In Part 1, I shared how physical transformation can only really begin when a woman first places high value on her worth. In Part 2, I discussed how transformation also requires discipline, and overcoming the mental obstacles that discipline requires can be a difficult but necessary experience toward achieving a healthy lifestyle. In this last installment of this Transformation series, I outline the specifics of what worked for me. I reiterate again that there are many avenues to take on the road to health, but I share this personal testimony as a means of inspiring you on your own journey.
Before we get into that though, a word to the new mamas. If perchance you are reading this while nursing a baby (or gestating one), may I suggest to you that you might be better served to revisit this essay down the road a bit? My last baby was nearly two before I felt like I had the bandwidth to do anything other than the basics. You know, things like eating, sleeping, making sure the kids didn’t die or kill each other and whatnot. I was literally pregnant or nursing for almost a decade before I was able to comprehend making a major personal lifestyle change of this nature.
My dear beautiful postpartum sister, I strongly encourage you not to even attempt a nutrition or exercise program for at least 9 months after that baby is born. There is a time for everything, and right now, the time is to enjoy the fleeting, exhausting, precious moments you have with that darling babe. You won’t get this time back, and you won’t regret spending it on that little one in your arms.
It’s okay. That precious bundle is a very worthy excuse to hold off a little longer, and wait till the time is right to pursue transformation.
With that in mind, here are some things that helped me to be successful in my journey towards fitness and experience the transformation that I’m enjoying now.
1. Get a Sister Squad
In a casual conversation one day, I confessed my body struggles to a close friend, who had long been successful in her exercise and nutrition choices. At the time, I was mostly just complaining, but before I could make excuses, she jumped in, “I’ll help you! Let’s start Monday!” And because I’m such a people-pleaser, I complied. Ha! Her tips and accountability profoundly undergirded my commitment and consistency. She would call or text every few days, and because I cared about her opinion, I stayed the course on days when I surely would have called it quits had I been on my own.
I also think it was significant that I needed the support of a sister, not just my spouse. My husband has stayed pretty fit throughout our marriage, and he surely could have given me exercise tips and held me accountable. Maybe for some couples that works out just fine – but for me, I needed to not confuse his acceptance and attraction to me with my outward physical appearance. And yes, I do think he enjoys the new and improved version of my body, but I also know for certain that he enjoyed me before I tightened up my abs and toned my butt.
We need our spouses to love, encourage and accept us, but I think we need our girlfriends to inspire us.
2. Prioritize Long-term Goals Over Short-term Results
This was huge. I will say this strongly, from both experience and observation: if x-number of pounds is your end-game, you will most likely gain the weight back when the regimen is over with. That’s why I opted for slow, gradual weight loss with fitness and dietary options that made sense over the long haul. I knew that if I started something too extreme or unreasonable as a permanent lifestyle choice, I would burn out and binge.
Give me all the cookies and ice cream, cuz this sucks and I hate my life!
Been there, done that. I didn’t want to hate my life; I wanted to love my life. Sounds simple, but it really is a paradigm shift. Decide to exercise and eat in a way that makes you feel good, healthy and happy. It doesn’t have to be a horrible overhaul or raging boot camp. It just has to be simple and consistent.
With this in mind, I aimed for about a pound a week in weight loss. Some weeks I lost nothing, others I lost between one-half to two pounds. Each week varied due to water retention, growing muscle mass or hormone fluctuations in my cycle, but on average, that was a doable goal. Back in college I lost 10 pounds in two weeks on the Atkins diet. But that kind of weight loss doesn’t tend to stick. The Tortoise really does beat the Hare when it comes to weight loss.
I also kept this mindset when it came to food, which brings me to my next point.
3. Commit to Holistic Nutrition, Not a Fad Diet
My friend (God bless her) encouraged me not to go on some extreme dieting phase–counting calories, swearing off carbs or totally giving up, well, anything, actually. All things in moderation! That said, when trying to change my lifestyle, I did need some parameters to guide my choices. Keeping in mind that I wanted something I could keep doing long-term, I decided my diet needed to be a) delicious, b) nutritious, and c) not overly-ambitious.
