How to get in shape and stay sane?
July 2, 2013 12:01 PM   Subscribe

How to get in shape and stay sane?

I would really like to get in better shape now that it's summer and for general health purposes. I don't have a long way to go, I'm slim (5'4, 115) but "soft."

In the past I've struggled with disordered thoughts regarding obsessing over food and exercise, and just in the previous few days, since I've decided that I want to get in shape, I've already caught myself having similar thoughts regarding restricting. I can't tell you how nice it's been to not obsess, to simply eat in moderation. I have a healthy diet (whole foods, veggies, and yes, dessert) and I just haven't thought much about food for quite a long time. I was recently at the doctor, and everything is fine.

Some things that stress me out and don't help is the aggressive and self-hating tone of a lot of what is out there regarding exercise. When I think of the programs that insist on pushing yourself to the limit and all of the so-called "motivational" quotes and pictures on the internet/Pinterest that are quite unhealthy and dysfunctional in my opinion, it makes me want to not exercise at all.

I like having a program to follow, however, so I was wondering if there are any out there that you have had personal and positive experience with that focus more on the slow and steady but that still deliver results.

I would also like any resources on staying sane, patient, and on avoiding getting sucked into unhealthy obsessions specifically geared towards those who have a history of disordered eating and exercising.
posted by 2X2LcallingCQ to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
This question was tailor made for Starting Strength. Gradual, slow and steady progress and real results are the name of the game. Quite frankly most of the people who give up on Starting Strength are the people who get obsessive and insist on seeing faster results.

There's virtually zero diet component to it -- you can stick with what sounds like your sensible healthy intuitive diet. The name of the game is not skipping meals, and having lots of protein. Nothing is off limits. I can't recommend it enough -- I know barbell training can be intimidating for some women, but it's my favorite way to "get in shape and stay sane" as you said. Good luck!
posted by telegraph at 12:08 PM on July 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

One approach could be to set a goal that is performance-based rather than appearance-based. Something like "I want to run a 7-minute mile," or "I want to do 3 unassisted pull-ups," or "I want to squat my body weight."
posted by Bebo at 12:10 PM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think the book The Intrinsic Exerciser would be right up your alley.
posted by Ouisch at 12:11 PM on July 2, 2013

I replace "exercise" with "doing fun things." How this substitution works varies from person to person, but I don't like gyms, don't like lifting weights, and I'm not nuts about exercise classes. So I bike to work, which is fun. Mountain bike, ski, whitewater kayak -- all things that result in exercise, but that aren't "exercise" to me. I don't need to force myself to do them - I do them because they're fun. Exercise is basically a side-effect. So, find things that are fun for you and produce exercise, and spend time on those rather than things you do simply to get fit.
posted by craven_morhead at 12:18 PM on July 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

I would also recommend Starting Strength. I am surprised at how much my wife and I have enjoyed the program, and neither one of us are into the "zomg edge extreme" fitness that is popular. Slow and steady increases, easy to follow program, and no gimmick diet component. Like most semi-popular fitness programs (or anything really), there is a fringe element of crazies. Just ignore them.
posted by Silvertree at 12:30 PM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have some experience with this kind of issue and some things that have worked for me:

Fun things and social activities, avoid exercising in isolation. Frisbee good.
No machines! Especially not treadmills!
Strength training over aerobics.
Minimize repetitive activities.

Another thing that has helped me is focusing on the health benefits--"strength training is good for my bones" rather than "must meet arbitrary goal!" works better for avoiding obsessive overtraining. But this could also devolve into orthorexia territory so YMMV.
posted by epanalepsis at 12:33 PM on July 2, 2013

And by no machines, I mean also any kind of gadgets that measure your activity. Which includes pedometers, cyclometers, FitBits, and apps on your phone.

Oh, also. Anecdotally, running has been fast-track to relapse territory for a lot of people and I'd recommend you take it up with caution. But activities involving running like tennis or whatever seem totally different, probably because it's a game with other people. Experiment, but keep an eye on yourself. There are so many fun things to try that you should not have to keep going with anything that makes you feel wrong.
posted by epanalepsis at 12:39 PM on July 2, 2013

Have you thought about sports? Tennis games, an intramural soccer team, a basketball league? You'll want to find a group where people take it seriously (e.g. not beer softball) and have regular practices and such, but exercise doesn't have to be some sort of progressive training regimen in order to get you in better shape.

Alternatively, how about taking classes? At my gym, I can take unlimited classes with my membership, and they have everything from yoga and spinning to "hip hop cardio" and "master abs." You can try lots of different classes to combine cardio exercise, strength training, endurance, and other stuff that will make you feel great. And again, there's no measuring other than whether you feel more able to work harder and do more stuff, so there are no numbers to get obsessed about.

