7 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Fitness and Weight Loss a Long Time Ago
It would have taken the guesswork out of taking care of myself.
I’m not a fitness guru or a health nut. Despite growing up in a part of California where a lot of people do get up with the sun and start their mornings with a long jog, I’ve never once done that myself. In fact, I’m not even sure I’m from the same planet as your typical gym rat, and I love food way too much to be a very dedicated dieter.
What I am is a freelance copywriter by profession who works completely out of her home on a full-time basis. My idea of a lit Saturday night is staying home with my husband and binge-watching Netflix or marathon-reading whatever book’s most recently caught my interest. I like to sleep in on the weekends, and I spend a lot more time than I probably should scrolling through Facebook or playing with my phone.
In other words, I have a lot in common with almost everyone who says they have trouble managing their weight, watching what they eat, or turning exercise into a habit. However, I’ve also successfully overcome years of backwards thinking about fitness and gotten myself into the best shape of my life regardless, and if I can do it, I assure you that anyone can. The following are just a few of the more important lessons I’ve learned along the way that I honestly wish someone had taught me years ago.
1. Exercise Doesn’t Have to Be a Chore
As a dyed-in-the-wool homebody, I spent many years trying to find a way to stay slim and be happy with my body without actually getting off of my cushy, little behind and moving around more, and it was for one reason only. I simply took society’s word for it that exercise (by my definition) sucks — that it’s hard and that it hurts. I thought that for something to count as exercise, it had to be done someplace “official” — like a gym, or a jogging trail, or an aerobics studio, or any number of other places I did not want to be. I definitely thought it had to cost a lot of money and take up a lot of time I didn’t really have to spare.
Well, I’m here to tell you that none of those things are true. Anything that gets you up and moving is exercise, even if you really enjoy it and never would have thought of it as “good for you”. In fact, the more you genuinely enjoy your physical activity of choice, the easier this whole process will be for you. If there’s truly nothing active that you enjoy (which was embarrassingly close to being the case for me when I first started), choose something you can at least see yourself tolerating.
For me, that meant purchasing an elliptical, a stationary bike, and a set of resistance bands to turn a corner of our office into a mini home gym, because I knew I wouldn’t actually stick with anything that required me to put on pants or leave the house. You decide what it means for you. If you’re genuinely jazzed about joining a gym and lifting weights, by all means do that, but only if it realistically makes sense for you. For lots of people, dancing more, going for evening walks, or taking up roller skating is a better fit, and that’s OK too.
The best exercise is the exercise you know you can stick with because it actually fits your lifestyle, interests, and personality. (If you just need a little extra inspiration to keep you jazzed about what you’re already doing, I go into it in more detail in the below article.)
5 Simple Ways to Stay Excited About Your Fitness Routine
Your motivation isn’t gone. It just needs a little pep talk.
2. Diets Don’t Work, Moderation Does
Like a lot of people who had trouble managing their weight at one point, I’ve been on my share of crash diets over the years. And I’m weirdly good at sticking to extreme diets for someone who loves food, so I’ve lost large amounts of weight that way before. The problem with adopting an approach like that to dieting is it's not sustainable over the long haul for most people, nor would it be good for you if it were. Despite being pretty excited when you see all those pounds falling off, you feel like trash when you “diet”. You can’t focus, you‘re sluggish beyond belief, and you definitely miss eating things you actually enjoy.
The bad news is that, like exercise, taking control of what you eat isn’t optional if you’re serious about not only losing weight and getting in shape but maintaining your progress. (Eating whatever whenever is how you got to where you are, so change is a must.) The good news is that you don’t need to cut out all of your favorite foods or eat flavorless diet food that you hate. You do need to start regulating calorie intake and setting some limits for yourself by changing how you eat.
The game-changer for me personally was intermittent fasting for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it didn’t force me to cut entire food types completely out of my diet the way paleo, or keto, or any number of other approaches might have. What it did require of me was that I only eat within a certain window of time each day and fast the rest of the time. (I personally like the 16/8 version of this discipline, but there are other patterns you can adopt as well.) I’m the sort of person that can really only put away so much food within a short period of time anyway, so that really did the trick for me.
Most importantly, it was comfortable enough and realistic enough, that it was sustainable over the long haul. I felt great and liked the system, so I actually wanted to stick with it, instead of counting the days until I could stop. I will eat this way for the rest of my life because I genuinely prefer it to how I used to eat, and that’s how you’ll feel as well when you hit on the right system for you.
