How to improve health without focusing on weight?
April 12, 2012 3:08 PM   Subscribe

I think I'm finally done with dieting and obsessing about the scale. But I do want to develop healthier habits, and I am very goal-oriented. What are good ways to do that without obsessing over the scale?

tl;dr: A decade of dieting has left me 50 lbs heavier than when I started, so I want to find ways to get healthier that don't involve a diet. But I need ideas for how to develop motivation and self-discipline without a diet.

For the last dozen years, I've been on and off the diet hamster wheel, and it's left me 50 lbs heavier than I started ("obese" by BMI standards) and with a seriously broken relationship to food. The breaking point finally came last week when I tried for the nth time to do the "paleo" thing and, in the middle of feeling absolutely miserable, I suddenly realized that I didn't want to punish myself for being fat again, which is what dieting feels like to me.

So! No more dieting. This is non-negotiable (so please, no advice on diets, no matter how well-intentioned. After the last decade, I am a freaking expert on diets). However, I do want to develop better habits. I would like to be able to eat well-balanced, appropriately-portioned meals 90% of the time, and then occasionally eat things like chocolate and french fries without feeling guilty. Added motivation/complication: I have a food intolerance whose effects are subtle on a day-to-day basis but add up over time. I really do need to stop eating this particular food, but my feelings about that are all tied up in my feelings about diets.

I would also like to get more physically fit, by which I mean better cardiovascular fitness and stronger muscles. This is partly for health, but also because I live in a beautiful part of the world, and I want to be able to experience it properly. I want to be able to go on week-long rugged backpacking trips and learn how to boulder and kayak and stuff like that - and I want to keep up with my fit friends! Right now I'm recovering from an illness that left me with seriously reduced muscle mass, so I need to build up to things like this gradually. I do however really like walking as exercise and it's one of the few things - along with yoga - that I can get myself to do regularly.

Finally, I want to look good. Which I'm guessing that fitness and good diet will help with, but gosh is it hard to decouple that in my mind from a number on the scale!

So, this all sounds really good, and feels great. However, I have tried this before - ie, focusing on healthier eating and more exercise without tracking my weight (or sticking with a calorie limit or restricting carbs, etc) and it hasn't worked. I think the problem is that I am extremely goal-oriented and I respond well (at least for a while) to structure. So without a weekly progress indicator like my weight, I lose motivation. And without limits like "stay under x calories" or "don't eat grains" I tend to lack the self-discipline to eat sensibly - ie, if it's ok to eat a piece of chocolate a few times a week, why not every day? And why not two pieces? Or: if it's raining today, why not skip my walk?

So I guess what I'm looking for is another way to approach this than "dieting." How do I develop a plan and stick with it without feeling like I'm punishing myself? What are some good benchmarks and goals can I use if it's not the number on the scale?

Oh, and just to be clear: I'm currently quite healthy. My past health problems have been solved and at my last physical, all the standard numbers (blood pressure, cholesterol, etc.) were good. So this is less about averting an impending health crisis and more about taking good care of myself physically.
posted by the essence of class and fanciness to Health & Fitness (45 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Do you think Don't Break the Chain would work for you? Basically, get a big monthly calender. Then, pick a simple goal (say, walking for 20 minutes before work, or doing an exercise tape). Every day you do that goal, you get a nice big X on that day. "You're only job is to not break the chain." You could also do this for 'negative' goals, like not eating the one food you are sensitive to, but I would be really cautious about trying to do it with too many foods, or with something nebulous like 'healthy eating.'

Finally, I have to challenge something: What is wrong with eating two pieces of chocolate every day? What makes that particularly unhealthy (outside the calorie count, which you are not trying to think about any more) (unless, of course, chocolate is the food that you have an intolerance to)? When I feel myself start to slip into thought habits about 'bad food' vs 'good food', I like to read through the archives of the Fat Nutritionist, who has a lot of good ideas about body-positive, non-diet goals related to food.
posted by muddgirl at 3:20 PM on April 12, 2012 [4 favorites]

What I've done in the past is set rules for myself, like I'm prohibited from *purchasing* junk food. Then you only have to resist the urge to buy chips once a week at the grocery store, which is relatively easy, and once you're home you can eat however you like, but none of the choices available are particularly unhealthy. You can make exceptions, like if you're at a restaurant with other people, then you can buy anything you like, but if you're by yourself, then you can't. This lets you not feel awkward or deprived in social situations.

