It’s a scenario that plays out each January. Health clubs are packed, diet books are devoured, then within a month or two, our new year’s resolutions lose steam. The crowds diminish, diets fade into memory, and good intentions are saved for another time.
The beginning of the year is always popular for taking a good look at our health, so what does it take to make things last?
The wellness process should start with honest answers to tough questions, said Dr. Pamela Peeke, national spokeswoman for the American College of Sports Medicine, author of “The Hunger Fix” and assistant professor of medicine at University of Maryland.
“There has to be a real wake-up call,” Peeke said. “Just waking up and saying ‘I want to be healthy’ won’t get you anywhere. You need an awakening, a real fire in the belly to get you going. You have to ask yourself, ‘Why do I want to change, and what’s been stopping me?’ Then be brutally honest when you answer.”
Maybe your cholesterol has hit the ceiling, or you caught a glimpse in the mirror and finally admitted you don’t look great. Or you know someone who transformed himself and you’re inspired. Or you’ve hit a crisis point in your health you simply can’t ignore.
Kindergarten teacher Sandie Leonard had that moment a few months ago. At age 45, she’d spent a lifetime trying to be the perfect daughter, wife, employee and mom. With a warm smile and kind voice, she’s the type of friend you’d call in a heartbeat, the teacher (with a master’s degree) you’d trust your child to in a classroom.
A few years ago, however, the pressure to please grew to be too much, and Leonard began using sugar to soothe her anxiety and deal with ongoing depression. The Blountville, Tenn., resident stocked her desk with M&M’s and candy bars. She celebrated every milestone with homemade cakes and pies. And her weight ballooned.
“My favorite thing was Little Debbie Snack Cakes,” said Leonard, who once jogged three miles a day four days a week. Over a few years, her weight rocketed to 334 pounds. “I tried every weight plan out there and had a little success, then I’d go right back to the sugary stuff.”
Finally she reached the breaking point; her anxiety was so consuming she couldn’t teach any longer, and last fall she checked herself into Malibu Vista treatment center, in Malibu, Calif. It was there — as far from Tennessee as she could get, she joked — that she met Peeke, who put her on a healthy nutrition program and got her to realize that sugar wasn’t solving her problems. Intense therapy helped Leonard deal with anxiety and stress.
Today Leonard is back home in Tennessee. She’s dropped 34 pounds since October thanks to a new diet and walking program (she started at 20 minutes a day and has increased to 80 minutes daily). She’s gotten into yoga and practices mindful eating, which means paying attention to each bite rather than gobbling things down. Her kitchen’s restocked with quinoa, tofu and other healthy foods, and she avoids “the Little Debbie aisle” at the grocery store.
“My mind is so much clearer with the good nutrition and exercise,” Leonard said. “I had a feeling of complete despair before with my weight and the anxiety, and now it’s gone.” She regularly checks in with Peeke and the nutrition/medical staff at Malibu Vista, who guide her with recipes and encouragement. And she’s going back to work this January.
Most people know that exercise, appropriate diet and sleep, and managing stress are what’s best for them, said certified athletic trainer Kathy Dieringer, co-owner of D&D Sports Medicine in Denton, Tex., and a board member of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association. “But how to get started and stay motivated to do all that is the age-old question.”
First, go through a wellness checklist: Are you getting the recommended 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity? Lack of exercise, explained Dr. Carol Ewing Garber, president of the American College of Sports Medicine and professor of movement science at Teachers College, Columbia University, increases your risk for heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and other chronic diseases. Of course, the part more people will notice is how lack of activity affects the proportion of body fat and muscle.
Flexibility and strength also are critical to health and wellness. Are you having trouble lifting grocery bags or getting up and out of a chair? “Grocery shopping is a great test because you’re walking around and lifting and loading,” Garber said. “If that’s difficult, you need some work on strength.” Can you touch your toes (with slightly bent knees?) Are you flexible enough to reach your back as if zipping a dress? Lack of flexibility makes daily activities tougher to do.
Stress goes hand in hand with exercise and diet when it comes to overall wellness. Are you clenching your jaw or walking around with tight shoulders and back? Are you obsessed with a bad job situation or family difficulties? Stress can interfere with sleep, attention span, memory, relationships. And, Peeke said, it stokes your appetite for self-soothing comfort — like food, drugs or alcohol. “And if you have rotten sleep, the last thing you’ll do is pop out of bed and exercise,” she said.
How is your weight and BMI? If you’re serious about fixing food issues, call an expert. Let somebody give it to you straight. “There are so many fads out there that may work for a limited period of time, but it all goes back to appropriate nutrition, and that needs to be determined by a nutritionist,” Dieringer said. A health professional can evaluate your weight and diet, give an assessment of body composition and develop a healthy eating plan.
While the journey toward wellness can be daunting, it’s doable by following sensible advice. And there are numerous success stories; one of Dieringer’s clients came to her clinic for shoulder rehab, then continued with an individual fitness plan to stay in shape. She joined group fitness classes, met with a registered dietitian and within a year, stopped taking her high blood pressure and heart medication, all because she started moving and eating right. “We find a lot of our older patients love that group dynamic of getting together and exercising. I think it (the social aspect) increases compliance in every age group,” Dieringer said.
Leonard’s wellness wake-up call has completely changed her life. “A few months ago I didn’t think anything this positive would happen,” said the cheerful mom, who’s aiming, day by day, to lose at least 100 more pounds. “I was just hoping to get back to work. Now I’ve gotten off the anxiety medication, I’m eating right, and my whole well-being has changed.”
©2015 Chicago Tribune
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