Is the dread of starting from scratch to make lifestyle health improvements at this stage of your life keeping you from taking that first step?
Listen up, postmenopausal sisters. I’m in your boat.
Twelve years ago when I moved to Texas I sweated and strained alongside a personal trainer to push my 50-year-old body into better shape – and it was in decent shape to start with then. It was so tough I swore I wouldn’t ever let myself “go” again. After all, I’d been a disciplined early morning lap swimmer, 6 a.m. boot camp stadium stair conqueror and a successful Weight Watcher. At 49, I had gotten down to the weight I was when I was 27.
In Northern California, all that discipline had come easily with ideal year-round weather, a decent “built environment” and good accessibility to facilities and programs that fit my work schedule. But now I live in less-than-optimal exercising weather most of the year, in a semi-rural neighborhood not conducive to even walking. There are lots of scary critters like copperhead snakes and tarantulas and I have a one-way, 15-minute drive to the nearest gym. Plus, my husband is a fabulous cook without a concept of portion control, and I have a wine habit that is keeping Napa Valley’s economy much healthier than mine.
In other words, I have plenty of poor excuses.
Even a job layoff with the elimination of its accompanying 10-hour-per-week commute has not helped get me back into a normal workout routine. In 12 years, I’ve gained more than 30 pounds. I’m heavier than my heaviest pregnancy weight. I’ve tried all kinds of diets and approaches, including tough ones like the HCG protocol. Frankly, I hate the way I look and the way my clothes fit.
But vanity aside, at this point in my life, I don’t need perfection– I just need to be as healthy as possible going into my sixties for a lot of practical reasons, not the least of which is the financial cost of health care and insurance. Maybe you, too, are at this point.
From my graduate work in lifestyle health, I know the following to be important first steps when embarking on health improvement:
• Take some time to assess your readiness and support. I know I’m ready to make a change. Are you? Do you have the support and encouragement of your family, coworkers and friends? What are the potential barriers to your success? Is the timing right?
• Is there any medical condition you may have for which you need to first consult with your physician? Do you know what all of your biometric numbers are as a baseline for tracking improvement (blood pressure, waist circumference, etc.)? Are you taking any medications that may sabotage your efforts?
• My middle son is getting married in five months, so I have a goal to lose at least 20 pounds in that timeframe. Do you have an upcoming realistic milestone to shoot for?
• And speaking of realistic, do you have realistic expectations? Know that both success and periodic plateaus and setbacks will be part of the journey, but stay grounded in your goal and don’t be shy in asking for help from your support system.
Losing weight is 80 percent diet-driven. There are many programs, theories and places to go for nutrition information that is best for you. Start simply with small actions:
• Be mindful of what you’re eating, and think of food as fuel. Sometimes journaling helps.
• Cut back on sugary drinks and increase your water intake.
• Eat more fruits and vegetables and less fast food.
• Eat at home more, and take your lunch to work.
• Don’t grocery shop when you’re hungry, and get rid of temptations lurking in your cupboards and refrigerator.
• If you can afford it, try out one of the home food delivery companies that offer the pre-measured ingredients and recipes for easy, nutritious, tasty meals that run about 700 calories per meal. Blue Apron is an example (https://www.blueapron.com/).
Exercise is the second part of the equation but may be more challenging to consider:
• Start with just including more natural movement into your daily routine. Take a flight of stairs instead of an elevator or escalator. Park farther away from your destination entrance. Stand up and move around every 20 minutes if you’re sitting at a desk all day, and consider a standing desk. Walk your dog. Join some neighbors in their walking routines. Get a device that measures steps.
• Slowly work up to the goal of at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise weekly. This can be walking, swimming, or any number of pleasurable activities, with some resistance or weight training thrown in a couple of days. For ladies of “our age,” weight training is recommended as perhaps the most effective way to engage the metabolism longer than other exercise.
• For many of us, we need a way to jump back into exercise with less chance of the dreaded delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), the pain and stiffness felt in muscles several hours to days after unaccustomed or strenuous exercise. DOMS can wreak havoc on the best-laid plans for health improvement. My recommendation is to start in water if you can. Water aerobics and swimming are fabulous for engaging all muscle groups, cardiovascular health and resistance toning. Just starting with water walking or jogging and adding arm movements can get you off to a good start. I have never experienced DOMS from working out in water and it also helps you avoid high-impact exercise issues such as joint pain and stress incontinence (http://plaid.wpengine.com/leaking-a-secret/).
Finally, be aware of the things that can undermine your good progress:
• Adequate sleep seems harder to get as we age and go through hormonal changes, but insufficient sleep links to weight gain, alertness and immune function. Try to get seven to eight hours.
• Chronic stress creates cortisol, which in turn relates to weight gain, especially dangerous belly fat. Exercise, meditation and social support can help, but you may want to discuss it with your physician as you set out on your improvement plan.
• It’s hard to do, but if you use nicotine of any form, stop. Aside from the lung issues that smoking causes, nicotine enters brain receptors and disrupts normal brain function.
• The Blue Zones (https://www.bluezones.com) and other current nutritional theories say wine is fine, but in moderation. A nightly resveratrol party for one is not what they had in mind. Alcohol is full of empty calories, and giving your liver a periodic break helps maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
As women, we need to take care of ourselves and support each other in reaching goals for health as much as attaining goals for other aspects of our lives. So, starting tomorrow, I’m taking the plunge again and will begin twice-weekly workouts with a personal trainer, with walking and swimming on the days in between. With my husband’s support, I will stop my nightly wine consumption. That alone will help me afford the trainer and force me to be more accountable to my goals.
I’m not sure what I dread more at this point—DOMS or lack of wine.
I will update you on my progress and share my journey. Won’t you join me in taking some of the first baby steps I have outlined?