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.
The lid comes off. Cookies! Each kind has its own specially shaped compartment. Chocolate covered cookies! Butter cookies! Rectangles! Tubes! Circles! I haven’t had lunch yet and they are just right there, a few inches from my hand. Free, chocolate, cookies. It’s not just that I could eat them, I’m supposed to eat them. Someone brought them in as a gift. They’re for sharing. Who would I be to reject such a thoughtful, chocolate-covered gesture?
I don’t eat any of the cookies.
Clearly I am a grinch. Guilty as charged. What kind of joyless, belligerent, terrible excuse for a human being would refuse free holiday cookies? I must hate having fun. Or maybe I hate watching other people have fun. Also, I must hate my body. Right?
The truth is, I don’t really care for chocolate all that much. Plain and simple. It doesn’t do much for me. Inexpensive chocolate is just gross. The last time I ate a grocery-store candy bar, it tasted like candles. Crayons, maybe.
There’s a lot more to my mutant ability to pass by a free box of cookies. I’m sharing because it was key to my total physical transformation. The reason for that is that cookies were one of my top trigger foods.
A trigger food is something that gives you a total case of swirly eyes. You don’t even make a decision whether or not to eat it; basically you take one look at it and it’s inside your mouth before you even realize your hand was in motion. You’ll eat it even if it’s low-quality or it’s been sitting around for a while, just as people in research studies will snarf down three-day-old stale popcorn while complaining about how stale it is.
My trigger foods were cookies, breakfast cereal, and rainbow-colored candies. My husband’s are white bread, pie, corn chips, and any kind of homemade baked goods. We were both serious cola drinkers, and we agreed to quit together, and fell off the wagon together, several times when we were dating.
The funny thing about trigger foods is that one person’s trigger is uninteresting to someone else. For instance, my hubby likes pita chips and I think they are gross. I used to date a guy who was obsessed with black licorice. I would eat cookies or cake for breakfast, a habit most people are much too smart to engage in. Now it gives me a headache just thinking about it.
Once upon a time, I worked for a bank in a big skyscraper downtown. In the lobby was a well-stocked convenience store. I would glance at it as I came and went, and I couldn’t help but notice the large, well-lit display of Pepperidge Farm Cookies. Oh dear. Ineluctably, I felt myself drawn inside, where I slowly took in each individual label. Gosh, there are so many different kinds of Pepperidge Farm Cookies. So many delicious flavors and all of them look absolutely awesome. We never got these when I was a kid. I bought a package and took them upstairs to my desk. No roommates or boyfriends would ask to share my nice expensive cookies!
I opened the package and carefully ate every crumb of one of these fine cookies, Milanos if you’re interested. Then I closed the package and put it in my desk drawer.
About a minute later, I opened the drawer, opened the package, and got out another cookie.
In the back of my mind was an intention that these cookies would last me a week or two. I thought of them as very expensive luxury items.
Needless to say, even after I moved the Milanos to the back of the drawer and locked it with a key, I got the mechanics of retrieving and opening the bag down to about two seconds. They were gone in two days.
The next fifteen years would demonstrate a conclusive link between my cookie consumption and my thirty-five pound weight gain.
There were other food habits I had to learn and unlearn before I finally figured out how to eat like an athlete. Pretty much mostly cookies, though.
I lost my taste for cookies, breakfast cereal, and other trigger foods at some point during my marathon training. I had assumed that cookies would fuel me past the finish line, and I definitely ate a lot of Nutter Butters and vanilla fig bars in the early days. Somehow, though, I lost my taste for sweets. Even sweetened dried fruit started tasting too sticky and treacly. Cereal tastes like baby food to me now. I just don’t want that stuff any more.
I still have strong associations between foods and celebrations. I still love to eat just as much as I ever did. My tastes have changed, that’s all. Sometimes I eat a cookie, and I look at it, feeling betrayed. “Cookie! Why u taste so boring!” I have to remind myself that my excitement over a particular food is not always matched by my actual experience. Usually it takes like three hundred attempts.
Now, the way I connect food to celebrations is to plan and cook a fine meal. I know I’ve won when I see someone pop up to get thirds. I know I’ve done well when someone insists on the recipe, and then cooks it next time I’m in town. I know I’ve done well when I can sit down, enjoy what’s on my plate, and not feel a sense of FoMO. I’m not missing out; there is always going to be a box of cookies within my reach, round the clock, twenty-four hours a day. I can if I want to, and most of the time, I choose something else.
