Everything I know about weight loss I learned after 50.

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“Bony Joanie”

Dear friends,

The headline is not exactly true; on some level I succumbed to the allure of so-called “click bait.” But it is true that I’ve had a lifelong struggle with feeling okay about my body/managing my weight. And the struggle is — mercifully at age 54 — virtually over.

As a young person, I was known as “Bony Joanie.” The photo above makes the reason for my nickname abundantly clear (knock knees much?). But despite how angular I was — a good thing by modeling standards — I felt bad about my appearance. Being buck-toothed and freckled didn’t help a girl who desperately wanted to look like Malibu Barbie. But mostly I was a head (or more) taller than my peers and in my mind, height equated to being “big.” My senior year in high school I was crowned Football Queen and I was taller than my escort. My adolescent psyche found this humiliating. (Let’s think about this: I was voted “Queen” by a group of male contemporaries and yet failed to accept it as an affirmation because of a single physical attribute. What can you say about the mind of a young girl?) So even though I was 5’10” and 130 pounds, I still felt BIG.

I was in my late 20s before I owned my stature. Marrying a man who is 6’6″ and broad-shouldered probably had a lot to do with that. The good news was that I no longer felt too big to be around others. I even started wearing heels regularly. It was a real breakthrough.

Still my weight fluctuated a lot. By 25 I was no longer bony. I gained the Freshman 10, then packed on another 10 post-college. My weight went up and down with the vicissitudes of my life, including pregnancy and job stress. I lost 30 pounds before my wedding; gained 52 with my first pregnancy; lost 18 in preparation for my 20th high school reunion; and lost 10 pounds too many times to count when discontent surged as a result of tight clothing. Through it all, I pinballed between 1) careful eating and regular exercise, and 2) sloth and eating with abandon. It’s a pretty typical story for many of the women I know.

But a couple of years ago, I started eating better. Like, really better. And it’s made a difference in my weight maintenance. I fluctuate between being vegan and vegetarian, but I’m not a nut about it. I eat the occasional chicken wing or hamburger when the cravings are strong. But 18 out of  20 meals are plant-based and involve a predominance of whole foods. I rarely eat desserts or sweets. My biggest vice is diet soda. (Sometimes I swear it off for months at a time. Other times, I indulge regularly. Such is the continuing saga of human cravings for comfort and familiarity.)

And I run regularly. I’ve been a runner for 31 years. I’ve taken off for long periods (especially in the baby years), but I’ve never entirely stopped. In the last decade, I haven’t laid off for more than a few weeks at a time. And it’s made a difference in my fitness level.

A couple of years ago I read an article that said weight management is 9 parts eating right and 1 part exercise. It’s proven so true in my life that I think the two ought not to be talked about in the same breath. Because here’s the deal: you can be a healthy weight but a long way from fit. And you can be overweight and demonstrably fit. I’ve been both combinations so I know fitness and weight are not inextricably linked. So here are my two truths:

If you want to be fit, or strong, or have improved stamina and endurance, EXERCISE to achieve those results. Fitness is a health and lifestyle goal in and of itself. If you exercise only to lose weight, you likely aren’t enjoying it (meaning there’s a good chance it won’t “stick” as a lifelong habit). Besides, I know plenty of people who have lost a lot of weight while doing nothing more strenuous than walking. So the goal of losing weight doesn’t have to “condemn (you) to the gym.”

If you want to lose or maintain your weight, EAT to achieve those results. Weight management is a goal in and of itself. It’s true that adding a little exercise to your routine jump starts your metabolism. And regular exercise allows you to eat more than if you were sedentary. But it’s not necessary to your weight management goals.

Ten months ago I saw a photo of myself that I didn’t like. Even though I had been eating healthy, I had been consuming more calories than was necessary for my age, metabolism and activity level — and my weight had crept up over time. I decided to cut back on my portions and it made an immediate difference. I lost 10 pounds quickly and felt measurably, physically better. A few weeks later, I realized I had let my fitness slip considerably, too, so I amped up my running program. I lost another 10 pounds. Eventually I lost six more pounds and realized I weighed less than I had in a decade. I was tempted to say “Holy cow, that was easy.”

It wasn’t, of course, easy. What I mean is that it wasn’t fraught with panic, self-loathing, guilt, deprivation or any of those other emotions I know so intimately.

It was, however, rooted in awareness. “This is what I’m choosing to eat today.”

It was rooted in discipline. “I’m keeping track and monitoring the result.”

It was rooted in patience. “I allowed myself to lose track of my weight and fitness goals for a while now. It’s not realistic to turn this ship around in two weeks. (Or two months.)”

It was rooted in equanimity. “All things come. And all things go. Accept the seasons of your life for the lessons and gifts each bring.” (Let me tell you . . . of all the gifts being over 50 have brought me, equanimity is surely at the top of the list.)