Also, you can set exercise goals, like walk/run/bike some amount per week, and have the number increase 10% each month. Setting goals like this weekly I think is easier than daily, because if you set daily goals and miss a day, you've failed and feel like giving up, but if you set weekly goals and miss a day, you can still make your goal if you do a bit extra the next day.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 3:27 PM on April 12, 2012 [4 favorites]

If you want a goal that isn't a number on the scale, do you think that working towards a fitness goal instead would help? In the summer, there are tons of 5K's, mud runs, baby triathlons, bike rides, that kind of thing. Could you sign up for one, with the goal being to finish it maybe? Personally, when I am training hard for some race, it's easier for me to eat right because a lunch involving french fries, tons of carbs or sugar, or too much caffeine translates to a shitty run the next day. If you like walking---what about that 60 mile breast cancer fundraiser? I've never done it, but seems to me that a walk that long, even over three days, would be a lofty goal to shoot for.

As for punishing yourself, try to turn that around. Me, I consider every day that I treat my body well to be a treat. Chocolate cake is not a treat, chocolate cake is a cheap thrill for my stomach and a complete waste to the rest of me that leaves me feeling sluglike and tired for hours. Whereas a pear--now that's a treat...sweet and delicious without the yukko side effects. Cake is something I reserve for times when I truly want it--not the sweetness exactly but the decadence of it---and I'm prepared to suffer the inevitable naptime and general blahs that come after for me. Otherwise, I'll choose to be nice to myself and eat things that keep me energetic and happy. I don't believe in good food or bad food---just everything in moderation and stop and think before you eat----what do you really want? Do you really want the food you are contemplating or do you really want-to talk to a friend, go out for a walk, surf metafilter, etc etc... so that at least when I eat, I'm eating because I'm actually hungry, not just bored or sad.
posted by supercapitalist at 3:28 PM on April 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

What are some good benchmarks and goals can I use if it's not the number on the scale?

I suggest you make benchmarks things that show commitment to the process, like going to the gym or exercising a certain number of days each week, for a certain number of hours.

I'm less clear on how to do it with food, but maybe it could entail planning what you're going to eat over the next week and buying it at the supermarket, and not making any other shopping trips? That would give you more flexibility over how and when you eat things like chocolate while putting a cap on how much you eat over a longer time frame.
posted by alphanerd at 3:30 PM on April 12, 2012

Also, forgot to say---good for you for hopping off the hamster wheel. You are more than the number on the scale and the simple fact that your medical metrics are in good shape should tell you that those BMI calculations are just plain crap for plenty of us. Good luck!
posted by supercapitalist at 3:32 PM on April 12, 2012

A few suggestions:
*Counting steps, setting step goals, and pushing to beat your best step count
*HealthMonth, which has an active metafilter group and is wonderful for these small, incremental goals
*Shop only on the outside of the supermarket so you just don't even buy junk. I just realized after years of knowing this was good advice, I'm mostly doing it, and when I went and did a "big" grocery shop, I bought NOTHING from the interior aisles! Now it's like a contest with myself: I'm determined not to go in the inside aisles and I'm like, "Dang it!" when I have to. This has dramatically cut down on the amount of crap food I buy.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:34 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I did a 12 week online course/group therapy session called Eat Without Drama from The Fat Nutritionist, and she had a lot of useful things to teach about getting off the diet treadmill without letting your eating habits go completely to shit. Her blog covers most of what the class covers for free, but if you'd like the support of meeting with a group of people, the class is helpful.

(Those links are both currently down, but they were up very recently, and she just started a new set of sessions, so they're likely coming back.)
posted by jacquilynne at 3:35 PM on April 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't know if this is a "diet" or not, but I work out quite a lot, and have run marathons and I always record and pseudo-plan my meals, but include "unhealthy" stuff (like wings and beer with my friends) in those plans. I also prohibit myself from buying empty calories at the grocery store, so my snacks at home will be healthy/nutritious. It is a totally reasonable and healthy limit to say that your good will be nutritionally dense, that you'll get a minimum of 6 servings of raw or steamed vegetables a day, or that you'll aim for a 30/30/40 ratio of protein, fat and carbohydrates, for example.

