Vol 11, Num 1 :: 2012.01.06 — 2012.01.19
Every Christmas, I gorge myself on cookies, chocolates, cheese-slathered crackers and other comfort foods. This indulgence inevitably leads me to face each New Year’s Day with enough bloated contrition to fuel a serious healthy-living campaign. Often I begin my new year’s ablutions by consuming healthier (and fewer) foods and attempting to exercise.
For a few days, anyway.
Then, as is typical of so many resolutioners with the best of intentions, I quickly backslide into my old self-destructive patterns within a day or two of my time of repentance.
2011 was the first year I was able to make real changes where my physical health is concerned. But these changes didn’t start on January 1. They began later in the year, when I made some spontaneous decisions, one by one, to change my life for the better — to deal with my weight, my autoimmune disease and my lack of energy and to reduce the risk of my thyroid cancer returning. Amazingly, I’ve been able to stick with these changes after decades of struggling with my will.
Here’s how I was able to improve my health this year, in ten steps:
Step 1: Exercise by gardening. In April, I got active after months of winter dormancy by gardening. All that work pushing wheelbarrows full of compost, shoveling and spreading mulch, and dragging around transplanted shrubs and perennials caused me to sweat for hours without giving much thought to the fact that I was exercising.
Step 2: Walking. I’ve been gardening for years, so this wasn’t the first spring during which I built up my compost-hauling muscles. What differed this year was the way I sustained my new level of fitness after all the major gardening work was done. By July, I had to somehow replace that exercise with something else. I decided to stay active by doing all of my errands on foot. I’m lucky enough to live in a neighborhood where most of the stores I frequent are within a mile or two of my house. I started walking every day, every chance I got.
Step 3: Biking. Walking helped me to stay active. But soon I was craving more vigorous exercise. So in August I returned to my college hobby: cycling. I dusted off my old Trek, inflated the tires and started riding the many miles of trails near my house. It didn’t take long for me to get hooked. By October I was riding an average of 20 to 30 miles a day and commuting to work. The adventure of riding made those two hour workouts a joy, instead of a burden. I was able to exercise without feeling that I was doing something tedious and mundane.
Step 4: Reducing wheat and sugar. By September, I was enjoying my new fitness. But something was missing from my health regimen: a nutritious diet. I’ve been a vegetarian for 16 years, but I’m not one of those super healthy vegetarians who dine on quinoa and spinach and seitan and eschew all conventional foods. I’m one of those cheese-and-sugar-addicted vegetarians. To give you an idea, some old friends of ours used to call us “pastatarians.” As I approached my mid-thirties, my steady diet of wheat, sugar, dairy and caffeine caught up with me. This was evidenced by my frequent colds, my pudgy middle, and my lack of energy. But how could a pizza-loving vegetarian go low-carb? My answer: a daily dinner combo of soups, smoothes and muffins. I started making multi-grain, low-sugar muffins (zucchini, raspberry, sweet potato) paired with protein-rich, meatless soups and fruit and yogurt smoothies. The combination was yummy, filling and nutritious and, with the help of a crock pot, fairly easy to pull off even with my busy schedule.
Step 5: Quitting Coffee. Around this same time I did something monumental: I quit drinking coffee. I had a long and tumultuous love affair with coffee. For years — mostly since having my third child and being diagnosed with a hypothyroid — I was addicted to coffee. I brewed it strong and drank it often. It was my energy booster, my anti-depressant. It gave me joy every morning and fueled my work and my social life. But I was addicted: I could not go one day without caffeine. If I were to wait too long to drink coffee, I’d get a searing headache. When I drank too much coffee, it made my heart race and caused awful acid reflux. I knew deep down that despite the myriad articles touting the beverage’s benefits that coffee wasn’t doing me much good. So I finally decided to quit.
Step 6: Eliminating all caffeine. I weaned myself off coffee by switching to heavily brewed black and green tea — lots and lots of tea. This helped me to avoid those dreaded caffeine withdrawal headaches and gave me enough energy to get through the day. Eventually I got down to one cup of green tea in the morning. That was when I decided to quit all caffeinated beverages, including tea. Green tea is often promoted as a super healthy drink. However, few people know about the amount of fluoride in tea. I decided to abstain from even this healthy beverage in favor of lemon water because fluoride is linked to thyroid problems. I am dependent on synthetic thyroid for the rest of my life, so I can’t take my chances with anything that might interfere with my body’s ability to absorb this essential hormone.
Step 7: Group Exercise. In early November, our Wisconsin winds began to blow cold, and I knew I’d find it difficult to keep biking at temps below 40 degrees. I had to find a new way to stay active through the winter months. So I started taking classes at the YMCA. These classes — boot camp, yoga, step and so on — keep me engaged in ways that treadmills and elliptical machines can’t. And once this shy writer got used to social workouts, my fears about the awkwardness of exercising in front of others subsided.
Step 8: Running. I always found distance running to be the most nauseatingly strenuous of all workouts. But something changed in me, gradually, as I built up muscle and lost fat — when I went on long dog walks with my husband, I tried trotting, and then jogging. I have a few friends who rave about snow running, so this winter, I tried jogging when I was too busy to make the journey to the Y. I’ve found that jogging in the cold is actually kind of fun. The workout generates a great deal of heat, which keeps me warm. I now look forward to my daily jogs and the ensuing “runner’s high” caused by the endorphins rushing through my body.
Step 9: Buying organic. I’ve always believed that produce grown without pesticides and hormones is superior to conventionally grown foods. But organic vegetables are expensive, so in the past I’ve skipped the organic section and purchased fruits and veggies of the conventional variety. Not anymore. I figure that the salty, sugary convenience foods I’d been buying are probably more expensive in the end than whole, organic foods that require me to cook from scratch. So I’m striving to include more organic fruits and vegetables in our diet.
Step 10: Juicing. This December, I watched the documentary Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead. It’s about two men suffering from a rare autoimmune skin disorder and struggling with unhealthy eating habits who turn their lives around and lose a massive amount of weight by drinking fresh fruit and vegetable juices. Though the changes I made to my diet and activity level had a positive impact on my health, I still felt I needed more fruits and vegetables in my diet — especially after watching this inspiring film. I just started juicing.
The underlying “secret” in all these steps isn’t my own strong will or self-discipline. Truth be told, I’m pretty weak when it comes to doing hard things. I think the secret lies in plain old trickery. Instead of resolving to do something hard and hoping it would take, I told myself I was going to try something fun and new. If it was good for me, great! If it lasted, great! This attitude helped me avoid over-thinking the changes and thus sabotaging my ability to lift myself out of my health rut. Once each change took hold, I wanted more.
I still have a long way to go before I’ll reach my target weight. But I do feel pretty good now. I have more energy, I feel more emotionally balanced and I’ve been able to escape all of the illnesses that have swept through my community this fall and winter (so far). And strangely, I don’t feel deprived at all. I still enjoy an occasional pizza and definitely had my share of Christmas cookies, chocolates and cheese dips this season. But I balanced those indulgences with soups, juices and workouts. I’m hopeful that, with this slow and balanced approach to fitness and nutrition, I’ll be able to sustain my improved health in the year to come.