Technically, I’m on Day 369, but who’s counting? I don’t have to count how many days in a row I make my activity goals. For one thing, I wear a fitness tracker. More importantly, my body counts. My muscles and my heart and lungs are tracking every step I take. I can’t lie to my own insides.
There is something really satisfying about scrolling back and seeing all of these completed activity rings. The design worked. When I first received this Apple Watch as a gift for my fortieth birthday, I was still gimping around after an ankle injury. My athletic pursuits included sitting around and muttering to myself while reading ultramarathon manuals. On the first day, the record shows that I walked 1,044 steps and burned 30 calories. Fantastic! ...for a baby...
I got my first pedometer over a decade ago. They were pretty primitive in the early days. All they did was track motion. You could game them by shaking them back and forth. They also reset if they got dropped, and mine fell out of my pocket so many times that I had to start using a safety pin. I got one with a clip and that kept falling off, too. Memories... I remember the first day I hit what I thought was an important fitness milestone, and I ran off to show my friends.
A THOUSAND STEPS!
Um, the goal is TEN thousand steps. A thousand steps is like a quarter mile.
Let’s just say I’ve come a long way in twelve years. When I started out, it took me months to build to walking a thousand steps in a day. My daily average for 2017 is 11,055 steps, 4.9 miles, four flights of stairs, and 48 minutes working out.
Another interesting tidbit is that my daily average calorie burn from physical activity is: 407. This is why it’s impossible to “lose weight” simply through exercise. A bagel is about 245 calories, and a Costco muffin is almost 650. I could literally add ONE snack or make ONE lousy, inefficient food choice each day and completely wipe out whatever I burned from my workout.
(Flip this by thinking like a marathon runner. “If I eat this muffin that is nearly as big as my head, I can run at least 6 miles later”)
I used to think I could just skip this whole thing, you know, standing up and moving around. After all, doctors had told me all sorts of things about my health that included “exercise intolerant.” There is nothing like a diagnosed thyroid condition to give one a get-out-of-gym-free card for life, am I right? Then I went to the mall with my Nana, who was 75 at the time, and I watched in dismay as she struggled to get on the escalator. She was still working, still driving, still living a full life in every way. But stepping onto an automatic staircase with a handrail was physically challenging and intimidating for her. Suddenly, I saw myself in this context, as a younger version of my mother and grandmother. This was to be my future, too.
Unless I did something about it.
The kind of exercise that I do today would not have been possible for my female ancestors. By that I mean that they would not have been allowed. Women were legally excluded from competing in races like I do, we were legally excluded from gym memberships like I have had, we could not legally go out in public wearing the kind of workout clothes that I wear today. This probably has a lot to do with why there was no feminine tradition of strenuous exercise in my family. I had no examples and I had no idea what to do.
Start by walking. Walk 1% farther and 1% faster.
Start by paying attention to what you do during the day. Not what you “do” as in how busy you are, but what you DO, as in how much you physically move your body around. Notice your range of motion. Visualize your path through life. Where do you go and what do you see? Same stuff all the time? Hmm, seems boring.
Looking back at my activity level in my twenties, I feel embarrassed. I don’t move around twice as much as I did twenty years ago, I move around more than ten times as much! Middle-aged me could kick younger me’s butt without hardly trying. I just wish, I wish, I wish, I wish there were a way that I could go back in time and teach Twenties Me everything that Forties Me knows. Maybe I wouldn’t have had to spend so much time feeling tired, ill, and trapped in chronic pain. We had a happy ending, though. The future arrived and brought some pretty great technology with it.
Just a few years from now, activity trackers are going to be available for everything. They’re going to test blood glucose and monitor our skin for sun damage. I predict that one day, gamers will be the fittest people of all, because they’ll be controlling their avatars with haptic body suits or some kind of hologram thing that requires leaping, rolling, and backflips. Until then, what we have now has been enough to get at least one sedentary, obese thyroid patient with fibromyalgia up and moving.
I do it to myself just often enough to remind myself why I walk the line the majority of the time. What do I do? I relax, I push my limits, I convince myself that I’m just a regular robust person who can do everything without boundaries. There’s a grace period. Then it catches up with me. Maybe I notice when I slip into Yellow. Usually I ignore the warning signs until I’m back in Orange. Then I go into panic mode, because I still do remember what it’s like to spend every day in Red.
What am I talking about? I'm talking about chronic pain and the various oddball symptoms that I experience along with it. What is true for me probably is not true for most people. What is true for me probably also is not true for other sufferers of chronic pain and fatigue, because not all of us have the same conditions or the same symptoms. My recommendation is always to track metrics, to keep careful records, so that you can find patterns and change your inputs to attempt to mitigate your results. I think that if even .0001% of my experience can be influenced by my behavior, then it’s worth the attempt.
Yellow: I get a headache, or I stay up a few hours late, or I overeat past a 7 out of 10 on the hunger scale, or my weight goes up more than 2 pounds, or I catch a cold
Orange: I get headaches more than one day in a week, or I get a migraine, or I have shooting pains, or I experience fragrance sensitivity, or my weight goes up more than 4 pounds, or I feel full-body aches consistent with my fibromyalgia days, or I start feeling chilly all the time and I can’t warm up, or I have a night terror
Red: Symptomatic nearly every day, migraines on a regular basis, night terrors on a regular basis, lethargic, dizzy spells, get sick and seem to get sick with something else days after I thought I was better, often simply bedridden with pain and exhaustion, too tired or ill to read, lose a patch of hair on my scalp an inch across
Right now, I’m back in Orange and I’m really angry with myself. Sure, I have plenty of reasons. We went on two vacations in a row, we went camping and slept on the ground in the cold, I carried 40 pounds of luggage around for a few days, we changed time zones, I got bitten by insects. These are problems that I can ordinarily correct by sleeping an extra hour or two per night for a few days after a trip.
Ah, but this time, it seems that I pushed a little too far for a little too long.
Whether it’s a cause, a symptom, or both, my body weight is perfectly correlated with my various other symptoms. It’s something I have to watch. Again, whether this is or is not true for other people is up to them to discover for themselves through meticulously tracking their own health metrics. It’s not a body image thing, it’s not a self-esteem thing. For me, for me personally, it’s a functionality thing.
We came back from Wyoming, the camping part of our vacation, and I was right at the weigh-in I had before the trip, within two-tenths of a pound. Despite all the sleeping on the ground in the cold and all the carrying of the forty-pound backpack and the fifteen-mile hike, I felt fine.
Then we went to Las Vegas for three nights. I came back four pounds heavier, and I was a mess.
How’d I do it? I Ate All the Things. In Wyoming, we were eating a lot of starchy backpacking food, but the portions were controlled and we had crucifers every day. In Las Vegas? Vegas, well. I think I had a half-cup of broccoli. Other than that, it was all stuff I almost never eat: Airport food! Potato chips! Salty mixed nuts! French fries! Hot chocolate! Cookies! Juice with HFCS! Appetizers! Huge portions! Desserts every day! We even had “chicken and waffles” with syrup at VegeNation. No schedule whatsoever. You can start to see where those four pounds came from.
Four pounds doesn’t sound like much, does it?
If you can gain four pounds and not notice, good for you. If you can gain four pounds and not feel immediate adverse health effects, good for you. That’s awesome. If that is true in your life, by all means, celebrate in a way that is meaningful to you. But please don’t tell me about it. I’ve had more than my fill of conversations where other people brag to me about their resilience in these matters. I’m a fragile person and I have to walk a fine line.
