Some people struggle with an issue, work to overcome it, and in the process decide to explore its origins. It’s not unusual to hear of someone citing a personal event that inspired them to choose a particular profession. We all know people like that.

I’m not one of them. As a matter of fact, maybe I’m a touch oblivious at times, but it wasn’t until I became an adult that it hit me that most of the people with whom I came in contact did not think the same way I did.

What am I talking about?

At the risk of dating myself, I remember watching an episode of Happy Days (remember that show?) in which Joanie (the teenage daughter in the series’ central family) was dumped by her boyfriend, or dumped him, or some teen-angst-ridden combination of the two. At the end of the episode, her mother brought her a jar of crunchy peanut butter and a spoon, and Joanie proceeded to consume the entire thing. Or at least we assumed that she ate all of it, as foreshadowed by an earlier comment by her mom that she herself had eaten a jar of PB after a similar breakup of hers when she was the same age.

I will never forget that episode, mainly because the notion of eating during a time of sadness or high stress (or excitement, for that matter) was completely foreign to me. Why would someone address their emotional pain with food?

Another incident, also in my teens, totally bowled me over. I remember being at high school, in a roomful of girls. I don’t know how the topic turned to food, but one girl mentioned how she would have loved to have Cheryl Tiegs’ body (supermodel from the ’80s) just so that she could ruin it by eating. Another wistfully admitted that it was a fantasy of hers to be able to just eat and eat and eat.

I so did not get it. While I’d gone through my own weight-related ups and downs as a teen, I never thought of food as anything other than fuel. Some foods I liked, others I didn’t. But when I wasn’t hungry, I wasn’t hungry. When I was, I ate.

There is a saying, “If hunger isn’t the problem, food isn’t the solution.” It makes perfect sense to me. What I discovered, however, was that so many people I knew where using food to try to solve problems that had nothing to do with hunger. That method inevitably backfires. When I realized that, within a circle of friends and acquaintances, I was the exception and not the norm, I began asking why.

That’s when I realized that there weren’t many others interested in the same question. As a stay-at-home-mom, I used some of my “free” (ha!) time to become certified as a personal trainer through the American College of Sports Medicine. While it was never my intention to work exclusively in that capacity, I did consider it as a possibility. After all, wasn’t I the perfect candidate? My weight wasn’t an issue; I enjoyed exercising and eating a healthy, whole foods diet; I’d sailed through two pregnancies with a textbook-perfect weight gain that was lost smoothly; and I wanted to spread the word that all you needed to do to get the body of your dreams was (1) eat less, and (2) move more.

IfYouDon'tSucceedTryTrainer

Well, maaaaaybe…or maybe not…

Well, no. I wasn’t the perfect trainer. As a matter of fact, I was probably the worst candidate imaginable.

It became obvious to me rather quickly that l had no idea what it was like to deal with a chronic overweight condition. I didn’t know what cravings were. I didn’t understand how difficult it could be for someone to resist certain foods, or how they might feel ‘hunger’ when their bodies weren’t lacking calories. I couldn’t appreciate why starting and sticking to an exercise regimen could be so tough. And I didn’t get what a powerful effect societal bias could exert against overweight individuals.

What’s more, I wasn’t the only personal trainer who could be so clueless. After sitting in on numerous online and in-person conversations, it dawned on me that those people most drawn to this relatively-young profession — youthful, unattached, athletic, healthy, etc. — were those least likely to be able to relate to their clients.

Educated as a psychologist, I expected that there was more going on behind the scenes than simply recalcitrant clients refusing to follow their trainers’ directions. This set me on the path to explore the “other” components that contributed to weight gain and avoidance of exercise.

And that’s what this blog is all about. 🙂

Advertisements

Prepare yourself for some ridicule. Because when you set foot in the gym, the “regulars” will look at you and roll their eyes. They might make comments. Or give you icy stares if you break the rules of gym etiquette. They might even be trying to intimidate you so that you retreat to a safe corner where the cardio machines are. When you do eventually give up going to the gym (yes, the odds are stacked against you) you won’t be tempted to even consider returning.

Here’s my advice: ignore them. I know this is easier said than done, but I want you to focus on this. You’re not embarking on an exercise program so that people like you. You’re doing it to save your life. You’re doing it so that you can be stronger, run faster, live longer. Your goals are yours, and yours alone. Others in the gym don’t care if you fail or succeed. But you do.