It begins. I went to the movies on Halloween, dressed in orange and black, ready for a delightful afternoon of blood, guts, and scary clowns. What should I see before me but a large Christmas tree with a little pumpkin underneath? I have just two words to say about this.
I saw my first Christmas decorations for sale in stores a full two weeks ago. As of October 30 at the latest, my local grocery store was already displaying end caps full of Christmas-themed treats. I’ve come to expect that the tyranny of tinsel now begins in mid-October and continues to flaunt itself until the beginning of February. This is why I plan now for the inevitable bacchanalia of excess calories.
I used to refer to it as “putting on my winter coat.” I had finally started to realize that I always tended to gain a clothing size between Halloween and New Year’s. I’m not a bear, and I don’t hibernate, but go ahead and try explaining that to my thighs.
Later, as I started to read up on the food industry, I learned that most American adults gain their weight just a few pounds at a time, almost entirely over the winter holidays.
Let’s work this out. Gaining three pounds a year, every year, would equal fifteen pounds in five years, or thirty pounds in ten years. Does that sound true for anyone you know? It sure does for me. In fact, it was even worse in my case. I calculated that I would gain an average of A POUND A DAY every time I visited my family. Then I would keep it.
This is basically still true. I can also easily gain a pound a day on vacation.
My husband just reminded me that the winter before we met, he gained twenty-five pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
Me: “What did you eat?”
The trick is to plan around it. Just because I have a tendency, does not mean the tendency needs to manifest itself in its full form. Just because I lean a certain way does not mean I need to act it out in every situation. I’m not going out to put the ‘fat’ in fatalism. I like to eat, yeah, and I also like not having to spend three weeks burning off three days of smorgasbord. I like to eat, and I also like being able to wear the same size of clothing throughout the year.
It’s November First. Do I know where my honesty pants are?
I planned my Halloween candy purchases this year. I decided to buy a few higher-quality confections rather than a big bag of cheaper stuff. When it’s gone, it’s gone. (And I can either eat it in three days, or hoard it in the freezer, which is what I usually do).
November is not Thanksgiving, and December is not Christmas. These are special events that last one day, contrary to popular belief! I had my fill of candy on the day of Halloween, to the point that I truly did not want any more. On Thanksgiving, I’m going to eat a late breakfast, skip lunch, cook all day, and eat two large plates with at least one scoop of everything I want. There will be leftovers for the next two days, and that will be that. On Christmas and New Year’s, I’ll cook something fancy for dinner, and on New Year’s Day we’ll have Hoppin’ John. That’s it. That’s plenty.
In the past, my husband and I both would have basically spent two months eating until our faces went numb. Bags of leftover candy! Cookies! Special breads! Hot cocoa! Party food up the wazoo! I got sort of tired of that after I made the connection between my eating habits, my weight, and my various health issues. A lot of the stuff I used to love kinda quit tasting so good, especially after the Thanksgiving when I made two cakes and then ate about half of them for breakfast for a few days. As an adult, I don’t need to live out the food fantasies of Eight-Year-Old Past Me.
What comforts me now is cold-weather food. We live in a hot climate, and for six or eight months of the year it’s too hot to really use the oven. Right now, I can heat up the kitchen! Soups, casseroles, risottos, and other lovely, hearty meals are starting to sound appealing again. This is also the season when the really nice crucifers come into their own. The cauliflowers, cabbages, and Brussels sprouts start to get bigger and the chard and kale look like they have some real stamina.
The other thing that happens when the weather cools down is that it starts being appealing to run in the afternoon. The optimal temperature for running is 55 degrees Fahrenheit. I can count on our climate approaching that range for a few months. Running pairs well with starchy foods. My parents, they of the tempting kitchen, happen to live within a quarter mile of a 900-foot incline. When I visit, I go running up there, every day if I can manage it. My fall and winter visits often kick off my training season for the year.
There are two months left before the annual accounting that is New Year’s Eve. I take this extremely seriously as a watershed in my life. If not New Year’s, then when? As the old year winds to a close, I find myself looking over the Resolutions I crafted so carefully back in January, asking why I got through some of them so quickly and why I’ve procrastinated so long on others. One of these resolutions is to run five miles in a stretch. Often the majority of my progress happens in the end of the year, with the deadline looming before me. The reckoning is upon us!
