I Am That Girl Now

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Weight loss as an action verb

I cannot begin to count up the number of times I have heard some variation of the phrase, "I want to lose five pounds by the end of the month." Thousands, maybe. In my social circle-- not to mention the blogverse or the wonderful world of Weight Watchers-- this is the phrase that represents a goal, a purpose, a determination to really buckle down this time and get this shit under control.

I swear to God, I'm about to the point where I'm going to start replying, "Cool! Any goals for how long you want your fingernails to grow this week? How about your hair?" If I can think of any other body-determined results that a human being can't possibly control in a direct manner, I'm gonna throw those in, too.

There's a disconnect between the goal and the actions, because at the end of the day there's really nothing you can do to make the damn scale move. You do things-- drink water, exercise, eat right-- and hope that performing these rituals will placate the great god of the scale. It's not unlike fan superstitions during baseball season: If I wear this shirt, and pee three times by the end of the first inning, my team will win. In this case, it's more along the lines of Okay, if I weigh myself first thing in the morning, totally naked, right after I pee-- oh, and I gotta make sure I don't eat anything for six hours before I go to bed-- then the scale will move! It has to!

The difference, in a nutshell, between being into weight loss and being into fitness, is in the discussion of goals. When it comes to weight loss, people's goals center around the number of pounds they want to drop; when it comes to fitness, people's goals center around improving their performance. One of these things is directly related to the actions a person takes, and one is not. I gotta say, the fitness version can be frustrating, but it's not the sort of frustrating that makes one believe that one is the plaything of a vindictive deity, it's not the I try and try and try and nothing helps despair that drives people into eating disorders or into giving up completely.

There's a phrase missing from the weight loss game that I see a lot in fitness: "work on [your] form for that." There's a glorious attention to detail, not as a means to an end, but as an end in and of itself: improving this one action, buffing and shining it and making it as tight and perfect as it can be. There's joy in that, and pride, and this sense of deep accomplishment-- over something as simple (or so we say) as changing your stance, shifting your balance, adjusting your grip, and working on it until it becomes natural. If there's anything I've learned from venturing out into the scary, unknown world of fitness folk, it's this: Learn to love the work for its own sake, and you will never lack for results or pride in your accomplishments.

I swear to God, this is the most brilliant thing. We talk a good game in weight loss, really we do, but at the end of the day the goals still center around the almighty scale. (I have a rant for another day on how utterly stupid it is for weight-loss places to act as though losing weight and losing fat are exactly the same thing. A very big rant.) If the scale doesn't move, we start to doubt ourselves, we throw away the huge importance of all the actions we've been performing and the improvements in form and performance we've had on those actions-- I must be doing something wrong, the scale isn't moving!

A pause, for a moment, for my ritual banishment of this particular foul spirit. First of all, the weight of a human body is made up of a great many things, and some of those things are just sort of passing through, if you get my drift-- water and waste-- and how long the body takes to move things along is determined by, oh, a million things. Second, the body has its own timetable, set by genetics and body chemistry, on how fast it will adapt to changes. Third, and most importantly, the body will adapt. When outside pressures are put to bear upon the body, the body will adapt. There is no question of whether or not it will do it, just a question of how long it will take and what form those adaptations will take. Play by its rules and it will play along.

If you act, the body will follow. Like all evolution, though, this takes time, so you can't play it like it's short-term. And it's going to be repetetive. If you're acting like this is a short-term, hard-core endurance thing, it's sure as hell going to be short-term, and you're going to endure for all you're worth, but the body might not get around to doing what you want it to in the tiny amount of time you have scheduled. It might freak out and say, "Oh my God, we're under attack-- conserve all resources!" and duck and cover, doing absolutely nothing while you keep up your extreme efforts. You have to set up a plan that you'll be able to handle for the long term, that you'll have enough room to tweak and improve and entertain yourself.

So here's the thing: fuck the scale. Yes, it's an indicator of what's happening with your body, but you can't control your body-- it's going to adapt, but it's going to do it in its own damn time. What you control is the pressure brought upon it to adapt. You control the intake, and you control the output. The real fun is in the details, in choosing the actions, in improving your form on those actions, and in slowly building up your performance. Those are your goals. That's where the joy is. That's where the pride is.

Want an example? I can give you a million. I'm not talking about exercise here, not for the moment. Exercise is an excellent thing, and a hell of a good way to give yourself something physical to improve that's not on the scale-- but right now we're talking about all your actions, all those little choices and habits you have to integrate into your life, one by one, in order to live a healthy lifestyle.

For instance:

Work on your form when it comes to the liquids you drink. Refine it down, paring off the unnecessary things like alcohol, switching from full-calorie soda to diet soda, making sure you drink a full glass of water at meals, working up to drinking the recommended amount of water every day.

