Thing-a-day 19: “What’s my problem?”

I’ve been collecting little bits and pieces I’ve written over and over again as people have asked me questions about food and exercise. One frustration I have with the fitness industry is that its sales focus tends to reduce solutions to THIS ONE WEIRD TRICK and other foolish formulas, single sizes that fit pretty much none, and that’s just when they’re not frankly bunk. What interests me more is teaching a person how to find the path that will work for them. Have a question? Ask me! I don’t expect to make any money from this, so I can just talk about it here on my blog, and see where it goes. Feel free to comment here or Twitter @caitlinburke.

There are lots of ways to gain and lose weight, but a single dominant feeling about all of them: that ultimately individuals just can’t control it for long.

It’s not true, of course – lots of people successfully adjust their weight and maintain it at a level they like, and there’s lots of interest in what makes them different. It probably boils down to the brain, and more specifically to beliefs, like “I believe I can accomplish this and stick with it” combined with “I know what I need to do to make it work.”

It can be hard to believe we can accomplish something even if we know what to do. Part of that comes from the wide variety of ways there are to get things done, so general principles often don’t help. Nobody seriously tells people how to make cookies by saying “Mix sugar, butter, and flour, and bake – easy,” but they don’t hesitate to say, “Eat less and move more – easy!” I believe both those things, but I’ve made a LOT of different kinds of cookies over the years, and I’ve also experimented a lot with food and exercise. And you can, too.

What does it mean to eat less?

Eating less means fewer calories in, overall. Thanks, Captain Obvious! We want to come up with something we can do – happily, every day, so we’ll have to come up with some specifics … that we can live with.

Eating is sometimes compared to fueling a car, but it’s more like budgeting. To support yourself, you need to match your means and your spending, and most of us have a basic complement of things we need to spend money on routinely – rent, food, keeping the lights on. Let’s assume we have a decent income, enough for bills + a little extra. Subtract what we absolutely have to pay out, and we are left with some money we can spend on fun stuff if we want.

Your daily intake is a budget that has to have basic components in it so your body doesn’t fall apart — so you have a place to live and can keep the lights on. Those components are a mix of protein, fat, and carbohydrate, plus micronutrients like vitamins (and, of course, water). Most people can meet those basic requirements in fewer calories than they need to keep their weight the same – eating mindfully still lets you have some fun. Where most people have trouble is in the quantities and the proportions, both figuring out what they should be and knowing when – and how – to say “when.”

What does it mean to move more?

This is both the easy part and the hard part: “move more” means almost anything. It’s walking to and from a bus stop instead of driving door to door – or at least parking at the far end of the lot. It’s taking the stairs instead of the elevator. It’s getting up from your desk once an hour to take a walk around the office, or doing a bit of calisthenics when your brush your teeth. The hardest part about this is narrowing down what will work best for you. The good news is you don’t have to have a perfect plan from the get-go, and you don’t have to stick to the plan perfectly even after you have it.

There’s a single dominant feeling out there about exercise, too – that it’s a punishment or, if not actively painful, a distasteful medicine. No wonder people are so sedentary! Your body actually likes moving around, and regular activity has good effects on almost every health and well-being measure you can look at. Most people adapt quickly to exercise if they are consistent and a little bit organized about their approach – there is certainly no one way to make progress, and if you’re just starting out, it’s even easier to get going in the right direction. There’s a million ways to get your heart rate up and get your muscles working, so you can find a few that you enjoy.

What Do I Want to Accomplish?

Occasionally I do something unusual, like an Olympic-distance triathlon just because I have the the day off, or 46,000 meters on the rowing machine because it’s my 46th birthday. And people say “How do you do that? I wish I could do that.” Maybe, but probably not – there’s no particularly great reason to do stuff like that. I think the best way I can help other people is with my complete understanding that you almost certainly don’t want to do things the way I do them. At least not in a direct step-wise fashion. But I know how I came to understand what works for me, and I want to help others start that process, too.

Here are some questions I like to help with:

  • “How do I know what I should be eating?”
  • “Is [some particular food] harmful?”
  • “I have to eat less! How?”
  • “I have to exercise more! How!”
  • “I though this [diet|exercise] would solve my problem, but I hate it. Now what?”
  • “What does that knob on the side of the Concept2 rowing machine do?”

I’ll visit and explore those questions during the rest of the month (and, I hope, keep going).

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