Thursday, February 12, 2015

How to Take On a Fitness or Eating Program Without Losing Your Mind

Five years ago, the Darling Husband gave me P90X for my birthday. I had heard a lot about the twelve DVD workout system for many years and I was itching to try it. Originally released in 2002, P90X is essentially a heavy-weight-lifting regimen sprinkled with cardio and yoga. The system comes with three different 90-day rotation calendars based on your goals, and an eating plan. It's known for being pretty tough, and I was psyched to get into it and be a badass. I planned to follow P90X to the letter and let it work it's infomercial magic on my mother bod.

Three weeks in, I was SICK OF IT. I mean, really sick of it. I was bored. I was hungry. I was so over instructor Tony Horton's jokes. How on earth was I going to slog through the remaining 69 days without going completely insane??

So I did what any reasonable 21st century badass-in-training would do: I went online and sought wisdom from total strangers.

Based on their advice, I decided to modify P90X. I figured the crux of the program is the weight-lifting workouts, so I kept those and subbed the cardio and yoga days with similar-type workouts I already had in my collection. Instead of kickboxing-esque Kenpo X, I did Cathe Friedrich's Kick, Punch and Crunch (which is, by the way, harder than Kenpo X.) Instead of mind-numbing Yoga X, I did one of the McYoga videos that yoga-haters like me tend to prefer. I augmented the P90X diet in favor of... well... more food. Eighteen-hundred calories just wasn't going to cut it.

With those adjustments in place, I made it through the full 90 days.

Fast-forward about a year, and a poster on an exercise message board presented a similar dilemma with P90X. I'm bored, I hate it, I want to quit, etc. So several of us piped up with our modification strategies. Then someone suggested that modifying is fine, but if you do, you can't really say you've done P90X. Unless you do the program to the letter, you can't claim victory at the end. Some people were quite incensed and a lively debate ensued.

Do you really have to do a program exactly to reap the promised benefit?

Of course, the people who develop these programs would really love it if you followed them exactly. I can dig it. They put time and thought and maybe a little fairy dust into their programs. If you don't really do them as written, they're afraid you're going to get all over social media and say 'I did Tracy Anderson/The Whole30/Ultimate Yogi, etc. and I did NOT get teeny-tiny/glow with radiant health/levitate with my zenned out chakras, etc. I can see how that would be frustrating for them.

But is an abandoned program better than a modified one you can actually finish? Generally, I'd say 'no.'

I've done a number of challenges/diets/programs over the years. Some I've followed pretty much to the letter and stuck them out to the end (Physique 57 monthly challenges, the current challenge at my local Bar Method studio, The 21 Day Sugar Detox) and some I've modified heavily or bailed on completely (Whole30, P90X, Tracy Anderson's Metamorphosis... I could go on, but I won't.)

Here are a few tips if you're struggling:

Know why you're doing it. I decided to try for a Whole30 to see if the very low-inflammatory diet would help my shoulder injury. Being able to articulate what I was hoping to accomplish was really helpful when I found myself struggling with the very strict, unyielding ethos of this paleo elimination diet and all it's zealous minions. I decided to bail at 27 days, but before I did, I talked with a friend who is knowledgeable about inflammation. She helped me determine what foods to continue to avoid and which Whole30-forbidden foods could likely be reintroduced without issue. Knowing the 'why' is a good thing.

Identify the core of the program. With P90X, it's the strength workouts. With Tracy Anderson, it's her muscular structure work coupled with non-repetitive, steady-state cardio. With I Quit Sugar it's avoiding fructose. Some of the ancillary components may be helpful, but making some adjustments to them might not have adverse effects on your results. Program creators may say 'it's all important! You have to do it all!' But maybe you don't. At least, maybe you don't to reach your personal goal. When making modifications, I try to keep to the 'spirit' of the law. I'll substitute like for like.

Keep a finger on your emotional pulse. I stuck out my modified P90X and finished out the full 90 days. I was raised to finish what I start, and I usually do. But even with my modifications, my workouts often felt like drudgery, and this was a problem for me. I love my workouts. Really, exercise is a highlight of my day. After it was over, I decided I wasn't going to sacrifice enjoyment of my workouts just so I could say I had 'done' a particular challenge. That just isn't worth it me. If a program or challenge is making your crazy or miserable, you don't have to continue. It doesn't make you a 'wimp.'

