Probably no one is more surprised about my recent spike in physical activity than I am or maybe perhaps my trainer since he was privy to my falling out on the floor every time he asked me to lift a weight in our early days training together.
It all started with an email. Last September, a friend asked how I was doing and I wrote back with a list of things I was sad about. I looked back over the list after sending it and thought about which things I could in some way control. I could keep applying for jobs, but I couldn’t hire myself. What I could do something about was the clothes in my closet not fitting anymore and the number on the scale inching precipitously closer to the number that shall not be spoken. I had a membership to a gym and no physical ailments. With a birthday coming up and an aspirational birthday dress to slay I figured I’d just try and fit into the dress. Dresses, you see, are powerfully motivating.
I went in to work and asked a guy who moonlit as a personal trainer what I should do. He said he doubted I’d take any of his advice seriously even if he told me. I did almost stop him after he said “stop eating candy” but decided to hear him out. I went home and dug up old meal plans and looked through old workout routines from my trainer, books I’d purchased, and screen shots of articles I’d read online and cobbled together a meal and exercise plan for myself which, naturally, I put in spreadsheet form. I hung the dress out somewhere in my bedroom that would be visible at all times (ha! like this isn’t true of most of my clothes) and found my exercise clothes.
You may not consider exercise a spiritual pursuit but I knew that it could be. Life was basically coming apart at the seams—or so it felt with underemployment stretching on as far as the eye could see—and the last thing I wanted was to use exercise to regain a sense of control in life. I thought it’d be more valuable to learn to be comfortable and trusting in the midst of that out of control feeling, than to grasp for control wherever I could get it.
I also wanted to avoid tying my sense of self worth and meaning to a number on a scale, a smaller reflection in the mirror, or VIP access to the aspirational section of my closet. Getting smaller was not the appropriate solution to fixing body image issues, at least not for me. What I wanted was to feel confident with my body as it was. To know that I was enough and lovable and great and wonderfully made at any size. But, to also get smaller while maintaining that perspective. That, more than anything, seemed an impossible goal.
So, with these two concerns about pursuing fitness—misusing it to try to cure both my body insecurities and the deeply unsettling feeling of lacking control of my life—I asked friends to pray and wrote out a prayer myself which I tried to remember to read before heading into the gym.
Lord, This will not give me life. Only you can do that. I confess I struggle to see myself as you do and instead of rejoicing in how I was made I feel disgust and shame instead. I bring those before you and ask that you would unblind my eyes, enlighten my mind, and reorder my values so I feel as you feel about your creation. Lord, grant me a love for myself that does not fixate on what I look like or how heavy I am but that rests in your workmanship and care to make me as you desired. I also acknowledge that the best parts of me are those that have been touched by your grace and my worst are those I refuse to relinquish control over. Father, I may be tempted to turn to this to satisfy a sense of control I feel I otherwise lack, to look to results for the excitement I feel my world is missing, to seek worth and value from changes in my body. Help me to remember that charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting and instead to seek to grow, even through this, in my fear of you and love for my neighbor. Lord, I surrender my desire for control and my disappointment in my current circumstances. I know you say to rejoice in trials and to give thanks in all circumstances and I fail at this continuously. I complain and feel despondent. I have little faith. Rather than seeking to regain a sense of control or to nurse a wounded ego and feed a spirit of covetousness at what exciting lives my neighbors live, help me to trust you and in your provision, timing, and sufficiency. You fill those desires.
Many times in the past you have used times of physical training to impart spiritual truth and so in that way I ask that these times of physical training would yield spiritual results in unexpected ways. Please help me to pursue weight loss and strength training in a healthy and wise way. I pray that my choices would be sustainable. Also help me to be a good steward of both my body and time and finances in making a healthy lifestyle change. Give me patience with myself as I train. I feel like there is much in my life that requires waiting outside of my control and know that it would be easy for me to go overboard because I don’t want to wait on one more thing. But, help me be a wise steward and listen well to my body when it says rest.