I gained four pounds, and what happened?
Shooting pains from my heel to my thigh, triggering my restless leg syndrome to the point that my husband noticed from across the room
Low-grade headache every day for four days straight
Weirdly sensitive to fragrance - I smelled someone’s nail polish outdoors and it seemed like I was “still smelling it” an hour later. Then it was someone’s body spray. This hasn’t been a problem for me for about a decade.
Waking up twice a night
Constant feeling of irritability
One full day of “brain fog” in which I struggled to stay awake, much less do any work
Welcome to Orange.
I’m handling this state of affairs aggressively. First, I’m tracking what I eat and making sure my meals are consistent in schedule and portion size each day. So far I’ve dropped 1.8 pounds in a week, which means I have at least another week of Orange to go. Second, I’m eating four cups of cruciferous vegetables a day. Third, I’m taking melatonin on a schedule. I’m still waking up a couple of times a night, and waking up too early, but at least I’m falling asleep on a reasonable schedule. Fourth, I’m exercising an hour a day. In Orange, I can still get a couple of hours of blessed analgesic effect after my workout.
No naps. No anti-inflammatories.
I have strong suspicions that all of my weird symptoms are tied to thyroid function. I had a thyroid nodule when I was 23 that was thought to be cancerous. All the symptoms of disrupted sleep, parasomnia problems, migraine, weight gain, lethargy, brain fog, pain, fatigue, low body temperature, and fragrance sensitivity were fully in place at that time. They’re my flags, indicating that something is off in my world. This is why I make exercise my major priority when I start to slip through Yellow. It’s the one thing that reliably seems to reverse the trend.
When I work out, I don’t feel as cold all the time, the headaches and night terrors disappear, I can sleep through the night and wake up feeling rested, and my energy level goes from a 6 to a 9. I feel like every hour I work out buys me two pain-free hours and an extra hour of solid sleep. That’s why I do it, even when I feel physically horrible and it’s the last thing “my body wants.” I push through and do it because I know I’ll get worse if I don’t.
I’m back in Orange, but I feel like I’m inching back toward Yellow every day. Here’s hoping that if I stay on track, I’ll be back out of crisis mode by the end of the month. It’s my wish that sharing my experiences might be of help to someone else in my situation who is desperately searching for answers. Track everything, be consistent, and keep holding on in the belief that a 1% improvement is always possible.
Most days I don't work out. It's true. I don't work out AT ALL. This is the exact kind of thing a thin woman isn't allowed to say. Like I'm going to sit in a restaurant, throwing a giant chimichanga down my gullet and talking very loudly about how I can eat whatever I want, and then they find my body in a back alley because someone in ketosis couldn't bear to listen to another word. Anyway. The entire reason I would talk about something like this is that it touches on so many major fallacies about fitness and weight loss.
First among these is that there are "naturally thin" people. I've even been told that I am one of these fabled creatures, and I laugh because I know differently. The difference between "naturally" thin people and the rest of us is that they acquired habits early in life that the rest of us have to learn as adults. Often, they aren't even fully aware that they do anything different. They eat and move a certain way, as do most or all of their relatives, and they think what is habitual to them is genetic, or a part of their personality. Why should we think differently when even they themselves don't realize the truth?
The answer I most did not want to hear about weight loss is that it's absolutely 100% about what I eat. I had thyroid disease, and I was still able to lose weight by changing my diet, whereas I gained 8 pounds while training for my marathon. Work out because you love it and you want to be strong, not because you have any illusions about weight loss happening at the gym.
Weight loss doesn't happen at the gym! We go to the gym to LIFT weight, not to lose weight.
Or, of course, we don't go to the gym at all.
Don't get me wrong; I love going to the gym. I have several different workouts that I enjoy, and I'll cheerfully choose one based on whether someone is in my way or hogging equipment that I like. I'm always game for learning a new exercise or training with someone else who can teach me something. It keeps things fun. I go through phases of being at the gym for up to 90 minutes at a time, most nights of the week.
And then, of course, I get into long ruts of not going. Like everyone.
What do I do to continue fitting in the same clothing size then? I claim that it's not genetics, so what's the secret?
The secret is, like I said, that weight maintenance is 100% about food, not exercise. I can eat an extra 500 calories in five minutes - it's called 'cake' - and it would take me at least 90 minutes on the elliptical to burn it off. This is partly unfair, because I am a short person with a small frame, so the standard slice of cake is meaner to me than it is to most people. The inverse way to look at this is that, since distance running is my preferred workout, the more I run, the more cake I can burn off. OR, the more cake I eat, the farther I can run!
What if you didn't have a sweet tooth, so much as that you have a previously undiscovered mutant power of endurance sports? Worked for me. *shrug*
The other thing about not working out is that we don't think of our background activity level as "a workout," although IT IS. It most definitely is. For instance, I spent most of the day I wrote this nursing an eye injury and sitting in a waiting room in urgent care. According to my activity tracker, I walked 4.5 miles and climbed five floors' worth of stairs. I was like, "What stairs? Did I climb stairs?" We got rid of our car, so we just walk everywhere, and I don't think of it as working out. Why? Because it's not hard anymore. I get sweaty pretty easily, so if I don't break a sweat, I don't feel like it counts. It's only "a workout" if I feel like I'm pushing myself.
My background activity level is far, far different than it was when I was fat. How so?
I walk about 50% faster
I walk 4-10x farther every day than I did 10 years ago
Six miles in a day is fairly common for me now
I climb stairs faster and far more often
I "bustle" around the house
My range of motion is much broader: reaching up, crouching down, climbing on stuff
I carry heavier weights more often
I do strenuous tasks myself that I used to ask A Man to do for me
I make a point of avoiding sitting down
I sleep about 50% more
I don't use my activity level as an excuse to "earn" "treats" (if I want to eat something, I just put it in my pie hole and eat it)
I eat basically the same stuff every day, so my intake is predictable while my activities are variable
What I learned the year I ran my marathon was that it takes me 38 miles of running to burn off one pound of fat. It "should" only take 35 miles, which means either I run too slow, or I burn fewer than 100 calories per mile because I'm both slow and small. Either way, it's a moot point. I'm more interested in doing things efficiently because I have a short attention span. Also, once I get curious about what someone else is doing differently than me, I can't let it go; I have to find out.
What is it like to feel strong, fast, and athletic? I wanted to know before I die. I figured I could always change back.
Pushing my physical limits to do an adventure race, go on a multi-day backpacking trek, and run a marathon changed everything I felt about being inside my body. I now know things about my capabilities that I can't un-know. I can eyeball something and know I'm strong enough to pick it up. I look at a map and think of walking somewhere (or running) and I know from experience that I'm quite capable of getting there and back without getting tired. I do things routinely that in the past I wouldn't do under any circumstances.
I used to spend quite a bit of my time nursing a migraine or otherwise experiencing too much fatigue or background pain to do much besides lie in bed trying not to move my forehead. After losing the 35 pounds and learning to eat sufficient micronutrients, suddenly my sleep problems and the migraines just... went away. A certain amount of my background activity level is just reclaimed from former "out of spoons" days. Again, that was 100% dietary.
