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by Carole Carson, AARP, November 21, 2008
Physical health is not a commodity to be bargained for. Nor can it be swallowed in the form of drugs and pills. It has to be earned through sweat.
—B. K. S. Iyengar
Since July, two changes—eating differently and exercising more—had transformed my body. When individuals approached me with their plans, I quickly pointed out that this was the toughest work I'd ever attempted. I also added that between the two changes, exercising was a piece of cake compared to eating differently. (Whoops, wrong analogy!)
Evidently I wasn't alone. In a free, nationwide health program called "Choose to Move" involving 23,000 women, more than 19,000 dropped out. The results of the American Heart Association study, reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine on October 8, 2001, show how hard it is to stick with healthy lifestyle changes, even if intentions are good.
The American Medical Association also reports that cardiovascular disease is the number-one killer, accounting for 40 percent of all premature deaths—450,000 people annually. High blood pressure is a silent killer, and elevated cholesterol is linked to heart disease and stroke. Moreover, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that the incidence of diabetes continues to accelerate.
Since the health risks of being overweight are increasingly alarming, why is it so difficult to live a healthy lifestyle?
First, "now" is never a good time to begin. "Tomorrow" looks more promising. "Now," in fact, seems like an especially good time to indulge oneself. As far as I can tell, though, the right time to begin does not exist.
Second, dietary changes result in immediate losses before long-term benefits show up. You may have to lose favorite foods or supersized portions before you can lose the pounds. When everyone else indulges, delayed gratification is a tough sell. What a leap of faith!
I've also discovered reasons for eating that have nothing to do with nutrition. In my past reality, comfort, reward, distraction, recreation, and cravings were perfectly acceptable reasons to indulge. Sometimes I ate because the clock said "time" or, alternatively, to keep from getting hungry. I called it preventative eating. Sometimes I ate because the food smelled good or because of thirst and fatigue.
Eating for the intrinsic value of food—nutrition and energy—and not for extraneous reasons was a radical shift. Within a daily caloric allowance, I balanced protein, vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, and plenty of fluids over three light meals and two snacks. Each decision I made about what to consume was governed by what my body needed, not what I wanted. And although cocktails and wine would have been nice once in a while, I couldn't afford to spend the calories, especially when the calories were "empty" ones, void of any nutritional value.
If these difficulties weren't enough, I realized I would never be finished. If I succeed today, tomorrow I must fight again. Giving myself one free day a week might help, but temptations would always abound.
I was also ambivalent. The old me—a self-indulgent hedonist—preferred the comfort of elastic waistbands. Habits, food preferences, and unexpected triggers, like the smell of warm cookies fresh from the oven, steered me backward. The new me—the fitness marine—liked the discipline and considered it a patriotic duty to shape up. Ultimately, my body would reflect the "me" who prevailed.
I was amazed at my body's recovery from years of abuse. It wasn't as if my old body just had less weight on it. I felt as if I had a whole new body. The hanging skin folds under my arms were gone, my stomach was flat and hard without extra flab, and my legs looked as they did in high school when I played basketball. If the body isn't miraculous in its functioning, then I don't know what is.
Did I feel and look terrific? Yes. Did I have tons of energy? Yes. Was I sometimes hungry? Yes. Did I miss my treats? Yes. Would I continue? Yes, but only if I found comfort, rewards, and recreation away from the dining table; otherwise, I'd put the weight back on. I would also need to remind myself daily of the health benefits and the joy of physical activity without limitations.
Ultimately, though, if I succeeded it would be because when I looked in the spiritual mirror, I liked myself better when I led a disciplined life. It felt good to have a rule—eat consciously for what my body needs—and the discipline to follow it. Permanently, I hoped, self-indulgence had been replaced with a sense of deep privilege for the opportunity to become fit and, by my example, to encourage others to do the same.
Next: Carole hits the road again.
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