Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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Are you sick of shame lurking behind your New Year’s exercise and diet resolutions

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I love January for its promise of a fresh start around the choices we make as we open the fridge or lace up our running shoes, particularly after the food-drink-dessert bombardment of the holidays and the distortion of well-established movement routines.

But while the New Year is as good a time as any to recommit to health of the body and mind, I’ve finally realized that I’m just not motivated by resolutions packaged in negative self-talk and tied up with a pretty read bow of shame. Shame makes health a precarious tightrope walk, and after one misstep it’s so easy to just eat the whole big bag of chips since I’m already plummeting toward the safety net anyway.

So how do you remove shame but keep the motivation to change your eating and exercise habits? The only thing that’s worked for me is to think differently about the whys and hows behind my resolutions.

 

Ask yourself “why?” 

You can’t reasonably expect a change to stick if you don’t know why you’re doing it in the first place. Are your diet and exercise goals motivated by a desire to lose weight, to look a certain way, or to feel healthier and more energetic? Is it some combination of the three? If you don’t know the why behind what you want (or if your “why” is really a “should”) lasting change won’t happen. Once you get past the initial honeymoon stage of your snazzy new diet and exercise resolutions, there’ll be days when you’re just too tired or too busy. Your “why” may be the thing that helps you get over the hump and recommit to the new plan.

 

Choose your own adventure

Once you know your “why,” let it guide your choices and routines. If, for example, your goal is to feel healthier and more energetic, why would you put yourself in a fitness class that has you staring at yourself in the mirror as you work on getting a beach-ready body? Instead of suffering through the latest celebrity-endorsed fitness and diet fads, find ways to eat and move that help you feel both healthier AND happier. My New Year’s exercise and diet resolutions used to be motivated by a desire to punish myself after a particularly rich string of holiday meals and couch-sitting. But like a rebellious teenager, I’d just end up acting out and bailing on my exercise and dietary penance.

 

Get real about your expectations

Recent studies have shown that (gasp!) exercise is not all that effective in creating weight loss. The conclusion from this study is that fitness and cardiovascular health are more important than the actual number on the scale, but it also means that many of us set unrealistic expectations each January when we visualize ourselves post-workout with glistening abs and a svelte new physique. If your “why” is purely weight loss, this study is a big bummer, I know. But if your “why” also includes a desire to enhance your overall health and feel more energetic, the good news is that you have lots of options and you may even enjoy them in the process. There’s some exciting new evidence that yoga may be as beneficial for heart health as brisk walking and biking. Yay, yoga!

 

Abandon the forbidden food list

There’s nothing more tempting than that which is forbidden. I spent years creating a warped internal logic about what I could and couldn’t eat (based on a hodge-podge of advice gleaned from such reliable sources as magazines, the internet, and overheard conversations at the health food store). You know what it led to? Me stuffing a 10th syrupy piece of my grandma’s baklava in my mouth on New Year’s Eve after having so virtuously foregone desserts the whole month of December. My new strategy revolves around eating real whole foods as the base of my diet and listening to that little voice that wants dessert. It knows what it’s talking about and WILL get its way eventually, so when I listen and enjoy a treat, it prevents me ending up in a fog of stuffed baklava regret later.

 

Put less weight in your weight

When it comes to health, it’s important to remember that weight is only one factor in the larger picture. Heart health, lowered stress, and overall feelings of well-being have a significant impact on the state of your health even if you’re carrying around an extra 5 or 10 pounds. Of course, weight, BMI, and other health factors are highly individualized and for those who are clinically overweight the numbers are a big deal. But when you’re already in a healthy weight range and you’re just battling a few stubborn pounds, it may be a good idea to examine whether the war you’re waging is enhancing your health and happiness or detracting from it.

 

Here’s to your continued health, happiness, and to resolutions without shame!

