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Losing Myself on the Way to Fitness - Guest Blog by Lauren

Guest Blog by: Lauren Van Mullem

New Year’s resolutions are notoriously hard to keep, but I think that’s because we make them into wishlists for everything we’d *like* to do. At least, that’s what I’ve done in the past. But on the last day of 2016, I made one resolution. Just one.

I will make my physical health my first priority.

And, reader, I did it. But here’s something ‘success stories’ never include: 

I’d never felt so hollowed out as a human being.

I’d also never had visible biceps before. 

The two are connected.

But let’s start at the beginning - my motivation for really committing to physical health.

On Christmas morning 2016, after a night of Swiss fondue with the fam, I was 204 pounds. I’m 5’9” and that’s heavy. I stepped on the scale, made my usual frowny face, and brushed my teeth without bending from the waist, as I’d learned to do to avoid incapacitating back pain.

See, it wasn’t the weight so much. It was my back. I’m a tall woman with a family history of back problems-to-the-point-of-surgeries. The first time my back went out was the day after my wedding (at which, for the record, I was down to 155), and I spent the first half of my honeymoon hobbling around Germany. 

The additional 49 pounds I gained over the next two years didn’t help. 

I was working harder, building my business, making more money, and having far less time to exercise. Which really translates to sitting in front of my computer, a lot. The worst thing possible for back issues.

I tried a chiropractor and went through a series of ridiculous chairs (kneeling chair that bruised my knees, exercise ball that was just a bit too low and made me hunch my shoulders to type). Nothing worked. Walking helped, but after a while even that seemed to make my back more stiff. 

And, frankly, I’m resistant to doctors. I didn’t want a pill to make the symptom go away; I needed a lifestyle change that would solve the root of the problem.

But lifestyle changes are tricky. Maintaining the level of motivation required to sustain them is even trickier. My journey was a multi-step process, dotted with wins to keep me going, and not without conflict.

Diet came first

So, I committed to put my physical health first for the whole year. And I started right on time - on February 7th. 

Yep, over a month later. 

Hey, January was busy. We were traveling. There were dinners out with friends, etc. etc. But on February 7th I got serious about it and cut out all the carbs.

I’d only just learned about Keto (a little too extreme for me), but low-carb made sense - the only way I’d been able to lose weight for my wedding was by eliminating bread, pasta, sugar and white potatoes. And limiting alcohol, which is hard, because I really love wine and craft cocktails. So for me, adopting a low-carb diet was a return to what had worked, but this time I started to learn why cutting out flour and sugar and white potatoes worked when nothing else did.

Some people just can’t freakin’ handle processed carbs and sugar. 

I’m not a scientist or a nutritionist, but I can tell you this from personal experience: When my husband has a portion of pasta, he eats it and he’s done. If I taste pasta, I have to have all. of. it. “Full” doesn’t even come into the equation. Pizza is my crack. If there’s an unattended slice and I’m ‘trying to be good’ by ignoring it - I’m in torment the entire time.

But when I cut out those foods, I began noticing some amazing changes. I lost 5 pounds the first week. By the second week, I could go out to a restaurant and not touch the bread basket (and feel mostly okay, only a little bit like crying). The higher protein in my diet meant that I didn’t need to snack throughout the day to keep my energy level even. I felt energized instead of weak, my moods evened out, and I even felt less anxious (lowering caffeine also helped).

My friend later called this getting “Carb sober.” It’s an apt description. 

Feeling the difference from those early results gave me the fuel for phase 2: 

The bloody process of carving out time to exercise

It didn’t take long for my weight loss to slow from diet alone, so I knew I needed to add more exercise. I deliberately scheduled two hours, Monday through Friday, to hike. 

Now, I’m a freelance writer and I work from home, which, to the uninitiated, sounds like I have ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD! 

I don’t. 

So this was really hard. My days are packed with billable hours and all of the ‘behind-the-scenes’ work it takes to get them. Yes, I can, in theory, take a 2 hour hiking break - but I have to make up that time by working early or late because deadlines don’t wait. I don’t get paid sick days or vacation either.

I had to push around work hours and commit to not schedule meetings during exercise time.

In May, I joined a gym and started working with a personal trainer who specialized in mobility.

Most of her clients were much, much older than I was - like in their 70s. But she knew what stretches to use and exercises to do to help me with my back issues. And, having a can’t miss, twice a week appointment helped me to keep my momentum and make going to the gym into a habit.

As summer heat set in, I went to the gym five days a week.

And worked full time.

