Q&A: Diet or Exercise?
Q: If you had to choose one thing to start with, would it be exercise or food? With everything going on, both is overwhelming at the moment.
Personally, if I had to choose one thing to tackle first, it’d be food. But – and this is a big but (and I cannot lie) – I’m not saying that you should go on a diet, nor that you should expect to lose a lot of weight by only doing one or the other. But as the saying goes, you can’t out-train a bad diet, so if you’re eating all the wrong things, no amount of exercise in the world will help – and for me, my psychological attitude towards food was one of the hardest, but most important, things I had to change to make this whole thing work.
Changing your attitude towards food – the value you place upon it, the addictive feelings you’ve got towards your favourite junk foods, and what you consider ‘good’ to eat – is a vital part of the change process. If you can start making these sorts of changes, which, to my mind, are actually one of the most crucial (and complex) parts of this whole lifestyle change malarkey, then you’ll be stronger and better equipped to deal with the whole lot once you’ve got time to do it.
You should start by trying to identify what parts of your relationship towards food are letting you down. Unlike alcohol, or drugs, or cigarettes, you can’t go cold turkey on food – so if you’re going to end up healthy, you’re going to have to sit down with your issues and work your way through them.
For instance, I’ve always had an unhealthy relationship towards biscuits. Especially chocolate digestives. I can’t have one biscuit. I just… I just love them too much. That means I can’t have a packet of biscuits in the house, because god dammit they won’t be there for very long. And I don’t mean I put them in the bin.
Realising this was the case was a big step for me, because knowledge really is power. I know now that I’ve got a weakness there, but at the same time – I’m very much in control of it. I just don’t buy them. And on the one occasion I did go to buy them, I knew I was engaging in behaviour that was, really, self-destructive… And put them back on the shelf before I reached the checkout.
When I got home, the fact that I’d managed to fight off that craving, and fend off the little voice in my head that said that I really, really needed an entire pack of chocolate biscuits, was far more satisfying than what I’d have felt had I indulged at that point. I knew my weakness, and I bounced it right on out of the way. That, there, was a big win for me.
Overcoming your own weaknesses – be they pizza, cake, ice cream, or whatever – will give you the sense of power and strength that will give you a real boost when you do start to exercise. For me, I have phases where I’m beaten down by the voice that says I can’t do whatever it is that I’m trying to achieve – but the knowledge that I’ve proved that voice wrong over and over again gives me the kick up the butt necessary to fight it again.
That’s important, especially if, like me, you’re an emotional eater – because food tends to be something you use to mask your doubts, and hide your negative emotions. If you’re going to take control of that relationship, you’re going to have to be strong enough to face them – but I have no doubt that if you want it enough, you can – and will – do that.
Another thing to bear in mind is that what you’re putting in to your body is basically fuel – and you’ll have a different experience of your daily activities if you’re putting the right stuff in. When I was munching on a diet composed mostly of fat and chemicals, I was sluggish, lethargic, and everything seemed like an effort. These days, I know when I’ve eaten the right or wrong things because my body reacts accordingly. If I’ve had a healthy day, I’m usually buzzing with energy and get through my (enormous) to-do list without too much strain. If not… I’m weighed down by it. Pardon the pun.
Because the thing is, your body has to work harder to deal with hyper-processed, what-the-hell-are-you kinda foods – so if you’re a busy woman, with a lot of plates spinning and balls juggling, you don’t need to be wasting your energy on that. At all.
If you’re eating the right things – and, crucially, that you’re eating enough of them – you’re likely to find you’ve got more energy for… You guessed it. Exercise.
At that point, Bob is your proverbial uncle. It all comes together. Especially because, as I’ve said before, exercise isn’t just what you do in the gym. That whole NEAT thing is well worth bearing in mind.
If you’ve got yourself in the habit of eating well, and providing your body with the things it needs to function properly, then when you do have time to introduce exercise, you’ll reap the benefits in a big way. You’ll also be stronger at fighting off cravings, and you’ll have escaped some of the habits that might, in the past, have seemed impossible to break.
Plus, you’ll be more in tune with your own body – which is important, because exercise makes you want to eat more. And I don’t just mean consciously. To quote Matt, ‘there’s a subconscious compensatory effect that occurs – especially if you’re exercising hard, and really going for it – that makes you think you need to consume a lot more calories to make up for it. This is counter-productive – because even though you’re getting the health benefits of exercise, your goal of wanting to lose weight is undermined by the mechanism the body uses to ensure a homeostatic state.’
When all’s said and done though, it’s important to remember that it’s not just about weight loss. This is about being happy. It doesn’t matter what you weigh on the scales, or what size clothes you wear. If you can make small changes that improve the quality of the life you’re living, you’ll end up happier. And if you’re happier, you’ll find it easier to take control of your cravings and weaknesses, and I’m willing to bet the weight will follow.
Take the time to give yourself a tiny, tiny break – and allow yourself credit for all that you do. Being kind to yourself is more important than eating a certain number of calories, or spending a certain amount of hours on the treadmill – and don’t you forget it!