We share expert advice on incorporating running into a healthy lifestyle.
My Non-New Year’s Resolution
It all started when I found a notebook at my parents’ house from the year I was in the sixth grade–the same year that Britney Spears’ toned tummy peeked out from between her schoolgirl skirt and tied dress shirt in her “…Baby One More Time” music video. There were only three pages of my notebook filled in: the second and third comprised of dates and tally marks while the first read, “New Year’s Resolution: To get a six-pack, I will do 30 pushups and 30 sit-ups every night before I go to bed. January 1st: Pushups (check), sit-ups (check)…”
The notebook, with its childish script and adult insecurities, made me realize something: Every year since I turned 11 years old, I have made a New Year’s resolution about my body.
Now would be a great time to mention that I am not, and never have been, overweight. There have been times when my hips felt a little wider and my tummy a little softer, but I began running at the age of 12 and never stopped. Even on my worst days, even during my junior year abroad when I gained 15 pounds from my host mother’s cooking, I could cruise through a 5-miler.
Still, every year I choose the same type of resolution. Sometimes the resolutions blatantly derided my body (2012: Lose 10 pounds.) and sometimes they only vaguely addressed my insecurities. The underlying motivation was always the same: to get a flat stomach and flatter hips (2014: Eat cleaner and learn to cook “clean” food.).
Sometimes I resolved to run a new personal best (2010: Break 1:35:00 in the half marathon.), but my desire never came in a vacuum. All too often, these resolutions used running as the rationale for body consciousness. My identity as an athlete made me hyperaware of my body with all its strengths and imperfections, but when I looked in the mirror I focused on my weaknesses, what slowed me down and made me stop rather than what pushed me forward through marathons and half marathons, trail runs and triathlons.
My running also gave me the luxury of eating a plate of French fries without putting on too many extra pounds, and for that reason none of my resolutions ever stuck. I didn’t need to lose weight, so when I resolved to do so I inevitably slipped back into my old ways when faced with temptation. As for those old habits, they consisted of a relatively healthy diet packed with vegetables and fruits, a serious weakness for sweets and carbs and the occasional all-out caloric splurge.
I was a healthy athlete who regularly raced 10Ks and half marathons. So why was I allowing food and food guilt take up so much of my mental energy?
In 2017, I resolved not to make a resolution. More specifically, I resolved not to make a resolution about my body—no attempts to cut back on sweets or fats, no extra workouts and no guilt when I made “bad” food choices.
For the first few days of 2017, I had to repeat my non-resolution in my head when I looked in the mirror—I will not try to lose weight. I will not spend mental energy thinking about my weight. I will not feel guilty for eating food. I will not think negative thoughts about my body.
By February, I was surprised to find that, unlike the other resolutions I had made in the past (2007: Weigh 125 pounds.), this one stuck. Being positive about my body and my food choices was easier than the alternative, which consisted of a relentless cycle of guilt and negativity. Before long, I started seeing good things when I looked in the mirror, not bad. A few other things changed, too:
I Stopped Needing A Watch For Every Run
When I was constantly worried about my weight, every run ended with a mental calculation, multiplying the miles run by an approximate 100 calorie per mile burn. Mental math dictated my snacks for the day as I kept a daily log in my head: 700 calories burned minus a 200-calorie cookie and a 300-calorie slice of pizza. Every day I kept count, made excuses or commitments, all too often allowing my mood to depend on how guilty or pleased I felt with my self-discipline.
When I made the decision not to feel guilt over my body or my diet, I freed myself from the constant mental gymnastics of calories burned and calories consumed, and I ended up running for reasons other than to excuse a splurge. I ran because I had a bad day or because I wanted to be outside. I ran because it made me feel strong or because I was excited about my next race. I never ran to compensate for a piece of birthday cake or to be a smaller size.
I Went On My First Real Shopping Spree
I mean a half-paycheck, all at once, front-porch-flooded-with-packages-all-week kind of spree. When I saw my body as something that always had room for improvement, I looked in the mirror and blamed an awkward hemline or a too-tight waistband on my hips or my thighs. I convinced myself that clothes would look better on me if I just lost five pounds.
When I upgraded my wardrobe, I stopped asking the question, “Would this look better if…?” and started asking, “Does this look good?” I trashed a box of clothes that I always tried on but never wore. I checked out an online styling tool and bought a few things that I never would have considered—an oxblood drape-front jacket, a sequined tank top, a pair of straight leg jeans—and loved them. My new clothes gave me confidence, particularly in my professional life. Walking into a meeting with the knowledge that I looked good allowed me to focus all my brain power on the task at hand.
I Stopped Working Out So Much
I have always been good at making time to work out. If anything, I am a little too good at it. I have lost sleep because of 5 a.m. exercise DVDs or late night treadmill workouts. I have turned down dates because I wanted to go for a run. I have arranged and rearranged my entire weekend around my long run.
As it happened, my non-New Year’s resolution coincided with a particularly stressful time in my professional life. My hours doubled and the weight of my decisions sometimes kept me up at night. Thanks to my non-New Year’s resolution, for the first time in my life I did not feel guilty when I skipped a workout (or three). While I still love to work out and want to make time for it, I no longer beat myself up if I have a slice of pie without a run, which allows me to channel more energy into the things that matter.
I Started Drinking Alone
When I was counting calories, I didn’t have room at the end of the day for an extra 100 calories of Merlot. In 2017, I have discovered that the only thing better than Netflix is Netflix and a glass of red wine. After I allowed myself to eat and drink guilt-free, I found that foods that I knew were healthy in moderation but which I often avoided—dark chocolate, red wine, hard cheese, a good loaf of sourdough bread—took the place of foods that I knew were unhealthy but often ate anyway when my willpower ran out—pints of ice cream, raw cookie dough, barbecue potato chips and candy.
Now I shop for bottles that I want to drink, not just ones to bring to dinner parties. Drinking a glass of wine after work has another advantage: it signals my brain that the work day is over and it is time to unwind. My stress levels decreased and my sleep patterns improved when my new ritual forced me to turn my work phone off after dinner.
On Some Days I Ate Better, And On Some Days I Ate The Same–But I Never Ate Worse
Before I resolved not to make any resolutions, I sometimes found myself eating junk because I had already eaten junk that day. I ate a bag of chips because I had eaten a handful already. I ate French fries at dinner because I had eaten a cookie at lunch. Now if I eat French fries at dinner or a cookie at lunch, it’s because I’m craving them. I might have even lost weight, but I’m not sure. When the batteries on my scale died a few months ago, I felt no urgency to replace them. A year ago, I would have rushed to the store almost immediately, but my non-resolution made me more aware of other indicators of health that have gradually replaced those blinking digits: my energy levels, my hydration and how I feel when I wake up in the morning.
There may come a time in my life when I will no longer be able to cruise through a 5-miler, or when my family history of high blood pressure and high cholesterol catches up to me. When that time comes, I will need to use the arsenal of knowledge accrued from a lifetime of reading fitness magazines and nutrition labels to regain my healthy balance. I might even need to start counting calories again, cut back on the wine and invest in a good GPS watch.
But right now, I am choosing to invest in a healthy mind. I am choosing to be free from self-doubt and self-hate, which is far more beneficial and lasting than the juice cleanse I tried in 2015.