A few days after I wrote my post on not letting one bad day turn into two, I was chatting with one of my best friends, who told me that he loved the post. He also admitted that, lately, he’s found it difficult to make time for proper self care. He hasn’t been exercising enough or waking up early enough, and he’s made some food choices he regretted. The net result, he said, is a feeling of self-loathing. Sometimes, he says, he wonders “how could I be messing up something so simple?” or “when will I start treating my body like an adult?”
Naturally, I heard and understood what my friend was saying. But I had to disagree with the notion that self-care is simple. Everything I’ve seen and heard as a counselor suggests that taking proper care of one’s body and health is one of the biggest challenges of adult life.
I’ve worked with well over fifty clients now, and they’ve all been impressive, high-energy individuals. Among them are record label executives, filmmakers, mothers of three and four, lawyers, PhD candidates, professional photographers, translators, teachers, software developers, fitness instructors, financial analysts, and social workers. Many of them have juggled those careers with other family obligations or hobbies, and they’ve managed it all with grace.
Where each of them has run into trouble—and this is why they called me—was with food and fitness. It seems that, no matter how successful, ambitious, and competent a man or woman is, there’s still a great chance that he or she might find it impossible to master good eating habits, or establish a steady exercise routine. Time and again, I hear the same exasperated sentiments:
“I don’t know why I have such a hard time shopping for groceries and cooking. I’m so tired on the weekends, I just tend to collapse in front of the TV.”
“I’ll be really good about the gym for a couple of days, but then I hit a busy day and I stop, and I can’t seem to start again.”
“I always plan on packing my lunch and bringing it to work, but then I forget, skip lunch, and snack all afternoon.”
“I’ll be really disciplined for a week or two, but then I go out to a corporate dinner, feel like I’ve ‘blown it,’ and then throw in the towel and start eating everything in sight.”
“I always set my alarm to wake up and work out, but then I just keep pressing snooze until it’s too late.”
Do any of these sound familiar? They should. They’re among the most common impediments—real and perceived—to kick-starting food and fitness routines that last. Two basic patterns seem to emerge: first, people set lofty goals and adhere to them for a few days, but burn out before they’ve had a chance to internalize the routines involved. And second, people tend to get anxious and inflate the potential difficulties of their undertakings before they’ve had a chance to experience them.
These statements flood my inbox almost every day. And it’s worth reiterating that they don’t come from people who are naturally lazy, or unproductive, or pessimistic, or inept. They come from people who are high-functioning, intelligent, and productive employees, partners, parents, and friends. What does this tell us? I think it tells us that sticking to healthy habits is anything but simple or straightforward. Many—perhaps most—people experience a steep learning curve as they work toward a healthier lifestyle, and many stumble a few times before they succeed.
What matters, of course, is persistence in the face of challenge. And nothing will quash your resilience more than feelings of guilt or self-loathing. In my experience, most clients who give up on self-care—be they people trying to lose weight and get fit, or former eating disorder sufferers who are trying to gain weight back—do so because they’ve become overwhelmed with guilt, and have stopped feeling worthy of health.
If you’re reading this and nodding your head—if any of it strikes a chord—you’re not alone. The difficulty you have sticking to a workout routine, avoiding binges, shopping for groceries, or cooking healthy meals is normal. It should be: there’s nothing simple about healthy living. It takes time to cook food, time to plan meals. It takes effort to wake up at dawn and go for a run, or to hit the gym for a short lunch break workout. These things don’t just happen to us: they demand sacrifice and planning, week in and week out.
But here’s the good news: we humans are very good at forming habits. And I promise you—I promise—that simply sticking to healthy routines over time will become easier and easier and easier. I have a few tips to help you out:
- Set realistic goals. If you’ve never run a mile before, and you sign up for a marathon, you’ll be crazy not to want to quit. Start jogging lightly for a mile or two once or twice a week, and use fun playlists or an exercise buddy to motivate you when you lose momentum.
