Pilar Gerasimo, Experience Life Founding Editor

Revolutionary Acts

Experience Life founding editor Pilar Gerasimo shares her renegade perspectives for thriving in a mixed-up world.

Recently in Making Change Category

Experience Life Magazine

Fitness-Buddy Transformations

MyPicture-1.jpgFor the past couple of years, I’ve been doing the fitness-buddy thing with my niece, Xanthi, now 19. It started with me giving her some basic pointers on heart-rate training and running form, but it rapidly evolved into a full-fledged mutual support system — and then into something of a transformation story.

Over the course of the past two years, Xanthi has lost a ton of weight. But more important, she also became an all-around fitness fiend, AND turned into a serious athlete (recently, she was named the University of Wisconsin-Stout Women’s Rugby Team’s Rookie of the Year, and this summer, she made the Wisconsin Women’s All-Star team).

I interviewed Xanthi last week about her experience (you can listen to the podcast here), and during the course of that conversation I realized something: Having a partner in crime — whether a buddy, a mentor, a trainer or a coach — may be the single most powerful advantage both in getting satisfying results from the start, and in maintaining a training program over time.

The accountability factor is huge, of course (most of us are far less likely to skip a workout if we know someone is waiting for us), but I think there’s also something to be said for having a constant companion and witness for the process, and for the transformations that inevitably take place.

Some of those transformations are physical (see the videos and pictures, below). Others are more subtle, and in some ways more profound.

Xanthi, fall 2008, prior to our fitness-buddy pact


Video: Our first fitness-buddy training session, December 2008

DSCF1714.JPG

Xanthi and me after our first 5K, spring 2008 — Xanthi had already lost about 25 pounds.

248.JPG

Xanthi (and rugby teammate), summer 2010 –¬†now super-fit and 65 pounds lighter than when we began.

For example, one of the things Xanthi shared with me during her reflections on our experience together was how dramatically her sense of identity shifted as she grew stronger, more confident and more in touch with her athletic side.

What I got out of this experience was pretty transformative, too. For one thing, at some point I realized that Xanthi had come to see me as something of a fitness mentor — something I would never have predicted was possible.

I’ve always considered myself a bookish, not terribly athletic person. And from my point of view, all I did was show Xanthi how to strap on a heart-rate monitor and point her in the right direction.

But working out with Xanthi over the course of a couple of years, encouraging her, helping her take stock of her amazing progress, sharing with her the bits and pieces of fitness and nutrition wisdom I’d picked up during my years editing Experience Life and that I felt might be helpful to her — all of that shifted my own sense of identity, too.

For one thing, it really drove home for me that the simple act of maintaining a relatively regular exercise schedule, of eating well and taking care of myself over the course of the past decade had made me — at least in Xanthi’s eyes — someone to look up to, a role model of sorts.

And that made me see myself in a new light. It made me want to stay my course, to stay true to my own health-and-fitness commitments, and maybe even ratchet them up a notch.

It also made me keenly aware, in a way I hadn’t really taken stock of before, that the commitment I’ve made to being healthy has been transformative not just to me and Xanthi, but ultimately to everyone around me.

It’s helped me be present, energetic and level-headed at work. It’s helped me show up for the people I love. It’s given me the strength and focus and optimism to keep driving toward the bigger goals that matter so much to me.

And that, of course, is the whole idea behind the magazine’s new tagline: Being Healthy Is a Revolutionary Act. (I’ll write at greater length about that soon, but you can read the basics in my Thoughts From the Editor column, if you like.)

Anyway, I have loved every minute of my fitness-buddy experience with Xanthi — well, except for a few of those final kettlebell reps and a couple of killer sprints. And I look forward to many more years of being goaded by this beastly child into working far harder than I otherwise would. (When she’s outrunning me, I take comfort in reminding myself that she IS more than 20 years my junior.)

So what about you? Do you have a fitness buddy? Do you wish you had one? If so, what’s keeping you from buddying up? I think there’s an article in this, so send on your stories and thoughts, please!

P.S. For those of you who go way back and may remember my writing about my earlier fitness-buddy experiences with my dad, now 80, you’ll be happy to know he’s still working out — three to four times a week with two different trainers for strength and balance — and he’s in terrific shape. He’s made an excellent recovery since his accident, and although he now has to cope with a slight limp, we still take walks together on a regular basis.

Experience Life Magazine

So Long, Dear Habit

I was blown away by the many comments folks posted (from positive to downright peeved) in response to my previous blog, “Why I Do Not Dig Diet Soda.” Thank you for those!

One comment that especially moved me was from Annette, who wrote:

“But how do you stop something you have been doing for decades? I drink at least six to eight diet cokes a day. If I don’t have any in the fridge, I panic. I have extreme depression. I’m sorry but water is a very poor substitute for caffeine, even though I try.”

Annette, because I sense you speak for many (I’m guessing many millions), I’m going to respond to you here.