It’s November. Past Me would have already started our annual weight gain and would just be getting started on a sack of candy. Past Me would already have loaded up on limited-edition seasonal groceries like holiday nog and peppermint cocoa. Past Me should have already been bagging up clothes that were no longer going to fit next summer, as we bloated our way through no fewer than eight clothing sizes. Present Me, after reaching down through time to slap ourself, has learned some lessons. Now I’ve already started on training for an 8k in March. Instead of a grocery list of extra calories with mostly sweet flavors, I’ve started on a reading list of thick and juicy novels. I’m homing in on my goals for the year and starting to daydream about my goals for 2018. I’m culling and sorting stuff for my regular end-of-year decluttering. ‘Tis the season for celebrating in ways that will make January Me proud.
One of the first things I noticed when I started doing clutter work was a strong correlation between space clearing and weight loss. Why is this? The reasons that people clutter up their homes are as many and varied as the reasons that people gain and lose weight. These are both very broad cultural problems that affect almost all of us, problems that people of the Dark Ages didn’t have. They couldn’t afford either the extra food or the extra stuff; material goods were expensive for most of human history. Only now do we have the luxury of having both more food and more stuff than we know what to do with! Perhaps the first reason that clutter work tends to trigger weight loss is that it causes us to pause and ask ourselves, Is this what I want for myself? Did I do this with my life intentionally?
Clutter has some common causes, all of which can also be seen as common causes of weight gain:
Consumer culture / recreational shopping and eating
Perception of busy schedule
Depression, anxiety, other mental health issues
Addressing any one of these issues has a ripple effect, where resolving the problem also resolves other symptoms of the problem. As an example, getting a handle on chronic disorganization may result in a better financial outlook as well as more time to cook at home. Going for the root cause always leads to unanticipated positive side benefits. Often we find ourselves saying, “If only I’d known this would happen, I would have done it sooner!”
Most of my clients don’t cook. This is reflective of our cultural moment, as statistics show that Americans now spend more at restaurants and bars than we do on groceries. When we cook at home, most of us are buying packaged and prepared foods, not cooking from scratch. You know what I think? Based on what I’ve seen, I think one of the main reasons that most people don’t cook is that their kitchens are too... Um... How do I put this? Basically I would hesitate to pop a slice of toast in most of my clients’ kitchens. It’s pretty common for people to stock up on what I would consider to be three months’ worth of food, and try to pack it into the kitchen space with double or triple the amount of hardware that will fit. Nobody is going to cook if the sink and counters are constantly full of dirty dishes and there’s no available counter space.
Making a stand about clutter will eventually affect the kitchen. When the kitchen is reclaimed, when the kitchen starts to be used in the way it was designed to be used, we start eating more rationally.
Intensive space clearing takes time. It shakes up whatever was the default schedule, a schedule that may have been consistent for many years. We snap out of whatever dream we’ve been in, we look around, and we realize that entropy has been happening all around us. Many of us work in a near frenzy, finding energy we never knew we had, sometimes having trouble stopping even when it’s late on a work night. We can spend hours without realizing that time is passing. These are the same blocks of time that we might have spent on screen time, perhaps snacking because that’s what we’ve always done. Changing our default activities tends to change our eating patterns, too.
Even my clients who live alone report power struggles over how they keep their space. Friends and family members want to stick their oars in. Space clearing is often the first time that someone has taken initiative in life, effectively saying, “I make the rules around here now.” This is major, because we give ourselves permission to say both No and Yes. Unintentional weight gain often comes from adopting the eating habits of our nearest and dearest, who are usually surprisingly insistent that we not change or reject food offerings. We have to eat the way that they do, or they won’t feel like they have permission to eat that way anymore! Put your foot down and say, “This isn’t working for me,” and all sorts of things happen.
Of course, sometimes both clutter clearing and weight loss are just natural side effects of recovery from an emotional crisis or a period of mental health issues. As we start to feel better, we start wanting better for ourselves, and that includes our living environments as well as our bodies.
Honestly, I think there’s a bit of woo-woo behind it. Just because we can’t objectively measure a subjective emotional experience doesn’t mean it isn’t real. There is something about the inner decision that It’s Time Now. When we feel the deep sense that change is necessary and obvious, it changes everything. We just feel different. We start to approach everything we do with a new awareness. As we start taking more initiative and agency, reclaiming our personal power, and reflecting this newfound strength in our external circumstances, it spreads. It does things. Little tweaks and adjustments happen without our always realizing it right away. How can this not permeate all our choices, food included?
