For me, the biggest challenge has been the sodium restriction. The Dietary Guidelines downplay the omnipresence of sodium as follows: “Sodium is found in foods across the food supply.”
Or, as I would scream into the void that is my refrigerator, “I don’t know what to eat anymore!”
The average American currently consumes 3440 mg of sodium daily, about 150 percent of the 2300 mg guideline.
The average American currently consumes 3440 mg of sodium daily, about 150 percent of the 2300 mg guideline. Before I started this project, I averaged 3654 mg per day, above that national average. This is clearly not a matter of me identifying a handful of foods to better manage, but a substantial overhaul of my eating habits — eating habits I had already overhauled just two months prior.
I went day by day through my food log on the MyFitnessPal app to find the culprits.
No more deli meats. Instead, I cooked batches of boneless, skinless chicken breast for sandwiches.
No more prepackaged brown rice and quinoa (and I had been so proud of myself for eating that in the first place!). I started making a few days’ worth of brown rice at a time.
No more prepackaged spice mixes or sauces. And no more soy sauce, even the so-called low-sodium version. I started cooking Asian meals with fresh ginger, minced garlic and Sriracha. Instead of using “taco seasoning,” I started cooking with chili powder and eating more salsa.
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I’ll admit that finding ways to cut sodium has been a tremendous and ongoing challenge. What I’ve learned is that cutting sodium from my diet means cutting as many prepackaged foods as possible, and seeking low-sodium options whenever possible. Once thing I noticed was that my caloric intake dropped a bit as I addressed my sodium intake. I realized that I used to eat certain foods because I could. For example, before tackling the sodium rules I was eating a bag of baked sea salt potato chips with lunch most days. I could easily fit the 100-calorie package within my calorie limits without altering my macronutrient ratios. Now that I’m more aware of the 150 mg of sodium in each bag, I’ve stopped eating them and — importantly — have not replaced them with another snack or side dish. It’s simply one less thing I’m eating each day.
The change in my diet is, of course, only half of this project. I also have to adhere to the Physical Activity Guidelines, which present a different set of struggles.
In addition to two full-body resistance-training sessions each week, the guidelines call for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week. My plan at the outset was to complete four, 40-minute cardio sessions weekly.
Moving forward, I wanted to build up the duration of my gym-based cardio sessions from 40 to 50 minutes, which would enable me to reach the 150-minute threshold in only three sessions instead of four. That way, I’d be able to do three cardio sessions interspersed with two strength training sessions, giving me two days off each week.
To put this in perspective, when I first joined the gym about 18 months before beginning this project, I could only perform 8 minutes of exercise on the elliptical machine at a time, so 50 minutes would be a substantial achievement.
Take-home tip: The key to incorporating more cardio into your life is not staring at a timer on the elliptical and wondering if you’ll make it to 50 minutes. It’s finding something that you like doing and prioritizing that in your schedule.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be gym-based either. For example, I really enjoy hiking, so getting enough cardio actually got easier over time, particularly during the spring and summer. Warmer weather meant I was able to get out and hike more, which helped me build up my endurance and hike for longer distances. These extended “workouts” allow me to take another day or two off from performing cardio at the gym.
With more cardio and better endurance under my belt, I was inspired to actually work out more. I never thought I would say that I wanted to work out more than the bare minimum, but after a few months, I decided I was dedicated to stepping up my game when it came to resistance training.
It’s amazing how much my mood, my motivation and my enthusiasm are influenced by the number on the scale. I know that resistance training is adding lean muscle mass and creating fluctuations in my weight. I know that this project is really about improving my body composition and overall health. I have been reading and writing for years about the importance of having other measures of success when trying to get a handle on your lifestyle.
Despite all of that, knowing that I had lost only 2.6 pounds during month 2 of this project really brought me down.
Knowing that I had lost only 2.6 pounds during month two of this project really brought me down.
I forced myself to remember that in addition to getting compliments and going down a size in both my pants and shirts, I’d been feeling better — and stronger. It had been a long time (perhaps forever) since I completed nine straight weeks of resistance training and I could feel the difference. I was clearly gaining muscle and could feel the way my clothes fit differently. Even simple tasks of daily life, like bending down to tie my shoes or pick up my granddaughter, had become easier, as I have become more flexible and there’s just less of “me” in the way when I move.
While I was starting to enjoy exercise, in the middle of my second month on this journey there were two weeks in a row where I fell short of my physical-activity goals.
One week, I was 25 minutes short of my cardio goal.
I had missed two out of 40 workouts, which is a 95 percent success rate.
The next week, I skipped my second resistance-training session. I can offer you specific reasons (that is, excuses), but they’re pretty weak. The truth is, I was battling some headaches and fatigue, was a little overwhelmed preparing for a work trip and just lost focus.
I mentioned this to my teenage son Dylan, who doesn’t understand how I can ever miss my goals when I’m chronicling the experience of following the guidelines. He said, “You’re acting like it’s not a big deal, but you’ve failed to hit your exercise goals twice in seven weeks!”
That’s a 29 percent failure rate … a low C on my report card. This is something he knew I would never tolerate.
However, looking at things from another perspective, I had missed two out of about 40 workouts, which is a 95 percent success rate.
Take-home tip: This is a lesson in reframing, and a lesson I really needed to learn. You can beat yourself up about every slip, but the truth is, we are all going to slip. The better approach is to look at the positive, and try to improve again tomorrow.
My biggest lesson this week? Success is defined by much more than weight — it’s about health and the quality of life.
I spent one Saturday afternoon in April hiking along a ridgeline above Linville Gorge in western North Carolina. Speaking very literally, I don’t think I could have reached that point a year earlier. Hiking is one of my greatest joys in life, and I was severely limited by not only my weight and fitness level, but also by a number of chronic aches and pains that were making some trails nearly impossible for me. Yet, there I was, overlooking one of the most beautiful vistas I’d ever seen, tired but pain-free.
Look for things in your own life that improve as you change your lifestyle. Perhaps your clothes fit differently. Maybe you’re able to enjoy activities that had once been a struggle. Or maybe you just feel healthier and stronger.
What changes have you seen in your life as you’ve lost weight or become more fit? Tell me all about it on Twitter from noon to 1 p.m. EST Thursday, October 5. Have questions? I'll be answering those too!
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Daniel J. Green
Daniel J. Green, a writer and editor based in Asheville, NC, currently serves as Senior Editorial Consultant for the American Council on Exercise.