They say “Love your body.” But what if you don’t (yet)?

Despite an overly vain fitness industry, we are starting to see a small subset of voices like my own spreading the positive message of “love your body” no matter your shape or size.  It’s a great message with great intentions.  But what if you don’t (love your body)? Unfortunately for people with body image issues (which is many of us), it’s not something we can just “do.”  If it were that easy, we wouldn’t have these issues to begin with.  So the question is, how do you go about learning to love your body for what it is?

Some of you might be thinking “well, it’s pretty easy for someone with six pack abs, perfectly sculpted shoulders, arms, legs and glutes- features which most “fitness icons” portray- to be promoting this message, of course they love their bodies!” Perhaps, but believe it or not even those “perfect bodies” have many of the same insecurities we all experience. But regardless, what about the rest of us?  

Let me first tell you where I’m coming from so you can understand why I’m using the phrase “the rest of us” (because yes, I’m including myself).

I am a “pro fitness competitor” (albeit retired– for now) but realistically, I have been single digit body fat percentage lean.  I’ve been one of those “fitness icons” (so to speak). 

But right now I’m about 150lbs at 5’5 (I don’t actually weigh myself so I’m not sure of the exact number, but it’s around there).  My contest weight was about 130lbs (plus or minus water)- so I’m a good 20lbs heavier. My waist is probably about 28-29 inches.  I have far from what would be considered the ideal female hour glass shape.  In fact, I think my hips and waist are about the same, measured straight across.  I naturally carry my fat in my midsection, contributing to my “larger (by fitness industry standards) waistline,” and I’ll only ever have abs if I’m in contest shape.  I am FAR from “fitness icon perfect.” But you know what, that’s OK.  I’m not trying to be perfect. Because I’m happy with myself.  And regardless of any changes to my body in the future- leaner, heavier, whatever- I’ll still feel the same way.

 It hasn’t always been that way and in fact, it took me a very long time to get here.  But I believe it’s possible for everyone to come to a sense of peace with the body they are blessed with.

So how did I get here? What do you do if you know you want to get healthy and you know it’s time to start treating your body right, but you still struggle with body image? Can you improve your health and even your overall body composition (if you wanted to) all while still learning to fully embrace and love the body you have?

The answer is yes.

But it’s not as easy as so many people make it sound.  It’s a process. It takes a lot of hard work and consistency to CHANGE YOUR THINKING. But the end result is more powerful than any diet or workout you’ll ever do.

Here are some strategies that can help.

First things first, come to grips with the fact that NO ONE IS “PERFECT.”  You are not perfect, you will never be perfect, because we are not meant to be perfect.  In fact there’s no such thing as “perfect.”  That’s what makes each of us beautiful and unique.  Focus your mind on learning to love yourself for the person you are and what you can do.  Your worth DOES NOT come from what your body looks like. Period. End of story.  

Ok so now that we got that cleared up, here are a few more tips to keep in mind-

1.  When it comes to workouts, focus on function rather than a specific look.  It’s an unfortunate fact that, no matter how much work we put in, many of us just don’t have the genetics for that “ideal” physique.  So stop killing yourself trying to attain it, and stop beating yourself up for not looking like someone whose entire livelihood is devoted to his/her physique. 

Instead, focus on the amazing things your body is capable of.  Set performance and strength goals rather than “looks” goals.  Embrace how awesome it is to be able to lift more weight, or run faster, or master a new yoga pose.  And give yourself credit for making progress in these areas, regardless of what the scale or tape measure says.

2.  As I alluded to above, stop comparing yourself to the fitness icons.  Understand that for the majority of these people, their body is their livelihood.  Many are personal trainers or fitness models and their businesses are built based on their bodies.  Not to mention, they are able to spend a lot more time in the gym than most of us with jobs outside of the fitness industry.  I know I can speak for myself when I say competing got a whole lot harder after I finished school and jumped into a job that had nothing to do with fitness.  And this is not to say there is anything wrong with the fitness icons working in the business.  All I’m saying is FOCUS ON YOU, and what’s realistic for YOU to accomplish, within the realm of your own time constraints and personal responsibilities. 

3.  When it comes to nutrition, focus on health, not weight loss.  Shift your mindset toward eating healthy foods for the benefits they bring to your body, not for the amount of fat they may or may not help you lose.  Work on eating a variety of fresh foods and a balance of all the nutrients.  Treat your body well by fueling it with as much good stuff as you can.

4.  Try using positive affirmations to reinforce your belief in yourself.  Positive affirmations are simple phrases you can repeat over and over to yourself, that help you to “convince” your mind of what you want it to believe.  Try not to use any negative words.  For example, instead of saying “I will NOT say negative things about myself,” try saying “I WILL only speak of myself in a positive manner.” By using positive affirmations everyday you can help increase positive self image, even if you didn’t believe it at first (“fake it til you make it”). And you can google “positive affirmations” and find tons of examples.

5. Believe in your ability to make positive changes, even if they are small, and give yourself credit for any step in the right direction, no matter how large or small.  Focus on behavioral changes, not measured “number” outcomes (ie your weight).  The more capable and successful you feel in your ability to make positive changes, the better you will begin to feel about your own body.

6. Focus on other fulfilling aspects of your life that have nothing to do with how you look.  Friends, family, church, work, other hobbies, volunteering, teaching– find the bigger purpose in your life.  Because the truth is there is SO MUCH MORE to life than what your body looks like. And if your biggest focus in life is how your body looks, you’re truly missing out on all the joys life has to offer.

