Monday, December 3, 2012

Healthy Decisions in the Land of Decadent Holidays

Often, people use New Year's as a springboard for new diet and fitness routines. Often, these attempts fail, but then sometimes people are very successful in these attempts. Certainly, there are a lot of products and programs on the market, such as P90X which gave me a good four months a couple years ago (starting in April, though, not January). Like P90X, several of these programs aim at 3 months, which seems to be a sort of sweet spot: long enough to have some significant results if successful, short enough to keep the end in sight, and more than enough time to establish habits, both in diet and exercise.

I had a thought back at the beginning of October: wouldn't it be great to start 3 months before New Year's instead of the same old "new start" thing? In a certain sense, it's absolutely, positively crazy. Change experts will tell you that it's important to get as many factors in your environment working with you: for instance, turning bad examples and enablers into helpful friends, coaches, and cheerleaders. For instance, if your spouse is the one who says "hey, let's order a pizza, eat a gallon of ice cream, and watch a movie tonight" when you're trying to drop 20 lbs, it's a huge help if you can get him or her on your side, not only not encouraging you to fail at your goals but actively working to help you stick to your diet and go exercise. If you can set up your physical environment in ways that help, too, you'll be way ahead: getting the junk food out of the house, or getting rid of the candy bowl on your desk at work, or changing your routine so that you don't walk by the staff room where that "nice" co-worker always puts out doughnuts.

Like I said, that's the good advice that the experts give you, and starting a weight-loss or health-improvement program on the months leading up to January 1 basically amounts to kindly asking the world to crush your ambitions. As the weather gets cooler, people tend to be more averse to going outside and exercising or, for that matter, leaving the nice warm bed early in the morning and going to the gym. The biggest dream killers, though, are the holidays. We might get through most of October unscathed, but then Halloween hits you with both barrels. If you have kids, you're almost doomed to be surrounded by candy, but even if you aren't, there are probably a bunch of well-meaning people at work bringing it in--heck, that might even be you! And Halloween, of course, is just a warm up for the Thanksgiving-Christmas season. Did you know that half of all American ovens are running at least 8 hours a day in November and December, baking cookies, cakes, pies, or bars? Okay, that's probably not true, but if you look around you, and you're trying to keep a healthy diet this time of year, it probably feels true.

And the thing is, it does feel like such a nice thing to do. I've done it, as recently as last week. I baked a double recipe of Mom's Cornflake Cookies to give first to one group of kids and then to another (with an "appropriate" number removed for our own enjoyment). I'm not taking any moral high ground here in my pointing out and implicitly condemning the empty-calorie-enablers.

"But John," I hear you saying, "Aren't you being too harsh on the nice people who give out candy like billionaires giving to Super-PACs and bake sugary, fatty desserts to give out like it will help us avoid the fiscal cliff?" At least, I think that's what you're saying: it's hard to hear you over the sounds of the crispy cookies I'm eating by the dozen. Who brought these in today, anyway?


Sorry, just woke up from a sugar coma. What was I saying? Oh yeah, I was talking about my bright idea to start a diet and fitness regimen on the months leading up to New Year's. It is, obviously, a hare-brained scheme, as only a rabbit, which naturally subsists on lawn clippings, could think it's a good idea. But here's the thing about it: what if you could make it work? If you could turn three months or two months or one month of the year that would normally be subtracting years from your life into 1-3 months of better health, that would be a huge net gain. In January, pure guilt, absent any intentional changes to your lifestyle, will probably cause you to lose a few pounds, if only from failing to eat in the face of depression. Your three months of Resolution-fueled goodness will only be slightly better than what you would have gotten anyway, you see?

Anyway, while it may be too late to have three good months before New Year's, you could always start here at the beginning of December. My wife is, and I'm awfully proud of her for swimming against the cultural current and trying to make changes now rather than just saying "I'll start next month..." You'd better believe I'm going to do everything I can to help her stay on track and meet her goals. And you know what? I'll support you too--if you need me to come to your place of employment and eat all the cookies, just give me the address and I'll be there. I've got your back (even if there is more of it to get than there was a month ago).

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