As a newly athletic person, I now feel that most of my chronic pain and fatigue problems came from chronic sleep deprivation, micronutrient deficiency, and general lack of physical fitness. My body composition included very little muscle. My cardiovascular fitness was very poor. Of course I felt tired and cruddy even on my best days! I get tired just picturing my own posture from that time. I try to send little love messages to Past Me from time to time, but it just annoys her and hurts her feelings. She isn't ready to listen to me yet. I try to tune in more to Future Me, the Elderly Me, and hear what advice she has. It always seems to include getting stronger, building bone density and muscle, and retaining my ability to sit on the floor. Hopefully that won't feel like a workout.
If there's a report card, I want to get an A on it. My ego needs this. The teacher's pet inside me can't accept anything less. I really want the approval of my dental hygienist, for example. Maybe I'm not good at anything else, but "my home care is excellent!" Yay! I feel the same way about getting lab work done. When my blood work results come in, I rush to compare them to the normal range and congratulate myself when everything is on target. This is what it's like to open those results and feel relieved and proud.
I realize fully and well that having good health is a luxury and a privilege. My mom couldn't bring me home from the hospital for three days after I was born because I had infant jaundice. I had a thyroid nodule at age 23 that was so big, I couldn't speak while lying on my back. They thought it was cancer. I had a respiratory infection for my college graduation, age 28, and it took my lung capacity down to 52%. Have you ever coughed up blood? I have. This is by no means a complete list of every scary or mysterious health problem I have ever had. My laundry list of health issues is the primary reason why I am so obsessed with being as healthy as possible.
Also, for the majority of my life between 18 and 30, I had no health insurance. That includes the coughing up blood, and the time I had to go to the emergency room and wound up being sent to collections for an amount under forty dollars. Health is cheaper.
Everyone thinks everything is genetic these days. By 'genetic,' we mean that "it was my fate to be born into a cursed family and nothing I ever do will ever affect anything in any way." We decide that we have no power or control. Thus, anything that goes wrong with our health is the will of the gods. Saying otherwise is a deep and dire insult, judging and criticizing others for things they can't help. Okay. Who comes from a pure and perfect genetic heritage in which nobody has any health issues thought to be hereditary? Not me!
Diabetes. Heart disease. Alzheimer's. Arthritis. Glaucoma. Cancer. Good times, yay. Let's throw in 'died of brain aneurysm' just to keep things interesting. I can wave the family banner of genetic tendencies just as hard and just as high as anyone else. This is the second reason why I pay so much attention to my health.
The third reason is that it pays off. Being healthy is its own reward. It is seriously awesome in every way.
Why not gloat a bit about it? I'm doing what very few people of my age (42 in July) have managed to do. I'm maintaining satisfactory health metrics without the use of pharmaceuticals. This is the result of tons of research on my part. This includes reading hundreds of articles and dozens of books on health, nutrition, and fitness; wearing health devices like a pedometer or a sports watch; tracking my health metrics with a food log, exercise log, and sleep log; learning to identify, cook, and eat dozens of vegetables I never tasted as a child; and pushing my physical abilities to the limit for years on end. I WORKED for this. My nice lovely lab results come from figuring out how to do it, and then doing it, meal after meal after meal and day after day.
I have had bone fractures and severe muscle strain and sprains and a dislocated hip and a dislocated rib and impacted wisdom teeth and nerve damage and chronic pain and fatigue and migraine and some wacky medical mysteries, including pavor nocturnus. Sometimes unfortunate stuff really does happen, and much of the time, doctors have no real idea of what went wrong or how to fix it. The bulk of my positive health results have come from my own persistent experimentation on myself, refusing to accept "just deal with it" as a valid medical response. I've learned that physical therapy, sleep, and nutritional inputs can do more than most people realize.
I haven't met my new doctor yet; I chose her out of a directory based on location, availability, and her photo and credentials. I don't know anything about her personal style or academic focus in medical school. What I do know is that the kind of health advice I get from a doctor depends a great deal on how I present myself at my visits. I want to walk in demonstrating that I am that teacher's pet, A+ student who will take vigorous notes and follow advice scrupulously. I want my doctor, whoever she may be, to feel that I am committed to taking care of myself and learning as much as I can. When I'm a "good patient" and "cooperative" it makes me seem more worth the time to give a doctor's full focus and attention. I say, "I really try to take care of myself, and whenever I learn about something positive I can do for my health, I add it in to my routine."
The last physician I had for a long period of time started taking health advice from me. She took up triathlon and made a point of telling me that I had inspired her to do it.
I have, in the past, felt helpless and confused and deeply sad about my health. I have had incredible frustration with dismissive doctors, and white-knuckled rage when I later learned something that helped me when a doctor said it wouldn't. (For instance, saying there was nothing I could do about my thyroid disease, which cost me years of ill health. Thanks for nothing, Dr. C). I have cried tears into my ears from the grief and powerlessness of having no idea what to do about a health problem. I feel younger and more energetic in my forties than I did in my twenties, almost entirely because of health issues I didn't understand at the time. I can say with certitude that my fixation with my physical health has paid off over the years. To me, if I had to choose between feeling healthy and fit or being a millionaire, well, naturally I'd choose all three, but having a strong body feels like a million dollars. Maybe ten million.
I don't let my A+ lab work get too much to my head. I look forward and ask my Future Self what I will want for myself ten years from now. The answer is more muscle and more bone density. I'd like to be a little stronger in ten years than I am today. That will come from giving myself the gift of more physical activity and more nutritional support. I do these things so that I can feel better today and tomorrow, and also so that Old Me will maintain mobility and independence as long as possible. We're in this for the long haul and until they make a full body transplant, I'm stuck doing it in the body I have.
It happened again just the other day. I got into a conversation with someone I had known socially for some time, a physically fit person who often talks about nutrition and healthy living. She shared that she had been diagnosed with a serious illness and that her doctor had told her there was nothing she could do about it through lifestyle modification. She wasn't any more impressed with this prognosis than I was when I got mine, and she set about it proving it wrong. In her case, it was an autoimmune disorder that can result in weight gain, fatigue, and joint pain, and the only known treatment is a lifetime on medication. Strange that, years later, nobody would guess she had ever been ill.
My radar is always pinging for stories of this nature, and I run across them all the time. Mine was an endocrine disorder. The story I just told involved an autoimmune disorder. Recently, I reviewed Shawn Stevenson's book Sleep Smarter, in which he shares how he reversed his degenerative disk disease. My husband had two herniated disks in his spine, and they healed. My brother broke his back in three places, and not only did his spine heal, but he goes snowboarding like nothing ever happened. These are not conditions like the common cold; these are serious problems. They would have been, anyway, decades in the past. They might still be, for the ordinary sort of person who accepts lame, textbook advice from a conventional physician.
Now, I believe in Western medicine. I'm vaccinated for everything I can be, I get the flu shot, and I'll look forward to more vaccinations as they are developed. If I'm prescribed antibiotics, I take them as directed. I go to the doctor when I have to. That, though, tends to be when I need a rubber stamp on a referral to a specialist. My most recent doctor is no good for much else. When I had my first appointment with her, I told her about my history with overcoming fibromyalgia, and she told me that I must have been misdiagnosed, because "people don't get better from fibromyalgia." She believed this because her own sister-in-law has it. I hope the sister-in-law isn't her patient. I also wonder about a medical training system that teaches physicians to brush off anecdotal reports from patients who healed, rather than enrolling them in some kind of study. Examine me! I'm right here and I'm willing!