This looks different from person-to-person, but basically, I stuck to the following:
- Breakfast: something high in protein to fuel my morning workouts. Examples include eggs with avocado & cherry tomatoes, yogurt parfaits or a protein-rich smoothie.
- Lunch: A hearty, beefed-up salad or leftover soup (I really tried to make this my biggest vegetable-based meal of the day). And let me tell you, I’ve learned how to make a YUMMY salad. No suffering there!
- Snack: something light and non-carb (think carrot sticks, fruit or nuts), and one piece of rich dark chocolate (absolutely non-negotiable for this lady) in the afternoons.
- Dinner: A moderate portion of whatever I was feeding my family. Yes to pasta, rice or bread, as long as it was a small amount, and loaded with veggies and protein.
- No-no’s: I completely swore off evening snacking, which was actually a major deal for me, since my night-owl husband tends to eat the majority of his daily calories after 10pm (no kidding). So, during our evening TV show, I told him I needed to not partake in his gorgeous platter of crackers, cheese, pepper jelly, chips and salsa. (Oh man, so tempting!) I contented myself with hot tea, and made that a hard and fast rule.
Other than suppers, I avoided white flour, and other than the chocolate (and sometimes certain salad dressings), I avoided sugar. On special occasions I would allow myself a small piece of dessert or half a glass of wine, but for the duration of the weight-loss part of my journey, I tried to be very mindful of these parameters. I know lots of people that have regular subscriptions to specialized smoothie-based nutritious programs, or Weight Watchers, etc, and if that’s your jam, then go for it! But for those that don’t enjoy drinking their calories, or have budget restrictions, or are concerned they won’t be able to maintain after the dieting phase is over, I hope these ideas give you some inspiration.
4. Begin a Doable, Personalized Exercise Routine
Some people are gym people, some are runners or cyclists, or play competitive sports. I’m a homebody with five kids and going pretty much anywhere feels like a huge deal to me. So respecting my own interests and limitations, I knew whatever exercise regimen I chose had to work long-term, year-round, and in my own living room. So I got a DVD, invested in a yoga mat and a few hand weights, and went to town.
It’s just 25 minutes a day, I reasoned. If I do nothing else all day, I can at least do 25 minutes.
I’ll admit, it was rough and ugly at first. I felt like I was doing nothing but flinging flab around. I was constantly sore, and couldn’t do a single pushup–even on my knees. To add insult to injury, I didn’t even lose a single pound for about 4 weeks! But with the support of my friend cheering me on, I pushed through that first horrid month. She assured me that building muscle mass initially can often look like gaining weight, but over time it makes my body more efficient at burning fat. It was a tough sell, but I chose to believe her and I didn’t quit.
Initially, I was so afraid of flaking out that I worked out 6-7 days a week. I was worried that if I got off the horse for even a day, then I wouldn’t get back on again. In hindsight, that was maybe a little…intense. Once I had formed a pretty consistent habit though, I backed off to 5 days and took the weekends off. Then I tried taking Wednesdays and Sundays off. I just kept tweaking things till I found the rhythm that was right for me–a rhythm that yielded consistent results and boosted my metabolism.
It wasn’t long before I started seeing changes. I made my first goal in 3 months, and felt so good about my eating and exercise lifestyle that I decided to continue until I felt like my body was at its absolute best. And wow– being stronger and healthier at 33 than I was at 20 was a pretty great feeling.
5. Change Your Mindset
Day-by-day, I took mental notes of my progress as I made each series of small choices. When I would indulge in a bowl of ice cream, I would look at that single small scoop and say to myself, This is all the ice cream I need. I no longer will choose to have big 3-scoop bowls of ice cream. This is enough. And so on. If I stayed up too late to wake up early for a workout, then I would make room in my schedule to work out later in the day. Other things would have to suffer the consequence, not the workout. Whatever small thing I implemented in my current lifestyle, I mentally visualized myself doing it for good.
