Train Your Brain and Change Your Body

For the majority of my life, I struggled with my body image and had a very dysfunctional relationship with both food and exercise.  I was born in 1965 and grew up when Twiggy was the world’s most famous model—the “look” that was valued at that time was long, lanky, and thin, thin, thin!  My very well-meaning mom, who swore by the credo, “You can’t be too rich or too thin,” was diligent about keeping her own weight as low as possible and made sure that I understood that being thin was equated with being attractive and successful.

The only real glitch in the situation was that I was built more like a lineman than a model.  All my life I was a sturdy little gal—never frail and tiny like so many of my classmates growing up. Wanting the best for me, my mom warned that I had a “problem” figure and needed to carefully monitor my food intake so as not to get fat.  I was taught that it would almost be better to be dead than fat.  I personally did not see the problem, but as a kid you believe what you are told.  I internalized the message that my body was a “problem” and dedicated myself to finding a solution.

As with most situations in which you try to fit a square peg into a round hole, I always felt like I was attempting to force my body into becoming something that it was not…to beat myself into submission, so to speak.

The more I tried to diet and deprive myself of sufficient food, the more I became frustrated when I would give in and eat.  My failure and frustration led to extreme anxiety, and I would sneak food to quell my negative feelings.

Rather than sneak heads of lettuce and stalks of celery, I would calm myself with comfort foods…cookies, cake, pastry, ice cream, cereal, chocolate—you name it, and I ate it.  Like all binge eating, once the binge was over I would have more problems, feel more frustrated and be angry at myself for losing control.

Following a binge would be a “starve day”—I would barely eat to counteract what I had done the day before.  Starving would lead to becoming ravenous and I would end the day bingeing again.  This cycle plagued me most of my life…and all the while I was on the drill team, I was the head cheerleader, and in college I was a favorite aerobics instructor at the local gym.  I soon figured out that if I binged I could also rid myself of the extra calories by over-exercising.  I believe that people that do this are now called “exercise bulimics” so it turns out I was ahead of my time.

With that discovery, my life then became an endless cycle of bingeing and exercising to the point of exhaustion—I would jump rope, run, do the Stairmaster—all to excess in an attempt to improve the situation.  Now that I look back on those years, I ask myself if I was trying to help myself or punish myself.  You don’t need to be a psychologist to answer that question.

I never got really fat, but my body was so messed up from the bingeing on sugary, starchy foods that I had a lot of body fat on my slightly larger-than-average frame.  My body now at the age of 46 is the body that I always wanted during my tortured years, but it always eluded me.

What finally helped me dig out of the dark hole into which I had fallen was making the connection that there were many dysfunctional patterns that were ruling me and I was not coping with what was really going on in my life.  The biggest revelation was that I was trying to be something that I was not.  When I decided to give up on the dream of being a slender, lanky, model-type and accept the body that God gave me, it was a monumental step in the right direction.  Realizing that I was built for strength sports and developed muscle very easily, I went with it and focused my training efforts on enhancing the body I was given rather than trying to completely change how I came into the world.

The second big epiphany was that I was using food for everything but fueling my body.  I ate if I was sad; I ate if I was happy; I ate if I was lonely; I ate if I was stressed out; I ate if I was angry; I ate if I was tired; I ate if I was disappointed; I ate if I was frustrated; I ate if I was calm; I ate if I was anxious.  I believe I just listed most of the mental states that a human being can experience—and for all of them, I ate.

I made the decision that if I was sad, I would call a friend and talk.  If I was happy, I would enjoy the moment without the need to have a party in my mouth.  If I was lonely, I would seek companionship.  If I was angry, I would vent my feelings rather than “eat” them.  Food does not solve problems, fix a bad relationship or help you sort through a stressful situation.  Food merely temporarily distracts you from whatever negative emotions you are feeling and when the food is gone, the negative emotions are still there—only compounded exponentially.

The final light bulb that went off in my head was the realization that I am in charge of my body and food—not the other way around.  A pie has no power over me and can’t make me eat it.  A sabotaging friend cannot “guilt” me into eating the cookies that she made “especially for me” and brought to the party.  Short of being forcibly hooked to an IV and fed against my will, nothing and no one can control what goes into my body but me.

With these realizations came a more balanced life and a more balanced approach to food and exercise.  Today, I am at peace with my body.  I am not the tiniest girl at the gym, but I do alright.  I feel strong, healthy, and capable of making good decisions for myself with no chance of being swayed by outside forces.

I use food but I don’t abuse food.  I use exercise but I don’t abuse exercise.  When I want to indulge, I indulge in sleep.  I do things that are good for my body, and I no longer need to punish myself for my transgressions.  If I decide to treat myself by eating a bit more than usual, it’s no big deal.  Life evens out in the end, and I am not going to give myself a stroke panicking over something I ate.

Until you work on your mental fitness and behavioral patterns, your efforts to change your body will be as impermanent as sand running through a sieve.  That is a fact.  Physical fitness is fleeting if you do not have the mental fitness to back it up.  Focus on training your brain as much or more so than you do your butt and your biceps, and you will be on the right track.

Having knowledge means that you know information; having wisdom means that you effectively use that information to create positive change.  The Dalai Lama encourages “critical thinking followed by action.”

So many people with whom I have worked know exactly what they need to do, yet they do not take the next step and put their knowledge into practice.  People that achieve their goals understand that knowledge alone does not generate success.  You must be willing to do the tedious, day-to-day work that is required.

One of my favorite quotes is by Pat Riley, widely regarded as one of the greatest NBA coaches of all time: “There are only two options regarding commitment; you’re either in or you’re out.  There’s no such thing as life in between.”

If you are going to internalize a message, let that one sink in and see how fast your life changes.

What are you waiting for?

Live with Simplicity,