making change

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A client asked me recently to write an article about how to make health changes that will stick. The two main areas this involves usually include diet and exercise.

Most of the clients I see wind up discussing their exercise regimens and lifestyles with me. People have a wide range of physical aptitude and activity level so it’s good to get to know them some so you have an idea where they’re at and where they want to go. My job in addition to bodywork or yoga is to assist them getting there.

As I get older I notice more friends becoming sedentary, lethargic and having increasing health issues related to nurture more than nature. This includes my love handles of course but bodies do change as we age and it’s important to keep impermanence in mind whether we’re Buddhist or not. My body at 20 isn’t the body I will have at 40. As we age it’s then even more important that we engage in regular maintence, good dietary decisions and choices that help us reach whatever goals we have.

I learned long ago when working as a massage therapist if I wanted people’s blood pressure to go up, if I wanted to make them stressed, just discuss diet and exercise with them while they’re on the table. It took me some time to figure out why this was such a loaded topic then it dawned on me that most clients feel that discussing diet means eating things they don’t want to eat and exercise means doing things they don’t want to do. My feelings on the issues couldn’t be further from this.

I consider creme brulee part of a healthy diet. It’s not recommended every day but I don’t consider it unhealthy either. Sitting around and being social with friends while having a glass of wine is also good for you, as it probably lowers blood pressure and the laughter you’ll have during the episode will just help you live longer. We are social creatures after all.

So I run contrary to some popular opinions. I once got into an argument with a woman about cookies being part of a healthy diet and I still hold a grudge about it. Telling women they can’t have dessert is tantamount to treason. When it comes to food here is a fundamental idea I’d like to get across. Caloric restriction doesn’t work. Diets don’t work. That’s why there’s a new one every two weeks making the circuit. If you’re sitting around trying to figure out how to eat less, I’ve a suggestion. Stop. Go take a walk, then come home and eat a little of whatever it is you wanted, mindfully.

At issue is the fact that we’ve bodies that evolved to make good use of calories which were all too rare. As hunter gatherers we ate less frequently and what calories we did get were more likely to be feast then famine. How does one then adapt to 24 hour stores with aisles of food? Fast food around the clock and food commercials? Usually we just get fat. Especially as we get older and stop growing, though issues of childhood obesity and diabetes are increasing each year.

So again, I think caloric restriction doesn’t work. I recommend instead of avoiding food people actually dive in, not so much with their bellies and gluttony but by learning more about where food comes from and most importantly learning to cook. I feel the blood pressure rising as you read this but relax, hear me out. I learned to cook years ago first because I wanted to be a vegetarian, which I no longer am by the way, and then because I was sick and needed to heal myself.

One of the things that I noticed was that I would sometimes spend hours making an extravagant meal and then sit down to eat a small portion, usually smaller than those around me. Over time I realized it was because I got to nibble, smell and taste all of the food as I was making it. I’d been eating for hours at that point and was already nearly full. This to me, is one of the secrets.

The other is that because I’m not denying myself I’m not as easily going to go on a binge and eat excessively. Caloric restriction and diets have no place in a healthy lifestyle. There, I said it. I know it’s difficult to hear and deal with but I think it’s true personally. When I hear someone is on a diet I cringe. I love food and eating too much. I eat what I want, when I want. It includes things like donuts, ice cream, cake, fried chicken, foie grois, spaghetti and meatballs, meatloaf and even the occasional stir fry. I just don’t think of food as the enemy.

Part of that reason is that I exercise. I’m active. I garden and move about a lot in addition to doing bikram yoga regularly. Doing yoga in a 105F degree room means I’m more than aware of what’s going on internally. I don’t eat heavily those days and make sure to hydrate well. I’ve had a class after a morning of coffee, bacon and eggs and it didn’t go too well. You burn calories as you exercise and when you build muscle you burn more calories with ease. The additional cardiovascular exercise helps burn calories and keep my heart healthy. Cardio is surely my weakest link, I just never got into running.

Exercise is using a shovel, moving leaves and compost around, turning the compost pile with a picthfork and moving enough wood mulch around yards to cover what seems like a city block. Everyone’s diet and exercise will vary. Diet is what you eat, exercise is what you do. Nothing more, nothing less. I can’t ask clients to take on my lifestyle as it’s just that, mine. I’ve found and continue to find what works for me. I eat what I want in moderation and exercise regularly while reminding myself to stay active.