Interestingly, I had an overly indulgent February. Two business trips and plenty of good food and alcohol later, I noticed my weight had crept up a bit. Not a lot. Five pounds. I didn’t panic. Nor did I beat myself up. I became aware. And a couple of weeks after becoming aware, 2 of those 5 pounds vanished. It was another breakthrough, of sorts — the kind that makes me ponder the long trajectory of wisdom and my intersection with it.

By the way, I feel compelled to point out I’m no expert on health and fitness beyond the impacts both have had on my own well-being and what I’ve learned, mostly informally, through an awful lot of research, reading and reflection. The diet and exercise industries are a combined $40+ billion enterprise so there’s plenty of expertise right at your fingertips. You know you better than anyone else, so read up and ask yourself how it applies to you (if it applies to you). Ask a knowledgeable friend or professional source for additional resources. Trust your body intuition. Become aware.

Most of all, tell yourself the truth about the choices you make, the motivations inherent in those choices, and the predictable results. Because that’s where the real breakthrough — at any age — comes from.

With gratitude {for, what else, the awareness and equanimity that seems to come with age in Mother Nature’s ironic trade-off},

Joan, who nobody calls bony anymore but whose dear friend recently called skinny and lit up the pre-frontal cortex of Joan-Marie’s brain in a Pavolovian response tied to her Barbie-worship days

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“Skinny Joan”

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Booty camp.

Dear friends,

Three weeks ago, one of my running buddies admitted to me and another friend that she had been two-timing us. As in — pursuing another fitness regimen on our “off” days.

Rather than being miffed, I was intrigued when she said she had attended “boot camp,” an aptly named exercise torture device that I have heard of, but had never experienced.

It’s free, she said. At a local church, she said. Come along, she said.

So I went. And LORD HAVE MERCY did I experience it.

For the uninitiated, boot camp is an hour long, high-intensity, old-school workout not for the faint of heart. It involves jumping jacks and push ups and sit ups (the old-fashioned kind, not wussy crunches) and sprinting and lunges.

And burpees.

Never heard of a burpee? I hadn’t either until three weeks ago, when I immediately recognized 1) I AM OLD, 2) I AM TRAGICALLY UNFIT, 3) I AM FEARFUL.

Here’s sort of what a burpee looks like:

marines_burpee

Thing is, you don’t do it slow. You do it fast. And bouncy. See that squat in position two? From there you BOUNCE to position three. Then you BOUNCE from position three to position four. Then you bounce STRAIGHT UP IN THE AIR.

Then you immediately repeat it. Over and over and over again for 45 seconds.

If you can do a burpee, it will make you want to kill yourself. If you can’t do a burpee, which I couldn’t, it will make you laugh maniacally while you try, then cry bitterly from humiliation when you fail, then make you want to kill yourself. (But in a way far less painful than a burpee, of course.)

I had no idea that a thing that looks so simple could be so hard, where hard equals a feeling approximately equivalent to sucking the flames of a blow torch into your lungs while simultaneously crushing your upper arms and legs in a vise.

Yeah, it’s that awesome.

Anyway, after my excursion to boot camp, I couldn’t walk upright or sit without moaning for three days. I ate Advil like Pez. And, curiously, I went back to boot camp four days later, determined not to let the burpee break me like when Sgt. Foley screams at Mayo for his D-O-R!

I even practiced burpees at home under the tutelage of Mr. Mom, who said my technique was wrong (NOT TRUE), and Parker, who said my upper body is too weak (BINGO!). By the way, “practice at home” equals one or two tries because after that, I’m too tired to try again until the next day. BURPEES ARE THAT HARD.

Anyway, today I finished my 7th boot camp workout and I did all the burpees I should have done except one. In the last three seconds of my final 45-second rotation, I lost all strength in my body and failed to do the final burpee. Instead, I rolled over into the fetal position and — unlike the shame of my first day at boot camp — felt nothing but honor for having given the &%$# burpee everything I had.

Did I mention we do burpees at 5:30 in the morning?

Yeah, so I’m just saying . . . well, I’m just saying I’m awesome for even showing up. (By the way, if you haven’t heard of Kid President, Google him. Or watch this short video. In the words of Kid President: “Being a human is hard. Some days, you ought to get a high-five for getting out of bed.” Amen, brother!)

After arriving back home following today’s victory, Mr. Mom asked me how “booty camp” went. (He calls it booty camp as a nod to the improving shape of my backside. He’s sweet that way.)

I said it was awesome. I said I did burpees. I said I claimed victory even though I fell one short of a boot camp’s worth of burpees.

And in the immortal words of “Lynette” in the final scene of the greatest boot camp story in cinematic history: “Way to go, Joan! Way to go!”

With gratitude {for good friends, good medicine, and a cracker jack drill sergeant},

Joan, but you can call me GI Joan