On diet, fitness and giving yourself a break


Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of requests for diet and exercise advice.

Staying in shape is a job requirement for me. Every few months, I get a new sailor into the unit, on average 10-15 years younger than I. Part of my job is to make sure that they meet physical fitness standards for our Search-and-Rescue (SAR) and Law Enforcement (LE) missions. It’s a cut above what the rest of the guard has to qualify for, and I cannot accept anything less than the standard requires. Because if you’re not in proper shape when you get out on the water, then you can’t do your job. And if you can’t do your job, then someone could die.

And that’s on me.

I absolutely flog myself on physical fitness. Because I can’t tell these new sailors to meet a standard, I can’t discipline them for failing to meet a standard, if I don’t meet it myself. I am the head of my unit. I must be the example. I have to be able to outpush, outrun, outpull, outendure a 21 year old straight out of boot camp. I have to motivate them by example.

And the older you get, the harder it is.

I sometimes feel that many of my friends assume that, when you’re in the military, you’re possessed of some kind of superhuman discipline. You can magically control the foods you eat, working out is easy, you don’t have days where’d you’d rather lie around and play iPad games all day (I also feel like folks assume the same thing about my writing regimen, but that’s another blog post).

It’s also frustrating for me to feel that some folks think that fitness isn’t a struggle for me. It is, a constant, endless struggle, and one that I am slowly losing as I age. I know there are people out there who love dieting, love working out, who rejoice in bending their body to their will.

I’m not one of them. I HATE this.

And that’s why I wanted to write this post. Because I am fairly pleased with some of the success I’ve had, and I do have some . . . let’s call them coping mechanisms that have worked well for me, and I wanted to share them with you. You might find them a little surprising:

1.) I don’t overthink it. I can count calories, but I really don’t. Math is a pain in the ass, and nothing spoils a meal more than having to go to your smartphone calculator to try to figure out what your total for the day is. I know that fat is generally bad, and sugar, and bready . . . bread stuff. I know that vegetables and fish are generally better than meat. I know that fried food is worse than raw food. I do what I can to watch what I eat without having to become a nutritionist. Because if I do that, I’m just going to go nuts and throw up my hands at some point and pound a quart of Ben and Jerry’s out of sheer spite.

2.) I do things incrementally. Slow and steady wins the race. Big, grand gestures flare up and burn out. I don’t go on a fruit-only diet. Because. Screw that. Who the hell is going to stick to that crap and eat ONLY fruit for any real period of time? I do little things. I start putting skim milk in my coffee instead of whole. I go down from 3 sugars to 2. I switch my salad dressing from ranch to oil and vinegar. I order vodka-sodas instead of beer. I order burgers without the bun. I give myself time (months) to get used to changes in diet before making more.

3.) I don’t make myself crazy about my genetics. I can’t control my body’s natural tendency to be fat or thin. There’s plenty in life to drive me crazy without wasting precious compute cycles thinking about this, so I don’t.

4.) I whine and gripe a ton. Complaining helps. Working out is time consuming, painful and stinky. If you don’t have a free gym, it’s also expensive. It’s the last thing I want to deal with when I’m busy, or tired, or anxious. I still have to do it, but I don’t have to do it quietly. I can chew the ear of every unfortunate soul in the range of my considerable voice. I can beat my breast and cry out to the heavens and be the opposite of a stoic and enduring military officer. And then I feel a little bit better, but not much, and I get the hell back to work.

5.) I cheat a little every day. I have the worst sweet tooth in history. I love bread and milk. If I had my way, my diet would consist entirely of warm French bread soaked in garlic butter, cold cereal and ice cream. But that would make many of my fitness goals unattainable, so I spend most of my time eating stuff that’s good-but-not-really-what-I-want. See item 2 above. If I try to be absolutely draconian about things, I’m successful for a short period, and then I find I can’t sustain it. I burn out. But if I cheat a little every day: half a brownie here, a cookie there, some frozen yogurt with chocolate chips, maybe one or two “bad things” a day, it keeps me on the straight and narrow. The trick is to ensure I’m just cheating, and not just choosing a different diet.

6.) I control my appetite with filling snacks and water. My stomach is a black hole. I can never put enough linguine in pesto sauce or that onion infused oil they cook snails in to fill it up. I am always always always hungry. It’s maddening. I can’t just sit there and ignore it. I’ll go nuts. So, I have what I call “zero calorie” foods (they aren’t actually zero calorie, they just seem healthy to me) that I can keep next to me and munch on all day: little carrot nubs, celery chunks, those little fat-free peely cheese thingies that look like squid dicks. And I drink water all day, every day. These things fill the void, and help me feel full, without holding me back too much. I also funnel water. As much as I can stand. I keep a squeeze bottle at my desk and fill it as soon as I notice it’s empty.