When talking about your results or experience, be honest. If you make changes to a program, own it. I do feel for program creators who find people dissing their plan and it turns out the 'disser' didn't really do the plan. If you modified, say so. If you didn't finish, own it. I think it's a perfectly valid criticism to say 'this program just didn't work for my life. It was too time-consuming/too expensive/too not-fun,' whatever. In fact, these critiques can be helpful--no one can succeed at a program they can't realistically do.

I think one of the reasons Physique 57 worked for me for such a long time is that it's fun. It made me happy. They aren't just great workouts, they are FUN workouts. The emotional/lala boost is a real thing. Doing something you hate is not sustainable.

When I wrote about bailing early on the Whole30, one reader mentioned over on Facebook that the program 'didn't serve me.' I loved the way she put that, and it's true. Eating plans, workout challenges and the like are tools meant to serve us.

I think it's great to stick something out to the end, and I respect that, but even on the journey, it's good to ask... is it serving me?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Illusion of Control

I've spent the past two days, and more time into the night than I should, poring over a fascinating book about a family's struggle with anorexia nervosa. The author's daughter suffered from this terrifying illness that caused her to imagine herself fat, and prevented her from eating, even though she was wasting away.

The book, called Brave Girl Eating, is interesting in part, because the family found little success and much blame and shame from 'traditional' therapies for anorexia. Their experience led them to try family-based therapy (FBT), otherwise known as the Maudsley Approach. Rather than viewing the parents as being part of the problem of the patient's illness, FBT recruits them as a vital part of the solution.

There are about 1,000 angles from which I could write about this book, but the one preying on me most at the moment is author Harriet Brown's honest account of the shame, guilt and fear of judgment she felt surrounding her daughter's illness.

Historically, eating disorder specialists have laid the blame for the disease at the parents' door (specifically, the mother.) Brown owns her family isn't perfect, but they had been pretty highly functioning before anorexia began exacting it's destructive toll. More than once, she notes that by the time a family ends up in a therapist's office, they have become dysfunctional--fear, anxiety, alienation are often the by-products of anorexia, not necessarily the antecedent.

Her observations remind me how often we are inclined to blame the victim.
Surely, he/she/they have done something.... something must be wrong over there. Why else would this have happened?

It isn't just mental illness that gets this harsh treatment. I remember when I read that Dana Reeve, actor Christopher's widow, had died of lung cancer. "Oh, she must have been a smoker," I thought. The subtext being, 'she brought it on herself.'

In fact, no. Dana Reeve was not a smoker. She contracted lung cancer anyway. And even if she had been a smoker, should that short-circuit my compassion? I'm ashamed to admit how callous I found my heart to be.

Why did I think this way? Because somewhere deep within me, I like to think if I live right, and raise my children right, it couldn't happen to me. It couldn't happen to us. If I eat my vegetables and do my workouts and refrain from too much drink or Krispy Kremes, that I will somehow escape hardship, disease and suffering. If I encase my children in bubble wrap, no harm will befall them.

A friend of mine lost a child in what some might call a 'preventable household accident.' After seeing a tasteless Superbowl ad about such events, she clicked over to a home child-proofing website. Turns out, the recommended measure had been taken in my friend's home, but her child died anyway.

She told me, "losing my daughter actually made me less of a control freak because I finally realized how many things are truly beyond my control."

And that's it, really. Control. Author Anna Quindlen writes,
"The illusion of control is the besetting addiction, and delusion, of the modern age. We now have so much information, so many safeguards, so much statistical data about everything from car crashes to investment formulas that we've convinced ourselves we can control our environment.... And then the randomness of events intercedes, and the illusion of control crumbles."
Do we improve our 'odds' by living wisely? Certainly. Even if we don't, the quality of life in the present is usually greater for regularly choosing eggs over doughnut, moving over sitting. But we still get sick and suffer. In fact, we'll almost certainly suffer. Suffering is part of life this side of heaven. We can't shoot the wounded.

To be well is not something to be smug about. I see this attitude in myself, and I see it around me. Good health is a mysterious cocktail of effort, blessing and mercy. How much of each go into the shaker is highly individual.