Finally Figuring Out A Healthier Me
If a stranger looks at me, I suppose they see… a completely average, middle-aged woman. That’s because I am, I guess. I am neither heavy nor skinny. I don’t appear to be all that muscular. My physical appearance is utterly unremarkable. The good news is that, for the most part, I don’t care. I’m not one of those people who used to be a knockout and who now struggles with settling into this age where gravity is starting to take its inevitable toll. I have never viewed my physical appearance as a vital part of my self-image, so the changes along the way haven’t felt like a huge deal.
The one exception here is a small one. A stupid one, really. I used to be skinny. I used to be how-are-you-so-thin-when-you-eat-like-that?? kind of skinny. I ate whatever I wanted and I remained slim, and as I inch into my mid-40s, well, yeah. That season of my life is over. It actually ended with my hysterectomy a decade ago, but even so: I used to be skinny and now I’m average. It’s not like I used to be skinny and now I’m overweight. It’s just different.
About five years ago, as I found myself expanding into the next clothing size, I undertook a group fitness challenge with some friends. Because the supposed issue wasn’t the weight as much as it was “being healthy,” the idea was to incorporate a new commitment to regular movement and exercise… while losing weight. Let’s just be honest; I wanted to lose weight. We all did. And to set it up as a competition seemed harmless, but in the end I whittled down those numbers on the scale and saw it as the ultimate triumph. I bought new, smaller clothes. People remarked on how great I looked, and I lapped it up. I’d achieved through semi-regular exercise (which I still loathed, even after months) and hardcore dieting, and I was victorious.
This approach—surprise!—proved to be unsustainable. I stopped counting calories (because who wants to live like that?), and over time, I stopped exercising, too. Three years later, I was back at my pre-challenge weight, tired and squishy and full of self-loathing for my inability to care enough to change. But hey, still average weight! So… whatever! Then life took some unexpected turns, and the last couple of years or so have been fraught with illness and worry and crises and stress. My own size or health wasn’t just on the back burner; it was completely forgotten.
I didn’t matter. Everything else was more important. At least, that’s how I thought about it, if I bothered to think about it at all (which was almost never).
When the calendar flipped over into 2014, I’d love to tell you that everything had finally settled down and I had time to focus on myself, or that I had an epiphany about this being the only body I have, my own health being tantamount no matter what life throws my way, etc. In reality, neither of those things are true. Life is still more stressful than I wish it was, and self-care is still a complicated issue for me (as someone with high-needs kids and a lot of baggage about what it means to be a good parent). There was no lightbulb moment. There was no grand, arm-sweeping decision to put my well-being at the top of the to-do list. There were some interesting conversations with my therapist and my husband and some trusted friends; there were some tough moments of not liking what I saw in the mirror and embarrassment over my lack of stamina when doing things other than sitting at my desk. There was the gradual but steady realization that I needed both an attitude and lifestyle adjustment if I plan to be around for a while (I do) and I’d like to feel pretty good while I do it (yes, please).
Eventually it became clear that I just had to start, and furthermore, I had to figure out what changes were ones I could live with for the long haul. There was no fanfare and I made no declarations. I just started working out again. Within about a week I realized that the “moderate” plan of working out three times a week is something that, for whatever reason, doesn’t work for me. If I don’t have to do it every day, I start coming up with excuses of why I’ll do it “tomorrow,” or pointing to busy days and shrugging the ol’ “life happens” shrug as my pass to skip a workout. For me, the key is to commit to moving my body every single day. Now, this doesn’t mean I’ve become a crazy gym freak or that I’m spending hours each day lifting weights. It simply means that I do something each and every day for a minimum of 20 minutes, no matter what. Most days, I spend half an hour on the elliptical. Some days I swim laps. Now that I’ve been doing this for a number of months and exercising is not just a regular part of my day, but also kind of a nice break, more and more often, I do both. If the weather’s nice, I’ll take the dog for a long walk. I’m not doing a “lot,” by anyone’s standards, but I’m making sustainable changes, finally, that are helping me to manage my stress level and getting my butt out of my chair every single day.
I haven’t changed my diet. The truth here is that I sort of want to; I’d like to lose a little weight, and I know changing my diet is the fastest way to do that. But with a child in recovery from an eating disorder in the house, even the most sensible diet feels like the wrong example to set. Instead, I still eat a mostly healthy selection of foods without counting calories, and enjoy less-healthful choices in moderation. I’m okay with that plan for now.
Confession: Since making these changes, I’ve firmed up some, but I’ve also gained five pounds, in that body-weight-shifting-locations kind of way. Some of my favorite clothes still don’t fit, and sure, I wish I was effortlessly shedding pounds and strangers were telling me how great I look, but… meh. That’s not the goal. Muscles I haven’t seen clearly in years have gained some definition. I’m sleeping better and feel more even-keeled while awake. I’m not pestering anyone to join me or talking about it much. I’m just doing it. Yesterday was a long, hard, busy day, and by 8:00 at night I hadn’t exercised. I thought about flopping down on the couch and giving myself a pass for the day, sure. And then I got on the stupid elliptical for half an hour, anyway.
It’s complicated, still, in my head. But I feel better. I’m happy with the example I’m setting for my kids. I’m happy with my new routine. And maybe I’m finally learning to appreciate my body for how it feels rather than how it looks.