at new levels. You build upon your success. You use the momentum you’ve created. But it only works if you set realistic goals and keep taking small steps. After a while, you’ll look back at all the little things you have done to see you’ve accomplished an enormous feat.

EATING
Similar to exercising, it’s important to set realistic achievable goals with food. “Go big or go home” should not be your motto. It should be something like “slow and steady,” or one of my favorite Jamaican proverbs, “One one coco, full basket” (meaning little by little and you’ll complete your goal). For example, if

My $2.50us Fried Chicken Lunch
Jamaica taught me to LOVE fried chicken

you LOVE and eat fried food all the time, it might be difficult to give up completely. Start then by giving yourself some structure. Maybe fried food only for 1 day of the week and just for a month to begin with, just to accomplish something. You might be saying, “Do people really have a problem with fried food?” Yes, I did. At one point in Jamaica I was eating fried chicken almost 5 days a week.

Once you’ve accomplished a small goal, you can start setting larger ones. The overall goal with eating is to have INTENTIONAL CONTROL over your eating habits. Here are the main things I struggle with eating (your challenges may be similar or different):

  1. Portion Control: I love to eat good food. If presented with said good food, I have this feeling I need to eat it like I’ll never get something like it again.
  2. Avoiding Added Sugar and Salt: Sugar and salt in general are not bad, but excessive use is, and I’m guilty of that.
  3. Avoid Fried Food: I LOVE fried food.
  4. Avoid Processed Food: Since I’ve started cooking more, this has gotten easier.

Again, these are my struggles. If you are trying to get healthy, ask yourself what are your struggles. Notice desserts is not on my list. I don’t crave them the way Michelle does. She knows. For me, the list represents areas that I have had trouble controlling myself. I’ve had to practice and find ways to control myself regarding these things (still working on them). The most important part is being aware of these challenges and taking action to meet these challenges.

Tip #3: Find a Workout Companion

Running DC
Running in D.C.

I was lucky to have met Michelle and have her in my life. In regards to fitness, she is an amazing partner. She has always enjoyed an active lifestyle and was patient with me as I slowly increased my fitness capabilities.

Finding someone to be active with is a huge factor in being successful in a healthier lifestyle change. A good companion does not need to be physically fit themselves, like a trainer. Instead, you both should have the following:

  • Shared commitment in achieving whatever goals you have set for yourselves.
  • Willingness to be a good accountability partner
  • Reliable and loyal
  • Encouraging and supportive
  • Able to self-motivate as well as well as motivate others (IMPORTANT)

Like any relationship, you have to be able to give as much as you receive. It needs to be an equal partnership. If you are looking for your workout companion to motivate you and get you out of bed to do something, then they are a coach. If you are waiting for them to make big changes in their lives before you make changes in your own, then you are using them for inspiration. The best relationships are the ones where you are making changes for yourself, motivating yourself, and finding support from your companion who is doing the same thing in their own lives. You aren’t dependent upon that person and they aren’t dependent on you.  You need to be strong enough and willing to do things you need to do on your own. A work out companion is that extra support and boost that makes the overall experience so much better. Life is so much better shared.

Tip #4: Don’t Give Up

One of the greatest pieces of advice Michelle taught me was the importance of NOT GIVING UP. If you made a goal, let’s say to exercise for 6 days of the week, and you miss one day. No problem. Don’t let that be an excuse to give up. The very next day, get back to it. The hardest part is when you stop for awhile and try to find the motivation to start going again. It’s the worst. It’s true that life happens, but it’s also important to be intentional and make the effort to get back to accomplishing your goals asap. The longer you wait, the more likely you’ll give up.

Of course, there will be other challenges.

When we started running, the hardest part for me was running during the fall and winter seasons. If you can get through the cold, wet Pacific NW mornings, you will feel that you can exercise anywhere. I had a hard time waking up and getting out of the door on those dark (and I say it again, cold, wet) mornings to run. However, every time I did, I was proud of myself and it got easier, and easier to wake up and get going. It became a part of my routine, my life.

In my life, I’ve never found I had an issue with motivation to start something, I’ve struggled with following through and completing my goals. I used to give up often.When you keep going, especially on the days that it’s tough, you are teaching yourself that this new lifestyle you are trying to commit to is who you want to be. After awhile, what was once new becomes habitual, and more importantly, becomes a part of your daily routine. It becomes who you are- part of your identity. However, if you give up, what lessons are you teaching yourself?  What will your identity be then?

Overtime, if you commit to daily, healthy activities, it will feel unnatural to miss a day. Your life will be flipped. I now feel like a part of me is missing when I don’t do something active. Being active is part of who I am today. I made it who I am today.

Glacier National Park Highline Trail
A break on a 12 mile hike that I wouldn’t have been able to do a couple of years ago.

So Where Are You At Right Now?

What is going on in your life as you read this? What goals do you have for your life regarding your health? Do you want to lose weight to look good? Do you want to climb a mountain or do a specific hike or finish a race? Do you want to have better control over your eating habits?

This is your life. What do you want it to be?

I’ve learned that nobody else can motivate or make me healthy. In the end it’s my choice and my will that matters the most. Yes, others can inspire me, but ultimately, I am responsible for my own health and choices. I’m still a work in progress. I still struggle with the issues I spoke of, but I haven’t given up. If you need a workout companion, let me know. If you need advice and help with food, let me know. If you’re ready to start but don’t know how, let me know.

Let’s make the choice to start today.

-J

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