"So, what's your secret?"
It's a question I've been asked throughout my fitness journey, and one I recently realized could be summed up in one word. Prior to this realization, I typically explained my regimen of exercise, my emphasis on clean, balanced eating, my constant consumption of water, and my requirement for sufficient sleep. It's a longer answer than most people want to explain why I've been able to maintain essentially the same weight for 20+ years. The only time my weight fluctuated by more than five pounds was during my two successful pregnancies.
My "secret" is the reason so many people fail at maintaining their weight. They eat well, for a time, exercise, for a time, and focus on their health, for a time, but they don't do those three things for a LIFE time.
As far back as I can remember, I was active. Not in a sport-specific way, but in a play-outside-for-hours way. Growing up, my family never had cable tv or video games, so being inside bored me. I would jump on my pogo stick in the driveway, ride my appropriately yellow banana seat bike, wrestle with my dog and throw a tennis ball against the house. My weekly chores were physical, too: cleaning the bathrooms, hanging up and taking down baskets of laundry (we didn't have a dryer), vacuuming, and hauling trash to the edge of our property.
Like a lot of little girls, I attended dance lessons, then went on to be a cheerleader from seventh grade through my senior year of high school. In college, I feared gaining the "freshman 15," so I only took the stairs while living on the seventh floor of my dorm. I also chose to attend a weight lifting class as an elective, where I learned the basics of strength training.
When I graduated from school and started my corporate career, I immediately joined a gym where I'd exercise after work several days a week. My enjoyment from fitness grew from that point on over the years, until it eventually became my profession.
As I look back over the last 10 years, throughout which time I have been a fitness instructor and personal trainer, I can state with confidence that I rarely went three days without working out. Most weeks, my rest days numbered one or two. If I recall correctly, the only two times in my adulthood where I took several weeks off from exercise was by doctor's orders while healing from my two c-sections. Now, some of those exercise sessions over the years may have been very short or a light intensity, but they counted. And they included everything from resistance training, to dancing, to martial arts, to indoor cycling, to mind/body disciplines, to body weight training, to swimming and running. These sessions took place at health clubs, at home, outside, and on vacation (I even recall going to a gym in Athens, Greece, while visiting there years ago. Efcharisto!).
And in the last decade, my diet has steadily and dramatically improved as I've learned more about food, its sources and its impact on the body.
Alright, so what's my secret? In a word, CONSISTENCY. It's not a magic formula, a miracle workout or a super food. It's consistently being active in a variety of ways, and choosing the healthy foods I like that fuel my activity.
Perhaps you had more modern conveniences than I had as a kid and spent much of your time in sedentary pursuits that continue to this day. Or maybe you've only had fleeting periods of time in your life when you've been disciplined to exercise regularly and eat right. Here's the good news: no matter your history, tomorrow offers a new opportunity to develop consistency. It doesn't mean you have to exercise everyday, nor does it mean you have to perfectly follow a healthy diet. It simply means not giving up. Not letting more than two or three days pass without a workout. Not allowing a day of poor eating to turn into a week. It means making fitness a part of your life, no matter where you are, what you do or how old you are.
Ready to be consistent? Here are a few tips:
"Come on, keep up," my mom would say to my sister and me. Everywhere we went, whether in the grocery store, on the sidewalk, or in the mall, my mom walked tall and fast. Even her stroll required a double or triple step on my part as a little girl.
My grandmother was the same way. She stood a slender 5'9, and the until the day she died, had the most proper posture of anyone I knew. My Gramma could convey a steely confidence simply by how she aligned her head and shoulders.
My sister, who since high school has stood a statuesque 6 feet tall, was regularly reminded to "straighten up," "stand tall," and "stop slouching." I absorbed those cues, too, so even as a stereotypical, angst-ridden, insecure teen, I exuded confidence because of the body language my mother and grandmother modeled for me.
That confidence was misread at times. In college, a fellow coed who would become a roommate and dear friend, revealed to me that she thought I was "a bi#ch" before she met me. Taken aback, I asked why. She replied that it was how I walked--my shoulders back and head held high--rather than the typical soft posture and dropped gaze that communicates submission and insecurity displayed by so many females. "So I appeared confident, then," I said. "Yes," she replied.
A few years later when I worked in a corporate setting, a coworker asked me if I rode horses. My answer was an emphatic no, as I've ridden a horse fewer than a dozen times in my life. As with my college roommate, I inquired why she asked that. She said, "Because of your posture. You stand so straight, like an equestrian riding a horse." I certainly preferred being called an equestrian over a female canine!
