Not so many years ago, I believed that if I got thin, I’d be happy. I wasn’t much overweight, but I decided the extra pounds were to blame for my lack of joy. So I joined a boot camp, counted calories (1,600 a day), and lost 15 pounds within a couple of months. Friends said things like, ‘Wow, you’re so small!’
Did that give me joy? Nope. I was still miserable. Recent relationships were with commitment-phobic guys who described any putdown or callous remark they made about women as ‘just a joke.’
On the surface, I was successful, with a fulfilling writing career and good friends. But as I said in my previous article, tapping into the new generation of self-help gurus made me see that my choice of men was a reflection of my lack of self-worth. I finally made a decision to stop dating losers, take responsibility for bad choices, and give myself a life makeover. And an aspect of that was changing my view of my physical self.
I realized I didn’t need to be skinny, but rather to be healthy, inside and out. I needed to exercise and be fit for me, not anybody else, and primarily to feel better, not make it all about looking better.
As I learned to get happy, I learned fitness is part of a broader movement among the new generation of self-help gurus to optimize your life. It’s not just about lost pounds; it’s about what you gain. Exercise shouldn’t be seen as an option, or a chore; it’s crucial to happiness.
Kris Carr, a New York-based wellness activist and bestselling author (Crazy Sexy Cancer) who is living life to the fullest despite a stage-four liver cancer diagnosis in 2003, says fitness is key to wellness. ‘Your lymph system, which carries away waste, needs you!’ she writes in an article on Oprah.com. ‘Unlike your heart, it doesn’t have a pump. Doing aerobics is the pump. Shake it four to five days per week, for at least 35 minutes. And instead of carrying the weight of the world, choose weight-bearing exercises that will strengthen your bones.’
Aerobic exercise is medicine for conditions such as cardiovascular disease, osteoarthritis, diabetes and depression. Any form of exercise boosts the production of endorphins, the neurotransmitters that let us feel joy. Exercise also reduces anxiety, improves sleep, helps us to focus and improves self-esteem. Tal Ben-Shahar, author of The Pursuit of Perfect and a lecturer in positive psychology at Harvard, told me: ‘There are many studies showing that regular exercise is equivalent to our most powerful psychiatric medication.’ In fact, he says, to not exercise is to take a daily depressant. (Note: That’s not to say, of course, that exercise is a replacement for antidepressants; ask your doctor what’s best for you.)
The pursuit of happiness
Turning fitness into a get-skinny mission is a misstep in our pursuit of happiness, agrees certified fitness trainer Jessica Corbin, who recently hosted an online conference with other fitness experts called the Future of Fitness. (Corbin is the niece of singer Debby Boone and granddaughter of Pat Boone; she has also been a host on CNN, ABC, the Style Network and E! Entertainment.) ‘Too much exercise can be a bad thing,’ says Corbin. ‘We need balance.’ The 36-year-old has lived the highs and lows that go with obsessive exercise for the sole purpose of having a lean body.
When I read about her years of recovery from extreme exhaustion, I knew she’d have insights about the connection exercise and emotional well-being have.
Early on, Corbin ran 100 to 130 kilometres a week as a competitive runner on the cross-country team at the University of California at Los Angeles. She became extremely underweight and had the physique of a prepubescent boy. As well, she sustained multiple injuries, and damaged her knees so badly doctors told her she needed major surgery. It was then she realized she wasn’t healthy’she was worn out.
‘I think it’s a dirty little secret that what some experts are really preaching isn’t health, but how to be skinny, and those two things can be in conflict,’ says Corbin, on the phone from her home in Los Angeles. ‘What’s coming out of research is that you need to focus more on diet and less on a crazy exercise routine. In the short term I lost weight, but I hit a wall and no matter how much more I did, I didn’t see further results. It felt like I was doing something wrong, and I had this shame. Then I realized, your body hits a burnout point and if you chronically overtax it, and you’re not recovering properly, your metabolism makes unproductive adaptations and slows down.’
Corbin began a more balanced lifestyle, and a teaching career that combined her passions for cardio, yoga, martial arts and meditation. She stopped with the get-skinny idea and focused on the healthy aspects of fitness. With that new focus came an appreciation of her womanly curves instead of the impossible-to-sustain body she had attained as a runner. And once exercise became pleasurable, she became healthier and happier.
Corbin’s experience reminded me of my own. I had to ditch the boot camp regimen because, although I lost weight, I was overtaxing my body. I developed injuries to my knees that are still with me. If I had paid attention to my swollen knees instead of pushing myself, I would have picked up on cues my body needed more recuperation and less stress.
It helps to be aware of how you feel. Check in with your energy level every morning, says Corbin. ‘You might feel good enough to run 10K one day, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it the next day.’ Of course, doing nothing isn’t good, either; a restful day might mean a walk instead of a run, or yoga rather than a spinning class. The idea is to not do more harm than good. Just getting into a habit of fitness and exercise? That’s great, but be careful you don’t view it as a mountain to climb: If you suddenly decide you’re going to work out every day and you can’t sustain that, or even begin, it’s tempting to give up the idea (I’ve been there).
‘It comes back to taking care of yourself,’ says Corbin. ‘If you buy into that notion, you won’t flog yourself because you haven’t been to the gym. Find ways to move that will make you happy.’ It could be dance or bike riding. It could be rock climbing, playing Frisbee or walking. Try activities you once enjoyed, or that you take for granted. ‘What makes you feel good?’ asks Corbin. ‘After you’re done, do you have a sense of lightness?’ Ask yourself why you haven’t been giving yourself more of that feeling: Perhaps you need support, such as a workout buddy, a trainer, or a dog to walk. ‘It might take a bit of breaking that inertia,’ says Corbin. ‘But consistency will make it a habit’and that is like having the wind at your back.’
She’s absolutely right. I learned to exercise and eat right with the intention of improving my energy and mood’in fact, that’s my entire goal. (I do 45 minutes of cardio and 15 minutes of weights up to four times a week.) And like everything in life’money and relationships, too’once you start with a healthy, self-caring intention, more good stuff will follow. A fit body, loving relationship and happy career are by-products of self-love and positive internal feelings like self-respect. Too often we assume that if we push for external things, happiness will follow. I learned first-hand that we’ve got that the wrong way around.
As hard as it is, stay away from gossip magazines and celebrity Internet sites if they make you feel bad about yourself. Stop comparing yourself to picture-perfect celebrities. Says Corbin, ‘Redefine your idea of beauty as one that you really prize. Ask yourself: ‘What makes me feel alive?”’
Self-help teachers espouse the daily practice of gratitude as one of the habits of truly happy, optimally functioning people. Many studies have shown that there is meaningful change in the way we think when we simply write down things we’re grateful for each day. The mind-body connection is in full force when we simply make a point of feeling gratitude for what we do have; we physiologically feel more balanced, and have better mental clarity and physical function. Keep a journal of all the things that are working in your life, and notice the subtle change in your daily motivation to be good to yourself.
In the next and final instalment, I’ll talk with Oprah regular and TED Talk superstar Professor Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. I’ll look at the role vulnerability plays in happiness.