My graduates report back some amazing changes. They fall in love, relocate across the globe, go back to school, change jobs, and take up old abandoned hobbies. Physical transformation is just another routine extraordinary process. Ultimately space clearing is an external manifestation of internal awareness. It’s one sign among many of an end to chronic procrastination and the beginning of a new drive toward creative action.
If someone had told me I was going to marry a jock, I wouldn’t even have bothered to roll my eyes. The only thing less plausible would be if they told me I was going to start walking around wearing a bikini with high heels. The fact that the latter doesn’t sound all that far-fetched anymore has a lot to do with the truth of the former. I fell in love with an athlete, and then he turned me into one. Sort of like being made into a zombie, except that you gradually get better posture and start moving faster.
I gained a lot of weight in my first marriage. Most people do. Marriage is usually an unspoken agreement that “I take thee and all thy flaws as long as you promise to ignore mine.” Let’s eat nachos and chill. My first marriage was so bad that always doing the exact opposite in my second marriage seemed like it might be a solid plan. What if, instead of just steadily gaining weight together, we made a pact to try to be a little more fit every year? Like, one percent?
I always hated anything even remotely resembling P.E. If there are roughly thirty kids in every grade school classroom, and one of them is the proverbial last kid picked for every team, then there are quite a few of us out there. I’ve been smacked in the head by nearly every type of ball, and once served a volleyball directly at our gym teacher’s butt, where it bounced off and flew across the room. That was my shining moment on the sports reel. If there was an all-American Olympic team for reading while snaffling sleeves of Oreos, I’d medal.
The first it ever occurred to me to maybe lose a couple of pounds, money was involved. My husband, a mere work acquaintance at the time, had set up an annual weight loss competition that the company wound up sponsoring. When I found out that I could win cash through any means whatsoever, I was game. All I needed to know was whether I could safely lose weight, and if so, how much. I had no understanding that I was clinically obese at the time. I didn’t care, either. All I wanted was that sweet, sweet munnah. The contest lasted for three months, and I listened carefully as my new work buddy taught me everything he knew about weight loss. I wound up winning over $200 in two years. Using cash prizes as a weight loss incentive was sheer genius, and it helped me trust this guy who formerly weighed 305 pounds.
We started working out together at the gym across the street. I’m not always very gracious about patiently listening while other people teach me things, but my new friend showed me how to set up all the weight equipment at the gym without mansplaining. We became workout buddies, which was great, because we were also lunch buddies and we tended to put away a lot of chimichangas.
At some point along the way, we realized that maybe there could be something more between us. This may or may not have had something to do with the fact that we’d both lost thirty pounds since we’d met.
We both gained back some of the weight while we were planning our wedding. On our honeymoon, we were sprawled out on the hotel bed after a decadent meal (with appetizers, drinks, and dessert, of course) when we saw Biggest Loser for the first time. That was our moment. Our honeymoon was the last eating-based vacation we took. Since then, we’ve planned our trips around backpacking and physical exploits.
I was the one who got us into running. I chose it as a sacrifice, the literal worst thing I could think of, because I knew if I asked for help then my honey would deny me nothing. I’d trick him into running with me! I had three angles: one, I knew nothing about running; two, I was terrible with maps; and three, I didn’t feel safe running alone at night. He came out with me for my first quarter-mile and he was still there when I got to six. It wasn’t until I started doing eight miles at a stretch that he dropped back. I had to do my marathon alone. This was the point at which I understood that I was no longer the student.
Marriage has been good to us. We’re both better people together than we used to be. From my husband, I learned everything I know about physical culture, about comfortably merging the identities of jock and nerd, about feeling at home in a gym. These things gave me a confidence and strength I never could have imagined. I returned the favor, introducing him to new cuisines, teaching him about health food and how to cook mystery vegetables. Our meals and our workouts are just backdrops to the endless conversation that is our marriage. I think sometimes we actually get through a workout while barely realizing we’ve done it, like running an errand, while chattering away about something.