3. It’s Possible for Healthy Food to Taste Good
We all have a really vocal friend or a relative who’s totally on the wagon when it comes to healthy eating and wants to get everyone they know on board as well. The problem is that person’s probably into eating things that aren’t going to appeal to someone who hasn’t quite got the knack of voluntarily eating healthy foods yet. Just please don’t let that person’s dedication to replacing every food you love with cauliflower convince you that all healthy foods are sad, sorry substitutes for things that actually taste good.
Take vegetables, for instance. I spent most of my life convinced that I hated a lengthy list of them, including green beans, peas, cabbage, beets, and squash to name just a few. Once I learned to cook them myself though, I realized that I actually only hated those things when they come out of cans or are otherwise served overcooked. It’s been my experience that most people have zero idea how to cook vegetables, and some vegetables can taste pretty horrible if they’re not prepared properly. (I talk more about how to develop a love of vegetables in particular in the article below.)
How to Fall in Love With Eating Vegetables
If the mere thought of eating cauliflower or spinach makes you sick, this is for you.
The other issue I run into has to do with people who don’t understand how critical seasoning is, especially when you’re cooking healthy things like vegetables, fish, or brown rice. Those foods aren’t packed with the fat, sodium, and sugar that make other foods so appealing, so they need to be seasoned if they’re going to taste good. Keeping salt to a minimum is a great idea, but you need to use at least a little to stop your food from tasting flat. Other spices and herbs can be used relatively liberally, and olive oil or broth make great substitutes for all the butter you might be in the habit of using if you’re not on the health wagon yet.
It’s all about bringing out the natural deliciousness of these foods, because I assure you it’s there, just waiting to be discovered. The more thoroughly you come to realize that, the more you’ll grow to love healthful, delicious, good-for-you foods in general, and the easier it will be to maintain any progress you make toward your goals.
4. You Don’t Have to Eat Anything You Don’t Like
And you shouldn’t eat anything you genuinely don’t like. It’s great to give healthy foods you thought you didn’t like a second chance, but at the end of the day, eating lots of beets or Brussels sprouts isn’t going to help if you just plain can’t stand them. The key to actually making progress toward your weight loss and fitness goals is sustainability. Diets don’t work, because losing weight and getting in shape aren’t things you do just once. The minute you go back to what you were doing before, your body will go back to the way it was as well, so it’s important to make changes that you can see yourself sticking with indefinitely.
Can’t stand celery and cabbage, but love broccoli and carrots? By all means, buy broccoli and carrots, and prepare them the way you like them. Can’t picture a life that never finds you enjoying an Oreo ever again? Don’t insist on living one. Instead, ration your Oreos or turn them into more of a special occasion treat instead of an everyday thing. Not interested in cutting alcohol completely out of your diet? You don’t have to. Just commit to cutting way, way back on the overall amount you’re drinking.
Getting my eating in check wasn’t about cutting out all of my favorite foods, because I already know I’m the kind of person that just really needs a cheeseburger now and again. However, I eat cheeseburgers a lot less often than I used to. I don’t put an overabundance of cheese or a ton of bacon on them for no good reason anymore. I do use leaner meat to make them, as well as load them up with tasty veggies I like. Also, since I genuinely enjoy salmon, turkey, or plant-based burgers, I will opt for one of those a little more often than I might have in the past.
I still love burger night every bit as much as I used to. It’s just not keeping me overweight and unhealthy anymore the way I do it now. (If you want to know more about the benefits I discovered in going meatless one day a week, try the below article.)
4 Awesome Ways Going Meatless One Day a Week Made Me a Better Person
Most of them weren’t even about my physical health.
5. Scales May Hurt More Than They Help
Read just about any guide to weight loss, and it will go over the importance of weighing yourself sooner or later. It’ll tell you that number on the scale is how you know how much progress you’re making, as well as keep you in check if you start backsliding, and I definitely get that logic. I get it so well, that I agreed with it wholeheartedly at the beginning of my journey and weighed myself religiously at the close of every week. I figured that when I inevitably started getting tired of being good, the fear of that number getting higher would stop me from going back to my bad habits.
What that number actually did is cause me unnecessary stress. Anyone who’s ever tried to lose weight before knows that what your scale says can be unreliable, especially if you’re also working on toning up or building muscle at the same time. That number can also start to matter too much. Despite knowing that I shouldn’t be paying but so much attention to the scale, I did regardless. On weeks that number didn’t change enough to suit me or during periods where there was a lot of up-and-down, I felt super discouraged, often despite just having noticed other signs of progress (like clothing fitting much differently).
