Wednesday I had conversations with 2 different friends about diet, exercise, and my better health quest in general. You know, the stuff I post about ad nauseam here. Friend Elyse, who recently underwent weight loss surgery is having a difficult time motivating herself off the couch and doing the walking her surgeon and obesity doctor mandate as part of the process (and that she knew about well before the surgery). However much physical stomach shrinking goes on with the surgery, the mental and emotional battles with diet and exercise cannot be surgically altered. Thursday morning she sent me an email with this plaintive paragraph:
The 30 minutes of walking is depressing and hard to do on my own. How did you make yourself change your attitude and habits toward exercise? I can’t afford personal training.
I rarely offer any sort of advice here on the blog or in real life, merely relate my experiences and what is working (or not) for me. There are literally millions of blogs, articles, books, videos, television shows, and apps that offer all sorts of plans and ideas and suggestions. But her question got me thinking, and rather than include it with my latest epic training recap, I chose to put it into its own post.
When I began blogging, I went to great pains to reassure anyone reading this that I am not an expert on anything except my own head (and even that has required professional help getting here). And from my many posts on the village I employ, it should be clear that I utilized professional guidance to get here, luxuries out of reach to Elyse and others.
But thinking about her question, I believe that not having access to the professional village I have utilized is simply another excuse we allow ourselves to avoid the hard work that comes with change. I came up with what seems to be the short versions that catapulted me into getting started with exercise and maintaining my consistency.
- I made my health and controlling my diabetes a top priority.
- I accepted that exercise is a critical component of controlling my diabetes.
- I stopped making excuses and started making better choices.
- I make choices every single day about what is most important to me today.
- I do the work to implement my choices.
That sounds really simple, kind of harsh, and very much in line with the tough love approach I had to take with myself. And even still, it does not always work, hence my emphasis on what is my priority today. Self-sabotage, my old friend, is not part of my conscious decision-making process, yet I am still keenly aware of when I do it and can typically pinpoint why.
What I hear myself saying, over and over and over again, it boils down to personal responsibility. As compassionate as I am, as much as I might want to help others, I know what I can do for anyone is limited. Whether it is our weight or our strength or improving our health, we each have to do the work ourselves to make changes happen.
And this was my message to my friend Elyse: you have the resources available to you through the clinic that did your surgery and should be utilizing them. However, no amount of coaching and support from friends can do the walking or the exercise for you. Same is true of attitude. There are resources available to help you improve your outlook, but it is up to each of us as individuals to put forth the effort to help ourselves.
Yes, I have the luxury of support from trainer J, therapist TM, and dietician RD. Yes, I also have M, a founding member of my personal fan club, supportive family members, and a lot of other friends who have been where I was and are now where I may aspire to be someday. But at the beginning of every day, I still have to get myself up and into the gym or the yoga studio or out into the world and focused on getting some exercise. I am the one who decides if this effort will be a personal challenge to be conquered and celebrated or a slog to be endured until it finally, mercifully ends.
I am a pretty simple, direct person. I know there are a lot of other factors for many people – depression, anxiety, other physical/mental/emotional limitations. But if you are asking me how I got from point A (exercise-hating person filled with fear and negative emotions toward it) to point B (regular exerciser who looks forward to the time spent in the gym), this is what worked for me; your mileage may vary.
From personal and recent experience with this stuff, I know there is this big giant chasm of disconnect between deciding to make my health a priority and actually implementing that choice. There was a lot of dilly-dallying at first – for various reasons a month passed between our rejoining the gym and actually sitting down with trainer J to get started with training. From there, a few more months of dilly-dallying. We met each week, and I would either try to practice at home (hit and miss) or I would just not. Because exercise is hard, especially at first. It was pleasant learning new things, because J is a great teacher and coach, but it was not fun. The actual doing was difficult, especially on my own, and my resistance and fear inflated the negativity attached to the experience of trying.
Then there is the reality of a whole industry devoted to selling the idea that we can become fit and healthy with minimal sweat equity investment. And it will be EASY! We so desperately want to believe that, and when our personal results do not match the promised optimums, we try something else. Lather, rinse, repeat. Anything and everything to avoid having to actually do the work involved with changing our lifestyles.
We are bombarded with the quick and easy solutions constantly, and when faced with our reality of walking 30 minutes daily or slogging through at the gym a few times per week, it is easy to become discouraged, disheartened, and depressed about our actual results from this tremendous effort. At first, I think I secretly wanted more kudos for my valiant effort and hard work, because I certainly did not feel like I was getting actual results from it. And the kind words of encouragement from my family and friends was like a drop in the ocean of endless insecurity and need. My negative mindset and attitude made it so easy to justify not practicing between sessions, even though my rational head knew that I needed to be in the gym more often to make change happen.
When I finally started making regular exercise a priority, I am never ever going to lie about how hard it was and how every single day I wanted to quit. There were buckets of sweat – from anxiety, from fear, and even some from actually exercising. There was blood – fell down and scraped myself up too many times to count. And the tears … oh yes, plenty. In frustration, embarrassment, and sheer upset about having to do this and feeling completely stupid and worthless because it was not easy or fun and I was hopeless at it. My litany of self-loathing was the bottomless pit of despair that would never be filled.
