Driven by Distraction

January 8, 2008

I wouldn’t have believed it myself if it hadn’t happened to me personally (why, yes, you’re absolutely right, that does sound like the opening line of a letter to Penthouse Forum! But sorry, it’s not).

Two whole days, and I have consumed not one single sweet. No cookies.  No cake.  No muffins, even.  But best of all:  no chocolate! My small intestine is saying, “thank you.”  My gastric juices are whispering, “we appreciate the time off.”  My liver is chanting, “Bless you, my child.”  The scale is even winking at me in gratitude. The Girls–well, they’re not as thankful.  (“We really do miss getting the leftover bits of those oatbran banana muffins, Mum.“)

How did I accomplish such a feat, you ask? Well (like so much else in my life, unfortunately), it wasn’t a conscious choice.  I have discovered since our new semester began this week that it is just soooo much easier for me to eat healthfully when I have some distraction.  During the past two days, I’ve had distraction squared.  Exponential distraction.  To wit, dozens of students emailing with questions, numerous pieces of coursework to put into place, several meetings with colleagues, coordinators and Chairs (and chairs, too, actually), a cooking class to present in a major grocery store, a doctor’s appointment, and myriad other little errands and domestic tasks that I’ve left by the wayside for too long (hmmmm. .. why don’t we see just how long we can live without unpacking the second half of our kitchen, still in boxes from our recent move?)

On some level, I guess I know that my dietary habits are curbed by being busy, so I tend to overbook myself, sometimes to the point of exhaustion.  But hey, I like it that way; I get too stressed out when I’m not so busy that I’m stressed out.

It just seems that the ability to exert willpower over poor dietary choices is much more effective when I have many things to occupy my time and mind.  This fact tends to convince me that my eating is, indeed, emotional, as I am able to easily ignore even the most insistent rumbling of my stomach during times that I’m involved in what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (I swear, that’s his real name) would call a “Flow” activity.

I guess I’ve always been someone who requires structure and consistency to be comfortable and stave off anxiety. As an undergraduate, I was exceedingly organized, so much so that I could work part time, go to school full-time, be a teaching assistant part-time, and still have a social life.  I was one of those annoying students who elicited the gag reflex in others by always having her course readings done (with notes) before class, and always finishing essays long before the due date (though I never actually handed them in before the due date, because I didn’t want my professors to think I hadn’t used the maximum time allotted, thereby designating me a slacker).

When it comes to my eating habits, however, I tenaciously resist the idea of structure.  Why? There have certainly been times in my life when I did diet according to “Diet Rules,” whatever fashion dictated they were at the time. 

Ah, nostalgia: I remember clearly when The Nurse first explained to me (a mere tyke at the time!) about the concept of calories. The rules were easy:  it didn’t matter where you got your calorie buzz as long as your sinful activity never exceeded a certain number per day (I think it was 1000 at that time).  You could eat anything you wanted, no matter how decadent, and you’d still lose 5 pounds a week as long as you followed the rules. But if you went too far, or enjoyed too much, you’d pay for breaking those rules by growing fatter and fatter, and your friends would ultimately reject you. So we went on a chocolate cake diet, eating one slice of it for breakfast, one for lunch, and one for dinner in order to lose weight. (Come to think of it, that was also about the time she explained the birds and the bees to me as well, so maybe I’m getting those two sets of rules mixed up.)

Later on was the “same thing for each meal” diet (not to be confused with the previous one, which is technically the “same thing for every meal” diet).  In its second incarnation, the diet prescribed a bowl of corn flakes with skim milk for breakfast, a salad and orange for lunch, and chicken and vegetables for dinner.  At that time, I was working lunch hours in the high school cafeteria, so I’d get my orange and salad for free (I know, I can get my entire lunch for free, and what do I pick?  Salad and an orange).  Back then, in my early teens, that diet also worked beautifully. I did lose weight, my first large weight loss.  Unfortunately, I also lost my period and felt pretty crappy most of the time.  (Oh, and losing the weight didn’t help me get a boyfriend, either. Bummer.)

I could go on (but I’ll spare you).  Suffice it to say that, over the years, I tried sundry and various ways to lose weight, always keeping it off for a short time (except my one big “lose,” after which I maintained my slim self for about a decade).  But eventually, I gained back the weight in the most cliched fashion, even surpassing the previous “high” weight.