- Do not give up on your first bad day. Really. Don’t. This pertains especially to food. Most of my clients go a week or two without snags: it’s all excitement and motivation and neatly organized grocery lists. But on the first busy week, or stressful day, or personal hardship, healthy eating gets abandoned, and motivation starts to wear thin. The trick is not to let your first major setback derail you for good. If you can bounce back from your first “off day” (a binge, a day of restricting, three extra glasses of wine, whatever) and get back on track, you’ll realize that you can get back on track. Think all healthy eaters eat ideally every single day? No way. But “off days” are insignificant in the broader scope of a healthy lifestyle.
- Don’t let anxiety warp your vision of what healthy living will entail. It’s easy to think about grocery shopping, meal planning, cooking, and exercising, and immediately break into hives. So, step back. Take a deep breath. Relax. Each of these things is actually a lot easier to deal with than you think. And guess what? It’s fine to start with a single goal: for example, you can decide to start exercising 3-5 times a week, but postpone cooking lessons until you’ve got the exercise down to a science. Take it slowly: no one said that each of these great habits depends on the other. You can attempt them one at a time.
- Do what you need to do to facilitate healthy habits. This might mean using Fresh Direct if you don’t have time to grocery shop. It might mean paying for membership at a nicer gym, if surroundings will motivate you. It might mean asking a friend to come over and show you some basic knife skills before you attempt a four-course meal. It might mean asking a local parent to watch your daughter, so that you can take a thirty minute power walk a few times a week. It might even mean emailing me, and asking me to help you out with recipes and emotional support. Whatever you have to do, do it: paying a little extra money or asking your friends for support will be worth it in the long run. I’ve made plenty of sacrifices of time, money, convenience, and even socializing—all within reason, of course—in order to maintain my daily workouts and need for ample kitchen time. Why? Because these things give me joy, and make me healthy (in body and spirit). It’s always worth it.
- Never feel unworthy. No amount of setbacks means that you’re not worthy of pushing forward with a healthy lifestyle. I can’t tell you how many clients confess to me that they often fail to take care of themselves because they don’t feel “worthy” of homemade meals or costly gym memberships. But think of it this way: how do you feel when you consistently eat poorly, or find other ways to abuse yourself? Tired, sluggish, and probably cranky. At the best, regretful, and at the worst, depressed. And when we’re depressed, we’re all likely to be less present and less giving as family members, employees, and friends. No good comes of our failing to treat ourselves well. So why not take steps toward living more healthily, and feeling better? It may be a cliché, but it exists for a reason: self-care is the first care.
I hope this is all good motivation to jump start healthy habits. But even with my handy tips and encouraging words at your disposal, you should be prepared for the fact that the habits won’t come easily. They just won’t. They’re a challenge worth rising to, but you have to accept the inherent difficulty of what you’re undertaking. You’re not weak or at fault if you happen to hit setbacks along the way, or stop often to think “wow, this is hard.” It is hard. But for that very reason, you’ll feel all the more proud once you begin to see the positive results.
Before I go, I wanted to point out that it was a male friend who prompted this whole post. We ladies tend to assume that guys have it so much easier than us—they can “eat as much as they want and never gain weight,” we think, or “they never seem to obsess over food,” or “their metabolisms are so much higher than ours!” I’ll admit it, I’ve had these same thoughts as I observe the seemingly carefree and uncomplicated relationship that the men in my life have with food. But the feeling doesn’t really stand up to close scrutiny. Scratch the surface, and you’ll find that men are every bit as sensitive to the effects of poor eating as we are; every bit as conscious of their bodies; every bit as prone to feeling guilt or self-loathing when they fail to eat well or exercise. We aren’t the only ones who obsess over diet, nor are we the only ones who greet mirror reflections or scales with anxiety. These issues are shared by all of us—men and women alike—and we should never assume that our male partners, friends, and colleagues “have it easy” when it comes to eating and working out. As this whole post makes clear, it ain’t easy for any of us.
Male readers, I’d love your thoughts on that last bit.
And now, midterm cramming continues. Night!