Here’s a small list of things I think are beneficial when it comes to food:
learn to cook
watch Good Eats with Alton Brown
join a CSA to get fresh produce Johnson’s Backyard Garden
visit local farmers and talk to them
buy meats fresh locally and invest in a deep freezer
avoid fast food whenever possible (learning to cook and well, will aid this)
start a garden at home

When it comes to exercise here’s a list:
Be active
Do what you like
If you hate jogging, don’t.
Find what you like to do that gets you moving. Could be gardening, swimming, biking, diving, rock climbing, dancing or walking. It should be enjoyable and preferably you don’t even think of it as exercise.
Have more sex. It burns calories, helps you bond with your loved ones and we live in a puritanical culture that barely approves of sex between married people. Good sex can last hours. Doesn’t have to but if you’re healthy and in shape enough why not spend time having pleasure?
Try new things. If you’ve never kayaked, try it out. You might find a few things you like that help keep weight off and keep you active.

So how do these things stick? When it comes to cooking you can’t unlearn something. The more you learn about food, where it comes from and how it’s prepared you’ll eat better and for less money. When you’ve had homeade, homegrown, fresh and local produce you’ll not want to eat KFC as often. Trust me on this one. Making diet and exercise part of your regular life means making it more pleasureable than fast food and sitting on a couch. It’s that simple. People steer towards feeling good and pleasure, we should honor those as part of health and well being.

I can’t say it’s always an easy choice. After all, when I’m hungry and I don’t have anything in the fridge the temptation is to run off to buy fast food. If I cook regularly though, and keep a well stocked pantry I save not only money on food but have things around to eat at a whim that are usually far more nutritious. I don’t think people eat Whataburger because it’s the best hamburger they’ve ever had. I think they eat it because it’s convenient. Convenience is what runs fast food. If we had grass fed burgers on every corner with olive oil fried french fries and organic buns and lettuce we’d buy that just as much.It’s just not as available. Quick and easy is the American way. According to heart disease and diabetes rates we’ve made quick and easy our lifestyle.

Instead of focusing on what we shouldn’t eat, focus more on what you should. Nothing has made quite the impact on my food choices like going to Johnsons’s Backyard Garden and working on the farm for the day. I spend 5 hours or so picking, cleaning and boxing vegetables. I get sun, friendly conversation with other volunteers, a chance to learn about our local food system and at the end of the day…a free box of produce. I got exercise and good food at the same time.

I dislike absolute dogmatism. What works for you, works. No one including me can tell you exactly what you should do because your body, your being, is different than mine. Embrace what you like. If you like some junk food, start making it yourself. Ask my wife’s kids about corndogs and see how they respond. Ever had a homeade from scratch corndog? Aha! Those little things make life worth living.

Keeping up a healthy pattern means you make it as easy as possible to follow. Surround yourself with people who wish to be healthy as well. Make good choices easy to make. Healthy food tastes good and includes fat, calories and carbohydrates. Healthy exercise is fun, it’s something you enjoy. It makes you feel better, not just sore. Take the dog for a walk. Join a community garden. If you run, go swimming. If you swim, go running. Mix it up and don’t become sedentary. Try new things. If you’re a single older woman chase younger men.

Modern American life is what we’re often fighting. We spend most of our time staring at glowing rectangles, hint, you’re staring at one now. We don’t have to run, stoop, crawl and hunt for food or get behind the oxen to plow. We simply drive to the store and charge it on a credit card. I say simplify, not only because it’s the good life but because it’s the only life worth living. He who has the most toys just has the most stuff he’s got to dust.

Spend time thinking about what it really is that you want and create the life that gives you that. Keeping up with the Jones’ isn’t the way to live. Live your life in such a way that others wish to be as free, unencumbered and joyous as you are. If you don’t know any of those people get some new friends. If you want health, create, maintain and nourish healthy habits. Do things not because they have a long term health goal but because they make you feel good in the moment.

This is how you create a lifestyle that sticks. Again, just my opinion. Your mileage may vary. I welcome comments.

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