Lack of success in the past may explain why I’m diet-shy at the moment and bristle at any mention of counting points, calories, carbs, fat grams, or anything else that would cause me to practise my rusty addition or subtraction skills before eating.  I am truly thankful that I haven’t felt the urge to consume anything unhealthy in the past two days, but I’m still not entirely sure why that’s been the case. 

What I’m aiming for, eventually, is to regain the power in that equation (there’s that darn math again!), allowing me to assume conscious control of whether or not I lean toward the slice of chocolate cake or the scrambled tofu for dinner.  And judging by the last couple of days, it would make sense to examine just what it is that distraction offers.  Because in the end, I think it’s far preferable to meander through your days, relaxed and aware, than to rush through a predetermined schedule just to avoid the temptation of unhealthy eating.

TV and the Treadmill

December 29, 2007

I’ve never been much interested in team sports (but even if I were, being perennially chosen as the “anchor” in tug of war, being last–always–to be picked for any team in grade school, and having to wear those navy blue bloomers in gym class, beat every last trace of desire out of me).  Instead, when it comes to exercise, I tend to prefer solitary pursuits, both cerebral and physical. 

So when I decided to try to get back in shape, I knew that the best possible piece of exercise equipment I could buy would be a treadmill.  Years ago, I joined a workout club in order to lift weights whenever I can (Hey there, Elderly Gentleman Who Always Wears Black Knee Socks!  How ya doin’, Septuagenarian Couple With the Matching T-Shirts! Nice to see you, Teenaged Girl with Spiky Blue Hair!), but really, for me, “exercise” means walking.  And in winter months, when I can’t be taking my Girls for any serious length of time outdoors, it means walking on a treadmill.

Ever since we moved to this new house last month, the treadmill has been stationed in the TV room.  Yes, this does make for a somewhat “eclectic” set of furniture (because the room is relatively small, all we can fit in it is the TV, 2 chairs, and the treadmill), but I love it nonetheless. We’re not the kind of people who watch TV when friends are over, and, in fact, I watch very little TV at all. With one glaring exception:  my soap opera. 

I am addicted to watching my soap opera every weekday.  Yes, I know, a soap opera. Now, this fact would have been a carefully concealed, disgraceful little secret back in my days as a PhD student when all my academic cohorts held forth in the T.A. lounge and our classrooms, eagerly discussing Foucault, Bloom or Barthes, or the esoteric implications of various (the)rapist(s) with great bombast and flourish. It took me a long time to realize that, fundamentally, they were pretty much full of crap, and even though they tossed around a lot of big words, they didn’t actually understand any more about those theories than I did. (On a completely unrelated tangent, that reminds me of a list of self-referential grammar and language rules that circulated while I was a teaching assistant, especially this one: “Never use a big word when a diminutive one will do”). 

After surviving the trauma of being an underconfident PhD student, I am now unabashedly declaring my affection–nay, my complete adoration and undying fidelity to–soaps.  Well, actually, just one soap:  As The World Turns.

Shortly after we moved in here, I realized that I’d been avoiding my treadmill for months, despite rather enjoying the meditative whirring of the belt as it rolled beneath my feet, my mind barely awake and flitting aimlessy from fuzzy topic to fuzzy topic as I tried to gain focus for the day. 

In the previous house, the treadmill was in the (unfinished) basement,   so it meant trekking downstairs and walking by myself within the dismal grey concrete surroundings. I found I couldn’t muster up the energy to do it most mornings.  Then, my brilliant idea:  why not place the machine in the TV room, and watch my soap while I walked?  After all, I watch my soap every day, anyway; why not combine it with something good for my health? In fact, it’s turned out to be quite the incentive for me.

Often, I won’t have time to watch in the evening (what with posting to Holidailies and everything), so I’ll save the tape (not technically a tape any more, as my HH keeps reminding me) for the following morning, and walk as I catch up with Lily, Holden, Carly, Jack, et al. There, at 6:30 AM as the gears spin and my feet flit over the woven belt, I fix my eyes to the screen and tread, tread, tread.  Before I know it, the 44 minutes are up (perfect interval, I think, for a morning walk) and I’ve burned about 200 calories.  Brilliant!

In fact, I’m going to propose this as my next healthy-lifestyle strategy:  combine exercise with something else you enjoy.

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I guess that for many of us, that combination would naturally entail walking our dogs. (“Very punny, Mum.  We are naturally entailed, too, and we love to wag them when we go for a walk!”)  For me, dog-walking hasn’t worked as an extra boost of exercise, mostly because I’ve been doing it regularly for so many years now so that my body has acclimatized and it doesn’t seem to make a difference, either to my weight or my general shape. 