Work on your performance when it comes to tracking your food intake every day and learning to do it honestly-- not overreacting about the importance of it either way. Tracking your food isn't just an exercise in figuring out where you went wrong or right based on scale movement later, it's a mental exercise, it's practicing making the bumps in the road just as much a part of the process as the good times. Journaling that extra cookie or spoonful of peanut butter doesn't make any difference to the scale; it DOES make a difference, though, in getting you used to having such things happen within the context of healthy living. It makes the mistakes into a part of your healthy lifestyle, so when you have a really big falling-off-the-wagon-headfirst night, your instinct isn't to quit-- it's to write things down and move on. Practice.

Learning to cook healthy-- hell, learning to cook, period, in my case-- is a HUGE example, and there's so much to play with and so much to improve upon that it's easy for improvement in that area to become a goal in and of itself, for the sheer joy of it. Developing a working knowledge of spices and herbs and every non- and low-calorie addition to food. Getting the hang of stocking your pantry so that you have what you need. I mean, who knew that a well-stocked pantry could mean the difference between "I'm too tired to cook, I'm just going to order pizza" and "I'm too tired to cook, I'm just going to throw together a kit meal from these canned items"? These are skills, they're mental muscles, and it takes work to develop them.

Others? Learning the tricks you need to make sure that you bring food to work instead of going out to eat. Learning about nutrition, beyond the calories and fat grams. Learning how "normal" people operate when social eating is called for-- all the things that go into group feeding that isn't about the food, and how to partake in those things for their own sake. Learning portion sizes, and practicing them until they become second nature. Learning other things to do-- and practicing those-- to calm and displace negative emotions. Working up to larger numbers on the ol' pedometer. Developing the habit of taking the long way around things and taking the stairs. Developing the confidence to ask waiters if they can switch the healthy sides that come with that bacon sandwich so you can get them with the broiled tilapia. Practicing and practicing and practicing the fine art of planning ahead, so that when you're hungry at work you can pull out some of the food you packed, so that when the stupid fast-food restaurant doesn't have any low-fat mayonnaise, you can whip out a packet of dijon mustard instead of panicking and giving up and getting the burger. All the little things, the accumulation of skills that make up a lifestyle the way that molecules make up a body-- they all mean so much, and there's always something to develop, something to push, something to work on, something to mix up and play with.

One of these that gets its own paragraph: Learning to regroup after a lapse, and practicing and refining your regrouping until you've got it totally down, until you can snap out of it within an hour and say "Okay, that was that; now, on with normal life."

Another one that gets its own paragraph: Learning to move, and to enjoy movement. Walking, dancing, running, biking, skating, climbing-- it all starts the same, it all starts with not being very good at it and feeling pretty dumb and feeling like it's kind of hard, and occasionally falling down. It all gets better, too, as you get the hang of your own body-- and here's the miracle, discovering the joy of feeling yourself move and making those movements improve.

Learning to learn, to improve, to start small and build-- oh, this is key, this is so very important. All too often the weight loss experience is viewed as "You just do these simple things, all the same, and keep it up until you're done. The end." Oh, no. Each one of those actions is a learning experience in itself, something for which you can improve your performance and practice and work on your form. Another jewel, another talent, another thing to hold up and say, "Hot damn, I can do things. I rule."

Weight loss is something that happens to us. Living healthy, on the other hand, is something we do. Learning to enjoy the process of learning and improving and adding new habits and talents-- to find joy and take pride in improving our form-- is, I truly believe, the key to making this thing stick as a lifestyle. Something we do, and get better at-- not something we endure.

You can't measure that sort of improvement on the scale. You just can't. And that's the kind of improvement that counts.


  • Simple brilliant post.

    The other day I was looking @ my forearm wondering why don't I obsess over it as say my hips or thighs? Why doesn't the width of my wrist freak me out but my waist does. I've been tossing those thoughts in my head for a few days and will prolly write about it later this week. Your post gave me more to think about.

    By Anonymous renee, at 12:23 PM  

  • The minute I started to set goals that had nothing to do with the scale, my entire world changed and I saw results.



    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:00 PM  

  • I totally agree with your post. But like you, I have already lost a substantial amount of weight. The exercise and working on my body didn't come when I was at my highest weight. When you are quite large - exercise is a very scary thing. You don't feel like it is possible for you - where in cutting back on the amount of food you are eating is. The only way to know if the beginning steps of cutting back on your food is working is the scale. Once you lose some weight - then you get to the point where the exercise is important to having a healthy lifestyle.

    By Blogger Cindy, at 2:18 PM  

  • Dude.

