The Long Run

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Hello to a Better Body!

The Long Run

To Live, Not to Diet

I once had a fascinating conversation with a friend of mine, an observant Jew. She told me that while she found it impossible to stick with a diet, she had no trouble keeping kosher, a special way of shopping for and preparing foods according to Jewish law that requires quite a bit of effort. When I asked her why she thought this was so, she thought a while and then answered: “It’s because I do a diet…but I am kosher.”

This is the secret to long-term success with weight loss and fitness: you repeat the same behaviors so often that they become part of your identity. Think about other behaviors you do automatically: do you argue with yourself every day about whether you should brush your teeth, buckle your seatbelt, or wash your clothes? No. You do these things because they make your life healthier and more comfortable, but also because you’ve done them so many times that it would feel weird not to do them. These activities have become part of who you are.

You can feel the same way about healthy eating and exercise. The stories in this book are about people who not only changed their habits — they transformed their lives. The couple who’ve gone for a walk after dinner every night for decades, the woman who’s still doing yoga in her nineties, the woman who cooks vegan dishes with her daughter no longer have to worry about being “on program.” That’s not to say there aren’t days they don’t feel like making the effort, but they keep doing it anyway. Woody Allen once said: “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” Just keep showing up: to the gym, to the kitchen, to the yoga mat, to the hiking trail.

But what about when your motivation flags? Experimenting with new recipes and new kinds of exercise may help. Taking on fresh challenges, like running a road race or climbing a mountain, may renew your enthusiasm. “Row Strong, Live Strong” and “The Silver Streakers” are both stories of women who kept upping their game. Even a new piece of kitchen equipment or exercise outfit can give you a jumpstart.

Reassessing your motivation periodically is also important. Though disease prevention may be a major benefit of eating healthfully and exercising — and I hope I’ve convinced you that it is! — studies show that avoiding illness isn’t always the most potent motivator for behavior change. I remember a woman in one of my groups who told me she was determined not to get diabetes like her mother, who’d suffered a leg amputation from the disease. I suggested to her that, awful as the prospect of sharing her mom’s fate was, it didn’t seem to be spurring her to eat differently or to exercise — and she acknowledged this was true.

Two other factors have been shown to be at least as powerful, if not more powerful, than health in helping us sustain a new lifestyle. This first is whether the behaviors we are trying to adopt give us joy in the moment. You know that wonderful feeling you have, maybe at a wedding, around a holiday table, or just finger painting with a child, when you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else than where you are just then? If you feel that way while nourishing or moving your body, you will want to keep repeating that experience. You won’t need to worry about “willpower.” In “Keep It Steady,” Monica Morris describes the blissful feeling she experiences routinely in a Jazzercise class, and many contributors to this book recount the feeling of peace and well-being they have simply by eating well and exercising.

The second thing that spurs us on — more and more as we get older — is the desire to leave a positive legacy. Don’t you want your children and grandchildren to remember you as vital and energetic, a role model for how to age well? And, whether or not you have children, don’t you want to play your small part in turning back the tide of obesity and preventable disease that threatens the health of present and coming generations? The World Health Organization estimates that by the year 2020 two-thirds of all disease will be related to unhealthy lifestyles, especially excess processed food and lack of exercise. Reversing this trend will involve public health measures, changes in farming practices, urban planning, and other large-scale efforts. But it will also require that individuals like you and I, one by one, decide to lead healthier lives.

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