Eventually, I realized it just wasn’t serving me, so I stopped weighing myself except for once every few months or so. I rely on other ways to know whether or not I’m putting in enough effort, like what I see when I look in the mirror. How my clothing fits and how strong I’m getting are other good indicators. I’m constantly noticing muscles that are becoming more toned or fat deposits that shrink visibly or disappear altogether. Photographs and feedback from other people with the ability to be unflinchingly honest are pretty reliable ways to assess your ongoing progress as well.
6. It’s Not a Race
In the past, a new stab at losing weight or getting in shape was typically triggered by one of two different things. The first was literally anything that made me feel fat — an unsatisfactory number on the scale after stepping on it for the first time in years or possibly a really unflattering photograph. The second was an upcoming event I wanted to make sure I looked good for — some special occasion like a wedding or a local event I thought might find me showing up in snapshots or running into people I hadn’t seen in a while.
In either case, I was always in a big rush to get those pounds off. Naturally, that led to desperate measures my body really didn’t like, such as starvation diets and overexercising (if I even was exercising that time around). The faster I could lose whatever weight I wanted to lose, the better, and I was obsessive enough about it that it would work. I remember feeling enormously proud of myself at times for losing something like 60 pounds in just six weeks or something. But then that local event I wanted to look good for would come and go. My body was convinced it had just been through something awful (like a famine) because of how I’d been treating it, so it demanded that I actually feed it with hefty portions of whatever I felt like eating. Before I knew it, I was right back where I started, often plus a few new pounds.
What I didn’t understand then is that being fit and existing at a healthy weight aren’t goals you rush toward. They’re destinations you journey to one step, one workout, one meal, one healthy choice at a time. You didn’t drift out of shape or pack on a bunch of extra pounds overnight, so it’s unrealistic and unhealthy to expect to undo the damage overnight. Plus, good habits aren’t established in just a couple of weeks any more than bad ones are. Slow but sustained progress is ultimately the only kind that’s going to stick with you. Your body needs time to gradually adjust to the changes you’re making, and so does your mind.
7. When You Do It Right, It Changes You
And you’ll love what happens, I promise. When I first made the decision to finally get healthy, I was officially fed up with feeling fat, sick, tired, and depressed. Yes, I was tired of the extra pounds I’d packed on over the years, as well as how they made me feel about myself. However, I was also tired of not recognizing myself in the day-to-day choices I was making because of how I felt physically, mentally, and emotionally. I was once an avid reader and information lover who enjoyed learning things for fun. I was intensely creative, spending much of my free time painting, drawing, or writing. I took pride in my appearance and loved putting together different looks. The person I had become was perpetually too tired and sluggish to care about any of that anymore, but I wanted that to change.
And it did… in little ways, at first, but then in bigger ones. First I noticed that I had more energy, that my mind felt clearer, and that my moods were improving. Then I started getting stronger, and a lot of the nagging stiffness and discomfort I’d long ago blamed on getting older started to disappear. As I built muscle, lost fat, and continued healing my body with better eating and drinking choices, I began to feel more like my old self as well. I started feeling creative again, as well as intellectually curious. I found I felt naturally compelled to do things like sign up for courses on topics I thought were interesting or teach myself to master new things (like several new foreign languages). Best of all, it was all happening organically without my needing to push myself much at all, just like it used to.
At the end of the day, who we are is determined by the choices we make every day. Making the commitment to really start taking proper care of myself instead of trying to cheat the system with crash diets and gimmicks the way I had in the past made me a better person in ways I’m not sure I expected, but that I’m incredibly grateful for. If I’d known years ago what I know now about this whole process, it’s something I would have done many years ago, so don’t wait. Do it now.
Yes, it will take a while, especially if you’ve been overweight, unhealthy, or out of shape for a long while. Just keep in mind that that time will pass anyway, and more quickly than you think. Would you rather look back in a year on another 365 days you let pass without taking action, or would you rather be quietly amazed at how much you accomplished? I know which one I picked, and it’s the best decision I ever made.
Shannon Hilson is a full-time freelance copywriter living in Monterey, California with her husband and her one-eyed ginger cat. She is also a passionate home cook, voracious reader, and aspiring linguist.