The willingness to venture forth and meet someone in their world is so important to a relationship. My liking for this guy in spite of his off-putting interest in sports led me to become curious. What would it be like to feel like an athlete? What would it be like to actually enjoy this stuff? As he recognized my curiosity and openness to the unfamiliar, he stepped up and became more willing to explore my world, too. We were each other’s trainers. May we always be.
How much water should a person drink every day? According to my picky eater friends, the answer is zero, because water tastes bad. Everyone knows that if I don’t like the flavor of something, then it’s unhealthy and I shouldn’t put it in my mouth. The standard answer to the question of how much water to drink is: eight 8-ounce glasses, or 64 fluid ounces per day. Then the standard rebuttal to that is that we don’t actually have to drink that much, because we consume fluids in our food. I’m going to say that all of these answers are wrong.
It’s not nearly enough.
How much we need to drink depends on our size, our base exertion level, the humidity, the altitude, whether we’re traveling via airplane, what we eat, and what workout we may be doing. There are probably other factors, but these are the most noticeable.
I got an app to track my water consumption, because I was having a problem with getting cotton mouth right before bed. This intense thirst would make it impossible not to power-slam a big glass of water, which would then make it impossible for me to sleep through the night. It became my goal to pace myself, hydrating more in the morning so I could stop drinking water after 8 PM. Everything I do for my body is based around whether it improves my quality and quantity of sleep, because I have a very tiresome parasomnia disorder.
Now that I have a few months recorded, I see that I drink an average of 80 fluid ounces per day. The app set me a goal of 60 ounces based on my height, weight, and activity level. For the record, I am 5’4” with a small build and I live in a hot, humid climate.
Anyone who is taller than me, weighs more than 120 pounds, or exercises more than I do should probably be drinking more than that 80 ounces. Even more if they’re on any kind of medication.
It’s important to be skeptical, especially about outrageous health claims. There’s at least a million times more misinformation out there than there is quality information. Skepticism is an inner compass that can be used to experiment and test hypotheses. We can use this power of the mind to find ways to live a better, easier life. I was always very skeptical about claims that drinking lots of water is healthy, and I might go days at a time without actually drinking plain water. I was a big soda drinker instead. That’s what low-level skepticism can do for us. It can convince us that our terrible habits are good for us, because we like them and they come naturally to us, while at the same time convincing us that healthy habits are bad for us, because they’re annoying and they go against our proclivities. A skepticism that drives us further in the direction of our biases is not skepticism at all. It’s nothing more than a self-serving emotional validation tool.
What we want to do is to look at our results and try to amplify everything that is working well, while mitigating anything that is working less well. More of the good and helpful, less of the bad and painful.
The first thing that convinced me that maybe what I was doing wasn’t working so well was the idea that I could compare my results to the results of an elite. In this case, I’d be looking at elite athletes and at people with elite longevity, i.e. centenarians. What did these people do differently than I did? I noticed that athletic people universally all drank lots of water. I didn’t drink lots of water, and I was far from being an athlete. Correlation or causation?
What I learned when I started distance running was that hydration wasn’t actually a choice anymore. Intense exercise activates a thirst you’ve never known. It’s physically impossible to run for several miles and not feel thirsty afterward. You also start to learn that you have to drink before you feel the thirst. I felt vindicated with my hydration habits when I ran my marathon without bonking.
A Kaiser doctor told me once that dizziness comes from dehydration. I had called in to the advice line when I had the flu. In the past, I had had a problem with occasional random dizzy spells, and I’d even fainted a few times. That was back when I was working a full-time job while also attending school full time. It clicked for me that if dehydration causes dizziness, and I used to feel dizzy a lot, and I basically never drank water... maybe that was the answer? Maybe it was really as simple as that?
What I’ve noticed from drinking more water:
I used to always have dark circles under my eyes, and now they’re gone, even though I’m twenty years older
I sleep better, when I’ve had insomnia problems since I was seven years old
My skin is clearer
I have at least 10x more energy
I don’t crave sweets as much
I haven’t had a migraine in nearly four years, when I used to get them several times a week
I weigh 35 pounds less than I did when I drank soda instead of water
I’m stronger and fitter than I’ve ever been in my life
All of this could be a coincidence. Maybe it’s not my water consumption at all. Maybe I’m enjoying these benefits due to an astrological influence or a fairy’s blessing. Maybe it’s osmosis from living in a humid climate near the beach. Water is free to me, though. I can pour it straight out of the tap on demand. Drinking more water makes me feel better and helps me not get dry mouth at night. Why not do it? Why not test it out for a little while, at least?