All of that works for me to help me manage my tendency to get crazy over specific numbers. Have fun!
posted by decathecting at 12:49 PM on July 2, 2013

I've found joining a goofy amateur sports team to be a great way to get in shape. Things like roller derby, adult kickball, quiddich, etc. -- I paddle on a dragon boat team -- tend to be welcoming to newcomers and people unfamiliar with being athletes. In my experience, these teams celebrate fitness because fit teammates make the whole team stronger, and they don't focus obsessively on body size. Also, teams tend to practice a few times a week, so you wind up with a social reason to get out and exercise.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 12:49 PM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

What's worked for me is removing numbers (e.g. speed, reps, calories burned) from my workouts as often as possible. In some instances this is impossible, like weightlifting, but a lot of times it's not hard to do. Swimming is good for this, since you can't easily measure how fast you're going. If you're doing some sort of cardio machine, put it on "random" and cover up the display with a magazine.

It also helps immensely if your workouts feel like you're doing a thing, rather than just exercising. I loved boxing classes because, even though I'd never fight in the ring, I liked to think that I could if I wanted to. I like yoga because it de-stresses me, and I like running outside because I get to enjoy the weather and maybe see some cool dogs. If it's something people would do for reasons other than looking good, it's a good thing to do. If you can find a reason to do it other than looking good, perfect.

I'd recommend classes (pick whatever you like) instead of solitary activity. Many classes fit both of the above criteria, plus you leave the "what" and "how long" questions to the instructor, leaving fewer things for you to potentially worry about/obsess over. And - I don't know about you - but when I was eating-disordered I tended to pull away and hide my disordered behaviors. It's harder to hide what you're doing, or push yourself too far, when you're around a dozen other people doing the same thing.

I avoid any classes or facilities that talk about burning calories or losing inches or "toning" (uggggh) or any metric that isn't related to how well I can do the physical activity. And - this sounds shallow but it makes a huge difference - I like to work out at places that aren't full of skinny beautiful people. The Y feels a lot more welcoming than the yuppie gym that sells trendy workout clothes in the lobby.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:53 PM on July 2, 2013

You'll want to check out Nia Shanks' "Lift Like a Girl" program and blog. She has a similar history as you (struggled with disordered eating, for e.g.) and (I think) has a great attitude towards exercise and fitness and setting healthy goals.
posted by Kurichina at 1:02 PM on July 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am in recovery from an eating disorder I've been dealing with almost half my life, and I'm the most fit I've ever been right now. The tips above for taking numbers out of exercising has been a godsend for me.

* I have been running with the Couch to 5K program, and though I've been working on it a year, I still haven't finished yet; I am taking as much time as I need. It helps to think about it as a lifestyle and not as something with an end goal.

* I do yoga in a class from 1-3 times per week.

* I try to have at least two "bike adventures" per week -- these can be things like going to the library downtown, running some errands I'd otherwise have run in my car, or just biking out somewhere I've never been before.

* My housemates just had a baby, so I've been walking their two dogs every day in addition to whatever else I do.

By taking the emphasis off pounds and time and mileage I find I can stay sane and out of the bad, over-exercising and restricting zone that I was in for so long. I try to eat somewhat healthy, but I have a deal with myself that as long as I've exercised today, I can pretty much eat what I want.

I hope some of this helps!
posted by fiercecupcake at 1:25 PM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, and this might be obvious, but no scales. Not ever. You'll see progress in how your clothes fit and how your body feels, and that's way healthier than fixating on whether that number is going up or down.
posted by fiercecupcake at 1:26 PM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Functional fitness.

The idea is to exercise in a way that mimics daily functionality needs. For example, you should be able to sprint to a bus stop when you see a bus coming a block away; you should be able to run home if it's late and there is no transportation available - 5 miles or so. You should be able to lift a big suitcase without throwing out your back and put it in the overhead compartment; you should be able to carry a bag of groceries, a child, help an injured adult, move some furniture around. You should be able to lift yourself and a backpack onto a ledge from the ground standing. And so on.

This sets the upper limit to the goal you should exercise to: how much strength and endurance you actually need in real life plausible situations with allowance for some emergencies. It is not likely that you'll need an ironman type endurance in daily life or even emergencies. You won't need to lift much more than your own body weight plus a backpack (+20lbs). You won't need to pull up much more than your own body weight plus a backpack. You won't need to carry much more than a suitcase, or a child. You won't need to sprint fast enough to escape a cheetah, only to catch a bus. So your lifting, pulling, pushups, running, sprinting etc. all have natural limits on the goals. You won't overdo your exercise.

The other advantage is that it will actually provide a real-life benefit in daily functioning (plus some emergencies) which a lot of exercising doesn't even when done at higher intensity. The reason for this is that functional fitness exercises mimic daily activity and so train ALL the muscles likely employed in such activity. You may be able to push on a 130lb weight on a gym machine, and train your ability this way, but you'll throw your back trying to lift/push a suitcase of 70lbs in real life, because the 130lb on a gym machine isolates your muscles/tendons in such a way that it neglects a lot of assisting muscles in a real-world task. Functional fitness works all the muscle network and supporting structures such as tendons which are used in real-world scenarios. You will have strength and endurance for the real world and not the artificial and not 100% applicable gym world.