It's unfortunate in our society that women who stand tall, stand to be misinterpreted. My mother's underlying premise for teaching my sister and me to stand straight and walk fast was, to a large degree, out of protection. She would say, "Walk with purpose. Act like you know where you're going and as if someone's waiting for you." I've read self-defense studies over the years that say women who move confidently, decidedly and with purpose are less likely to become victims of crime than those who appear weak and insecure.
But now let's move from viewing posture as body language, to viewing it as the base from which a person moves. The National Academy of Sports Medicine says that, "Static posture, or how an individual physically presents him/herself in stance...is reflected in the alignment of the body. It provides the foundation or platform from which the extremities function. As with any structure, a weak foundation leads to secondary problems elsewhere in the system."
How a person's body is aligned is the basis for identifying muscle imbalances. For instance, a forward-protruding head, rounded shoulders, excessively arched back, knees that fall inward and feet that turn out indicate a number of potential issues that may cause faulty movement patterns. As a trainer (and one who has been raised to pay attention to posture!), I have to note such variances when developing exercise strategies for clients.
So, what is proper posture, and what's the healthiest posture for sitting, standing and lying down? Livestrong.com defines them this way:
What happens if we practice poor body alignment? "Proper posture helps the body produce high levels of functional strength. Without it, the body may degenerate or experience poor posture, altered movement patterns, sprains, tendonitis, and low-back pain," according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Additionally, over time, poor posture can lead to problems with bodily functions, including breathing and digestion.
If you feel that your posture isn't up to par, you may be wondering what are some exercises to improve your alignment. Here are a few suggestions:
So, the next time you stand, sit, lie down, or perform any exercise, sing the children's song, "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes," to remind you seek proper posture and alignment of joints for every movement!
The timing wasn't ideal. I was eight months pregnant, already mom to a busy 4-year-old son, and full-time fitness director in a town we loved. But my husband's promotion was one we couldn't pass up. So, I quit my job, raced to sell our current home, find a new home (and an obstetrician!) in a city several hours away, and camped out for a couple of weeks in an extended stay hotel while the home we purchased was made available for us to move in. Meanwhile, my husband was immersed in his new role and returning to our former town every weekend to complete his Master's program. His new job also required that he relinquish his company car, so we had to go about purchasing another vehicle. On top of that, we were blindsided by heartbreaking family drama at the worst possible time. To say that we were stressed is an understatement.
The only major milestone we didn't face in that short span of time was a death, thankfully. But we pretty much covered every other significant stressor that life presents.
How did we cope and relieve stress? Firstly, by turning to our faith. Secondly, through exercise and physical activity.
April is National Stress Awareness Month, so I thought it fitting to delve into this topic a bit as it relates to health and fitness. Now, we all know that too much stress is bad for us. It damages the heart, exacerbates skin conditions, increases the odds of obesity, depression and anxiety, and can worsen ulcers. And low levels of stress, when chronic, can cause negative hormone and inflammatory responses, and even contribute to cancer.
"But wait! I'm always stressed," you say! It's true that we all experience varying levels of stress daily, some of which is actually healthy. Our bodies were divinely designed to adapt to all sorts of conditions, and thrive despite challenges. But that only happens optimally when we have coping strategies to relieve the negative stress.
During that rollercoaster period when we were selling and buying homes, buying a car, adjusting to a new town, new job, new reality, and, oh yeah, being very pregnant, I continued my exercise regimen. I also took my son and dog for a daily walk. Having those opportunities to move my body, clear my mind and energize my spirit were absolutely essential to maintaining my sanity and de-stressing through a crazy period in my life.
Specifically, the Mayo Clinic explains that engaging in exercise helps relieve stress in the following ways:
What negative stresses in your life do you need to address? As you might expect, every resource I reviewed on "how to de-stress" recommended exercise, among other things.
While the best first step to reduce stress is often taking a few deep breaths, here are movement-based suggestions to energize you and help you shed negative energy:
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Molly is a wife, mom,
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I am not a registered dietitian, nor a medical professional. My blog is a representation of my views and experiences, which are not intended as medical advice. While I am a certified personal trainer, descriptions of things I eat and exercises I perform may not be suitable for everyone. Please speak with a medical professional before making any changes to your current routine.