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.
I drag the bathroom scale into the kitchen. No way am I going to fit if I try to stand on it where it normally waits, tucked in a corner. I tap it with my boot. I’m impatient to step on and see how high the number is today. I gasp with incredulity. One hundred and eighty-one pounds! I’ve never had a weigh-in this high in my entire life! I call out to my husband; I have to tell him right away. This is what it’s like to feel proud and excited about a high weigh-in.
I may have cheated a little. It’s possible that I have chosen to weigh myself at the end of the day, after a large dinner, fully dressed, and wearing my new mountaineering bots. Oh, and maybe my fully packed expedition backpack.
Once upon a time, I was obese and chronically ill. The idea that I might one day look forward to climbing a mountainside while carrying forty or fifty pounds of equipment would have been more than a cruel joke; it would have been inconceivable.
Now I’m actually a little disappointed to weigh less than I thought I would. I want to show off my Herculean strength with impressive numbers indicating how heavy a pack I can carry. Since I’m traveling with my husband instead of my various backpacking friends, he insists on carrying the tent, the mess kit, the stove, and the first aid kit. Just because he’s twice my size he thinks he should hog all the cool stuff.
Once upon a time, I used to carry a thirty-five pound backpack everywhere I went. It was me. It was myself I had to carry. Every step I took, every stair I climbed, every minute of the day, I had to do it under the strain of this extra weight.
In fact, due to my body composition, what I had was probably at least fifty pounds of fat, some of which made way for at least fifteen pounds of muscle.
I’m strong now and I love it. I can put on my pack, pick up my husband’s with one arm, and walk across camp with ninety pounds of gear. My knees don’t even hurt.
We’re getting older now, as is everyone, and we like it when we see other backpackers a generation older than us. They’re our role models. We realize anew on every trip that if we want to continue to do this into our eighties or better, we can’t quit. We can’t ever quit.
When I’m thirty-five or forty or fifty pounds overweight these days, it’s my luggage. It’s a giant black canvas duffel bag filled with a backpack, two-man tent, sleeping bag, air mattress, pillow, space blanket, four changes of clothes, two sets of thermal underwear, three jackets, solar charger, gloves, hat, scarf, towel, pocket knife, head lamp, lantern, stove, mess kit, water filter, trekking poles, and even a folding chair. In other words, cool stuff I chose carefully, stuff I wouldn’t want to leave behind. That’s the difference. I got fat by accident and I didn’t enjoy it. My metaphorical backpack is one I felt stuck with. My actual backpack I can take off or put on whenever I want.
What is a dessert, exactly?
This probably sounds like a dumb question. It’s something sweet that you eat after a meal, right? Duh.
The reason I mention it is that getting more precise in what, exactly, constitutes a dessert changed my eating habits in a way that nothing else probably would have. That in turn led to the complete physical transformation that I enjoy today.
I have a set of little glass bowls that I use as “ice cream” bowls. (I call it “ice cream” because “frozen non-dairy dessert” is a mouthful, and I’d rather that mouthful be creamy sweet deliciousness, wouldn’t you?). Using these bowls means that we actually get four servings out of a pint, like it says on the label. Before the acquisition of these small bowls, I used a cereal bowl, just like everyone else, and that means that my dessert used to be much larger.
If you sit down and eat a cereal bowl full of ice cream most nights, is it still a treat?
My thought is that anything done on a routine basis is just a routine. It’s not special anymore. Having “treats” so often puts us on the hedonic treadmill, searching farther afield for what used to give us a thrill. In the same way that we always find a way to spend a higher income, we are pretty good at just incorporating extra food into our bodies. I mean, speaking for myself here, if I’ve already eaten a slice of cake at dinner, that’s no reason why I’m not going to eat another slice for breakfast the next morning.
Here’s the thing I figured out about desserts. I was eating what I would now think of as a dessert at least three or four times a day. I would eat a large bowl of cereal for breakfast (or sometimes, if I had it, a slice of cake or pie or a handful of chocolate chip cookies with walnuts). I would have a soda at work (or, in college, at least three cans a day). I might have a bag of candy at my desk. I was “good” at lunch, usually eating dinner leftovers. Then I’d go home and eat dinner, another “healthy” meal, after which I’d have a little container of soy yogurt. And another big bowl of cereal. And possibly also a can of peaches or a bowl of “ice cream.”