One of the biggest issues with the ongoing professional development of physicians is that they spend their days with ill and injured people. Healthy, fit, active people only go to a doctor when there is an immediate need. Therefore, there's no feedback loop of information from people who are succeeding in being well. It's common sense for a doctor to say, Well, this is what tends to happen and doing this for the majority of patients tends to work out okay. It would not be common sense for a doctor to say, This illness derives from the patient's comfort zone, so dramatic lifestyle change will probably be necessary to beat this thing. It doesn't even seem to be common sense for a doctor to say LET'S BEAT THIS THING!
Another issue is that people in the medical field tend to be over-scheduled, exhausted, and burned out. They don't necessarily have time to keep up on the cutting edge of new research. If there were no educational requirements for them to learn anything about nutrition, for example, why and when would they pick up extracurricular information on their own? If they themselves are not models of peak health and fitness, can they really teach their patients how to live this way? I've had precisely one doctor who was anywhere near my fitness level, and she told me I inspired her to train for a triathlon. My dental hygienist told me I inspired her to ride her bike to work. My health professionals take health advice from me, and that's either a great thing or a complete travesty.
The point of all this is that it is UNSCIENTIFIC to tell patients that their conditions are incurable. It is UNSCIENTIFIC to rule out nutrition or physical activity as even remote, fringe possibilities. The real question that should be raised is why anyone would deviate from a diet complete in all necessary micronutrients, and why anyone would remain sedentary for the majority of each day. There is a vast gulf between what research tells us about health, and what our doctors communicate to us. When my doctor condescendingly patted me on the shoulder and told me not to bother with lifestyle modifications, he instead should have encouraged me to do my own research and take detailed notes. I was only twenty-two at the time, and he could even have encouraged me to pursue a career in the health sciences. Instead, what I get from conversations with medical professionals about my remarkable recovery is skepticism and pushback. I'm not supposed to exist, so they act as if I don't.
My advice to anyone who "has a diagnosis" of any kind is to question it. If a doctor told you that what you have is unresponsive to lifestyle modifications, get a new doctor. Certainly nobody can stop you from tracking your own health data and reading as much new research as possible. I'm talking about actual peer-reviewed journal articles, not blogs, although blogs can be included if the blogger can demonstrate results with your specific issue. I accidentally cured myself of fibromyalgia and thyroid disease, but it was published research that led to reversing my problems with insomnia, night terrors, and restless leg syndrome. I also relied on published research to reach a healthy weight. I follow Alzheimer's research because I have had relatives die of that disease, and I believe I can mitigate my risks. I've made a regular habit of reading about new medical research for the last twenty years, and it's paid off abundantly.
The biggest difference between healthy people and chronically ill people, in my experience, is that healthy people refuse to accept a diagnosis as the final answer. We won't tolerate being ill any longer than we must. We never stop looking for more information. We do the utmost to take care of ourselves, eating, exercising, and sleeping as well as we know how. I've met a couple of people who claim they have "never been sick a day in their lives," but almost all of the fit, healthy people in my acquaintance have successfully overcome at least one major health condition. Whether these are supposedly genetic conditions, injuries, or lifestyle illnesses, there is always something one can do besides feel helpless and hopeless. Even if I got a diagnosis (and a second and third opinion) claiming I would die tomorrow, I'd still do everything I could to be the best possible patient and research subject. I need to feel that my pain and suffering matter in some way, that my experience can be used to further research and to help others with the same condition. Being ill doesn't have to mean being a victim. Being told I'm ill doesn't have to mean it's true, or that it stays true.
Procrastination means worry. There are all kinds of things I could be doing today that are irrelevant to my interests. I could be learning to play the tuba; I’d make new friends and have an exciting new way to troll people who annoy me. It’s not on my agenda though. If I wanted to learn both guitar and piano, and I chose guitar, would I then be procrastinating on playing piano? No. Almost every possible activity, conversation, or consumer item is irrelevant to my life in this moment. The only way I can have a meaningful or happy life is to consciously set intentions, choose specific acts, and focus on one purpose at a time. This is where it can help to distinguish rational and irrational procrastination.
Economists can’t account for procrastination. Why do it? (In some cultures, people don’t really procrastinate, just as some cultures don’t have clutter problems). If I’ve decided that a particular action is the most valuable way to spend my time and the most important thing I could be doing, why on earth would I not do it? There are two reasons. 1. Anxiety and 2. Discounting. In the first case, we are paralyzed. We feel uncertain about what to do or what might happen, and the longer we remain in indecision, the more fraught the act becomes with potential unanticipated ramifications. In the second case, we miscalculate how valuable an action would be, how much effort might be involved, or how long it will take us to complete the action. We weigh what we’re doing right now against the benefit of doing the Most Important Thing, and we decide we’re better off saving That Thing for later. When we’re wrong, it’s a result of inaccurate discounting. We guessed wrong. Our estimates were off.
I procrastinated on something stupid once. I tell this story all the time because it still mystifies me. What on earth was I thinking? I had a weird problem with this constant tickle in my throat. I couldn’t speak when I lay on my back. My chiropractor told me that my thyroid gland was visibly enlarged and I needed to see a doctor right away. I had just had my annual physical two months before, but I went back. My doctor diagnosed a goiter and said it hadn’t been there at my previous appointment. Whatever it was, it was moving fast, and I needed to see an endocrinologist. She told me I needed to get it scanned, which I did, though swallowing radioactive iodine is not a cheerful thing to do. The scan came back with a scary nodule that could well be cancerous. Next step: biopsy. Needle biopsy.
What did I do? I went to the public library and read two books on the thyroid, cover to cover. I finally made the biopsy appointment 14 months later.
As it turns out, people do this kind of stupid thing all the time. Anyone in the health profession will tell you that patient compliance is one of the toughest clinical issues. We don’t fill our prescriptions, we don’t take our medications as directed, we don’t change our dressings, we don’t do our physical therapy, we don’t come to appointments, we use limbs we were ordered to rest, and we certainly, certainly don’t make the lifestyle changes that could save our lives or keep us out of the surgical theater. Probably our feeble human brains (speaking for myself here) aren’t fully capable of understanding future threats in the same way we might understand the attack of a predator. I’m convinced that a certain portion of us (again speaking for myself) would stand stock-still and scream rather than take any evasive action, even in that primal scenario.
Taking care of our health and saving for retirement are the two most commonly procrastinated acts. We just don’t identify with Future Self. We have trouble imagining Future Self: Tomorrow, much less Future Self: Next Year or Future Self: Age 73. It seems more rational to worry about Present Self: Wants Cookie while trying to deal with Past Self’s mess of postponed chores and unpaid bills. Gee, Past Self, thanks for the dirty sink, you lazy slob.
This is where clutter intersects with procrastination. It’s perfectly rational to put aside unimportant things in favor of more urgent concerns. Sorting junk mail should not be a thing in the first place. Why is it opt-out instead of opt-in? (Answer: lobbyists). Maybe we will need that stuff later. Discounting comes in when we don’t realize how much it costs us to maintain a storage unit, or the fact that it takes 40% more work to clean a cluttered house. I used to have a storage unit, and I no longer own a single item that I paid to store. Even at $20 a month for several years, I could have flown to Paris for a week. There are 168 hours in a week, and I know I’ve spent that long sorting, stacking, and searching through all that clutter. Yeah, so, instead of the week in Paris I sat around sorting old junk I paid to store. Fun.