6. Switch Things Up
After a while, the 3-pound hand weights became pretty easy for me. It was tempting to stay where it was comfortable and less difficult, but I was told that just doing the same-ol’ same-ol’ would eventually quit burning the fat and would no longer yield the results I was looking for. My muscles needed to be consistently challenged, so I moved up to the 5-pound. Then the 8-pound. I experimented with different workouts, different instructors, and workouts that focused on different parts of the body each day. I kept my body guessing and pushed the boundaries of my perceived mental limitations. Lately, I’ve incorporated in my routine a long cycling ride with my husband once or twice a week. I’ve faced my hatred of running and worked up to running 3-4 miles (when it is not allergy season). Recently, my kids showed off how they can do a chin-up on the monkey bars, so now I feel the itch to see if I can do that!
Switch it up. Get stronger and don’t back down. Find joy in breaking personal records and trying new things.
7. Maintain Healthy Motivation
I’ve basically maintained my new lifestyle for over two years now. I’ve taken brief breaks for things like out-of-town vacations and grieving through personal loss, but when those times come, I don’t worry that I will regress anymore because I’ve established a habit. I can hardly believe it, but I often look forward to workouts now! Saying no to unhealthy snacks or goodies has become surprisingly easy, and I’m able to be a bit more lax than I was in those first several months. I’ll drink wine more frequently, make cookies sometimes, or occasionally eat a sandwich with yummy sourdough bread, rather than a salad. But mostly, I still stick to my routine outlined above.
Often, people will lose steam after the weight is gone, and old habits creep back in. Long-term, healthy motivation has to go beyond mere weight loss if you want to stay the course after the goals have been met. Here’s some of my other motivators that keep me going:
- I want to have a strong back in my old age. Okay, strong arms, legs, and joints too, but being genetically predisposed to having back problems, I want to do my part today to give my older self the best chance for success. What genetic predispositions are in your family? Obviously, we can’t control everything, but making these kinds of lifestyle choices certainly can’t hurt your chances to prevent things like heart disease, diabetes or chronic pain.
- I want to have strong bones in old age. Many old people have bones that are quite brittle because they long ago quit doing the kind of physical activity necessary to strengthen them. Did you know that our bones stop regenerating in our late 20s? Bones will only “remember” to generate new cells if they are put under pressure. And strengthening muscles is how to put pressure on your bones. That motivates me!
- I want to be an energetic person–today and in times to come. I’m not just investing in my current energy status, but in being able to run around with my future grandbabies! Maybe thinking about our toddler or third-grader growing up and having kids is a little hard to comprehend right now, but we are wise to prepare for life down the road. Someday my children will be grown and moved out, and I also want to have the stamina to travel and adventure with my spouse in seasons when mothering is not quite so all-consuming.
- I want to uphold an example for my children of keeping physically active and valuing myself. Little eyes are watching, and mine have asked me lots of questions about why I huff and puff in their living room each morning, and this has led to some really fruitful discussion. We talk about how bodies work, about monitoring sugar intake, about how doing hard things can be extremely rewarding. When my kids were tiny, I couldn’t just tell them to clean their room or scramble eggs. I had to clean it with them; I had to show them. Teaching physical fitness is no different, and preparing them for a healthy lifestyle is maybe my biggest motivator of all.
What challenges are you facing in fitness? Where are you at in your journey? I sincerely hope that my story of personal transformation encourages you along the way, and gives you hope. You are worthy of the effort, and stronger than you know.
Transformation is possible.
Marilynn Song Harri is a happy wife, mom and homemaker in the small town of Walla Walla, Washington. While she keeps very busy raising and teaching five children at home, she pursues a life of simplicity, laughter and loving Jesus.