 

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After the collective shouts and kisses to mark the stroke of midnight, the proverbial throwing away of old calendars (those relics) and pinning up of the new, and this year a pristine January 1st snowfall to lend a little extra oomph to the thrilling feeling of newness, the soundtrack of early January is peppered with New Year’s resolutions. If you’re quiet you can almost hear them – muffled by the snowy landscape and the voices of cheery news anchors and snarky radio DJs – the visions of our better selves crafted into five-to-seven word vows. But if you keep listening you’ll hear another sound, one that we’re deaf to as a culture: the echo of resolution shame.

Shame is now part of our cultural vocabulary. Recent research has demonstrated that it’s not the healthiest way to approach self-talk, parenting, procrastination, relationships, or even training a pet. But with very few exceptions, New Year’s resolutions are a shame-fest.

“I resolve to eat healthier.” (I’m still XX pounds heavier than I should be because I have no discipline. No one will ever love me if I look like this.)

“I resolve to exercise.” (That gym membership has become an expensive way to make me feel lazy. So-and-so has a personal trainer so I should, too. Maybe then I’ll have awesome abs.)

I’ve never been a big resolutions person, but like many people I can get swept up in the collective breath-holding on December 31st as the clock winds down. The January 1st exhale is more than just the turning of the calendar. It’s a time when the holiday craze settles and we get back to life as usual. It’s a natural time to get introspective after a month living in the hyper-extroversion mode of holiday parties and socializing.

What’s missing from this practice of introspection is not the identification of what to change, but rather why you want to change it. What’s missing is the other “R” word: Reflection.

This is not a matter of mere semantics. Consider the definitions:

Resolution: a firm decision to do or not do something.

Reflection: serious thought or consideration. Synonym; meditation

How can you expect to stick to a resolution that was not well-thought out or seriously considered?

Resolutions spotlight your greatest character flaws and behavioral challenges, the issues that have plagued you for years, and demand that you simply stop doing them right now. Just because.

If your past year has been one of junk food and couch surfing, shaming yourself with reactionary resolutions won’t do anything to change that. Buying every green vegetable at Whole Foods and chucking them into the crisper will not turn you into a health food eater. Guilting yourself into getting a gym membership that you don’t want to use will not force you to exercise.

Resolutions have the remarkable power to simultaneously let you off the hook while shaming you for falling short. Didn’t make it to the gym in January? Guess you couldn’t cut it. Maybe next year (but probably not then either).

Reflection, on the other hand, is all about asking questions. You want to get healthier? Why? Do you really care about abs, or do you just want to feel more vibrant and energetic?

If it’s the latter, reflect on what activities help you to feel healthier and more alive. That doesn’t mean googling “best ab exercises” or the latest diet some celebrity is following. Be honest without thinking too much about what you “should” do for exercise. (“Should” is shaming territory.)

Choose things you love to do that also happen to get you moving. Not a gym person? Me neither, and when I finally accepted that rather than telling myself exercise "should" look a certain way, a whole world of movement and activity opened up and it was stuff I actually enjoyed and wanted to keep doing.

Forget the "shoulds" - take a walk, cross-country ski, go to yoga, pull the kids on wild sled ride, go swimming at the park district, put on your favorite music and just start dancing. Skipped a few days? It happens, but the good news is there’s no expiration date on this stuff. Just start again, reflect, remember why you wanted to get healthier in the first place, and breathe deeply when you get back to movement so you don’t forget as quickly next time. But you will forget. And that’s okay.

Remember to reflect not only on the days you fall short of your goals but also on the days you nail it. Notice how you feel after taking a little extra time to make a meal that didn’t come from a box, savor the sensation of eating fresh fruit and vegetables at dinner, even if you dive into the old candy stash for dessert. The fruits and veggies will be there again tomorrow, and you can choose to come back to them when you feel the desire return rather than shaming yourself over a mushy plate of steamed broccoli.

Reflection is not hip or ironic. It can’t be accomplished with a clever resolutions tweet or a cute photo posted to Facebook. Reflection is quiet, low-tech, and takes consistent time and attention. But over time, reflection is the shame-free way to pursue real change that doesn’t fade by January 31st.

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