Saturday, August 15, 2009

Of Course Exercise Won't Make You Thin

The Time article "Why Exercise Won't Make You Thin" is getting a lot of discussion out there. Apparently, like those who drink diet soda, Americans who hit the gym just make up the lost calories by eating more. It's big news, I guess, that vigorous exercise makes you hungry. That's why ranchers used to serve huge dinners at lunch time to their hands -- after a morning of hard physical labor, they were ravenous.

O.K., I'm going to come out with a dictum: Do not think about weight loss, do what is healthy for your body. Don't exercise to lose weight; exercise because it makes you healthier and especially resistant to the maladies of middle age. Don't eat right to lose weight, eat right because your body needs you to. Now, if you do this, you may very well take off some weight, in a slow, sustainable way. It probably won't make you acceptable in anyone's weight table, or get you into size 5 jeans -- but if you put your focus on that you'll only make yourself crazy, which doesn't improve your chances.

Like most overweight people, I have a history. I was small as a little kid, and around the age of 8 I started getting chubby, probably due to emotional overeating and Mom's lack of cooking skill that led us to eat out quite a bit. But when the courts sent us to live with Dad, my step-mother put me on a diet, and as it happens, I was just hitting puberty. So, the summer I turned twelve, I lost ten pounds and grew three inches. The fat, rejected, teased 6th grader turned into a cute 7th grader who got whistled at when she walked to school. It was a catepillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis, made even better by the fact that starting school in a new town meant that no one knew I'd ever been fat.

At fifteen I was full-grown, and perfect: five foot four-and-a-half, 125 pounds -- and an emotional basket case. All the folks who just say fat people just need to summon up enough will power to stay away from the donuts really don't have a clue. You don't get anywhere by lecturing someone who is depressed; you have to take care of the depression before they can get their act together, on anything.

The weight began creeping up: "Oh my gosh, 130 pounds!" So, I dieted -- 1000 calories a day, lunching on an apple and a can of diet Pepsi. I did that several times through high school and college, literally shedding tears over it. Fat meant nobody would like me. Fat meant I was a horrible person. Fat meant I didn't have the right to exist on the planet. It was a huge emotional trip.

Frankly, that why MeMe Roth makes me mad: She's really just an adult version of the playground bully, who makes it her business to tell the overweight that they are disgusting and shouldn't exist. (She was complaining about plus size panty liners, for heaven's sake!) Her health message -- and some of her points are valid--gets lost in her finger-pointing.

But I digress. The weight crept up, and I dieted. Then it crept up again. Somewhere in there I pretty much decided I had to live on starvation-level calories for the rest of my life, or I was doomed to fatness -- faced with that choice, I gave up. I was around 140 pounds when I graduated from college, and afterwards, I quickly plumped up like a Ball Park Frank.

Healthy eating takes cooking skill, and money, and I had neither. It also takes a certain amount of emotional stability, and those post-college years were really the low point of my life. Somewhere, as I matured, I began shifting my focus towards health, rather than recovering my adolescent beauty -- which by that point would become impossible, thin or not. I'd go on an occasional "health kick", then it would slip away. At this point, I resented the amount of mental attention it required; I'd get bored and want to go on to something else. The problem with fitness gurus is that health is their profession, or at least, their main hobby. Normal people have other interests they'd like to pursue.

A few years ago, I started working on making sustainable changes -- things I could live with. For six months, I didn't lose any weight, but I felt better. Then, I was diagnosed with diabetes. This gave me a motivation -- I'd really just as soon keep my eyesight, and my toes. With further dietary changes, strict watch over my blood sugar, and water pills for high blood pressure, I took off thirty pounds. Slowly, over a period of a couple of years -- and to date, I've kept them off.

But the weight loss stopped. I don't know if it's accurate to call it a plateau, because I've been stuck in it for close to two years. I eat around 1800 calories a day, and every time I try to go lower than that, I just get crazy hungry and am in bigger danger of eating the wrong foods. I'm still working on where I can sustainably cut.

Anyway, the focus these days is health -- whole grains, veggies, good fats, exercise. Health is something I can feel good about, and it distances me from the emotional traps involved in losing weight.


Martin said...

This was a very brave and a very inspiring blog post Karen - there are so many of us out there who fight with weight gain and the frustrations of slow to zero weight loss despite the change of lifestyle - my wife and I lost a tremendous amount of weight a few years ago through diet and lifestyle change - now my weight keeps creeping back up and I fight to just maintain - but the focus now is on health and not diet - thanks for the reminder that it's not about diet - it's about health.


Karen said...

Thanks, Marty! To my mind, the quest to be thin is like trying to reach a mirage in the desert. By that standard, I'm still an abject failure even after everything I've done. But from the perspective of making healthy changes, I have much to celebrate.

And a toast to you and your wife, too,from someone who knows how hard it is! :-)