One day I decided that I didn’t want my story to be about chronic procrastination. Around 20% of us fall into this category. We run around with unfinished projects, unsorted clutter, calls we don’t want to make, email we don’t want to read, mail we don’t want to open, gifts and cards we haven’t sent, and invitations to events we don’t want to attend. We can’t take any time for strategic thinking because we’re continually preoccupied. We feel like failures. We feel like losers. We’re always late and leaking papers. I wanted to be the opposite of whatever I was.
What’s the opposite of ‘loser’? It turns out there are infinite varieties of success. I chose health and became an athlete. I chose love and became a wife. I chose minimalism and got organized. I chose a profession and became a writer. I still struggle so much with punctuality that I simply arranged my life in a way that rarely requires me to be in a specific place at a specific time. If you want to be my friend, drop by any time, but let’s not make it about a designated individual minute. Far be it from me to stress you out. Like I said, I’m still working on it. I need to choose contributions I know are within my capabilities. Anything else is either a stretch goal or a non-starter.
This is where rational procrastination comes in. I’m learning that everything works better when I focus on doing only one thing at a time. When I went back to school and finished my degree, that was what I did. I lived in a different city and I missed a lot of family gatherings, parties, and events. When I decided to get fit, that was what I did. I went to the gym at least five days a week, often for 90 minutes at a time, although I didn’t miss much because I read the same books on the elliptical that I would have read on my couch. When I decided to lose weight, I let go of the idea that it was going to happen through exercise (because it doesn’t), and for three depressing months I “missed” a lot of “treats” and snacks. When I chose minimalism, I spent a lot of time sorting and discarding stuff and missed a lot of leisure activities. I closed the loop. I got the degree and resumed an ordinary schedule. I reached my goal weight and raised the bar for my daily activity level. I created a streamlined space and more mental clarity. Each time, I derailed my routine for concentrated periods, emerging with a “new normal.” I put aside a lot of activities I would normally do, procrastinating on them until I finished something specific.
The key to minimalism is this rational procrastination. Almost every possibility is recognized as a distraction or non-starter. For instance, I have ideas for three different series of books. I can only write one at a time. I want to complete a triathlon, and that means swim, bike, run, in that order. If I want to train for that event, I have to choose all the other activities I won’t be doing all season. I prioritize longevity, and that includes earning and saving money as well as strengthening my body. Specific savings goals mean I have to choose not to buy an infinite amount of attractive things and experiences I might really, really desire. Not buying all the soda, cookies, frozen desserts, and snacks I used to use to keep myself fat has freed up a not insignificant amount I can save for the future. I let go of crafting, and that freed up space, time, and money. Instead of cross stitch, knitting, and crochet, I write, and I pay rent on a smaller house.
I procrastinate every day. Maybe I’ll get around to binge-watching TV one day, but not today. Maybe I’ll get around to playing Candy Crush or Angry Birds one day, but not today. Maybe I’ll find the secret to perfect hair one day, but not today. I’m curious about all these limited edition flavors of Oreos, and maybe I’ll taste them, but not today. I can put it off for tomorrow. I can read the comments tomorrow, I can argue about politics tomorrow, I can gossip tomorrow, I can complain tomorrow. Today, I’m going to do specific things. I’m going to put away my laundry. I already worked out and I already sorted my mail. Maybe if it’s still warm enough I’ll take my pets outside and sit on the porch. I’m going to floss my teeth. Anything I can think of that will set Future Self up with a better starting point, I’ll do that, today. Anything else can wait.
This body is temporary. I was born into a physical human body that will only be around for a measly few decades, twelve at the most. Nobody has lived to 130 yet, or if they have, nobody documented it. This body I have has certain limits. It can only endure a certain range of temperatures. It can only spend a limited time underwater without specialized equipment. It can only thrive on a limited range of foods, not including bark or pebbles. This body has joints that can only withstand a certain range of motion; its knees don’t want to bend backward. This body has bones that can only tolerate a limited force of impact or pressure. This body can be stopped in its tracks simply by inhaling or ingesting the wrong substance. The body I have won’t last forever, it can’t do everything, and in one way or another it’s inferior to every other animal on the face of the earth. No flight capability, no prehensile tail, no ability to see into the infrared or ultraviolet spectrum, no echolocation, no gills. Still, it’s mine. The body I have is the body I have.
This body has given me some trouble over the years. In my early twenties, I was diagnosed with thyroid disease and fibromyalgia. I had my first migraine at 22, and that became a regular feature of my life for the next fifteen years. There have been other problems: weird moles that had to be biopsied, impacted wisdom teeth, sprains and strains and skinned knees and second-degree sunburns. I’ve walked into stinging nettle and had a fire ant crawl up my pants. At these times, I often wish I were a floating consciousness with no body at all. Why can’t I be me without having to inhabit this inconvenient meat puppet?
The truth is that without the body I have, I would really freak people out. I need a human form to be able to hug people, hold hands, dance, and eat my favorite meals. The body I have makes it possible to participate in conversations. I can see and hear and taste and detect odors, which, alas, isn’t always such a bonus. I have the physical power to intervene, for instance the several times I have chased a toddler who was about to run full-speed into danger. As a floating ghostie I wouldn’t be able to do any of that.
The body I have is a useful vehicle. It’s “me” in almost every important way. It’s what my friends and loved ones recognize when they see me. My physical health, as it turns out, is almost completely responsible for my moods and attitude. When I eat poorly and lapse into sedentary behaviors, I become bored and sullen. The consequences of my less-than-optimal choices rebound and affect everyone I encounter, from those closest to me to the most briefly glimpsed strangers who happen to see my scowling countenance. It turns out that I look really angry when I’m in pain. Treating this human vessel respectfully, feeding it within the range that is biologically appropriate for humans, moving it the required amount, makes me much more pleasant to deal with. It also makes it easier for me to enjoy living in this world for the few decades that I will be here.
When I was ill, I blamed the body I have for all my problems. I didn’t understand that I could impact any of these health issues through my behavior or choices. I didn’t realize I had a choice. I wouldn’t have believed it if someone told me I did. I would have felt that that was a very unsympathetic, even cruel, thing to say. Only after I experienced it did I start to believe that whatever my body is doing on any given day is a snapshot, one frame out of a mind-bendingly long movie. It should be more intuitive than it is, but a body that begins as a single cell, is born into a tiny infant, and then grows continually for two decades is designed for constant change. Why is it so easy to fall into the trap of thinking we are stuck with whatever physical state we are experiencing at one moment on the timeline?
I needed to experience change in this body that I have before I could truly believe it was possible. First the change, then the belief. I could never have taken it on faith from someone else. Now, I see examples of other people who have changed their bodies in adulthood on a daily basis. It’s just like when you buy a new car and then start seeing that make and model everywhere you go. Vehicle, vehicle, same thing. Tens of thousands of people have reversed health conditions, gotten off medication, and/or lost hundreds of pounds. For mysterious reasons, those of us who still have physical issues never believe that we could be a part of this group. Other hominids may be able to change their bodies, but not us. We’re special, special in a bad way. We have been punished by fate and genetics to suffer and have a bad body! We accept this dire sentence, carved into stone by unfeeling deities. We can’t spend more than a couple of days half-heartedly dabbling at one change or another, never enough to convince us that it just might work if we kept going. We think a body must continue as it is, the only changes possible being negative changes. The body I have can sicken and gain weight, but it can’t heal or return to a lean, thriving form, even as I see cuts and scrapes return to quality new skin on a routine basis. Other people who experience healing and increased health must have better bodies than the one that I have.