Those others? They were beginners once too. They might have done biceps curls in the squat rack or tried talking to someone who was in the middle of a set . But 9 times out of 10 even the “regulars” can be pretty clueless, and that includes the personal trainers. The seasoned veterans who DO know what they’re doing didn’t learn everything overnight. It took time and practice and a willingness to ask questions and search for accurate information. And yes, even make mistakes.

Please don’t give up. Our kids are growing up in a world where everyone’s getting increasingly more sedentary. Technology has provided us with myriad more opportunities to move less. What we need now are people willing to buck that trend and establish another that moves us in the direction of more activity and a healthier future. They are people like you, who choose the first of the year to start something new.

You can do that, but you have to keep going.  Little by little, bit by bit.

And all those naysayers at the gym? I hope you kick their asses some day. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

I’m counting on you.

Recently, I participated in a discussion about a proposed tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, during which one person expressed frustration that a tax would impinge on our freedom of choice. This concern is not new and many have argued that the government oversteps its authority when it tries to discourage consumption of foods deemed to be unhealthy. However, I found the freedom of choice argument very interesting because, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Used to be, there was one type of Oreo cookie. Now, according to NabiscoWorld.com, there are fifty varieties of Oreos to choose from. FIFTY. There is an entire aisle in the grocery store dedicated to breakfast cereals, and yet think of how many people skip breakfast altogether (the estimates I found ranged from 20-40%)! You can’t drive far without passing a fast-food joint, and the last time I went to Fedex something, they had several shelves of candy conveniently close to the cashier, lest you get hungry while standing in line. And the list goes on.

You want something, you can get it, and umpteen varieties of it. Food choices have greatly increased in the past 20-30 years, and this explosion in variety has been implicated as a factor in the increase in obesity: we are likely to consume more when we have a variety of foods to choose from rather than when our choices are limited (Physiol Behav. 1981. 26(2): 215-221.; Obes Res. 2005. 13(5): 883-890.).

Need help finding anything?

To make things worse, much of this variety comes in the form of prepared, processed foods that require little effort to consume. You can find several types of squash in the produce section, but that’s nothing compared to the mind-boggling selection of chips in the snack food aisle, ready to eat as soon as you get them out of the store.

And yet, there’s also choice when it comes to exercise. So many different exercise classes, an overabundance of weight machines for every muscle group, a wide array of training protocols and cardio equipment at which you can stand, sit and lie. A flavor to suit every potential exerciser. All this, but about 70% of Americans do not exercise regularly, citing “lack of time” as the main reason…so the myriad of choices hasn’t resulted in more interest…

…however, consider that cable television providers offer over 900 channels of distractions. With that kind of competition for your time and appetite, is it surprising that many people have difficulty establishing healthy food and exercise routines?

My take on this is that we’re nowhere near in danger of running out of choices. Rather, we have far too many selections of the wrong kind of stuff for our own good. Most people expect government intervention in the food industry so that they can be confident that their food is safe. At the same time, Americans freak out if the government proposes legislation to limit access to unhealthy food because that’s viewed as infringing on our personal freedom.

And besides, we’re all smart enough to make healthy choices. Right?

Many people seem to be confused by the interplay of nutrition and exercise in the context of weight maintenance and fat loss. It’s really not that complicated, although it’s critical that you understand how one will affect the other…and how they do that is not unlike, say, driving a car with a manual transmission.

This analogy will be more effective if you already know how to drive a stick-shift, but even if you don’t, bear with me. Imagine you’re in the car: if you hold down the clutch pedal, even if you floor the gas, you’re not going to go anywhere. In essence, the clutch mediates the effect of the gas. Until you begin releasing the clutch, the gears won’t catch and the wheels won’t turn. Now, think of exercise output as being the gas pedal and nutritional intake as the clutch. You can train your butt off, but if you don’t watch your diet, you won’t make progress. That’s not to say that your exercise efforts will be for naught, but if your goal is to shed fat, it ain’t gonna happen. Your food intake will, in effect, mediate the fat-loss effects of your workout.

That’s why it’s commonly said that you can’t out-exercise a poor diet. And that’s why it’s also true that you should never fool yourself into thinking you can eat anything and everything you want just because you workout out on a given day. You can consume far more calories in a sitting than you can easily burn off during a training session, and as a result you’ll end up, pardon the pun, spinning your wheels.

So when someone tells me that they’re working out hard but it’s not making a difference in their fat stores, one of the first things I do is ask then to show me their food log. Don’t have a food log? Well, that’s the place to start. Because unless you’re paying attention to both the intake and output sides of the equation — manipulating both pedals to drive — you’re probably not going to get very far.

