January is a booming month for the fitness industry: shame about post-holiday sluggishness and ambitious New Years Resolutions combine to make a perfect storm of potential revenue for those who earn their living by providing gymmemberships, diet services, and all the media hoopla that comes with them.
But as much possibility as January provides for salespeople, it brings an equalamount of confusion and stress for consumers. Which gym will give me the best value for money? Which workout DVD will I stick with, instead of trying it for two weeks and then giving up because I got bored? Should I do the 5:2 or the Dukan diet, or should I just cut out sugar/fat/carbs and make a drastic lifestyle change? And most importantly: how do I motivate myself to get fit and healthy without buying into the ubiquitous body hatred and self-shaming that seem to be a crucial part of this whole thing?
Shaming people (especially women) is an essential part of the fitness industry: nothing motivates us to become what we wish to be quite like hatred of what we are. But it’s difficult to reconcile that fact with the desire to accept ourselves – how can we accept our bodies without that acceptance turning into complacence, which might lead away from a healthy lifestyle and into physical stasis?
In 20 years of body image issues, I’ve tried a lot of diets, exercise routines, resolutions, self-shaming or -acceptance techniques, and gyms – I eventually turned to gastric bypass surgery to get me over the hump and help me lose the majority of my excess weight. But ten years later I still worry about being fit enough and having a healthy enough diet, and between the sheer volume of exercise/diet options and the difficulty of balancing my desire to be physically fit against my need to at least like (if not love) myself for the sake of my mental health, I definitely get overwhelmed sometimes.
In my experience, drastic diets rarely work for long, as I feel like one mistake means the end of everything I’ve worked for, which only leads to giving up and more body hatred. As for exercise, the hardest thing about sticking with a workout, for me, is the boredom factor. This means doing the same video, with the same little side jokes or inspirational comments, in exactly the same intonation, every day, will eventually drive me bonkers. And doing the same exact moves every day? It gets incredibly dull after a while – after all, for most of us exercise is something we’ll have to do on a regular basis for the rest of our lives, so variety is pretty key!
I’ve also stopped believing in resolutions; for me, they just become another thing to feel guilty about forgetting/doing wrong. And the guiltier I feel about something, the less I want to do it. I personally think making New Years resolutions, especially, is sort of an arbitrary, socially constructed thing to do – why wait until the end of the year to make a change? If it’s important enough, presumably I’ll decide to do it in September or April or whenever I think of it. That said, I applaud people who resolve to be healthier at any time of year, and if having their resolution be a part of a larger ‘new year, new life’ social movement helps them stick to it, then I’m all for it – it just doesn’t work for me.
So what does work for me? Well, after decades of trying everything under the sun, I’ve decided that the best way is the simplest: eat more vegetables and fewer sugars; cut down on red meat and up my consumption of lean protein like fish and chicken; make sure to get genuinely active ( whether that’s a long brisk walk, a gym trip, or an hour-long workout DVD (for me it’ll have to be one of many choices!)) at least three times a week, with a few easy strength exercises (squats, crunches, lunges, etc) on off days; try to snack less (this is a biggie for me) and eat smaller portions at mealtimes, paying close attention to fullness rather than whether or not I just want to eat more. It may seem simple, and that’s because it is – these are the kind of changes that I’m more able to stick to for longer periods of time. It’s more about balance than exerting strict control over my life; if I have a huge piece of cake on a Sunday morning (which I shouldn’t do under my healthier regime), I make sure to exercise a bit harder that day and eat an especially light dinner.
But the absolute most important tool for me in trying to get healthy, body and mind, is acceptance, or at least making an attempt at it: I try to accept my body, my desires, and my failings, rather than shaming myself for them. By coming at it from an angle of ‘we can work with this’ rather than ‘it’s terrible to be this way’, I feel more positive about my goals and more empowered to meet them. Plus, that way I can have the odd piece of chocolate or a bite of my boyfriend’s mac and cheese without spending all day beating myself up for it – I don’t feel like I’ve failed completely, but rather just need to re-set my mind toward my goals and try again.
And that’s a resolution I can stick to for the whole year.