By Rachel Johnson, Ph.D, M.P.H., R.D., "Five Small Steps,"April/May 2006
We all know and secretly resent them. They’re fit and thin and slip effortlessly into clothes in the tiniest sizes. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them. For me, staying fit and at a healthy weight in middle age is an act of constant vigilance. I suspect it’s the same for most of us, no matter how easy it may appear to others. But this doesn’t mean we have to be marathon runners or live on celery sticks. Small things we do every day can go a long way toward staying healthy. Once they’re part of an everyday routine, they may indeed feel effortless. Here are a few things that work for me.
Research shows that people who weigh themselves regularly are more likely to be at a healthy weight. I weigh myself just about every morning. I try to use the scale at the same time every day for consistency (and besides, I weigh less in the morning). I know if I weigh myself often I can get on top of a two- or three-pound weight gain. But if three pounds turns into five or more, it becomes overwhelming. By the way, according to obesity experts, daily weighing does not promote eating disorders. Yes, people with anorexia weigh themselves obsessively—but the disease came first, not the weighing.
I’m amazed when high-powered, well-paid executives tell me they have no time for exercise. Who controls their lives? For years, I’ve set aside noon to 1:15 p.m. on my weekday calendar for exercise. Sure, things come up, but by scheduling it I consistently get in three to four days of noontime workouts every week. I’m also part of a group of women who have been exercising together for years. We have fun, and we keep each other motivated. We sometimes muse about what we’d all look like if we hadn’t been sweating together all these years. I vary what I do to keep it interesting. Lately I’m spinning to music on a stationary bike, practicing yoga and running on the days I can’t make it to the gym. I know I’m more productive, better able to handle stress and more content when I exercise.
Think about what you are eating. I was on an early-morning flight to Chicago not long ago and was served a croissant breakfast sandwich. Knowing it was loaded with calories, my first thought was to just eat half. I took a bite. The croissant was greasy and tough, the egg was tasteless and the ham was still frozen. Yuck. I decided to eat the honeydew and cantaloupe and skip the sandwich. I saved the tasteless calories for something more enjoyable later. Turned out that night I had a fabulous meal in a great restaurant and knew I could indulge a bit because of the choice I made earlier in the day.
When I pack for a trip, business or pleasure, the first things that go in my suitcase are sneakers and workout clothes. Yes, this means I can’t cram everything into a carry-on, but I rarely have to wait more than a few minutes at baggage claim anyway. Having my workout clothes means that if the weather cooperates and the area is safe, I head out for a morning run. I travel to Washington, D.C., regularly and look forward to a run past the Washington Monument before my workday begins. If I can’t get outside, I use the treadmill in the hotel gym. It’s not my first choice, but the exercise helps keep me alert during long meeting-filled days.
I admit it: I pay extra for convenience foods when I know they’ll help me eat nutritiously. I used to feel guilty when I bought those outrageously priced packages of vegetables that are washed, sliced and ready to go. No longer. When I get home from the office at 6 p.m., having these packages in the fridge can mean the difference between a healthy or not-so-healthy meal. What’s more, by staying home and cooking rather than eating out, I’ve still saved money.
We all have tricks that work for us. My son Nicholas tries not to eat a serving of any one food that is larger than his fist. My husband’s mantra is “Don’t let your waist size get larger than your inseam”—easy for him to say at 6'4" tall. My beautiful friend Susan tries hard to eat only when she’s truly hungry, knowing that’s when food tastes best. The trick is establishing those small steps that work for you. Once they become routine, people might just start accusing you of being one of those people who are naturally fit and thin.