And my marriage suffered. My sense of well-being suffered. I had no time for my creative hobbies. I resented time spent walking my dog at her pace because it wasn’t enough exercise for me. Emotionally, I felt like crap and was, clearly, becoming an a-hole. 

But my back was getting better and I was losing one pound a week, sometimes even two.

I had moments that were pain free! I could even bend over the sink on my better days. 

The more core work I did, the better my back became, so I added exercise classes like Barre, yoga and weight lifting to continue strengthening my back and stomach.

On my worse days, I wished I’d just gone to a doctor and taken a darned pill. Because this process was taking a LOT of time. And killing time for everything else.

I wasn’t crushing goals - goals were crushing me

There were a couple of events last year that I thought would make great motivators - one of which was having new headshots taken for my redesigned website. I wanted to reach 175 for those pictures, which would require losing 2 pounds a week for a month straight. 

I failed completely. 

And I noticed that whenever I set a goal like that for myself, I would fritz out and fail. Every time. 

Now, some people do great with goals. I learned that I do better with processes.

If I go to the gym five days a week and track my calories every day, I will lose weight. Slowly, but I’ll get there.

If I try to put myself under more pressure by adding a goal, I will melt down. 

I’ve learned a lot about myself over the course of this year, but this may have been the most valuable lesson. “SMART” goals (specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, time-bound) that many trainers use just frustrate me. But show me my progress with improved mobility, greater strength and smaller measurements every month and I am READY FOR THE NEXT ROUND!

It’s important to know what motivates you, is all I’m saying.

Identity crisis

For all of the hard work I was putting in, both inside and outside of the gym, I wasn’t liking myself very much.

I guess I define myself in large part by what I spend my time doing, and I was spending all of my time going to the gym and working.

I’m a writer. An artist. A gardener. A hat maker. A weird-hobby-collector. A friend, wife, and dog-mama. But I didn’t have time for those things - the things that were central to my sense of identity.

In spending so much time exercising, I was losing the parts of myself that I liked best. 

This was a real low point for me. I looked great, but I was depressed. Sticking to my resolution had made me lose … me.

By Christmas 2017, I weighed 174 pounds (a total loss of 30) and had biceps for the first time in my life.

And I knew what my 2018 resolution would be.

Lean in to joy

My 2017 resolution had been a success, technically. I’d lost weight, my back was better, and I was in the best shape of my life even though I had about 20 more pounds to go until my goal weight. 

But I’d also become depressed, angry and creatively and intellectually stifled. Between work, making healthy food and going to the gym, I just didn’t have time for anything else.

So for 2018, I shifted my priorities again to this: Lean in to joy.

I couldn’t quite make joy my #1 priority (I’d never get my work done), but my goal was to bring in much more of it. I made a list of everything that brings me joy, including painting, learning new hobbies, making hats, spending time with friends, making new friends, traveling and gardening. I decided to spend one Friday every two weeks doing something joyful.

Hah! That didn’t work. 

My schedule was too busy to allow for that. But having the Lean into Joy intention in place helped me seek out opportunities to do the things I love. Just not on a set schedule.

Right now, it’s June of 2018, and I still go to the gym five days a week. I’m still cutting out high-glycemic-index foods for the most part, with a few cheats, but nothing I can’t come back from… in a week (yes, one piece of pie on Sunday and my brain craves carbs for the next 7 days - it sucks. It will always suck.) 

I’ve also completed a dozen small watercolor paintings and made two really nice hats. 

I’m also finding ways to blend exercise and joyful activities, like taking dance classes with my husband and gardening. In fact, I spent so much time gardening that I threw my back out - after lugging 40 bags of mulch all by myself, because I’m strong enough to do that now (It’s okay, I’m fully recovered). 

My vegetable garden currently has corn that towers above my head and honeysuckle and roses that smell like heaven.

It’s a process

This year, I’m struggling to keep up with work because I’m spending time on exercise AND joy. But work-life balance isn’t a destination, it’s a process. It’s a good thing I’m motivated by processes.

I feel like a whole human being again. A healthier human being. A human being with more dimensions and a deeper appreciation of the physical side of life. 

And I can brush my teeth and even wash my face while bending over the sink. Mostly pain free.

Could I have combined joy and exercise from the beginning and gotten the same results? I don’t think I could have. I needed that year of focusing on one thing to make those lifestyle changes into sustainable habits. Losing myself for a year was a price I had to pay. I hope that’s not the same for you. But it might be. All I can say is that losing my balance for a while has put me on much firmer ground now.

Lauren Van Mullem is a freelance copywriter in San Diego, where she dances with her husband, takes her dog to the beach, and fights a never-ending battle against garden gophers. She can be found at TruerWordsbyLauren.com.