"One may walk over the highest mountain one step at a time." -John Wanamaker
In the realm of health and fitness and in personal development, a lot of emphasis is put on transformations. We want to lose weight, change our lives, make money, improve our relationships--and we want to do it overnight. This post is about a change that's come my way little by little. It's about recovery and about health, about bodies and trusting mine.
For the last few years, I’ve really been working—and struggling and working, and struggling and working—on having weight represent a by-product in my life. After years of focusing on the number to the point where my disordered eating took over my life and I was unhealthier than ever, I came to a point where I at least rationally knew that our weight is just a side effect and not a clear indication of whether or not we are taking good care of ourselves. As a personal trainer, I struggle when people talk about wanting to lose weight and always try to encourage them towards their goals, but also to ask them what concrete things (habits, ways of taking care of themselves—or not) that they’d like to shift in their lives. And in my own life, I’ve bought and trashed and bought and trashed scales. I’ve tried weighing myself daily, weekly, monthly, not at all—all of it.
Three years ago, I went into the Bod Pod. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the contraption, it measures your body composition using air displacement and is one of the most accurate options out there. And when I went in last time, I blogged about it. The results indicated that I was in the "excess fat” category at 32.6% body fat, which I said I was surprisingly okay with.
Looking back, three years ago I had a lot going for me. I was a few months into my relationship with my current partner. I was deciding what I wanted for myself and about to start my Masters in the fall. I was realizing that I needed to be the one in the driver’s seat when it came to decisions about what was “healthy” for me. And like I mentioned, I was starting to see the futility in focusing on the number on the scale. I’d gained a fair bit of weight in my recovery at that point, sort of in two spurts. One came when I started treatment and simply eating again. Another came when I radically changed the way I was eating and training—going from triathlon and pretty much a standard “healthy” diet to dabbling in Paleo and doing a lot more CrossFit. I gained 20lbs in each of these spurts.
I regret none of it.
Since then, I’ve found myself back in the sport of triathlon and enjoying getting faster with smart training. I still get excited about CrossFit and do some of it here and there, usually because I’ve got friends who rope me into a competition. I do strength training when I’m not into something like that, and it’s nothing fancy but I think it keeps me injury free and I like the feeling of being able to do push-ups and pull-ups and pick up heavy things. I try to do some yoga and do other activities that aren’t “exercise”—hiking with friends, biking to coffee shops, playing volleyball, etc. It’s nothing special.
For most of the last three years, I’ve been focused on an “all foods fit” mentality because I’ve learned that my downfall is black and white thinking. I know that when I tell myself I can’t have peanut butter, the jar will be gone and I will be left with only guilt. I’ve struggled with seeing people lose weight and seem happier without many carbs in their lives, but trying it myself and winding up eating out of the pantry late at night. I’ve had slips and usually when I try to restrict or actively count my calories and limit them, or cut out certain foods, I almost always find myself going a little bit insane. Any relapses I’ve had with food and bingeing and purging, in hindsight, have come when I’ve been dieting or enforcing food rules on myself. I’ve had the help of friends and family, dietitans and therapists, blogs and books—and I’m grateful to them all.
I’ve come to realize that the people who I want to be like in this world are not those who have six packs and eat “clean.” I like going to lunch with people who will share an order of garlic bread before eating a salad, or who want to have a milkshake when we’re done with our meals. I like having coffee with a friend who will split a cookie with me. I do a lot better when I have a treat here or there (daily, really) and don’t worry too much about burning it off or whether or not I “deserve” it.
I decided to go into the bod pod again when I realized it had been three years because I was curious. My weight has shifted very slowly in the downward direction, but I’ve had moments where I wonder if I’m losing muscle and gaining fat. I am around people who have their body fats measured with calipers, but I knew I would rather compare apples to apples and shell out the 50$ to get myself tested in the same way as before.
Turns out, I’ve moved from that “excess fat” category into the “moderately lean” one. Apparently there is no in between, which is fine. From 32.6% to 25.9%, and some interesting numbers that are just feedback for me. On the scale, I’d see that I lost just under 8lbs over three years—far from a big change. But the broken down numbers indicate that I’ve lost 12.8lbs of fat and gained 5.1lbs of muscle. That’s cool.
And ironic. Because while I wouldn’t say that I haven’t worried about the size of my thighs or what I’m eating in the last three years, I have certainly tried to embrace a new way of taking care of myself. You’ll read in anti-diet books that you just might be gaining weight because of your dieting attempts, but you can’t give up dieting to lose weight, otherwise that turns into just another attempt to lose weight (i.e. a “diet”). You have to get so fed up with making yourself wrong and trying to use food to make yourself right—unsuccessfully—that you’re ready to try something new. It is funny, though, that only when I let go of the goals around numbers and weight and body composition that things moved in the direction I'd have been so singularly focused on...
Disclaimer: I don’t have it figured out. My family and friends would say that I still struggle and have days where I cry about a plate of French fries I wish I didn’t eat, or about the people in my life who make me second guess myself. I see people training for shows and aiming for the “perfect” body that actually requires them to do very unhealthy things in order to achieve that look. I see people striving to see what their bodies are capable of in terms of leanness. Every day, someone seems to be going on a new diet and making this food wrong or that food wrong. What’s wrong with yogurt? But what about the gluten? The back room conversations at a gym are filled with things that could make just about anyone second guess themselves. I work in a field where people have strong opinions and where making a livelihood all too often relies on convincing people that they’d be fat and out of control if it weren’t for our help. Further, it relies on people believing that “fat” is a terrible thing to be. In my teary mess worrying about all of this not too long ago, I realized that I would much rather be chubby than miserable or hating my body for the rest of my life.
And I could be leaner. But I’ve realized that I could do a lot of things, and just because something is possible doesn’t mean that it’s worth doing. Props to anyone who decides to get as lean as possible and has the dedication to make that happen, or who wants to dedicate their life to having a perfect body. But it’s not required to be healthy, and I would argue that from a holistic sense, for most people, it’s unhealthy. At the end of it all, we are all going to die. I want to be remembered for something, but it’s not for having 17% body fat or an 18-pack, I’ve realized.
In short, the last three years has been a bumpy road of letting go. I’ve realized that my recovery from my eating disorder is certainly not finished, but that it requires ongoing choices that support the kind of healthy life I want to live. That my healthy life is one I’ve defined to include lots of exercise and movement, chocolate chip cookies, plenty of veggies—preferably that I can grow myself, and trusting my body to find its own healthy weight. Health can be simple, and it can be found in letting go.