If you're numbers and performance oriented (I am also this), you can be a strict with regard to exercise, as long as your plans are realistic in the first place. I religiously track every exercise I do (Fitocracy makes this really fun and easy) and try to constant get personal bests, as well as striving towards goals like races or events. It's really motivating to discover that your 5K run time went down by 20 seconds or you can lift 5lbs more than you could before, or stretch further. In time, your eating will support your fitness goals because you'll think of food as fueling them rather than as something "bad" to avoid.
posted by Kurichina at 3:36 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've totally been there! Still am. I want to be strong and capable, I'm very good at making plans but I find it hard to stay focused and motivated. I know, however, that I'm very motivated by peer pressure / social stuff. So I use that to get me to do the things I need to do.

I have a trainer I see regularly. I know myself and I know that however awesome and mind-blowing my intentions are, I will fall off the wagon. But if a human being is waiting for me - one I like - then I will totally show up for that even if I don't particularly feel like working out.

I joined a running class a while back. Again, using peer pressure to do what willpower can't.

My trainer brings up dieting now and then and I remind him that I'm interested in being stronger and that changing my body shape is not a useful motivator for me. Sometimes I have to be firm.

When I box, or run, or lift something heavy, I feel like a total badass. That's amazing. I'm still not skinny, but I have muscles in my legs and biceps that I, a former wimp, cherish. I've stuck with this way longer than with any diet.
posted by bunderful at 3:37 PM on April 12, 2012

Sign up for a CSA delivery box, and pledge to eat *all* of it each week before the next one comes (you can usually specify foods to be excluded, if you're worried about your prohibited food.) Guaranteed to up your fruit & veggie intake, and has the added benefit of forcing you to figure out how to cook healthy foods that you wouldn't normally buy for yourself.
posted by kelseyq at 3:44 PM on April 12, 2012 [6 favorites]

I'd start with food rather than exercise because what you eat can make you feel so much better or worse. In my experience there's no point even trying to work out if you're eating junk that makes you tired, for example.

You don't say what you eat now, but maybe one goal could be giving up processed/packaged foods. That's something you can pay attention to and consider a "plan" if you want, but it's more of a good lifelong habit instead of a specific diet. You can do incrementally, too, one thing at a time. And it's easier to think of as not a punishment, but a very positive healthy change. The best aspect of this is that a while after you've stopped eating, say, cake made from a mix, if you try to eat cake made from a mix it will taste full of chemicals and disgusting. (You can still have cake sometimes, of course, but you'll actually want wholesome, made from scratch cake with real ingredients.) So it's quite easy to see your progress, because chances are when you cut out some fake food product and switch to the real version, you'll never want to go back. And then you'll have a little mental list of crap you once ate, that now you don't.

I think also the less junk you eat in general, the more you become aware of how food that's not necessarily bad, but bad for you, affects you. Which might make it easier to cut down on foods you can't tolerate, etc.

I agree with muddgirl too, that nothing is inherently wrong with a few pieces of chocolate (or not walking in the rain), the thing is to learn to balance that out naturally, not as punishment but just because balance is good.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 3:45 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

You probably already know "don't eat junk food" and "don't drink soda" and "don't drink booze heavily" so we'll take those as read. I don't consider that dieting.

I would agree, focus on the exercise. I've found a couple of things that worked.

For a while, my one form of exercise was cycling. I had an app on my phone that I used to log my workouts, and for every route that I rode, it would track my best/average/worst time, and periodically announce "N minutes ahead of average". I'll tell you, on those days when I was behind my average, that little voice was a real motivator to get on it. The same thing would work with running. This is in line with Kurichina's advice that you track your workouts. Seeing a positive trendline is rewarding. Seeing a negative trendline is a poke in the ass.

More recently, I've been doing a boot-camp workout class. It's not prohibitively expensive, but it's not cheap either. The fee is for a month, and if I miss a class, that's money down the drain. Perhaps worse, missing one workout makes the next workout that much harder. Missing two workouts is hell. There are people of all fitness levels and weights in my class, so I don't think something like this is necessarily inappropriate. I'm not tracking anything in these workouts, but every once in a while I move up to heavier weights.
posted by adamrice at 3:46 PM on April 12, 2012

I agree with others that fitness goals sound like a great way to do what you're looking for. The exercise probably won't have much of a direct effect on your weight per se, but I definitely find that exercising and feeling strong puts me in a "healthy" mood that makes me more inclined to eat well.
posted by threeants at 3:50 PM on April 12, 2012