The body that I have can do amazing things. It remembers to breathe and keep its heart, lungs, and blood moving even when I sleep. It recovers from illness and injury. Every time I have tested it to find out what else it can do, it rises to the occasion and meets the challenge. I’m 40, probably at the halfway mark of my life (if I haven’t passed it already), yet I am still continuing to discover new capabilities. I continue to grow extra muscle and become faster, stronger, and more agile. It feels as though I am aging in reverse. Despite my history of chronic illness, I have started to be satisfied, even impressed, with the body I have.
I’ll give you my version of the Four Noble Truths in a nutshell.
I was lucky. Enough parts of my life fell apart at the same time that I figured it had to be more than coincidence. I must have been basing my world on some false principles or incorrect ideas. I spent hours every day writing in my journal, going back over what went wrong, figuring out my contribution to my own problems, and imagining something better.
What went wrong? I developed a very painful repetitive stress injury that left me unable to do buttons or hold a cup. So that sucked. (Nearly two decades later, I still drop things a lot and hold my teacup in my left hand; the positive is that I can write and use chopsticks with either hand now). The painful RSI led to losing my job with the non-profit that I loved. That in turn led to my first husband asking for a divorce. That led to his opening a letter from the IRS, addressed to me, and withholding it until after the deadline had passed, just to mess with me. In rapid succession, I wound up in constant pain, with no money, no marriage, a pending workers comp lawsuit (apart from the two separate issues of the IRS thing and the divorce), and friends who were “choosing not to take sides.” The physical therapy burned holes in my skin. My fibromyalgia had nothing to do with any of this, but it was still a daily issue. Let’s just say that I had a lot to work on.
What I decided, in the hundreds of pages of intensive journaling I did during this period, was that I needed to change what I could. I needed to be as accountable as possible, and I needed to be WIDE OPEN to feedback and constructive criticism. Any clues I could get from anyone else, I needed to hear them, I needed to take them in, and I needed to keep them coming. I wasn’t doing too well by letting my ego and my sense of cleverness run things.
The other thing I needed to do was to be organized and persistent. Now, I would call that being a CLOSER. Always Be Closing. My journaling shifted to a running recap of issues I was trying to resolve and actions I had taken toward resolving them. My first success was with the IRS issue. Someone else’s income had been reported under my social security number, and I had a tax bill for over $8000 for money I hadn’t earned. I was so scared to make that call, because the letter my ex had kept said that I hadn’t contested the claim in time. I picked up the phone, explained why I hadn’t called sooner, and found that the agent was completely gracious. “This happens all the time.” (!!!) I was able to track down the W-2 of the person who actually had earned that higher salary and mail in a copy, and my case was closed. (What I would have done if this hadn’t been a coworker, who was willing to share her personal financial information, still is not clear to me). The downside of inaction would have been so bad that I knew I had to move forward.
During the course of my recovery from the disaster of my divorce, I learned something important. When you have to get up, you can. My pain from fibromyalgia was so bad at that time that I sometimes needed help to sit up in bed in the morning. Or I thought I did. When there’s nobody around to help, it’s surprising what you find out you can do. I learned that my pain was worst first thing in the morning, and that once I got up and started moving around, it was easier. I was eating barely enough to get by, and I lost 30 pounds in a few months. My pain went away for a few years. This should have been my first clue that excess body weight made my pain worse, but of course I ignored it and regained the weight as soon as I could afford to.
I kept up the habit of journaling whenever my stress level hit a certain point. I used my journals to work through the process of applying to the university. I used my journals to figure out additional ways to earn money. I used my journals to work out a schedule to pay off my consumer debt. I used my journals to work through a few romantic relationships, figuring out what worked and what didn’t work. I checked out dozens of self-help books from the public library and meticulously worked through all the exercises. I was trying to get to the bottom of why my life had quit working and what I was doing that other people weren’t, or vice versa.
Gradually, I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t start with my default as the baseline. I had to figure out a universal baseline and plan my behavior around that, even if it had nothing to do with the way I wanted to behave. Perhaps especially if the universal baseline had nothing to do with what I was doing. I figured there was a way to find a suitable career and advance in it. I figured there was a way to plan a budget. I figured there was a healthy way of eating and exercising. I figured there was a way to get to know someone and build a relationship without any of the misunderstandings of my first marriage. I decided I would learn what successful people did and copy them. If it worked for them, it might work for me, and if not, well, what I was doing on my own wasn’t working, either. I would keep researching and experimenting until I found an answer I could live with.
I was right about the accountability. That’s probably the single most important piece of advice I could give anyone. No matter what, it’s up to us to handle what comes our way, no matter whose fault it was. The IRS bill wasn’t my fault, but it was still my problem. Whatever caused my divorce, it was still mine to process and use for information. For whatever reason I developed fibromyalgia (spraining my back in an accident), it was my problem to try to manage. Nobody else could do it for me.
I was right about getting organized. It’s valuable in its own right. When my life was at its hardest, at least I had some semblance of a plan. Sometimes I would just make up things to try. In those days before Google, we had to figure out more for ourselves. It was harder but it taught me to be more resourceful and inventive. It also taught me that mental clarity is high on the list of great traits.
I was right that you can get up even when you think you can’t. I learned a deep and mystical secret, which is that grit and fortitude are there for the asking. Navy SEAL training teaches that most people quit when they’re at 40% of their physical capacity. I think I’ve made it to about 80% of what I can do. Anyone who suffers chronic pain, if you’re reading this, HEY, you’re not dead yet. You’re not even unconscious. You’re not even dizzy, or you wouldn’t be reading. You have more in you than you think you do. The SAME PAIN that we feel in a chair or on a bed, we can tolerate in other ways and other situations. Trying to rest and endure only leads to more pain, to another day just like the first. What I learned from training for a marathon is that DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) is pretty much exactly the same intensity as fibromyalgia pain. The pain I have endured in physical therapy was slightly worse than any pain I’ve ever pushed through at the gym. I bought myself my current level of strength and fitness by using the pain tolerance I developed through being chronically ill. I stopped feeling trapped by learned helplessness. I stopped reading the articles that talked about how difficult fibromyalgia is to treat. I tried telling my current doctor about my success story, and she told me I must have been misdiagnosed, because “people with fibromyalgia don’t get better.” That’s why nobody knows we can get better – because when we walk in and share our experience, the medical establishment ignores us. They used to tell me it wasn’t a real disease, until pharmaceuticals were developed to treat it, and now they say it’s real but there’s no cure. I say differently.
I beat poverty. I beat chronic pain and fatigue and became a marathon runner. I beat thyroid disease and (unintentionally, cluelessly) shrank my own thyroid nodule. I beat obesity. I beat pavor nocturnus. I beat migraine. I beat divorce and found love again; despite the odds, we’ve been together more than three times as long as my first marriage lasted. I beat the IRS. I beat the market and broke even in the crash of 2008. I could easily still be broke, single, fat, and in pain every day. Nothing was going to fall from the sky and make me better. Dissatisfaction meditation helped me figure out tiny pieces of my problems and take baby steps forward. I tried to make my life 1% better as often as I could. Where I am now, it’s hard to find anything to feel dissatisfied about. It gets better. It gets better, but only when we imagine how it can be better.
