The New Approach I'm Taking to Finding Balance in Food and Exercise

And why it's made me so much happier.
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When it comes to food and exercise, I tend to vacillate between two extremes. Typically, I'm either "On," in which I'm walking 5 to 6 days a week (maybe even throwing in the occasional jog), preparing a lot of vegetable-heavy meals at home, and attempting to stay hydrated. Or, I'm "Off," in which I'm barely moving, indulging in sweets several times a day, and over-eating.

When I'm making health my priority (eating well and moving often), I find that one simple thing can throw me entirely into the other extreme. A cold, travel, or an especially hectic week can be all it takes. Suddenly I've gone from feeling on top of my health to a couch potato, ordering in every meal and consuming way too much sugar. Then, the cycle restarts itself. There always comes a point when I go to bed and think, "Tomorrow is the day. I'm not going to have any sugar or alcohol, and am going to start moving again." I don't diet per se, but tend to jerk myself back to the other extreme. Health for me has never been about looks. I'm fortunate in that I have a metabolism that allows for some flexibility, but I've realized recently that I'm simply not happy, physically or emotionally, when I'm at either extreme.

My new goal isn't anything lofty or novel, but is simply to find a balance when it comes to food and exercise. I once read an interview with Jennifer Garner, where she said something that resonated with me. I don't remember the quote exactly, but it was along the lines of, "When I go to dinner, I make a choice. I don't get to have the glass of wine and the bread basket and dessert. I pick one of three." She's allowing herself an indulgence, without going over the top. I'm sure this is already obvious to anyone reading, and I actually mentioned it years ago here, but it clearly took some time for me to truly internalize the fact that you can be indulgent while still practicing a healthy lifestyle. It doesn't have to be one or the other. 

A few weeks ago, I looked at my schedule to plan some semblance of balance before my week got the best of me. I already had a sushi date with friends and dinner with G at one of my favorite Italian restaurants scheduled. In the past, I would have simply over-indulged all week, knowing I'd be over-eating at two meals anyway, but instead I sought balance. I decided to eat healthy breakfasts (yogurt and berries), then pack a healthy lunch and snack. Meanwhile, I mapped out my orders ahead of time, keeping Jennifer in the back of my mind. While I usually have drinks at dinner, I'm never as tempted by the common sushi accompaniments of sake and beer as I am by wine and cocktails, so I decided to skip drinks there. That being said, I consider red wine integral to pasta, so planned to have a glass at Italian and skip the bread basket. To my surprise, instead of feeling deprived, I felt empowered by the choices I'd made.

Another way of looking at it is that you have two choices when confronted with a slice of cake: You can either choose not to have the cake or you can have the cake. But the mistake I'd been making was feeling bad either way: If I didn't have the cake, I felt deprived; and if I did have the cake, I'd beat myself up about it later, which only robbed me of the experience of enjoying it. Now, when confronted with cake, I either feel empowered to pass on it (knowing I'll have another treat I want more later), or eat it (allowing myself to fully enjoy the experience of a delicious slice of cake).

My eating and exercise habits are still far from model examples (my idea of a healthy trail mix is about 90% chocolate), but they work for me. I indulge in unhealthy foods occasionally, and make a concerted effort to make healthy decisions whenever possible. If I'm going to the movies, I'm absolutely going to have candy, but maybe I skip the popcorn and soda. Though it's not always possible to map out each day, I find that having a general idea of how to approach each one has made me feel more empowered. Last week, girls on the team brought in donuts and homemade cookies one day and in the past, I would have just taken them both down without a thought. But since I hadn't planned on having dessert at 9:30am, I held off and felt really satisfied with my choice (perhaps not at the exact moment, but certainly later on).

We're so quick to beat ourselves up over "bad" decisions that we forget to celebrate when we make good ones. Just because I'm not eating entirely nutrient-dense foods at every meal and riding G's Peloton every day doesn't mean I'm not healthy. And, most importantly, I'm feeling a lot more balanced. 

UPDATE: The original version of this post included images of my meals from several days, with labels that indicated "Healthy" or "Indulgent" based on how nutrient dense each food is. In doing so, I didn't realize I was also inadvertently identifying food as inherently "good" or "bad." While the images were intended to provide examples of how I'm seeking out balance in my own life, they also contradicted the essence of the post, and what I believe to be true: No food is "bad," and you should feel empowered in your food choices, whether you're eating cake or kale. Yes, I want to find more balance in my approach to food and exercise—but guilt has no place in that decision. Again, I'm deeply sorry if this post negatively affected anyone and I hugely appreciate you bringing it to my attention. x