Just a quick word about my Maternal Rant post…

You know all that stuff I wrote about moms not having time or energy to exercise? Well, I babysat a 14-month-old toddler for two days last week, and even though I’ve already raised children through that toddler stage, that pair of 8-hr sessions left me exhausted (mentally, which meant that I also perceived a physical exhaustion). In fact, if anyone had visited me with the great revelation that I needed to put myself first and make time to exercise, I might have hurled them through the window.

Is that healthy? NO! But who said anything about health? I’m talking about just getting through the day. Would exercise lessen my stress and make me feel better? OF COURSE! And I’m not suggesting that being a mother justifies abandoning healthy behaviors! As a matter of fact, it’s all the more important to establish a solid routine, not only for mom’s sake, but also for her children who will be modeling their behavior after hers. What I’m stressing, however, is that we all go through stages in our lives where we have to make do the best that we can. If you view exercise and proper eating as being for the sole purpose of losing weight, then a series of tough days/weeks/months may completely derail your efforts.

However, if you give fitness its due and understand that this is a life-long journey, it’ll be easier to accept the days/weeks/months of inconsistency in progress, and stay on track for long-term success.

Sometimes we need a dose of humility peppered with a helping of “walking in someone else’s shoes.” This is especially true when dealing with someone who’s embarked on a weight loss journey but is getting nowhere with it. No amount of education will do a trainer any good if  they can’t find a way to understand a client’s difficulties, or even worse, refuse to accept that such hardships exist.

Some years ago I had the following exchange with an obese young man:

“Exercise is fun!” I chirped happily.

“That’s because you don’t have to do it lugging around 280 pounds,” he shot back.

And you know what? He was right. His answer caught me off guard because I was trying to help him maintain a positive outlook, but the truth was I really didn’t have anything to say to make him feel better. I was pointing to the benefits of exercise, but he was still working on bending over to put his shoes on.

I’ve never been obese, although I did peak at 181 lbs for a week or two, right before giving birth to my heaviest baby (8 lbs, 5 oz) – but even that wasn’t terribly dramatic for my 5’11” frame and barely nudged me into the “overweight” category according to my BMI. While getting back into the 150s where I remain now took some months, I was so preoccupied with caring for the new family member that I never obsessed about it. Couple that with the fact that I don’t have the food issues that plague many Americans, and you can see why I’ve had to work hard to relate to people who have been fighting their weight for years, even decades. Even so, a gap remains between their thinking and mine.

Apparently, I’m not the only one trying to bridge this gap. Australian underwear model and personal trainer Paul “PJ” James made big news last year for putting on 90 lbs in order to better relate to his overweight clients. What he found was that losing that weight was not as simple as he expected, even with all his fitness knowledge. During the process of weight gain, he also gained a sugar/fat addiction that was tough to kick. And carrying around that excess weight made exercise more difficult. His joints ached and every movement required more effort.

James noted that the first three months were the most difficult because he was doing everything right, following his own fat loss plan, and still the weight wasn’t coming off. Breaking his junk food habit took a good six weeks. All this, when he had the benefit of knowing what proper eating and exercise were. Once the pounds started dropping, however, he said he regained his motivation and powered through with his weight loss.

A number of people have weighed in on the pros and cons of his experiment. Some say he’s “been there” and will be able to relate to what an overweight client may be going through, particularly because he struggled in the beginning and had to fight a food addiction. Others say that his efforts prove nothing because he wasn’t subject to the same stigma that befalls many overweight individuals, gained the weight over a short period of time using extreme measures (not the way most people gain) and will cash in on the instant fame that this stunt afforded him. Both of these points of view are valid; however, I’d like to underscore something else.

James didn’t make progress for about three months. Wait, let me stress this: THREE MONTHS. He worked for six weeks to overcome his sugar addiction. How long would someone without James’ experience have lasted on a fitness program that didn’t show results for a quarter of a year? By that time they’d figure that if they’re doing everything “right” and still not dropping fat, there’s something wrong with them and substantial weight loss is a pipe dream. Furthermore, it’s doubtful that James would have had faster results if someone had been yelling at him to get his act together, or calling him a fat, lazy slob like a trainer on the “reality-show-which-must-not-be-named” feels is necessary to do.

So if James’ story has a lesson, it’s not that 1) it’s possible to lose weight (we know it is) or 2) that someone who’s heavy for several months will fully understand what it’s like to overweight for decades (we know he won’t)…but rather that if you focus exclusively on weight loss as a measure of success, your motivation may peter out with the first few obstacles you encounter. If you’ve spent years putting on weight, prepare to invest substantial time into changing the behaviors that got you there. Focus on your lifestyle, not the scale.

