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Physical fitness starts with mental readiness

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GRAND FORKS — When people first meet with Altru Clinic dietitian Susan Streitz, they usually know what they want to do.

“They’ll say, ‘I’m going to exercise an hour a day and stop eating junk food,’” Streitz said. “They have grandiose goals.”

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But behavioral change is hard, she said. “You’re changing habits you’ve had your whole life.”

Any successful health-related change involves altering your habits, she said. “That is a slow process and takes a long time.”

Too often, people become frustrated when they set fitness goals that are too ambitious and — if they can’t meet those goals as quickly as they’d like to — that frustration may cause them to give up, she said.

Sometimes people are seeking to make a change “because they have an upcoming event — a wedding, a cruise, a vacation — or the doctor has said, ‘You need to do this,’” she said.

“Before you set goals, though, you have to be ready to make changes. If you’re not ready, it’s an exercise in frustration — or the changes will not be permanent.”

To assess that readiness, Streitz uses a chart that describes “the seven stages of change” and shows you where you are psychologically in your journey toward making a change, she said.

Each stage is defined by behaviors or actions that you are considering or have taken, she said. For example, in the preparation stage, you’re exploring, you’ve checked out fitness centers or made an appointment to see a nutritionist, she said.

In the next stage, the action stage, you’ve met with the dietitian, and you’ve started working out, she said. “You’ve actually done something.”

Once her patients have determined what stage they’re in, Streitz asks them how they can move to the next stage, she said.

For people to really want change, “the discomfort of staying the same needs to be worse than the discomfort of changing.”

Small steps

To increase the likelihood that a lifestyle change will be permanent, Streitz said she recommends taking small steps.

“Identify your biggest troublesome area, and then look at the small steps you can take to change behavior,” she said. “Pick one or two things to work on.

“Set small, realistic goals. Otherwise it’s too overwhelming, and you get discouraged.”

On the nutrition side, if you’re skipping lunch or breakfast, try to eat two or three times a day, she said.

Be specific about those steps, she said. “Instead of saying, ‘I’m going to eat better,’ take a look at how you’re going to do that.

“For example, if you eat a lot of fast food, decide that you’re going to eat fast food once a week, instead of two or three times a week.

“Instead of eating pizza or prepared food, you could decide to prepare a meal from scratch three times a week.”

The goal also should be measurable, such as deciding to exercise a certain number of times each week, Streitz said. “Otherwise, how do you know if you attained it?”

During a weight-loss phase, she suggests not weighing yourself more than once a week, because that number on the scale doesn’t account for fluid fluctuations or regularity.

“If you weigh yourself every day, it may work against you.”

It’s better to aim for a healthy and realistic weight, and keep it there, than to become obsessive about exercise and weight loss, she said.

“If you take 10 pounds, and keep it off, it’s far better for the body than to lose 30 pounds and gain 32.”

Taking ownership

Jed La Lumiere agrees with the “go slow” approach to getting fit that Streitz advocates.

He’s the author of “Cheesecake Fitness: The Itty Bitty Guide to Utter Fabulousness.”

“You can make small changes every day that will get you where you’re going,” he said. “Fitness is a marathon, not a sprint. Change happens slowly; the body changes slowly.

“The body is an amazing thing, but it doesn’t like whipper-snap changes,” La Lumiere said. “It’s important to understand what it is you’re looking for and how long it’s going to take.”

His book takes a light-hearted approach to improving physical health, “because I think even the hardest pills can be swallowed with a little sugar.”

But the primary message of the book is about “empowerment,” he said. “It’s not about me; it’s about the journey… Sometimes it’s not what you’re eating, it’s what’s eating you.

“The book is about conquering internal and external life challenges in order to invoke positive change in mind, body and soul. ... Personal ownership has to come into it.”

He wants his readers “to pick up your pen and write your own story.”

Before he took control of his own health in his 20s, La Lumiere was carrying close to 300 pounds on a 5-foot-9-inch frame and was a smoker, he said. He stopped getting on a scale when he hit 238.

Negativity in his life turned into food addiction, he said. “I let food be my best friend. As I say in the book, ‘Cigarettes don’t judge and food doesn’t talk back.’”

After being confronted by a good friend, he took stock of his situation, he said.

“If you don’t take time to listen to yourself, there’s no point in doing a fitness program. If you don’t know what’s causing the problem, you’re not going to be able to fix it.

“I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin.”

People should not compare themselves to others, he said, and they should forget about trying to attain what they think is a “perfect body” that the media present.

Those who are extraordinarily skinny aren’t healthy, he said. “They do some pretty crazy things to get there.”

Besides, in print media, those super-skinny “perfect” bodies don’t actually exist, he said. They are the result of photographic manipulation and airbrushing.

Self-care

“Today’s pace doesn’t allow us to take care of ourselves,” La Lumiere said.

Streitz agrees.

Engage all your senses in “mindful eating,” she said. Take time to eat slowly, savor the taste and smell of food, notice the colors of the linens and listen to background music.

Don’t write off any food as “forbidden,” she said. “If you truly want chocolate, sit down and have one piece with your cup of coffee, and enjoy it mindfully.”

For many people, “food is a reward,” she said. “When you take it away, you feel deprived.”

Instead, reward yourself with a nonfood and nonbeverage treat, like a bouquet of flowers or a relaxing, candle-lit bath.

And engage in “positive self-talk,” she said.

People who slip up in their fitness plan sometimes berate themselves “and start to say terrible things to themselves,” she said. “If you’re making a change and want to stay motivated, you’ve got to dwell on the positive, not the negative.”

Taking time for yourself is important, La Lumiere said.

“There’s so much noise in the world; it’s OK to tune out. You have to be selfish; it’s okay to sit down, have a glass of wine and watch your favorite movie.

“People will invest time in their garden, their home, their car, but not in their bodies,” he said. “It’s up to you (to care for yourself). You’re in the driver’s seat.

“Your body is the only vehicle you have to get through this life.”

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