Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Baby Steps for Fitness

One movie I've enjoyed is "What about Bob?" with Bill Murray, which portrays a man trying to overcome many phobias who is counseled to take "Baby Steps." As with other types of change that are difficult, the most important thing is starting. Waiting for perfect conditions, or choosing a path too steep can keep us from starting, and can lead to a quick and frustrating failure. If someone is doing no exercise at present, deciding to go out and start running 10 miles everyday just isn't likely to work. For many people, cutting out carbs would be too big a step as well.

In addition to taking small steps, I think it's helpful to make choices about what we do that are sustainable and will work in the long term. Or if a short term route is taken, realize that, and know how you'll follow-up. Here are a few examples of things I've tried in the past that were too big, and some other changes made that were more sustainable and effective.

* Snacking - I'm a night owl, and it should be no suprise that seven hours after dinner, I may occasionally get hungry. Trying to eliminate after-dinner snacking has never worked for me, though I've tried several times. Oh sure, I can last a short time, but it's too painful and not sustainable. Instead, choosing some incrementally healthier snacks has been doable. Instead of a large bowl of potato chips, I go for a huge stalk of celery. Not! That's too big a change - instead I now prefer a small bowl of flavored pretzels with mustard and habanero sauce. There's absolutely no sense of missing out on flavor or having something delicious (and the heat makes the amount self-moderating). Unbuttered popcorn is another popular choice in the family.

* Exercise - Basically, I'm a couch potato who prefers mental activity over physical activity. Efforts at running or a treadmill were tried, but doomed to failure at the start. For me it's so mindnumbingly boring, it's not something I'll ever keep doing. So even if it helped me reach a weight loss goal, I know I would stop doing it and put the weight back on. What does work? Something you actually enjoy. For me that has become volleyball, when I found that a group of friends were playing casually competitive games twice a week. The first few times were exhausting, but I stuck with it and have been playing regularly for almost two years. Other physical activities I like are tennis and ping pong. For others, the specific activities will differ, but choosing something that you consider fun (or at the very least, tolerable) is crucial.

* Fruits and Veggies - Ok, I've never really been big on these. I don't loathe them, but I never enjoyed them as much as good old meat, carbs and fat. Eating the typical choices in my family, apples, pears, green beans, tossed salad, was always something I did because I 'had to', but didn't enjoy them at all. But by being selective and choosing things I like, I'm finding there are a lot of choices that I like a lot, like mango, canteloupe, pineapple. One in particular I probably would never have chosen just based on the name was musk melon, but it's delicious. For salads, I'm finding out the main reason I've been lukewarm on salad has been the dressing, typically vinegar-based or lackluster in flavor. Those I can't stand, while the ranch peppercorn or caesar I like are full of fat. There's a middle ground that I've found to work well - lite (fat-free) flavorful dressings like Honey Dijon, Catalina, or a lite ranch (on the side!) have brought the fun back to salads. Using those as dips also makes a lot of other vegetables a lot more interesting.

* Parties and Social eating - If I go to a party with food I love and force myself not to eat anything, I feel miserable. Maybe a day will come in the future where my willpower is better (ew, the 'w' word!), but for now that's too big a step for me. A baby step is however to plan for it in advance, compensate as much as you can, and strategically enjoy yourself at the party. Do not skip meals in preparation, that will just encourage you to eat more (unhealthy) food when you're there. Instead, make wise low-fat low-cal choices earlier in the day, knowing in advance the payback will come soon enough. If I know I'm going to have a huge dinner, I'll probably have a banana for breakfast, a low-cal lunch entree from the microwave, and will eat a large salad before I go to the party. I also know from experience I won't need to have a midnight snack on such an evening. Then I'm pretty much free to enjoy myself. With just a few strategic selections at the social (whether portion size, choosing some veggies with dip instead of the cheese-sticks), I can easily keep things on track for the day.

* Portion control and better lunches - Eating out, I love to go out to a mexican restaurant, eat a bunch of chips and consume a burrito as big as my head. Eating in, I tending to go for something like a Hungry Man's chicken dinner, since memories of "diet" selections were wickedly unappealing. What are some excellent short term choices? Never eating out and bringing in a paper back with skinless chicken and some carrot sticks of course. Do I see myself keeping that up for a year? (Do you?) Two baby steps have helped me a lot. The first (which I mentioned recently) is to divide the entre at a restaurant in half before I take my first bite and ask for a box. Is there still room for improvement, eating chips and half a burrito? Well sure! But in the meantime I have a double win - 400-500 less calories for that lunch, and the same amount or more by eating the leftovers and not going out a second time that week. The other very helpful step is retrying some of the newer selections available in frozen dinner/lunch entres. Oh my goodness, have they improved!! For typically under $3, I can get something that's delicious, balanced, and leaves me feeling "Wow, that was tasty". And the best news, it's usually only 300 calories or so. Sheesh, that's one half to one third of what I eat at Arby's or McDonald's or a restaurant. I had a bring-your-own-lunch meeting recently where a friend carried in a foot long sub with fries. Out of the microwave I pulled my dish. He asked what I was having. "Roasted red-pepper chicken over a bed of creamy garlic penne, with some apple cobbler crisp. It's 320 calories." His eyes opened wide and his jaw dropped. He looked down at his bag and said "I think it's 320 calories just to smell what I brought." Even if I have a granola bar or some pretzels later to feel satisfied on volume, I'm way ahead of the game, and feel satisfied on flavor and taste.

Again, the thing I'm emphasizing is that you can greatly improve your diet, nutrition and fitness, by doing and eating things you really enjoy, with a little thought and effort, without feeling like you're punishing yourself. These changes alone won't make you lose ten pounds in a week. But guess what, they definitely can help you lose ten pounds over the course of a few months. If you're happy with the changes and can keep going, that could easily be twenty pounds or more in a year. That's just 200 calories a day, which is easily doable if you make choices you can sustain.

I have a feeling my friendly nutritionist would strongly recommend some further changes to my diet and would counsel me on fibers, the types of fats, and say I still need to double my fruit and vegetable intake, but I'm only now in a frame of mind (and body) to start to consider those further changes after having taken and succeeded in the baby steps described above. I also know some smaller friends and women are thinking the steps mentioned above wouldn't be baby steps for them, or maybe they've already cut way back on eating out and snacking. The specific steps, and the size of the steps, will be different for everyone. But if you can think of a few baby steps appropriate for your situation, that you can enjoy and keep doing, that burn or save 200-300 calories a day and take a step toward eating more healthy, those are steps well taken.

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