Ah, kelseyq's idea is great too. I think additive food rules are better than subtractive ones. Making yourself eat healthy stuff is likely to have the side effect of making you eat less bad stuff. If you're capable of eating a giant bag of Cheetos and an entire bag of carrots, frankly I salute you.
posted by threeants at 3:53 PM on April 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

I love the book French Women Don't Get Fat. It's not a diet book, but more of a life style book. It's really great for helping people to approach food and eating differently, and there are lots of recipes as well.
posted by fromageball at 3:53 PM on April 12, 2012

The CSA box and growing my own vegetables (which I enjoy) are the cornerstone of my diet. I basically eat whatever is convenient so if I didn't make healthy food convenient I'd probably just subsist on pizza slices and whatever people leave by the coffee pot at work.

Also buy whatever cooking utensils make preparing food the way YOU like it easy and quick. Drop a couple hundred bucks if you need to, you'll save it back in no time at all. For me this is stuff to make smoothies, cook fish, bake bread etc easily. Stuff I actually like, not stuff I "should" eat.

Also get some 85%+ dark chocolate and suck on a piece when you feel like eating cookies. Works every time.
posted by fshgrl at 3:59 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

For the exercise aspect, sign up for a 5K in 2 or 3 months. If you can't run that far right now, do the Couch to 5K running plan. If you can run that far, do the same but for a 10K.

This is my plan: currently, I'm healthy but not fit. I suck at exercising without intermediate goals. My S.O. and I are running a 5K in just over 2 months, so I have a fairly strict couch to 5K timeline. After I do that, I plant on the bridge to 10K program. This is several months of fitness goals that go on a gradient and give me a nice long-term goal and reward.

The other thing I've found very successful is Fitocracy because it turns exercise into a game. You want to exercise more because you get more points and level up! Especially good if you have friends on there to compete with. It's a very supportive community, too, so you'll get lots of positive encouragement.
posted by DoubleLune at 4:02 PM on April 12, 2012

What about setting a goal of lowering your resting heart rate? It's a simple metric that you can track over time and a reasonably good measure of the cumulative effect that cardiovascular exercise has on your body. Like body weight, it will fluctuate, of course, so look at longer term trends, not daily variations.
posted by embrangled at 4:18 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Increase vegetables and to a lesser extent fruits. Just focus on adding things in rather than subtracting, as other have said. You will naturally eat less junk as you add more healthy things. I would also consider running your average daily intake through nutritional software that is more sophisticated than just calories and macronutrients. Look at which micronutrients you are deficient in (there are likely to be some in most diets) and try to add foods that are rich in those vitamins/minerals. Meeting those goals helps keep me on track.
posted by decathexis at 4:19 PM on April 12, 2012

This is me minus the dieting, just a steady creeping up of my weight and unfitness over the years. My eating is not terrible, but I've made a lot of effort to improve the way my family eats. I'm not really restrictive so much as just more selective. Today I made a cake for my husband's birthday and I don't feel bad about it at all. I try to look at how we ate all month (or whatever) instead of hyper-focus on that one day when we were so busy and we ate sort of junky food when we were on the go. I didn't try to change it all up at once, just tried finding healthier substitutes for things we like and worked on fitting them into our meals. I do not enjoy cooking, unfortunately, so this is sort of an ongoing thing.

As for exercise, blech, I'm not a big fan. But I shocked myself (and I mean super duper crazy I CAN'T BELIEVE IT) by starting and enjoying the much-recommended Couch to 5K. It's a slow ramping up, it has small goals, it's doable, and I enjoy it about 20 million times more than I would ever have imagined. I've enjoyed gently pushing my pace and watching my distance increase. So I do that three days a week, and a yoga dvd with my kid twice a week. I don't own a scale, have no idea (well, some) what I weighed in the beginning, definitely no idea if I've lost weight. But I feel stronger and happier and these two things alone keep me motivated.

I cannot express enough how little faith I had in myself to do this, but even after only a few weeks, I was already so proud of myself, the rewards keep building up until I really do feel confident that I've actually made an actual for-real change.
posted by upatree at 4:27 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Throw away your scale.
posted by two lights above the sea at 4:31 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't weigh yourself, ever. I am recovering from an eating disorder and I haven't weighed myself for a couple years now. I say, "I prefer not to be weighed" at the doctor's office. If the doctor needs to know my weight, she (not the assistant), can weigh me backwards and not tell me the number. This helps a lot. You'll still have a general idea of your weight, because you know what your body looks like at different weights and because of how your clothing fits, but it really helps me not focus on the number.

