Each week for more than two years, I’ve faced the keyboard and those of you who read this column—even when my progress feels so minimal that I feel like a fraud.
I keep doing it for a few reasons: Progress is progress, however slow; but also because there are so few voices out there describing the painstaking and grueling process of making life-long changes in support of health.
All day long, you and I can find online “8 Exercises to Incinerate Belly Fat Fast!,” “13 Ways to Lower Blood Pressure,” “10 Best Herbs to Help Fight Fatigue” or “Easy Carb-Free (or Gluten-Free, Fat-Free, and Common-Sense-Free) Recipes You Can Make in 1 Minute!” Okay, I made that last one up. The other three are in my email inbox this morning.
Finding real voices talking about real struggles—and maybe more to the point, finding photos of real bodies—is much more difficult. And that matters. It matters because the standard we hold ourselves to is not real. It’s manipulated, photoshopped, maximized, minimized, color-corrected, and all-around fake. But we buy into it anyway, to the tune of billions of dollars a year, in what is called the “fitness industry.” According to one website I read this morning, that figure is over $80 billion a year globally, with about $25 billion a year spent in the United States alone on gym memberships, dietary supplements and other products, yoga mats and weights, you name it.
The reality of making changes from sedentary to an active lifestyle is a daunting project that will take the rest of my life, because there’s no point at which I’ll be finished. When I’m in my 90s, I’ll still need to find ways to move my body around that I enjoy enough to do. At every level of fitness, I need to push myself as hard as I can—whether that means I am walking half a mile or running a marathon.
Most of us like to look good, and we frequently equate looking good with feeling good. But when the standard of looking good is not real, we will simply never measure up, and hence always feel like a failure at “fitness.”
I feel this pressure as much as anyone. Some of the photos of me that we have run with this column have made me physically queasy to see on the printed page, because I’m a product of this culture, too, and I don’t like to see my blobby bits on display. But unlike many people, I also have a way to bite back at the ubiquitous cacophony which tells me that my efforts are not enough because I don’t look like a supermodel. I can write this column, share my joys and failures, show how long and how hard I have to work, and how often I have to start over or want to give up.
When you put all of that together with the fact that people (including me) are addicted to sugar and other substances, dealing with or sorting through childhood trauma which often leads to substance abuse issues (including abuse of food like binge eating), it’s amazing to me that there are any success stories out there at all! Don’t even get me started on the many stories of people who lose 100 pounds in a few months. What they don’t tell you is that most of them, according to some research, gain that weight back when it is lost too quickly. And worse than that, because our bodies are so efficient, they get better at hanging on to fat, too, after too-rapid weight loss, perpetuating the cycle.
Learning to care for myself after five decades of neglect has been a gargantuan task, far harder than I ever imagined it would be when I got serious about it.
So for me, over and over it comes back to putting one foot in front of the other. Making a plan. Finding ways to be accountable. Finding ways to have fun in motion. Making another plan. Falling down and getting back up. Reminding myself of my goals—repeatedly. Remembering why I exercise and want to be healthy. Allowing myself to feel good.
There are real joys along this path as well. This past weekend I had both grandsons over. They are age 6 and 11, and they both associate me with exercise now! That just blows my mind. They are the ones pushing me to do some crazy dancing and to lift weights with them. They challenge me to sit-up and push-up contests and ask me how to do burpees. And they inspire me with their enthusiasm and pure joy in movement.
What’s real is how I feel—and I feel healthier and stronger at 51 than I did in my 20s, my 30s or my 40s. I’ll take it.