It wasn’t until I spent a year writing down everything I ate that I started to see the problem. I was eating a lot more calories than a 5’4” frame can handle. Much of it was from various forms of sugar. I either needed to raise my activity level to match my fuel intake, or I needed to change what I ate to match my affinity for melding into my couch cushions with a book in front of my face.
A couple of years later, I managed to make another connection. I had been driving myself and my husband crazy with my night terrors, and no matter what metrics I tracked, I couldn’t seem to figure out what I was doing wrong. Finally, I realized that the trigger for these terrifying episodes was eating too close to bedtime. Blood sugar fluctuations. As soon as I quit eating three hours before bedtime, the problem went away. I’ve only had two episodes in the past three years.
As a simple guideline, look at the ingredients list of anything you’re eating. Find the section on the label that says Total Carb. If it has more than 30mg, it’s a dessert.
Or at least, that’s what worked for me.
I’m not a low-carb dieter. I’ve tried increasing my protein intake and cutting carbs, and it made me feel horrible, low-energy, headachy, and nauseated. It’s hard to find any endurance athlete who will even bother to try eating low-carb; those are things that don’t go together. Low-carb may work for weight lifters but it doesn’t work for marathon runners. The thing about that 30mg guideline is that some people eat that much carbohydrate in an entire day. I’m talking about consuming that in one single food item.
As far as the “carbs” thing goes, I don’t generally eat white bread, pasta, rice, or anything that comes from a supermarket bakery. I do eat tons of potatoes, I eat whole-grain sandwich bread most days, and I almost always eat oatmeal for breakfast. I eat gluten, I eat wheat, I eat yeast, I eat grains… I’m just not really about white foods. That’s why, when I decide to eat cake or cookies or pie or donuts or more cake, I just go ahead and eat it.
When we were in Iceland, we noted that Icelanders are about three notches leaner than Americans. Yet they have the world’s highest consumption of Coca-Cola and we saw them eating little ice cream cones all the time. It turns out their Coke has 30% less sugar that ours. It also turns out that, due to the price of imported foods, almost everything in their food supply contains only a few ingredients, all of which can be pronounced and understood, and they don’t really do added sweeteners. Most stuff we saw had four ingredients or fewer. Also, their portions were significantly smaller and food was much more expensive. About half the portion for twice the price, with none of the added sugar… and you can start to understand why almost everyone on the entire island had visible muscle definition.
I’m totally in favor of desserts. I happen to think that they should be special occasions. It’s not so special to have something every day, or several times a day. In my case, I guess you could call “running through the house screaming in my sleep” “special” - in a bad way. When I cut my sugar intake in favor of high-fiber, high-micronutrient vegetables and fruits, my sleep problems and chronic migraines resolved themselves. Having a body that functions properly and being pain-free is a major upgrade over any dessert you could put in front of me. When I indulge, I want a dessert, exactly that and no more.
Flash of insight: the humble fork is often used to symbolize our eating habits, but it's probably not stuff that we eat with forks that causes the problems. As far as synecdoche, the spoon is a more likely stand-in, because we use spoons to eat all kinds of goodies like cereal, yogurt, ice cream, pudding, and other sweet treats. It's probably what we eat with our hands that gets us into the most trouble. Forks tend to be the utensils we use when we're sitting down to a proper meal. I think fork-based meals are the sort of nourishing, emotionally fulfilling meals that can really help us get straight with our relationship to food.
I sit down for meals because I love it. I love having a table in front of me to hold everything. We have a little bistro table in our tiny apartment, and to me it's the exact size of most restaurant tables built for two. When I sit there, it speaks to my brain. It says, this is going to be a leisurely meal, just like all the times you went out with a friend and talked for an hour, almost forgetting to eat before your food got cold. Usually I eat alone, but I still have that special restaurant feeling when I sit at the table, whether it's my bowl of instant oatmeal, a sandwich, or dinner with my honey.
My least favorite way to eat in all the world is sitting in a car. I always get crumbs all over myself, and inevitably I spill something greasy on my shirt. No matter where we're going or how long the trip is, I step out of the vehicle looking like I slept in my clothes and then spent the day running a preschool. I think cars should have tray tables just like airplanes do. Why is this not a thing? Many of us are eating most of our meals in our vehicles. Cramming down some kind of baked goods or cereal bars while rushing to work or school drop-offs, hitting the drive-thru while running errands, or just feeling too hungry and burnt out at the end of the day to even think about cooking. How many of these meals eaten behind a steering wheel actually come with a fork? How many of them come with cruciferous vegetables or a nutrition label? Do we even really know what we're eating while trying not to drip on our seat belts?