For exercise, I'm really enjoying Couch to 5K because I have a goal of running farther faster, rather than a goal that's related to body image. I think almost any exercise could be adapted to fit this model - create a goal for yourself that's more along the lines of "get faster / stronger" and track your progress. It's fun!
posted by insectosaurus at 4:46 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have you checked out and their podcasts? They are all about the lifestyle change, no dieting, no starving, eating what appeals to you in moderation, improving your fitness, etc. Very sensible way to approach your health.
posted by cecic at 5:10 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Strip down to your underwear (bra optional) and really look at yourself in the mirror. Look at yourself from the front, from the side. You may feel ridiculous for a moment, but pose in "strength" stances, as if you were a heavy weight champion, or on the cover of an exercise magazine.

You are already beautiful.
You just want to target some areas to refine them. Learn just enough information to figure out how to target those areas, whether you're thinking "but I want to change my whole body!" or "my abs make me unhappy". Remember that most exercises may target one area, but other parts of your body -will- benefit, as well as the added calories burned. Get just enough information to understand proper form (lest you waste your time with some exercises).
Then go for it. Don't delay.

Take a few pictures of your body right now, also from the front, the side, the back. Then, every week, no matter if you think you've made progress or not in your exercises, take those same pictures in as similar lighting as possible. Keep posing. Feel your arms - tense and relax. Tense and relax. You _will_ feel differences. You will (slowly, slowly) start to see a gradual tightening of your muscles.

You are already strong.
You're just demanding that your body adhere to your inner will, becoming an example of your determination.

Pay attention to your body as you grow stronger. Don't disconnect from yourself, because these changes will slowly become your inspiration. One day you're realize that you have some "cut", some definition rippling under your skin and you'll feel impossibly proud.

*Hugs* Good luck! You can do this.
posted by DisreputableDog at 5:11 PM on April 12, 2012

Response by poster: I should have said this earlier, but while I would love to do something like Couch to 5K (it's exactly the kind of thing that works for me), running farther than to the bus is not a great idea for me because of a bum knee. :-/ Fitocracy sounds awesome, though!

But these have been some great suggestions so far! Please, please keep them coming.
posted by the essence of class and fanciness at 5:12 PM on April 12, 2012

To burn calories, you may want to try swimming. From what I understand, it's a full body workout like running, including a heightened self awareness of your breathing patterns.
posted by DisreputableDog at 5:15 PM on April 12, 2012

Honestly, I think you should spend a few sessions with a nutritionist. I suspect your understanding of nutrition and balance has also been broken by dieting.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:29 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mod note: Folks I think the OP has been really clear that she is not looking for dieting advice.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 5:42 PM on April 12, 2012

Have you tried intuitive eating? I'm trying it, again, though I'm not very good. You keep a food/feelings log, at least at first, which is a great way to create structure without having to count anything. A good podcast about it here.

As for exercise, make a commitment to do something everyday. Try stuff. Make it fun. Dance, cycle, download some awesome music/podcasts, do classes that sound interesting, martial arts, feel free to dabble in anything. Just keep moving.

Another metric that people suggest instead of weight is waist measurement. It's pretty closely correlated to health, though is harder to measure accurately so it's not really worth doing more than say once a month.
posted by kjs4 at 5:46 PM on April 12, 2012

Oops. Podcast is here.
posted by kjs4 at 5:48 PM on April 12, 2012

Get to know your triggers and find ways around them that don't take too much willpower. For me that means I don't count calories, (which I could never manage to do as it combines my two least favorite things: math and deprivation.) Instead I did a lot of soul-searching and realized that while I cannot for the life of me turn down free food-- I can usually easily avoid situations where free food will be on offer, without it taking too much willpower.

Another example: if a bowl of chips is in the house, my willpower evaporates and I will eat them. However, I recognize that it doesn't cost me much willpower to just avoid buying chips at the grocery store. So I now have a rule of no junk food in the house. The trouble comes from parties at other people's houses. In that case I eat a really, really huge dinner, but of as many vegetables as I can, really fill up to the point where food--- even super delicious salty chips-- just sounds unappetizing. Then I go to the party. And I'll still have a few chips. But just a few.