Now, I know you didn’t land on this page to read about my prayer life so I’ll get to the stuff you want to know.
6 Months Fit
In the past six months, I’ve lost 32 pounds, run a half marathon (*pinch me*), carved out a nice little 4 pack I check in on first thing in the morning, lost my brotha magnet (and the catcalling has stopped too—coincidence? I think not!), gotten belay certified, and signed up for my alumni softball league. In six months, I’ve run over 100 miles.
After my birthday, I had new dress goals: to fit into a qipao I’d bought in China 11 years ago for my friend’s Christmas party and a red carpet-worthy sequin number I bought two years ago that was just perfect for NYE. Dress goals, y’all. Gotta have ‘em. I couldn’t stop laughing the day I fit into the NYE dress and zipped it up. That’s when it actually struck me how much weight I’d lost since I hadn’t been able to get it over a single leg when I first bought it.
How I Did It
One thing I had working in my favor is that I was already a morning person. So getting up and getting out of the house by 5:45 AM every morning to catch the bus to the gym was not an issue. I started off exercising two and a half hours a day. Before you freak about how much that is, one and a half hours was walking: an hour to or from work and 30 minutes during my lunch break. In addition to that, I spent an hour at the gym. As it got darker earlier and colder, I started walking less and gymming more. In December, I was going to the gym six days a week and doubling up three of those days. I did barre classes, spin classes and boot camp classes in addition to running and lifting weights. I always had a back up plan for exercise and food for traveling or holidays and even managed to lose weight the weeks of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years.
My basic schedule was spinning class on Monday and Wednesday; weight lifting Monday, Wednesday, Friday; running/cardio Tuesday, Thursday (+ boot camp) and Saturday from September through December. The extra gym visits in December were just for abs.
I didn’t skip the gym. Even if I didn’t feel like going, I felt it was better to go and do a shorter workout than give into excuses not to go. Between September and December I missed only one weekday. It was the Tuesday I had that breakdown on the sidewalk.
I scheduled all my exercise at specific times in my Google calendar and put the exercises themselves in the notes:
Since I was just creating routines for myself from things I found online and in books I could have been doing everything all wrong. So consult a physician bla bla bla… But I was getting stronger and smaller and so I just kept with it.
Smarter, More Informed Food Choices
In terms of what I ate, I cut out candy, junk food (except the occasional Slim Jim) alcohol, pasta, bread, rice, salad dressing, fried foods, and all beverages besides water. I’m a noodlevore so saying no to pasta broke my heart every. time. And when people talk about having a sweet tooth, I’m like, “All my teeth are sweet, as are the roof and floor of my mouth, the inside of my cheeks, and all the lining to all my pipes going down. I’m like Buddy the Elf.” So giving up candy was a bfd.
I cut my portion sizes too but ate snacks throughout the day. 5-6 meals in all. Basically, by the time I finished eating it was time to eat again. I planned my meals out a month in advance, did meal prep for the week on the weekends, and planned the meals based on a spreadsheet I created that had the macronutrient breakdown of each meal that I’d calculated myself. I’d take pictures of food labels when I went shopping then log that info into the spreadsheet for meals. I googled the calorie deficit I’d need to lose two pounds a week. For a few months I used an app, SparkPeople, to track my food intake and exercise. Sweet potatoes saved my life.
In December, I used a food scale I already had to weigh my food and portion it precisely. I could tell you on any day how many calories I’d eaten or burned. I also made a promise to myself that since it was the holiday season and I’d be tempted to eat all the good stuff I saw other people eating to make an effort to love everything I chose for myself that month and eat things I only got real excited about.