This totally sounds cliche, but remember, this is the only body you get.  You are unique.  You cannot have anyone else’s body, and no one else can have yours.  Do your best to treat your body with kindness and respect.  Be grateful for the body you have and what it can do .  Believe in yourself, stay positive and consistent, and follow the tips above, and you will be on your way to a better body image and a happier outlook, no matter your size or shape.

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The solution is NOT another diet

So its been awhile since I’ve written, I’ve had a million and a half things going on, including an exciting move and job change, amongst other things. But with the New Year upon us and resolutions in full effect, I’m feeling it very necessary to write this post.

Your solution for happiness is NOT another diet. It’s not another fad, or cleanse, or diet pill, or Dr. Oz miracle product or any other promise of rapid weight loss and a “new you.”

In my experience, this is one of the hardest concepts to truly internalize. We all want the quick fix, because we believe that weight loss will be the key to our happiness. The paradox is, in order to truly be happy and healthy we must already accept ourselves. If you are unhappy, weight loss in and of itself will NOT bring happiness.

In other words, if you’re dieting or exercising to lose weight because you hate your body and you believe that when you finally lose weight THEN you will be happy, you will not get the outcomes you’re looking for. It does NOT work that way. In order to become healthy you need to focus on being happy NOW.

You must learn to disassociate weight and food from your self esteem and happiness. Find worth within yourself regardless of your weight and regardless of what food you choose to eat and believe in that worth with all your heart.

So how do we go about doing that? I think one of the first steps is to let go of the dieting mentality. The fact is: Diets fail. And in turn they have this way of making people feel like they’ve failed. People do not fail, diets fail.

One of the inherent flaws in the concept of diets is the “on or off” mentality. We’re either “on” the diet or we’re “off.” When we’re on, we’re severely restrictive with food choices, to a point where it becomes impossible to maintain. Many of us start out with good intentions and strong wills but we have the unrealistic expectation that this level of restrictive eating is maintainable. And then we quickly find out, it is not. And then we go “off” the diet, and boy do we go off. Typically we go “off” out diets and head straight for the opposite extreme, binge eating and consuming large amounts of foods we would not even normally consume, just because we’re “off” the diet and we can. And then any weight loss achieved with the initial restrictive period is usually gained back and then some. And then the cycle starts over.

I myself am guilty of planning shows (fitness competition) in an effort to force myself to diet to get back into what I considered acceptable shape for the fitness industry. I was one of those competitors that dieted 100% strictly for weeks and months on end, only to rebound pretty significantly in a short amount of time following my competition season. This would lead to very poor self image and of course, the inevitable plan to start dieting again. And unfortunately, I was very competitive, and would end up taking it to the extreme again to get in shape for the next show. And the cycle would continue.

Its only more recently that I’ve realized how destructive this behavior is. And the mentality is really no different than the yo-yo dieter.

So no dieting. But then you may ask, so how do I lose weight/get in shape/get healthy? First of all, let me start by saying weight loss does not equate to health (nor happiness, as I’ve mentioned above) but I’ll save that for another post.

If you’re doing a contest prep, of course that requires some form of structured eating. But my advice is to maintain a healthy, well balanced approach, as much as possible. Continue to include all food groups throughout the entirety of the prep and give yourself plenty of time to achieve the level of leanness you’re aiming for. And most importantly, approach a competition prep with the right mindset. Always keep the perspective that “competition lean” is not necessarily “healthy, real life lean.” Be prepared for a normal amount of healthy weight gain after your show and be prepared for the emotional rebound that can occur in the post-show period. Understand what’s realistic and what’s not, and always keep your health as top priority.

And before even starting a competition prep take the time to really evaluate whether or not you are physically and emotionally ready to take on all that the competition prep and the post competition period can entail. And if you’re not sure you can handle it, then DON’T do it. There is absolutely no shame in deciding NOT to compete.

As for the rest of us that will not be getting ready for any physique type competitions in the near future, here’s some additional advice.

✓ Try to avoid classifying foods as good or bad. All food has a purpose. Some foods serve our health and some foods serve as enjoyment/fun. And realistically, its healthy to include a certain amount of both in our everyday lives.
✓ Try making small changes to your everyday habits. In order to be successful, you must approach health as a lifelong commitment, not a quick destination. Slow, manageable changes will produce longer lasting results than extreme restrictions. The key is to accept this truth and stop seeking the quick fix, it doesn’t exist.
✓ Focus on something other than food. Obsessing about what you eat and what you think you “should” be eating will only lead to unnecessary stress and often stress eating. Its counterintuitive, but often we relieve our food related stress by eating more food. So stop worrying so much about it and focus your attention on other, more fulfilling things.
✓ When it comes to nutrition, aim to consume more fresh, wholesome, natural foods as opposed to processed/packaged stuff. Stick to the perimeter of the grocery store- fruits, vegetables, lean meats, dairy and whole grains. It doesn’t mean packaged stuff can’t be healthy too, but generally speaking the fewer ingredients the better. It also doesn’t mean that you can’t incorporate some of the more fun, processed foods into your daily eating.
✓ Try to consume SATISFYING meals and snacks. If you’re forcing yourself to eat foods because you think you “should,” or because you think they’re “healthy” but you don’t necessarily like them, you’re not going to get very far. Choose foods that you enjoy. There is always a “healthier” version of all your favorite foods. Look for recipes and experiment!
✓ Create balance- use all 3 macronutrients at meals- carbs, proteins and fats. Do NOT eliminate whole food groups for the sake of weight loss.
✓ And most importantly, work on your own body image and outlook. Let go of the diet mentality. Break the cycle. Learn to love and accept your body for what it is and what it can do. Your self worth is NOT tied to how you look or what you eat. You deserve better than that, so treat yourself accordingly.