7.) I treat working out like brushing my teeth. If you have to work a 16 hour day and you are utterly exhausted, you do not come home and just pass out. You take 5 minutes, go to the bathroom and brush your teeth first. If you don’t feel like brushing your teeth, you still do. If you’re travelling, you still brush your teeth. If you got into a fight with your spouse, you don’t stop brushing your teeth. This is the gym for me. And running. I don’t miss workouts unless life absolutely forces me to.

8.) I give myself permission to fail. And life does force me to miss workouts on rare occasion. There will be days I go to Games Night at my agent’s and my editor’s assistant brings these awesome homemade cookies AND I EAT FIVE OF THEM BECAUSE WE’RE PLAYING MUNCHKIN AND I NEED THIS RIGHT NOW. Having a bad day doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be bothering in the first place. It doesn’t mean that it’s all over and that you’re a failure. It means you’re human and you had a bad day and you should give yourself a goddamn break and then get back on the horse.

9.) I don’t compare myself to other people. That way lies madness. You’re either not as good as the person ahead of you, or you’re letting yourself off easy by comparing yourself to the person behind you. The only person I compare myself to is the person I want to be.

10.) I never give up. You know the old saw: you only fail when you stop trying. The truth is that life isn’t fair and the human body is binary. If I want to lose weight, there’s only really two ways to do it (diet and exercise), and if I want to change the shape of my body, there’s only really two ways to do it (diet and exercise), and if I want to be able to keep up with my strongest crew member, there’s only really two ways to do it (THREE GUESSES FOLKS). My body doesn’t care if I’m tired or lonely or hungry or not in the mood. It is a machine that responds to the inputs it receives, and is utterly pitiless. It’s also an aging machine that is slowly grinding to a stop. That sucks and it’s fine to admit it. It’s even fine to bitch and moan about it. But I ALWAYS get back to work in the end. Because I am either working toward my goals or I am not.

One more thing on this: Only you define your body image. Your doctor can tell you that your weight or fitness level is unhealthy. Your job can impose requirements. But only you can say if you’re happy with how you look and feel. I decide what the ideal weight is for me, and nobody else. If you are happy with how much you weigh or how your clothes fit, then other’s perceptions of you are their problem. You should never feel external pressure to diet or exercise. You likely will, because people are really mean most of the time, but I sincerely hope you’ll give yourself a break.

So, no. I am not carrying a monster truck tire filled with melted lead everywhere I go. I am not eating a bowl of metal filings for breakfast and calling myself a maggot in the mirror. What success I have at fitness comes from quite the opposite: I am KIND to myself. I FORGIVE myself. I struggle to ACCEPT myself. I move SLOWLY but RELENTLESSLY. I only COMPARE MYSELF TO MYSELF.

These things work for me. It makes a hard thing easier. And if reading that eases the load for you, then it’s worth even more.

  • Paul Weimer

    Thanks, Myke

    Fitness and health are marathons, not sprints. No marathon goes completely smoothly, it has ups, downs, strong points and setbacks. Keeping on it, in your own way, as you say, is what counts.

  • Terri Lynn Coop

    This rocks and it does help. I’m coming back from a shoulder injury where things like putting on my jacket is an adventure. While I was laid up, boredom, pain, and depression contributed to a round squishy me. I have to remind myself that no matter how bad I wanted it, it took a year from my shoulder to heal. Fixing my ass won’t happen overnight either.

  • Great post. I’ve been doing the same thing since I’ve taken control of my health, and I follow the same philosophy. There are so many times I look at my workout for the day and go “aaahhhh I don’t wanna” but I power through. And while I write down what I eat every day, I don’t obsess about it.

  • Dan Adler

    Thanks Myke. I keep trying. I fall down every damn time. But I keep trying. It’s important.

  • John Zeleznik

    Thanks for this. I’ve been struggling with this lately and I needed this.

  • Paul Lucas

    Adding, exercise should be approached incrementally as well. Find things that you can do many times a week and add to them. Don’t start on a program because someone else says it’s the best.

  • Eric Christensen

    Great post. Except for the string cheese bit. Now I’ve got that mental image to deal with.