Another area where we may have little or no idea of what we're eating is with snacks. I lost 15 pounds in the year after I quit my office job, I suspect mostly because I don't buy snack food at home. I was no longer subject to the easy availability of all the sodas, chips, nuts, candies, office potlucks, birthday parties, and barbecues lurking in my workplace nearly every day of the week. I knew almost nothing about nutrition or weight loss at that time, and now I realize that I could easily have been eating an extra 500 calories a day without thinking about it. I also would have had no idea what "500 calories" means in context. That's the amount I eat for dinner, or sometimes less if we're eating a very high volume of vegetables that night. Eat an extra dinner every day and yeah, you'll probably gain some weight!
The thing about this "extra dinner" of unintended caloric consequences is that it is not satisfying. A handful of cashews here, a soda there, a slice of lame supermarket bakery birthday cake here... I don't really feel like I've eaten anything. I hardly feel like I've had some kind of peak experience. It just blends into the background, part of the beigeness of the cubicle world. I might not even remember how many times I've mindlessly popped handfuls of this or that into my mouth.
An alternative might be carrying a fork around and insisting on eating everything with it, as a sort of consciousness-raising exercise. Once people see you eating a bagel or a handful of tortilla chips with a fork, their reactions may stop any kind of unconscious, unintended snacking from ever happening again!
We talk a lot about "comfort food" and "emotional eating." I think food should be comforting. It's building our cells and all our body parts and systems, after all. With each bite, I can think, "I have everything I need. There is plenty and there will be plenty more." I wonder about emotional eating, though. Food can be an incredible artistic and creative outlet; sharing meals can be warm and lovely times for connecting and communicating; pausing at least three times a day can give us time to remember who we are in the midst of the daily bustle. Are we using food to manipulate our neurochemistry, though? Is food the highlight of the day in a boring and unfulfilling life? Are we feeling any kind of guilt or shame or disappointment about our lackluster mealtimes or a disconnect between the reality and our ideal? Is emotional eating really providing any kind of comfort in the long term?
I used to hate cooking. I didn't really know what to do. It would take me like twenty minutes to chop an onion. I would start recipes without realizing that I was missing ingredients, or that I should have prepared half a dozen ingredients before I turned the burner on. My cooking was dreadful. Then I decided that if illiterate medieval peasants could cook a decent pot of soup, I could figure it out. Somehow! By the power of the Internet! I would do it, for literacy! It turned out that I was able to turn around the worst of my cooking blunders with one decision, simply to read the recipe from start to finish before trying to prepare anything. I started to make things that actually tasted good. Every now and then, something I would make would be surprisingly awesome. Just a couple of years later, everything I made was good, with a 'blah' exception maybe once every month or two, and we could handle that. Now, we'd usually rather eat at home than go out. I have the Hogwarts-power of being able to make yummy meals on command. If I really did have the ability to cast magical spells or make potions, what else would I use them on other than great dinners?
My husband and I have never ordered pizza delivery in our entire relationship. We've been friends for a dozen years now. Why don't we order pizzas? It's the 30-minute delivery window. By the time we would have decided to get a pizza, chosen what we wanted, called in the order, waited for it, and opened the box, I could have cooked an unusually fancy dinner. Almost everything I make takes under half an hour. Several things take 20 minutes, and a few take fewer than 10 minutes. If we were really that super-tired and neither of us could bear the thought of cooking a "real" dinner, we are perfectly capable of microwaving some soup and making some toast. No pizza could get here that fast. Granted, we wouldn't be using forks for either the soup or the pizza, but with the soup, we're making our considered nutritional decisions in advance.
I think that soups and casseroles and artfully plated dinners are the missing piece in most people's concept of "comfort food." What we really want, deep in our souls, is a real sit-down dinner. This is part of this abstruse concept known as "adulting," though. It seems like too much of an uphill climb. If more of us realized that we can microwave a vegetable in 4 minutes, and how little time it takes to make most simple entrees, maybe more of us would take the ladle into our own hands. We can provide this comfort for ourselves.
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.