I was hiking through the woods when the thought hit me. To be honest, it was more like I was lost in the woods, although I was on a clearly marked trail in a state park with a map in my hand. The map made no sense to me, but other things began to become clear as I gave up on ever finding my way back to the parking lot and surrendered to my thoughts and my surroundings.
The thought that hit me starkly is that I’m a little more preoccupied with my physical body than I would like to admit. Even in the forest, virtually alone, I was wondering if the racer-back tank I was wearing was showing my belly squish from the fact that I have stretchmarks, two kids, and a few pounds more than I used to. No one could see me, and yet I was hiking through a forest- nearly two hours into a pretty solid hike- wondering if my body was acceptable according to some kind of societal standard.
I found myself evaluating my squishy parts, trying to hold it in, as if the trees give a damn about if I look high school skinny or not. It was strange to be completely alone and still actually care if a shirt I was wearing made me look fat. It wasn’t just strange; it was incredibly disturbing. I have good self-esteem, right? I like how I look. Don’t I?
It occurred to me that these thoughts pop up far more often than I’m comfortable admitting. Even taking selfies of my adventure, I would think about using a filter. I had to remind myself that there’s nothing wrong with the real me. But a thought followed on the heels of thinking about society’s general preoccupation with weight and fitness:
There is no diet and exercise plan that will ever work.
It’s the truth. We can’t simply change up our diet temporarily or do a particular exercise regimen and expect long-term results. If we want to focus on fitness or reach a weight loss goal, we have to think in terms of a total lifestyle change. You’ve probably heard this before, but how many people do you know who are trying to lose weight or get in better shape who look at it as a whole lifespan lifestyle versus a short-term plan of action to get results?
My weight fluctuates. I can expect to go up 5 pounds if I’m on my menstrual cycle. If I’m not running or staying active regularly, you can add at least another 5 to that. But when I’m living an active lifestyle, I can expect my weight to stabilize and even drop to what is considered more of an “ideal” body type. The problem is that I was out in the woods wondering how I looked rather than focusing on the fact that my lifestyle is incredibly active.
Too often, we make fitness about a look rather than a life. I wasn’t out hiking because I wanted to get sweaty and burn calories. I was out in the woods because I enjoy hiking, enjoy being surrounded by nature, and wanted to unplug for a little while.
When I was done, I went out to the lake and went kayaking. Again, I wasn’t thinking in terms of toning biceps or triceps or what-have-you. I was thinking that the weather was perfect, and the lake is my happy place. I was thinking that I enjoy using my body to move the kayak through the water and seeing the reflections of clouds and trees on the surface of the lake. I was participating in a fitness activity, but I wasn’t showing up because I wanted to drop a few pounds.
I think that focus on the scale and what it says or how we look in the mirror too often derails the bigger picture of how we’re living our lives. Exercise doesn’t have to be something we dread. Food doesn’t have to be tied into guilt. We can choose exercises that we enjoy and put healthy food on the table that actually tastes delicious. Following a strict diet (outside of medical necessity) and clocking time at the gym only to burn calories will never give us the results that we’re looking for. Sure, we might lose the weight, but if we don’t turn what we do into a lifestyle, we’ll only put the weight back on. And if we’re not choosing exercises and foods we enjoy, it won’t be sustainable in the long run.
If this seems elementary, it is. We can forget about this when we become preoccupied with body image over actual health and fitness. There are people much larger than me who are certainly more physically fit, just as there are people who are thinner than I am who aren’t fit at all.
It occurred to me that we would do better to put our thoughts on a diet rather than our bodies. No amount of diet or exercise will ever give us the results we want if we don’t address our inner dialogue. If we cut out the negative thoughts and stopped buying into advertising gimmicks, we just might find out that we instantly acquire the results we crave: happiness with how we look. Suddenly, instead of evaluating our bodies with some impossible standard, we learn to appreciate and love them. When we remove that filter of negativity, we might suddenly find satisfaction in having strong healthy, and efficient bodies. We might even begin to celebrate them and to treat them a little better.
Maybe the diet we need isn’t just a lifestyle makeover that has us changing our relationship with food and exercise but one that extends to the thoughts we allow to take up residence in our lives. We want to feel good about ourselves and comfortable in our own skin. We want to look- and feel- good naked. We want to feel attractive and sexy. But feeling this way isn’t limited to one particular body type but to a mindset. It seems like the diet we really need to get on board with is the kind where the big change we make is changing our minds.
While I was wondering if the trail was ever going to end, I realized that I keep putting the emphasis on how I look and not how I feel as a human being. Even though I was hot and sweaty and tired of running into signs that had little practical meaning for me, I was happy to be in the forest, surrounded by trees. I was glad to be outdoors on a beautiful day. I didn’t go home and weigh myself or eat some health food bar that I didn’t really want. I went home, took a shower, and felt great about how I spent my time. I had a brownie after a healthy dinner and didn’t feel a bit guilty.
I’ve created a lifestyle that I can sustain because I enjoy it. It gives me time in nature, a certain level of physical fitness that helps my mind and body feel better, and hobbies that I love. Maybe it’ll take a few pounds off, too, and make my squish just a little less squishy. Or maybe it won’t. I’m just starting to realize that it isn’t even the point. Maybe if we just get rid of those junk thoughts, we might start seeing the results we crave.
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