Similarly, I finally figured out that my willpower cannot hold up to going out to eat, especially at nice restaurants. Because when I'm paying $15 + for an entree, I hate the idea of eating something boring like a salad so I always end up ordering something decadent and interesting. I had to realize this in order to come up with my willpower hack, which is: I only go to restaurants where I know there's a healthy dish that I already really like that I can order, and I save fancy unknown restaurants for very special occasions (when I just allow myself to order what I want without guilt.)

Another thing that came of really examining what makes me fail: I hate lifting weights on my own, it makes me self-conscious. And I hate waking up early. But I like working out with a trainer. When you pre-pay you're locked in. So I pre-pay for morning training sessions. No real willpower involved.

All this is to say-- you obviously know all the ways in which diets have failed you. But knowing what makes you fail in regards to exercise and food, can be a profoundly helpful tool. Only when you really know your weaknesses, can you find ways around them.
posted by np312 at 6:14 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Functional goals are the best kind of goals. "Run for 30 minutes" (or, if that doesn't work for your knee, "Do Pilates for 30 minutes"). "Try three new vegetables each month." "Have one meat-free meal per week" (or, if you're already vegetarian, "Have one vegan meal per week").

Measure your behaviors. Set behavior-related goals.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:22 PM on April 12, 2012


A decade of dieting has left me 50 lbs heavier than when I started

This is perfectly normal. This is what "dieting" does. Dieting, particularly through calorie restriction, is a predictor of weight gain, not weight loss, on a population level. (If you can get your hands on this study, which is an overview of 31 studies which all show the counterproductive effect of traditional "dieting" for the majority of subjects, it's very interesting.) You haven't done it wrong; you've been encouraged to do something that was counterproductive for you, as for most people.

What improves people's health, studies show, is changing to the sustainable food and exercise strategies that are right for them. You might well also lose some weight in the course of time, but if you don't, you are still improving your overall fitness. Throw your scale away and focus on your behaviors. Weight is not a behavior.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:30 PM on April 12, 2012 [7 favorites]

I too have a bum knee. I briskly walk 4 miles daily in good weather, 2 miles on a treadmill in bad. I know this is beneficial, because my "good" cholesterol has shot up handsomely.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 6:34 PM on April 12, 2012

A nutrition related goal that could be fun, along the same lines as the CSA box - make a commitment to find and try one new delicious and nutritious dish per week. It gives you research and preparation to do and a (hopefully) enjoyable end-result, along with building out your personal rotation of healthy recipes.
posted by clerestory at 7:10 PM on April 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Similar to others, I suggest choosing positive, enjoyable goals. The healthiest, happiest, (and probably not coincidentally) fittest I've ever been has been when I've taken joy in cooking new flavorful foods, doing exercise I love such as walking and scenic bike rides, and not feeling guilt about my food or exercise habits.

I realize it's easier said than done but I'd start by setting goals like others have suggested and scheduling them ahead of time so you look forward to them:
- try a new vegetable every week
- try a new cuisine once a month, bonus if it's on the healthy side
- run certain errands on foot
- take a weekly hike somewhere new

As a substitute for a number on the scale, blog about meeting your goals. Post recipes for the foods you cook and photos from your walks. Keep an online calendar of how you met these goals every day. Blogging keeps you accountable and gives you tangible evidence that you're meeting goals.
posted by beyond_pink at 7:51 PM on April 12, 2012