Here’s an example of a meal plan for a week in December after realizing I wasn’t eating enough in November after tracking my eating.
|12/4 – 10||M||T||W||Th||F|
|1/2 protein shake: butterscotch||1/2 protein shake: butterscotch||protein bar||1/2 protein shake: butterscotch|
|breakfast||chicken quiche, almonds, green pepper w/salsa||black bean quiche, apple, green pepper||chicken quiche, almonds, green pepper w/salsa||black bean quiche, apple, green pepper||chicken quiche, almonds, green pepper w/salsa|
|snack||chicken meatballs, sweet potato fries, tomato & cucumber salad||Mexican chocolate sweet potato pudding||chicken meatballs, sweet potato fries, tomato & cucumber salad||Mexican chocolate sweet potato pudding||chicken meatballs, sweet potato fries, tomato & cucumber salad|
|lunch||turkey, brown rice, broccoli, grapefruit||turkey, brown rice, broccoli, grapefruit||turkey, brown rice, broccoli, kiwi||turkey, brown rice, broccoli, grapefruit||turkey, brown rice, broccoli, 1/2 grapefruit|
|snack||pistachios, pear, protein yogurt||cottage cheese, blueberries, almonds||jerky, peanuts, prunes||pistachios, pear, protein yogurt||jerky, peanuts, prunes|
|dinner||Tilapia, mashed cauliflower, kale, black beans||morrocan lentil and sweet potato soup||Baked Tilapia, Grapefruit and Fennel Salad||morrocan lentil and sweet potato soup||Post Retreat Dinner Party|
In January, I eased up a bit. I’d more or less lost 30 pounds by then already. I stopped doing two-a-days (except Thursdays when I have boot camp in the morning and run after work). I focused on training for the half marathon and didn’t lift weights as frequently outside of boot camp class. I still sometimes weigh my food, usually just nuts or chicken, but I don’t track it anymore in the app and I don’t count macros as closely either. I do weigh myself everyday, unless I was bad the day before and don’t have the heart.
I remember the day that I realized that my habits had really changed. It was the day I had that breakdown on the sidewalk outside of work in December and on my way home I went to Walgreens to buy comfort food for good ol’ fashioned emotional eating and walked out with a banana and yogurt. I thought, “Wow, have things changed or what?!”
I’d be lying if I said I love running or going to the gym all the time—though I do love the feeling of being strong that I get from lifting weights. Running isn’t my favorite and there were a few days over the past six months where I got on a the treadmill and I was supposed to do five miles and I stopped with two. I never shortened a long run, though, and if I felt like shortening a shorter mid-week run, I’d make sure to run the full length later in the week. I always arrive to boot camp class asking myself why put myself through the torture. But then, when I catch a glimpse of myself sweaty and pounding out my tenth set of Sumo squats or deadlifts in the mirror I feel like Lara Croft. I love that feeling.
A few other milestones were when I increased my ten mile time by ten minutes between December 30 and mid February. Also, the fact that I ran 12 miles in 2 hrs and 20 minutes and then turned around the next weekend and ran 13.1 in 2 hrs and 28 minutes will always make me chuckle..and tear up, truth be told. And I do look at my abs in the mirror first thing every morning just to make sure they’re still there.
There were times I’d be tempted to eat things that were off limits and I’d pick it up and then carry it to the trash. I’ve thrown away a fair share of ⅓ eaten bags of things I knew I had no business eating in the first place. I doused the chocolate mousse pie I was served at my friend’s wedding with salad dressing after one bite. I was tempted to write on the tin foil covering of cinnamon rolls my roommate left on the counter, “GET BEHIND ME SATAN!” I know when it comes to food I have no self control and don’t do moderation well so if I have a choice between all or nothing I go with nothing (like, no dressing, no dessert, no sweets, etc. not no food). I did occasionally visit the candy aisle at the grocery store and relish in a sense of superiority that I’d held out for so long and strut straight down the middle like, “I showed you who’s boss, Reese’s peanut butter cups.”
I wasn’t actually able to fit into that original birthday dress by my birthday after all. I bought a different one that I felt confident in for the night anyway. I am happy to report it does fit now.
My roommate said around that time that she had a birthday present she’d wait to give me once I started eating “normal” again. I have a new normal now. I kept trying to decide when I’d go back to double fisting Twizzlers and throwing back fistfulls of sour skittles but I think (I hope) those days are gone.