Obviously, it’s not a short or simple answer, but there are a few suggestions I’ll offer up . . .

First, realize that there are two different aspects to this challenge: One is dealing with the physical habit — an addiction to the caffeine, for example. The other is dealing with the psycho-emotional habit, which is no less intense and can provoke all kinds of very real secondary biochemical and neurological reactions.

For example, there’s the anxiety you describe, which can be accompanied by rushes of adrenaline and cortisol. And after decades of drinking diet soda on a daily basis, there are probably also some very well-worn synaptic patterns in your brain that make it hard for you to stop thinking about and wanting soda at various points in your day.

And then there are the feelings — sadness or depression at letting go of something that has been a daily companion of sorts (and probably a source of comfort or pleasure) for a long time.

If you do decide to cut back on your diet soda intake, or cut it out entirely, you’ll have to deal with all these bad boys. The good news is, you can absolutely do it if you choose to, particularly if you give yourself some good support for that choice — and you’ll probably make all kinds of interesting discoveries and harvest all kinds of new and exciting energy in the process.

The key, I think, is seeing the habit as an opportunity for personal exploration, not as a “bad thing” that you need to fix. It can also help to see the habits as a symptom (of an imbalance, say, or an unexamined challenge or unmet need) and not the root problem.

I remember a time, in my early 20s, when I had a weird fast-food habit going: Chicken sandwich, fries and diet soda from the drive-through.

I didn’t eat it every day, but I ate it several times a week, and I only liked eating it at home in front of the TV. It was a total numb-out strategy, and it worked — but it left me feeling rotten about myself and kind of disgusted. I knew it was awful for me, and at some point, I decided I really wanted to stop.

Breaking that habit involved making a number of adjustments, including exploring what I was trying to numb (anxiety, loneliness, uncertainty about what I wanted to do with my life) and noticing my triggers (being stressed or bored; being on the verge of doing something scary/exciting; seeing advertisements for fast food, etc.).

It also involved finding other places to put my nervous, unsettled energy (taking walks; decluttering my closet and drawers; putting my papers in order), and doing some journaling about how I wanted to live and be.

Most important, perhaps, it involved adopting an experimental mindset:

  • What if I go get fast food, but instead of driving through and bringing it home, I eat it at the restaurant? (I had a horror of that, it turned out, and realizing it wasn’t something I wanted to do in public or around other people made me realize just how “off” it really was for me, which gave me more motivation to change.)
  • What if I just refuse to watch TV for a week? (OMG, the feelings that came up! Pain, bargaining, anger — the whole nine yards.)
  • What if I watch TV but don’t eat? (Still numbing, but a totally different effect — left me more aware of what a waste of time it was.)
  • What if, when I feel a craving come on, I eat something healthy — like a salad, or an orange I slowly peel and section? (This usually satisfied me and left me feeling empowered and good about myself, leading me to turn off the TV and go do something else.)
  • What if I just sit here with my feelings (scary, but surprisingly transformative — I ended up journaling about it a lot and reading a lot of self-help books), or if I channel my energy into doing something I’m a little scared to do, like make job-search phone calls? (Eek! I realized I was terrified I might get an actual interview and that I was hiding out in a big way.)
  • What, if I were living my ideal life, would I be doing instead of sitting here watching TV and eating fast food, both of which make me feel lousy? And what’s preventing me from doing that?

That last question helped me get clear about a lot of things, some of which eventually led me to develop far healthier behaviors, get some counseling, take some risks, explore some beliefs, set some boundaries, establish a vision and goals for myself, and connect to a deeper sense of hope and spiritual faith, all of which, collectively, led me to what I’m doing today.

I still remember that vaguely desperate feeling, though, of knowing I was doing something that wasn’t right for me and wondering, “How will I change this?”

It’s a feeling I’ve encountered in plenty of other situations over the past 20 years, and I imagine it’s a feeling I’ll continue to encounter, at intervals, for the rest of my life.

Today, though, I see that question as exhilarating, not terrifying. I tend to hear it as an invitation to a better life, a better part of myself — another round of experiments that will help me more fully discover who I am and what I’m here to do.

Anyway, I don’t know if any of that helps or makes any sense to you. Every person’s change challenge is different, of course. And at the same time, they also have a lot in common.

If you want some help wrapping your head around the whole change-challenge conundrum, you might listen to my interview with Chip Heath, PhD, coauthor of the new bestseller Switch: How to Make Change When Change Is Hard (available free in our podcast section). Or pick up the book, which is terrific (we’ll be featuring an excerpt in our July issue).

In my next blog post, I’ll offer some practical suggestions for how you might apply the “Switch” methodology to a soda habit (and really, any kind of habit). In the meantime, thank you so much for your question, Annette. If you do decide to cut back on soda, let us know how it goes!

And to all the folks who have been through the kind of change challenge Annette describes, I’d love to know what worked for you.