    It was a metaphor.

    "Work on your form" translating as "get better at the small things." Hence my long list of damn near entirely un-exercise-related accomplishments to apply such logic to.

    I didn't start exercising until I had almost a third of the weight off. As a friend of mine said when she contemplated trying to start Weight Watchers only a few months after she quit smoking, "My entire amount of virtue is busy right now; when the smoking thing can take care of itself, I'll use the virtue on the food thing."

    So yeah. I totally agree. If I wrote it in such a way that it wasn't obvious, I do apologize.

    By Blogger Meg, at 2:27 PM  

  • I started daily exercise 7 weeks ago, and 7 weeks ago started a weight-loss plateau. What kept me going at it, sweating every day, pushing myself? The fact that C25k and the rest of what I was doing supplied me with other goals, and with results, that showed me that I was really doing something amazing, something unstoppable, something the nasty squat scale apparently knew nothing about.

    Just this morning I weighed in and found this week I lost three pounds. I'm pleased, but I care way, way less than I would have seven weeks ago. Today, I care a lot more that I can run 25 minutes without stopping. Yippee!

    By Anonymous JB, at 2:47 PM  

  • Meg this is absolutely brilliant AND SO what I needed to hear right now. I am re-grouping and taking a new approach to my journey right now and it is things like this that remind me I am doing it the "right" way (for me)
    Being in the first month it is really easy to want to go all out and make this first month really count. The thing is. I have done that before. Yet I weigh 10 lbs more than I did this time last year. So here is to taking control of things things that I have an effect of the outcome on.
    Thanks again!

    By Blogger Mamato2boys, at 2:54 PM  

  • The single most useful thing that fitness has taught me is to embrace this old chesnut: practice makes perfect.

    Taking dance classes, becoming a cyclist, learning to kayak, starting to run -- for all these things I always, always, always felt like a graceless, inept, embarassing hack at the very beginning. But perservering in all these activities taught me the invaluable lesson that early failures can be turned into solid physical achievements if I'm willing to let go of unrealistic standards of perfection, keep trying, and have some faith that efforts today will have a payoff at some undeterminate point in the future.

    Learning this lesson -- that learning a new skill takes time, patience and many small steps, both forwards and backwards -- has been useful to me in all aspects of my life, and particularly the aspects where I'm prone to expect perfectionism.

    The trial and error of fitness has made me more forgiving of myself, and allowed me to not be such a perfectionist in the day-to-day progress towards a goal, even if the goal itself is to be a more "perfect" runner or dancer, etc...

    I can apply this same philospophy towards weight loss, now, too: be patient, keep trying, don't be rigid in your thinking, and don't give up. The accumulation of dogged effort is bound to lead somewhere.

    Thanks for your posts. I love your energy.

    By Blogger Megan, at 3:56 PM  

  • Right on sistah! I'm rounding up a challenge that I started so that I could concentrate on building the habit of exercise and not be dissuaded by the number on the evil scale.

    Alas! I'm coming to the end and what do I do to guage my progress. WEIGH. Is there some other black and white thing that just lets you know that you are on the right track. Try as I might to convince myself that getting in an average of x minutes a week doing it 6 times a day, or that my waist getting smaller by an inch is what really matters. I must admit here: I am a slave to the scale.

    That is very sad.

    I'm just hoping that whatever the number says won't ruin the 40 days of accomplishment that I have.

    Sorry for hijacking your blog:-)

    By Blogger Nikki, at 4:57 PM  

  • Okay, more hijacking:-) Must apologize. I got excited from the beginning of the post, started commenting and had not read the rest.

    I'll keep it short this time.

    Bravo ::clapping::

    By Blogger Nikki, at 5:07 PM  

  • I so love this post. I have recently decided not to count points anymore, I was obsessed with the scales and getting so frustrated with the fact that no matter what I did nothing changed. Non scale related goals are the one thing that really keep me focused these days. If I can walk further faster, if I can train (karate) for longer and feel fitter I am achieving. The scales have dropped from my eyes so to speak and I feel like I am moving forward again.

    Thanks for such an insightful post.


    By Blogger Joc, at 11:45 PM  

  • Insightful. I love your blog for how succinctly you capture fitness experiences and thoughts.

    By Anonymous Cindy/Liteweight, at 5:00 AM  

  • Wow. Just wow. This is the sort of post that needs pinning to my fridge.

    By Blogger ladymisstree, at 7:41 AM  

  • YOU GET IT!! You Rock, and thanks for helping me feel like I rock too!! This is the most insightful blog I've read thusfar.!!

    By Anonymous ROXY1999 (Angela), at 10:20 PM  

  • By Blogger osm18, at 5:42 AM  

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