For the last three years, I've had a goal every day to eat the US recommended daily 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables. That's been pretty much the only goal. By the end of the day, no matter what else I ate, no matter whether I ran around all day or sat on the couch and watched movies, I tried to eat at least 5, and usually closer to 9 or 10, servings of fruits and vegetables. Fresh, frozen, canned, whatever. I've created ridiculously delicious salads and smoothies and soups and casseroles and all sorts of awesome things when I was feeling ambitious, and I've "baked" sweet potatoes in the microwave and bought pre-packed servings of dried fruit when I was feeling lazy. But I've met my goal about 95% of the time, and I feel amazing about that. It's my way of taking care of my health without having to drive myself batty, and it tastes great! Plus, I tend to think that it's made me more adventurous about food, and possibly in general, as I try to find new and innovative ways to fulfill this promise to myself.
posted by decathecting at 8:09 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I lost 70 pounds by changing one thing at a time. I started by adding one thing each week instead of taking away anything. I added a salad a day. The next week a serving of veggies. Two month's after I started I was eating 5-6 servings of veggies a day, drinking a lot more water and eating chocolate every day. I always keep dark chocolate chips on hand. A couple usually does the trick for me. I found all the restricting didn't work for me. I know what I should eat and what I shouldn't eat, just like you do. Bread is bad for me cause with butter it is the perfect meal. I eat bread out, as much as I want, but I rarely buy it. Also I do not exercise. I hate it. Not exercising slows the weight loss down but I really was after feeling better first and losing the weight second. It has been 6 years since I weighed as much as Muhammad Ali.
posted by cairnoflore at 9:26 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I eat a lot more healthfully when I have vegetables in the house and bring my lunch to work daily. It's nothing to do with the content of the lunch, which usually ends up healthy because veggies are around and I don't want them to go to waste, but my goal-oriented tendencies help with the motivation to keep cooking rather than just going out for fast food or something. I have some food sensitivities too, and having lunch be a meal free of that with dinner as an "exceptions ok" time has also served me well.
posted by mismatched at 9:53 PM on April 12, 2012

I lift weights (heavy ones, with low reps, not the cardio pump class style lifting). I track my number of reps and the weight lifted for each exercise in a logbook. When I am particularly obsessive, I transfer those numbers to spreadsheets and build graphs. It is awesome for the obsessive self-improvement need. The key is to lift until failure: i.e. the weight lifted needs to be heavy enough that your muscles cannot physically move it one more time somewhere between rep 8-12. That way the numbers you are tracking represent actual strength gains instead of willpower or something.

It's especially fun when you first start because your gains will be spectacular and regular. After 8 years, like me, you will only improve slowly, but I can still add a bit of weight to my bench press every few months, and I still see gains over shorter periods, as I go from being able to lift that new heavier weight for 6 reps in the first set only, to being able to lift it 10 times for two or three sets.
posted by lollusc at 11:20 PM on April 12, 2012

Here's your key question:

What are some good benchmarks and goals can I use if it's not the number on the scale?

And here's the answer, buried in your own words:

I want to be able to go on week-long rugged backpacking trips and learn how to boulder and kayak and stuff like that - and I want to keep up with my fit friends!

The benchmarks and goals are simply becoming able to do actual, interesting, physical things. Make sure the goals are realistic -- you don't go from zero to going on crazy huge backpacking trips in one step. But you do get there through a gazillion small steps, like being able to walk progressively longer distances, first on the flat and then up and down hills, becoming able to carry weight, and learning a few practical skills like setting up a tent and pooping in the woods.

Even someone in very poor physical shape can learn to kayak -- there are classes in swimming pools and in protected bays, for example. By the time you have learned the skills needed to paddle solo for miles, you will have developed the muscles to do so. The same for bouldering and other fun things -- the commonality is that they all use strength and skills that you develop by doing them (and by sucking really hard at first), rather than being things that you can only do after you are already strong and skilled. None of them require you to weigh a certain weight or have a certain shape, too -- the measure is your performance and ability, not how you look.

So if you want to set goals, be ambitious and describe things like long backpack or kayak trips -- but then think about the innumerable small benchmarks you need to hit to get there. At some point, you may need to adjust how you eat to support these activities, but that's out there a ways and not something that needs to be worried about like a "diet." (Though the intolerance sounds like a serious health issue, and potentially one that you need to pay attention to.)
posted by Forktine at 11:33 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ding ding ding on the functional goals. I have completely different health challenges than you, and am blessed with a metabolism that (so far) basically lets me eat just about anything without gaining significant weight - however, my moods and hormones and such are far less lucky. It took me ages (of being a sedentary bookworm, living off cereal and leftover pizza from my roommates) to realize the dramatic difference in mood and energy and sleep quality and overall just WELL-BEING that cleaner eating and more physical activity gave me. It was hard, at first, for me to prioritize these things in a sustainable way because the goals ("feel better, reduce depression, think more clearly") were so nebulous, and my personality is much better at tackling clear cut goals with measurable outcomes. Not to mention every other woman I know exersizes for one reason and one reason only: to reduce her pants size.