Plus, functional fitness exercises are not tied to any specific place or equipment like a gym or track field - you can do it anywhere (like f.ex. your house or apartment or room or even workplace), inside or outside and at any time... just like daily life requires!

At the end, you will derive from this the ultimate benefit of exercise - improvement and fitness in your daily life activities, something that is used by doctors to assess the health status and/or frailty in people in many settings.
posted by VikingSword at 2:04 PM on July 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

I am struggling with very similar issues as you right now, and in addition to the excellent advice provided above (especially those MeFites suggesting cutting out numbers and quantitative metrics of success, and focusing on functionality and how your body actually physically FEELS), I wanted to bring up the one thing that hasn't yet been mentioned, and which has been really, really useful for me to remember: REST and RECOVERY are just as important as reps and "results".

In any fitness program, this is often the most neglected aspect, but it is one of the most important, especially if (like me) you tend towards the obsessive end of the spectrum in your relationship to your body. Allowing your body time to repair and regenerate is so, so important to its performance and ability to gain strength/endurance, and not feeling guilty/bad/sheepish about giving your body that time is just as important. Recognizing and understanding that real rest and recovery are not a "luxury" or an "indulgence" has totally rocked my world.

Going to the gym more often or for longer does not necessarily make you better/faster/stronger. Taking days off frequently and consciously does not make you weak.

I repeat this mantra to myself ALL. THE. TIME. Allowing myself the physical and mental space for rest and recovery and refusing to feel guilty about it is still a struggle at times, but it's one worth making. The suggestions that people make above are all wonderful, but (at least in my experience) they weren't really effective for me until I got a handle on letting go of the "more time/days/workouts is always better!" mentality in regards to my physical fitness. They really go hand in hand, and ultimately point towards the same key principle: physical activity and exercise are gifts we give our body, not punishments we inflict on it. Rest is something our body needs, not something we allow it to have.

Good luck!
posted by Dorinda at 3:08 PM on July 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

With a little patience, you should be able to find a yoga class that helps you build strength and tone in an environment that's supportive and empowering, celebrating what you already are instead of working from a viewpoint that "you're not enough" as you are right now.

To find this, I'd recommend you look for a small, independent studio rather than a corporate chain, and try several teachers.
posted by TrixieRamble at 7:28 AM on July 3, 2013

Just wanted to say that I was about to post basically the same question! So thanks for beating me to it & thanks for all the MeFites who have answered so far. Will be watching for more ideas.
posted by Calicatt at 8:03 AM on July 3, 2013

I strongly agree with everything that's already been said here. Personally, I love lifting weights. I like the focus on increasing your body's capabilities, rather than just on your body's appearance. And I like that I can actually observe increased strength in my day-to-day life: working my thigh muscles makes biking up a hill easier, working my arms helps me lift things, etc.

The only thing I really have left to add is: Whatever you pick, be careful about going to internet forums about it, especially ones where people are super serious about the sport, because they talk a lot about food. Serious weight lifters seem to talk endlessly about their diets. (IMO the level of obsession sometimes starts to look a little eating-disorder-y, but what do I know.) For a while, this stressed me out, and I felt very torn. I need to think about my diet too or I won't get anywhere! versus Wow, I really do not want to obsess about my diet to that level and I don't think it would be healthy for me. Ultimately, I let the second one win, and I'm confident that that was the right choice.

The truth is, even amateurs often love to dive in to the total diet overhaul because it makes them feel like "real athletes," but it's just not necessary for a beginner. Hardcore high-level athletes do need to worry about that stuff. The rest of us, we just have to make sure we eat enough to feed our bodies well, make sure we're getting a decent amount of protein to feed our muscles, and the details beyond that don't matter much. I don't even talk to muscley weight-lifter bros about my exercise stuff because I have no interest in their lectures about nutrition. A person who's trying to pack on 30 pounds of muscle, or a person who bikes 200 miles a week, just does not have the same goals or nutritional needs as someone who just wants to exercise a bit more and get a bit stronger.

Also keep in mind that you may get hungrier and need to eat a bit more if you start exercising a lot. That's a good thing! Eat more if you feel hungry! Focus on the idea that you're feeding your body because it's working hard to learn new skills and build new strengths.

tl;dr stick with your intuitive eating, don't stress about it, and you'll be good. Ignore/avoid all the nutrition and diet stuff that you'll find in fitness forums and websites; at this point, it's probably not good for you and you don't need it.
posted by mandanza at 9:24 AM on July 3, 2013

I think this might be a good read for you as well.
posted by Silvertree at 8:21 PM on July 3, 2013

Agreed re: functional fitness. Also:
posted by 4midori at 11:05 AM on July 4, 2013

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