However, there’s warning here for those of us who’ve never had to wage that fight. Really, we have no idea what we’re talking about. We’re the quintessential car mechanic who can’t drive and would be well served not to pass judgment on those who are still fighting. Use our knowledge and fitness experience to offer solutions, yes. Provide needed support, yes. Lay down the law, yes. But not pass judgment.

Pardon this rant, it’s most un-personal-trainer-like of me. In the interest of empathy — and the fact that I’ve dubbed 2010 my “Year of Compassion” — I’m going to suspend some of my strong feelings about exercise-uber-alles and illustrate the way many of today’s mothers think:

After leaving the professional world, I spent about seven years as a stay-at-home-mom. I understand the work involved in rearing a child or two, in addition to the thankless task of perpetual housekeeping (which I suck at). It’s not a glamorous profession — we don’t go into it expecting it to be — but even the best of us get knocked for a loop with the sheer magnitude of our new responsibilities. So please, trainers, don’t tell moms to “put themselves first” or “make themselves a priority”. We’re moms, we don’t do that. We carry life inside us for nine-month stints. And it becomes our numero uno priority. No caffeine, no sleeping on the back, no valsalva maneuver, no haircoloring…the list of “don’ts” is extensive. We believe that everything we do is for the health of the baby.

So please, don’t ridicule moms for not focusing on exercise! As a trainer I know that exercise is critical. But when we can barely make it out of bed to the toilet thanks to morning sickness, the last thing we want to hear is how beneficial exercise is to our well being. Particularly when it comes from someone who hasn’t had the same experience (and if you own a penis, never will).

Side rant: It’s obvious that we live in a male-dominated world. Consider the pregnancy test. Designed by a man…because no woman would come up with a test for which you’d need to pee on a stick. PEE.ON.A.STICK. ‘Male’ written all over it. I can get my hands, the toilet seat, the floor and with the right angle, the wall. But you want me to hit a stick?

Once the baby’s born, we don’t suddenly have loads of time or energy. Sometimes we wish the kid would crawl back in “there” because we’d get more done. The perpetrator of this (i.e., Dad) comes home from work and thinks we’re lying around watching TV and eating bon-bons while he’s busy earning a living. Really? Imagine having a job for which you’re on-call 24 hrs a day, 7 days a week for years. You get peed, pooped and puked on. Oh yeah, you don’t get paid for it either, so you’re not considered a productive member of society. Most of your time is spent putting out fires, but the “head of household” questions what the hell you’ve been doing all day, why you look a mess, why last night’s dirty dishes are still in the sink and why dinner’s not waiting for him. Our lives are marathons, except that we don’t have the benefit of being able to train for them beforehand.

First attempts at “making time” for ourselves generally flop. When there’s no one else to watch the kids,  creating “me time” is not so simple. And when we finally get some peace and quiet…sometimes all moms want to do is sit in silence and stare at a blank wall. I know I did. And I ENJOY exercise. What about a mom who’s feeling isolated, depressed and fat, and has had few positive experiences with fitness? You’ll get nowhere by making her feel guilty about not finding time to exercise when she’s convinced that time doesn’t exist. Quite frankly, sometimes it doesn’t.

Forget going to a gym. Exercising at home may be the only reliable option. Videos come in handy here and they’ve come a long way since Jane Fonda’s arm flapping. However, fifteen minutes and six interruptions later, even the most stalwart mom may be ready to give up.

Hey, I’m a hardass when it comes to food choices. I will not take my kids to McDonald’s, and that puts me in the minority, sadly. But believe me, McD’s has a clever marketing department. They put playgrounds inside their restaurants. Moms bring their kids there, buy them Happy Meals…and the addiction to fast food begins. I don’t agree with the food choice, but I understand why they do it. They’re not bad moms, just tired…and in that tired state, vulnerable to the power of suggestion. They’re also stressed enough to accept help in watching their kids from whomever is willing to offer, even if it’s a creepy red-haired clown.

The bottom line: Don’t tell moms to put themselves first. It sounds wrong to them; besides, they don’t need the guilt (they have enough already, thanks). Show moms how they can fit both childrearing/housework and exercise into their day, teach them not to be discouraged by imperfect workouts, encourage progress in baby steps and listen to their concerns…you’ll get more compliance. And accept the fact that there will be times when they WILL be too tired to exercise. Don’t berate them for that. They pushed a bowling ball through a small hole between their legs; with the right support, they’ll get the fitness thing down too.