The daily choice became my reality check, the rubber meeting the road on the person I wanted to believe myself to be and the person who showed up in reality. Just because I faltered and fell flat today, tomorrow was a new day, a new opportunity to try again. I had to make this not be an all-or-nothing equation, or I would allow myself to fail. Again. So every day became a chance to restart the clock and try again. It became a battle with myself to not be a person of poor character who quit.
And I have stuck with it . For every time I shed frustrated tears, for every time I wanted to give up, for every time I thought about quitting because my freshest ouchie gave me a reasonable excuse, I have forced myself to keep going. Not because I am so courageous or so tough or even that I am trying to inspire/impress myself or others. I have kept going because that I did not want the alternative – staying on lots of medications because I am too lazy to fight the diabetes and for my better health while that opportunity still exists. Framed that way, I would be deeply ashamed of myself and my level of personal integrity and character if I stopped without medically necessary reasons.
When I had my first little taste of success, it was such a shock of pure joy and amazement that good results were happening for me. It made me determined to stay the course, to keep doing what I could to improve my health. Because it was possible. Finally, I had proof of the things my doctors had been telling me for years. I suddenly felt like someone who could impact her health; I was no longer just a helpless victim to the eventual ravages of diabetes. My desire to be proactive in improving my own health became far stronger than my yearning to return my ass to its easy, well-worn place on the couch.
Success, I have found, is more intoxicating than anything else I could imagine. Maybe it’s the first pound lost, or the first time you can walk the same distance and feel as if you could go a little further. Or when your endocrinologist reduces your insulin dosage for the first time since he initially prescribed it. Whatever your objectives, the first milestone is huge.
Success, big or small, is/was the great motivator to improve my attitude and try harder to banish the negativity toward my efforts. It has made me less tolerant of abuse and sabotage, real or imagined, from outside sources and those inside my own head. When I started really listening to and believing the encouragement and compliments from my own tribe of cheerleaders and supporters I began to believe in my own success. And there is not a thing wrong with feeling good about your efforts, even if you walk away frustrated with things that vex and challenge. Tomorrow is another day; take a time out and try again.
From where I am right now, staying off the diabetes drugs is the primary motivator for me, but I have also allowed my curiosity about exercise and fitness to blossom and grow. I have become fascinated with the how and why of things J teaches me or that other friends talk about, and from that my desire to know more has expanded and grown. Maybe I presently have zero desire to become a weightlifter, but the way they conduct themselves, the discipline and commitment required for their gains is intriguing. I genuinely enjoy training sessions with J – they are highlights of my weeks – and majority of the time I look forward to getting to the gym and going through my List of the day in practice. My competency has reached a level that I am confident in my ability to work at this stuff on my own now, although I promise there will be major kicking and screaming tantrums happening if anything disrupted my ongoing training sessions.
But for me, the truth behind my regular, consistent exercise habit is that I have no desire to tempt fate or test my body’s chemistry by slowing down my efforts and then waiting to see if my blood sugar can tolerate such a change.
While my diabetes control success has done more to keep me determined to continue to improve my lifestyle, I have had a lot of tiny little successes with the exercise itself that make me feel so much better. At first just easier to bear, because quite naturally as I grew stronger I became more competent with the movements. Then the allure of the next challenge captured me. I still have many, many days where I lose count and am happy to stop when I think I am close enough for government work, and it seems so perfectly normal and natural to me I had to establish new rules with myself to ensure I put forth appropriate and adequate effort. But honestly, when I started feeling competent and confident in my ability with the exercise, I began to enjoy doing them. Because finally, I actually could do them. Never underestimate the gratification that comes with showing improvement after many multiples of tries.
I did get tire of my own negativity and fear. Never mind what everyone else had to put up with from me; I had to find ways to turn shut off that negative noise. Yes, I had a therapist for that as well. But again, there are zillions of self-help articles, books, pod casts, youtube videos. And again, it takes deliberate and determined effort. Not quite the same as trying to exercise daily, but you have to decide that you want and are ready to commit to changes in your outlook. At first, I found complimenting myself competed with the earliest days of exercise on a toughness scale. Like everything else, it became easier and more natural and normal with practice. And it did wonders to break me of my self-depreciation habit. I no longer have to depend upon validation from others to make me feel good about my efforts, although I am always touched and thrilled when someone says nice things to or about me. When negative girl was in the wheelhouse, there are not enough compliments or kind words in the whole world to inflate my ego to normal size.
There is likely to be a different answer from every person who has transformed from a sedentary person with a negative attitude toward exercise to a regular exerciser who has fallen in love with movement for health and happiness. My friend Elyse was disappointed in mine, but I knew in advance I do not have answers for her. I believe she hoped I would have some simple mantra or platitude and a pair of ruby slippers I could share so she merely had to click her heels together to make her exercise depression dissipate. Of all the shoes I own – and it is a lot of pairs – I have no ruby slippers in my closets. Perhaps there is a Disney princess out there who has some magic to share?