Are there any hobbies out there that require lifting heavy objects?  (Sumo wrestling for fun and profit, anyone?). If so, I’d love to know.  I’m sure many other weight-conscious blogs have covered this one, and will have suggestions. For me, it’s a fairly narrow range of choices: treadmill, or weight lifting (which I bizarrely happen to enjoy just on its own), or dancing to Motown or disco tunes (music of my adolescence) in my living room.

What do you all do? 

(“Squirrels, Mum.  Chasing squirrels is always a good one.”)

Hey, Weight Up!

December 2, 2007

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It’s my obstreperous streak, probably.  Today, barely the second day of Holidailies–during which I’ve pledged to write in this blog with unwavering regularity–and already I’ve decided I don’t want to adhere to my self-imposed schedule of writing topics. 

Well, that’s not entirely true.  It’s not the topic, so much, that I don’t like, as the results of focusing on the topic.  For today is the Day I Must Record My Weight for all of the Blogosphere to See.  All right, perhaps I’m being a bit histrionic. Let me correct that:  For today is the Day I Must Record My Weight for all of the Four People Who Read My Blog to See. 

Despite snow drifts as high as my knees, I ventured to the workout club, as usual, this morning.  Had a fairly good go at the machines and free weights among the early-AM regulars (Good morning, Septuagenarian Italian Couple with the Matching T-Shirts!  How ya doin’, Elderly Gentleman Who Always Wears Black Knee Socks!  Top o’ the Mornin’ to ya, Burly Guy Who Stares at Women’s Breasts Between Sets!).  Still, I knew that last night’s dinner with my friend Deb (plus those two glasses of our latest favorite–and highly economical!–red wine) would waylay my otherwise descending weight. 

It’s a burden to always be right, I tell you.  Got on the scale with great trepidation to find my worst fears realized, with a weight gain of .5 pounds . So, rather than allow that disappointment to alter my mood and blow a black cloud over my otherwise cheery countenance, I started to reassess this idea of regular weigh-ins.  Yes, after only five weeks of them.

A couple of months ago, in her regular column in a prominent women’s magazine, Geneen Roth talked about this issue.  Why weigh yourself at all, she asked, even if you are trying to lose weight?  It’s a lose-lose situation (except for the number on the scale, that is). 

If the number goes up, you may have previously been feeling pretty self-satisfied, you may have been wearing your new Lululemon sweats like a banner-covered swimsuit at the Miss Universe Pageant, you may have been holding your head high feeling slim and taut and flat in all the right places–only to have that delusional euphoria instantly deflated, your mood for the day permanently altered by the fact that you’d gained 3/4 pound.  Even if you’d had no idea before stepping on that scale.

If the number goes down, it will probably only reinforce what you already knew, anyway:  you’ve been feeling better, lighter, lithe-r; your clothes are starting to loosen; and you’ve been walking just a little bit taller down those supermarket aisles.  Do you really need a scale to tell you all this?

The upshot is this: if you gain weight, do you really want to know?  And if you lose weight, don’t you already know? If the true goal is to focus on healthy eating and ultimate optimum body weight above all, can’t that be accomplished without the aid of a small, square, possibly incorrectly-calibrated mechanical object?

About three years ago, my older sister (let’s call her The Nurse) had a wicked crush on a coworker who didn’t happen to be her husband. And though nothing but a benign friendship ever came of it, she was consumed by guilt on a daily basis.  I mean that literally: she basically stopped eating food most of the day, and her guilt apparently ate up up excess body weight, somewhere in the vicinity of 60 pounds over 5 months. 

Did she use a scale to track this progress?  No, of course not; she wasn’t even aware of trying to lose weight initially.  Did she notice that the pounds had melted away?  Of course she did; her clothes hung like tarpaulins on her newly slimmer frame, she was forced to go out and purchase new clothing, even down to her operating room scrubs; and everyone she’d ever met in the world commented on how great she looked (ironic, huh, since she felt like crap about the illicit crush thing going on).