There is a lot of “common knowledge” floating around in the collective unconscious that I think is wrong. We take in this received wisdom and swallow it whole, without subjecting it to serious scrutiny. Part of the discipline of inquiry involves asking, “Is this true? How can I prove or disprove it?” The concept of the “set point” is one of those ideas that I have examined and found oversimplified and subjective. The idea is that each of us is somehow genetically programmed to be at a certain shape and size, and no matter what we do, our bodies will revert to it, like when the top of my pantyhose keeps rolling down. A “set point” is a classic example of a fixed mindset, and it applies to other areas of life besides body image.
I used to believe I just had the body I had. I “knew” I “only ate health food.” I also “knew” I “couldn’t exercise” because I had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I felt that I had suffered misfortunes, such as growing a thyroid nodule, and that certain things happened to me that made me a special snowflake. What worked for other people wasn’t going to work for me. I “knew” things wouldn’t work without actually trying them out. That was my ‘set point’ – a mental one. I was mentally stuck in Park and I didn’t even know I had gears I could shift.
Over time, I stumbled along, accidentally shifting variables and getting different results. It took longer than it could have, but I eventually learned that I could change my diet, that I could change my body composition, that I did have at least a certain amount of control over my level of chronic pain or fatigue.
The ‘set point’ of my body now is completely different than it was 5 years ago, 10 years ago, or 17 years ago. My mental and emotional ‘set points’ are also distinctly different.
Seventeen years ago, I didn’t know how much I weighed. I didn’t know what clothing size I wore. I wore baggy, loose dresses with no waistband. I didn’t own a scale. When I planned my wedding with my first husband, I received my grandmother’s wedding dress, and it wouldn’t button. I decided I would lose weight so the dress would fit. (Current Me could probably put that dress on without the alterations). I had no plan. I think I thought that making the decision would make the weight vanish somehow. I didn’t change what I ate, at all, and I didn’t even imagine a workout program. Needless to say, I didn’t lose weight, and I wound up having to pay a seamstress to add 5 inches of panels in the waist. My ‘set point’ was vague and undefined, totally lacking information or any way to track metrics. I also lacked a real career plan. I was just going along to get along.
Ten years ago, I started learning about how to lose weight. I was flat broke and hating it, and there was a weight loss contest at my work that involved a potential cash payout. I WAS GOING TO GET THAT MONEY NO MATTER WHAT. Almost everyone in the contest was male, and men have an extremely different approach to weight loss than women do. They tend to look at it more mechanically, as in, “I’m going to lose some weight, so I’d better cut back on the beer and hot wings for a while.” They would mock each other and try to sabotage each other’s progress by buying donuts and leaving them on their competitors’ desks. I saw all that as Reindeer Games and kept my eyes on the prize. In two years and three rounds of the contest, I won over $200. My new ‘set point’ was that of an experimenter, treating my body as a test subject and seeing that it could change with different inputs. I realized I knew almost nothing about physical fitness, and that learning more could be valuable in my life. This was shortly after I got my degree and my driver’s license and started taking my career planning very seriously.
Five years ago, I started distance running. The first time I went out, I couldn’t make it around the block without stopping to walk, and I had to lie on the floor afterward. Not even a third of a mile! I saw that my inner persistence, determination, grit, and sheer stubbornness could take me places that my lack of athletic history could not. Four years later, I ran a marathon. My new set point became that of a champion – a slow one, but a champion nevertheless. When I set a goal, I know I will eventually reach that goal, even if it takes me years, because I NEVER QUIT. I might fail a bunch of times along the way, but I’ll never give up! At this time, I also began looking at my vocation and career in a radically new way.
When I look back at myself at different ages, I shake my head at how resistant I was to new information. I didn’t want to hear it. I could have had the same conversations, read the same materials, watched the same documentaries, and not gotten anything out of it, because I was stuck at a certain level. In my life, it’s only been when I decided maybe I didn’t know as much as I thought I did that I was able to make any progress at all.
Physically, a “set point” is the result of a certain package of eating habits and activity level. Yes, my body will tend to level out at a certain shape and size once I have adjusted to whatever change I have made. When I joined Curves, I lost 17 inches in the first month – but months later, I had lost only one pound, because I refused to consider any dietary changes and the 30-minute circuit training workout could only have so much effect on me. I’ve learned from keeping a food log every day for two years that the difference between Snack A and Snack B can be a 4-lb difference on the scale after just a couple of weeks. A body trained with 30 minutes of walking three days a week is going to look visibly different a year later than a body trained with 90 minutes of running three days a week. Walk into a gym and watch the crowds coming out of the different classes. It’s easy to see that the water aerobics group is at a totally different set point than the Pilates or spin class groups. These aren’t genetic things, they are behavior package things.
It’s the same with other areas of life, such as relationships, finances, and home environments. One person will tolerate raised voices, and another person won’t, and as a result, one person will be stuck at a relationship set point that the other person would find unacceptable. One person will settle for an income level that another person will not, and as a result, one person will have financial problems that the other person won’t. One person will manage to ignore mold, stacks of greasy dishes, and piles of smelly laundry that another person could barely imagine, and as a result, one will live in squalor and the other will not. Our ‘set points’ are what we are willing to live with, to put up with from day to day. Usually, we have no idea that another level is possible.
I sometimes visualize this as different floors or storeys in a building. Imagine an apartment building. In the basement lives an unemployed person who is clinically depressed, in debt, behind on rent and bills, and surrounded by trash, dishes, and laundry. On the first floor is a broke college student, struggling with many of the same issues as the tenant in the basement apartment, but working hard for something better. On the second floor is a single person with a full-time job, gradually paying off debt and following a fitness plan. On the third floor is a couple with careers and a retirement plan. In the penthouse apartment is a wealthy entrepreneur with a fantastic view, signing up for an ultramarathon. They all have the same address, but they’re at different stages of life, and they have distinct mindsets and sets of behaviors. There is no particular reason why the tenant in the basement apartment couldn’t bump into the penthouse dweller and have a life-altering conversation one day.
If I woke up tomorrow in the body I had when I was 29, I would burst into tears. If I woke up in my first apartment, I’d probably cry then too. The difference is that now I expect different things out of life, and I know how to go about getting them. “If I only knew then what I know now…” There is no amount of weight I could gain that I would keep, because I already know how awful it felt to live in that body, and I also know what changes to make to get the body I live in now. There is no amount of mess or disorganization that would phase me, because I now know how to organize it all. If I had to wash every article of clothing and linens in the house, I’d be done in two days, and if I had to wash every dish, I’d be done in two hours. There is no way I will ever be in a relationship as bad as my first marriage, because I know to ask more questions now, and I’ll never accept certain types of mistreatment. I’ll never be poor again, because I know how to get a job that pays enough to live comfortably. I’m at a particular set point in life, but I know there is nothing permanent about it. Disaster may come my way, but it wouldn’t be the first time, and I know that whenever I hit the ground, I don’t just land on my feet, I bounce.
The big question is how many higher levels there are. I know the first step in rising up a level of set point is to recognize that the current set point is nothing more than a comfort zone. I am where I am because I behave in certain ways, accept certain things but not others, and have a certain finite amount of information. As I learn more and adjust my behaviors, I can rise, in the same way that a hot air balloon will rise when some sandbags are tossed over the side. Letting go of self-limiting beliefs and behaviors will automatically create a lift. Learning other approaches to common problems and adjusting our behaviors in positive ways can lead to upper levels we didn’t realize ever existed.