Not me though. I do it to nurture my body. I pay attention to my physical responses and cues and I do what makes my mind and body function best, because having my mind and body in top working order (in all of it's various functions) is a priority for me. How? First, don't focus on the rules, really. Don't focus on omg-don't-eat-bad-cake. Focus on adding positive, mind-and-body nurturing habits INTO your life. The trick in my experience is that healthy self-nurture is something that reinforces itself naturally, whereas rules and deprivation do not. If, say, I do 30 minutes of yoga or Pilates a day (both of which are amazing and highly recommended btw), I am more likely to pick a healthy snack later in the day because my body just feels GOOD and I am in tune with it and I want to keep going on that note. When I'm sluggish for a long while I don't pay as much attention because I'm just not very body-conscious; I might think "crap, I ate that entire bag of chips, I feel disgusting, why would I do that??" but it isn't a body-conscious response it's a guilt-response. As a body-conscious and body-nurturing person I can say "ugh, I feel sick. Note to self: eating a whole bag of chips makes me feel icky." And then move along, and when I'm in a positive mode I will likely notice before eating the whole bag and think "I don't want to feel sick." And stop. There is a difference between self-care and guilt. Guilt says I SHOULD do x,y,z because if I don't (negative consequense, negative value judgement, etc). Self-care says "I will do x because it makes me a happier person overall."
posted by celtalitha at 11:57 PM on April 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

How do you feel about water exercise? I have screwed-up joints, and swimming laps is one of the few types of exercise that feels really good to me. The nice thing about pools too is that it never rains indoors, so you can exercise no matter what the weather is like. And if you find the idea of swimming laps unappealing, there are other things to do in pools. For example, one night a week when I swim, there's a water aerobics class at one end of the pool. They're always playing fun music and the instructor is a hoot. That class always puts me in a good mood, and I'm not even participating in it directly.

Relatedly, another thing that makes exercise easier, I think, is having a class to go to or an exercising buddy. If you find good people to exercise with, it's friendlier, I think. And when you have to organize with another person, it also helps turn exercising into a routine, because all of a sudden you have a specific standing date with someone (i.e. every Wednesday at 6 pm, go for a walk with Mary) instead of a vague feeling of obligation. And on bleary days when you're not looking forward to the exercise itself, you can look forward to chatting with your friend instead.
posted by colfax at 6:10 AM on April 13, 2012

Here are some resources that may help you affirm the choices you're making and give you some tools to embody them and explain them to others. I decided to give up dieting and focus on health after many years and I am so much happier. Having some support and knowledge about what I was doing has been invaluable.

A good place to start would be this book: Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight by Linda Bacon. (If you have a Kindle, it's only $1.99) The book talks about how to transition into not dieting, find ways listen to your body and develop a healthy relationship with food, and how to start moving more and enjoy exercise. There is a lot of information about research studies and nutrition--the part I particularly found useful was information about which foods bypass your natural hunger and satiation mechanisms.

Another wonderful resource is the Fat Nutritionist. She has a great blog that talks about our relationship with food and our bodies and she also offers online "Eat Without Drama" tele-classes that are specifically about developing a healthier relationship to food and our bodies.

I love the blog Dances With Fat written by a plus-size dancer who is also a choreographer and public speaker. Her blog has a lot of fat activism on it, but she also posts a lot about fitness. She's pretty plus-size, but does intense workouts to stay in shape and be flexible for her dancing career. Some recent posts of her that you might like:

Is it True that Most Fat People Don't Exercise?
Been There, Done That Diet

And here is a link to the Fit Fatties Forum, a recently launched forum that is "A friendly place for people of all sizes to share, support, and succeed at fitness from a HAES (SM) perspective."

I have a ton of links about fat fashion and a bunch of other resources. I'd be happy to send them to you if you like.
posted by Kimberly at 6:39 AM on April 13, 2012

Response by poster: I'm so glad I asked this question and am really overwhelmed and grateful at all the wonderful and helpful responses here. There's so much good stuff that it's hard to pick "best answers," but I'll try.

To start, I bought Health at Every Size and Intuitive Eating and they are blowing my mind! The Fat Nutritionist is also a great resource. I have plans to go on a few hikes with friends in the near future and am really looking forward to that!

Thanks again, this is all really helpful.
posted by the essence of class and fanciness at 8:11 PM on April 15, 2012

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