In any case, here’s my point: if my quest is to become a “normal” eater, I need to behave like one.  And all the normal eaters I know don’t weigh themselves compulsively on a weekly/daily/hourly basis, if at all.   And as soon as I even write down that thought, I can feel the fear in the depth of my (all-too-expansive) stomach, conveying the message, “But if you don’t weigh yourself regularly, how will you put the kibosh on that rising number?  Won’t you just spiral out of control and suddenly start bingeing recklessly and gaining more and more without end?”  Uh, I hate to break it to you, stomach, but that’s what I seem to be doing, anyway, even with the weekly weigh-ins.

In the end, I’ve decided to keep up with the weekly Progress Tracker, mostly because I’ve set up the blog this way and have sworn to do so.  And knowing that the four of you are reading on a semi-regular basis does help me, to some extent, feel accountable.  (Though I’ve had friends on Weight Watchers tell me that the weekly weigh-in, in front of others, acts as motivation to keep them on track during the week, that’s never really seemed to work for me. Unfortunately, I’ve found that I need to tap into motivation from within myself, rather than from an exterior source, to stay on any kind of healthy eating plan). 

So, I guess it’s back to an earlier principle, picking oneself right back up and starting all over again as if nothing has happened.  And I do believe I’m going to tag that as my second “What Actually Works” strategy

Mum, we don’t care if your weight goes up.  We will still love you anyway. And if you decide to finally stop eating those Banana Oat bars, we’ll help get rid of the leftovers, no problem!”

Lifting Weights

November 4, 2007

People are usually surprised (okay, flabbergasted) to find out that I go to the gym and press weights at least 3 times a week.  Their wide-eyed stares and gaping maws would suggest their silent response to this piece of information is something like, “But how can a fat pig like YOU actually do any exercise, let alone lift weights???”  Their polite, public personas instead say something like, “Oh? Really?  Well, good for you!”

Another one of those bizarre paradoxes of my life is that I enjoy going to the gym and lifting weights, yet there seems to be no discernible effect (ie no taut, bulging muscles, no weight loss whatsoever) from what I do. 

True, when the alarm sounds at 6:30 and I’ve only crawled into bed at 11:38 the night before, it can be difficult to haul myself out from under the blankets.  Many mornings, I end up sleeping another 30 minutes or so while C. takes The Girls for their morning exercise, after which I finally throw back the covers and get into my gym clothes to head out as he hops in the shower.  Other days, I don’t manage it at all, and end up rebuking myself for being so lazy.

But when I do get there, I’m always happy.  Years ago, I established a good routine with a personal trainer, and have followed it since (I suspect it’s time for a change–maybe this new Plan will be the catalyst). 

Because of my back and knee problems, my workout is limited, but I do cover all the machines I’m able to.  I love the feeling of pushing those muscles to the limit and lubricating those joints as my blood starts to circulate more quickly and efficiently.  Despite all the overeating and the erratic aerobic exercise, I seem to be able to persist with the weights on a relatively regular basis (except when my back decides to snap and I’m out of commission for a week or so–but I’ll save that for another post).

 As someone who’s relatively shy and inner-directed, I am quite focused when I follow my routine and rarely speak to anyone else there (which also helps me keep to a schedule,  so that I can get home in good time–meaning before Chaser has to be put back in a cage–and get started with my day).

But I do certainly recognize the “regulars” and we tend to acknowledge each other with curt smiles and nods.  Most of the regulars I see are older than me (and my hats go off to them–cudos to you, Bald Man in Your Seventies! My admiration, Little 60-Something with the Spiky Black Hair! You are my inspiration, Septuagenarian Italian Couple with the Matching T-Shirts! And hope I’m as flexible as you at that age, Elderly Gentleman Who Wears Black Knee Socks!).  A few are my age, and some are younger.  There’s one couple who work out together every time I’m there (which leads me to believe they actually go every day, as my own schedule can change day to day), and they look almost exactly like the Canadian couple from the old “Participaction” commercials.  There’s also a rotund girl who’s no more than 18 at best, who dutifully arrives every morning to meet her trainer and strain through a series of exercises on the machines, with hand weights, and on the oversize exercise balls.  I hear her laughing even as she grunts to finish a set, sweat blossoming on her T-shirt, and I feel recharged.

So I like my routine.  I feel guilty when I don’t do it for more than two days.  And I feel energized when I’m done, a bit more lithe and flexible, a bit more awake and ready to start the day.  The fact that it seems to have no impact whatsoever on my physical appearance is secondary, I suppose.  But as I say to C. on occasion, man, I must have fabulous muscles under all this fat.

Today was also my day to update the Progress Tracker–go see how I did!