I’m not losing weight anymore. Diet industry, die in a fire, and I don’t say that lightly.
Of course, I don’t have any weight TO lose anymore. I used to be obese. Now I’m at the actuarially endorsed “healthy weight for my height.” My BMI is 21 and I’m at 22% body fat. I wear a size zero. I’m 40, but men turn their heads when I walk by in a bikini. I ran a marathon. I could probably run 5 miles barefoot right now if I wanted. I’m stronger and more physically fit than I was at 15 or 25. That’s important to me, because I spent so many years battling one chronic illness or another. In my life, excess body fat and physical pain go together, like a right hand and a left hand.
I did not go on a brand-name diet. I did not try meal substitution shakes, bars, powders, pills, teas, juices, smoothies, coffee with butter, Paleo, gluten-free, cleanses, or whatever else the $20 billion diet industry is constantly trying to sell us. (Compare to $30 billion for the self-storage industry; this is why I talk about clutter more than I do about health and fitness). I did not eat extra protein or fewer carbohydrates or even track my macros. What I did do was to use a scale, a measuring tape, and the MyFitnessPal app. I followed the app’s recommended calorie intake and logged everything I ate for three months. Then I kept going, not because I needed to lose more weight, but because I wanted to track my micronutrient consumption. My food log could one day be a valuable source of information if I need medical attention for some complicated health problem. (Like my cancer scare or the time I got a bald patch). I learned how much, and what, I could eat to maintain my new physique.
I did not lose the weight at the gym. I didn’t even GO to a gym, and I haven’t stepped foot in one in years. Over the past two decades, I have had several gym memberships, been an avid bicycle commuter, taken dance, yoga, self-defense, water aerobics, and other exercise classes several days a week, and trained for a marathon. (In between years-long periods of illness when I did nothing at all). Working out is great fun and it feels good, once you get through the first three awful weeks of pain and Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Working out has about zero to do with weight loss. I gained 8 lbs while I trained for my marathon because I kept cramming my little chipmunk cheeks with cookies, trail mix, and stacks of waffles. Diet for short-term weight loss, work out for long-term maintenance and pleasure.
I love my body, but I have a lot of anger about weight loss. It goes in two opposite directions. On the one hand, there’s the stupid diet industry that tricks people out of their money and makes them feel defeated, hopeless, and like they lack “willpower” or “motivation.” On the other hand, there are all the defensive fat people who can’t pass up an opportunity to naysay every person who tries to lose weight, fit-shame anyone who’s Not Fat Enough (an actual acronym some acquaintances use), and spend their time trying to debunk or discredit peer-reviewed clinical studies. From time to time, I am fit-shamed by someone who didn’t know me when I was fat. I explain that I used to be obese, that I had thyroid disease and a cancer scare and fibromyalgia and migraines and a parasomnia disorder (and I can keep going if you’re interested). “Oh,” they say. Nobody has ever apologized for the fit-shaming, for calling me a bitch or telling me to F off. I suppose it’s assumed that I understand, because “real” thin women deserve such treatment, and I was simply collateral damage.
I’m also mad because the process is completely different for men than it is for women. My husband used to weigh 305 pounds, and he was still over 270 when we met. He taught me everything I know about weight loss. He taught me to track metrics, and he’s even helped me set up mathematical models to figure out patterns. We’ve lost 100 pounds between us, and most of it, we lost as colleagues, partners, and gym buddies. BUT. Every step of the way has been different. People constantly told me to “be careful.” Nobody said it to him. A shop clerk pantomimed vomiting, suggesting I must be bulimic to wear the size I do. “Um, I’m a marathoner,” I replied, horrified to my core. I tried to make myself vomit once, when I was 12 and accidentally ate a bug, but I couldn’t do it even then. I don’t hate my body. I’m also sane. Does anyone understand how rude it is to joke around or hint that someone is mentally ill? Men who decide to lose weight don’t get lectured by their friends about body image and anorexia and fashion and celebrity obsession. My man is “big.” He’s been a football player, a lumberjack, and a hockey player. He doesn’t get told to “be careful” – even when he’s sharpening a chainsaw or lighting stuff on fire. He’s strong enough to lose weight if he wants, to “train” – but women aren’t strong enough to be strong. I’m supposed to be passive, curvy, and feminine, not active, muscular, and sweaty.
I’ve had a foot in both worlds. Incontrovertibly, being fit is better than being unfit. It’s useful and convenient and it’s far more physically comfortable. The comparison is precisely the same as having money vs. being poor and in debt. Why would anyone ever go back? At 22% body fat, why would I want to be 35% body fat again? It’s not something I would set about to do on purpose, in the same way that I would not set about accruing $20,000 of debt. Weight gain is basically something that “just happens,” and we accept it, in the same way that debt tends to “just happen.” The same way that health problems tend to “just happen.” The same way that clutter “just happens.” Fitness levels like mine don’t happen by accident. It’s intentional, the way I do most things in my life intentionally.
We don’t know what we don’t know. I never knew I could be as strong as I am now. When I asked doctors what I could do differently, they replied, “I don’t know what to tell you.” There weren’t any athletes in my family. I didn’t really know any fit people. I assumed that the thin people I saw just came that way, in the same way that jays are blue and sparrows are brown. I shut down a few conversations over the years, suggesting that I try losing weight or going to the gym, because what I had been told about thyroid disease and fibromyalgia said that I couldn’t do either. I’ve heard other people say that it is “physically impossible” for them to lose weight, and in my mind, it wasn’t even a question. I just was the way I was. Past Self never would have believed a word I have to say about health, fitness, or weight loss. “Past Self, being fit feels like being a millionaire.” “F Off, Future Self.”
This is what I think. I think it’s a thousand times easier to change your body than to change your body image. I think the sense of disappointment and dissatisfaction we often feel toward our bodies comes from a feeling of being physically off in some way. Maybe it’s being constantly sleep-deprived or dehydrated, having imbalanced gut flora, a micronutrient deficiency, overloading our organs with too much sugar, too many calories, too many food additives, straining joints from excess body weight, relying on pharmaceuticals to deal with the side effects of our biologically inappropriate diets. If a single one of those factors applies, why blame that off feeling on magazine photos? There is no way to objectively quantify how someone will feel when beholding a fashion model of any size or appearance. We can objectively quantify what we eat and analyze a wide range of health metrics with laboratory tests. Given our society’s mortality statistics and reliance on prescription drugs, anyone under 35 should take this under consideration. Anyone over 35 already knows that the older we get, the more we start to suffer the side effects of our lifestyle preferences.
I stopped losing weight. I made a decision. “I tried being fat but I had to quit.” Nothing about being “curvy” worked for me. I chose a path, an uphill and muddy path. I shook off everything holding me back, from ignorant doctors to inherited family beliefs to expectations of appropriate female behavior to food preferences. I quit drinking soda and eating breakfast cereal. I paid attention to my habits and became more aware of my body. I quit planning my vacations around what restaurants to try. I quit insisting on ordering two appetizers and a dessert. Very little remains the same in what I eat, where I eat, how often I eat, or how much I eat. I divorced Past Self and Past Self’s destructive, short-sighted habits. I made a radical change. I decided that I wouldn’t be fat anymore, that I would be at least a little stronger every year. Two years in, I’ve maintained that. I only wish I’d known to try it sooner.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.