The trouble with most fitness experts is that they’re fitness experts. I stopped trusting them when I was in high school. I’d been getting into a good, steady routine of going to the gym after school for a while, and then one of the trainers gave me flack for missing three whole days during midterm week. He finished his speech with a self-righteous “I find time to work out for at least an hour every single day!”
I felt awful until I realized on my way home that it was his job to be at the gym. His JOB. Of course he found an hour a day to work out. I found an hour a day to do trigonometry, but was I yelling at him?
So I grew skeptical, and have only grown more so as an adult. I am firmly of the opinion that most expert nutritional advice is too expert. If I tell them I’m cutting out sodas, I get an earful about how fruit juice is just as bad but that’s not the same as juicing, which they’re divided on. Fruit is great as a snack, except when it isn’t and you should always stay away from it. And God forbid you get them started on The Zone or something. You ask for a few simple guidelines and suddenly you’re weighing scoops of peanut butter and having mood swings over your complex feelings for sweet potatoes.
I think they mean well (well, some of them mean to sell books, but most of them mean well), but they’re so high-level about it that they’re pretty much useless for someone with a real life to lead. To drag my earlier metaphor in, you want a multiplication table and they give you trig.
So here, for your enjoyment, are a few tried-and-true basics for getting in shape in a healthy way. If you want to move on to trig after that, my best wishes to you. I’ll be hanging out over here in geometry.
Change one habit at a time.
Trying to overhaul your whole life at once can make you nuts. Work one change into your routine, and give it about three weeks – by then it should be a habit. Then work on the next change. Your new habits are more likely to stay with you and those gradual changes will build up beautifully.
You don’t have to leap into marathon training.
Ten minutes of exercise a day is better than none, so if that’s all you can do at first, start with that. The important thing at first is to get into the habit. You’ll be able to add another five and then another before you know it. Thirty minutes a day is a good eventual goal – it allows most people to build and maintain overall good health, and it’s not too hard to fit into an already-full life. If you love it and find time for more, great: build to a new goal.
Find an activity you really like.
If you hate it, you won’t do it, so don’t worry about weights vs. cardio vs. hip-hop yogic kickboxing and the many adherents of each. Find what you like, whether it’s one thing or a few of them, and get to where you’re active for half an hour a day. Don’t be shy about shopping around – a lot of gyms will let you try classes for free or on an inexpensive day pass before you commit to a full membership.
Whole foods beat processed foods.
If you just grabbed an apple instead of a brownie or a packet of chips, you’ve done a good, healthy thing. So the office fitness noodge who’s trying to tell you that you really should be eating kale or egg whites or a time-release protein bar with real iron filings can suck it. If the point is building healthy eating habits, eat the thing that came off the tree or out of the ground instead of the thing in the wrapper. Bingo, your body is happy.
One half and two quarters.
If you’re worried about portioning, an easy rule of thumb is to fill half your plate with vegetables. Pile them as high as you want. One quarter of your plate is the right size for a meat portion (about the size of a deck of cards), and the last quarter is for rice or other carbs. Don’t go too crazy on those, but by all means have some if you want. This should give you a good, healthy overall balance.
Fruits and vegetables with the most nutrients tend to be brightly colored. If you make a point of eating a variety of bright colors during the course of each day, you can be reasonably sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need. No, brightly colored children’s cereals don’t count.
Diet sodas are the Devil’s plasma.
Sodas as a rule are bad for you – they do everything from rot your teeth to leach calcium from your bones – but increasing evidence shows that diet sodas may be the worst of the bunch. Not only is there zero evidence that diet soda drinkers actually lose any weight, there is evidence that the chemical soup diet sodas are made of takes a day or more for your liver to process. When in doubt, drink water. The many opposing viewpoints on coffee and tea are trig. Research them on your own when you’re ready. For now, you’ll do yourself a lot of good just by breaking the soda habit.
Every now and then, eat a freaking cookie.
If you tell yourself that you can’t have something you enjoy ever, ever again, a part of you will be cranky and rebel. Plus, the treat will gain the sexy allure of the forbidden. If you know that you can have it when you choose, you won’t need to long for it. And, again, it’s all about building a new life you can live with. A life without cookies blows, but a life with cookies once a week sounds pretty good.
Give yourself credit for the good things you’re doing.
And for that matter, forgive yourself the occasional mistake. Positive reinforcement works for all of us. And, really, you should be proud of yourself. I am too. Good luck!