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One day not long ago, my dad called me during lunch. "What are you eating?" he asked. "Pothatho thips," I replied, spraying crumbs onto my computer keyboard. "Don't worry," I said, "I'll eat a healthy dinner."
Of course, I didn't. After all, I'm too busy. Not only do I have two growing boys to look after, I'm a health writer -- a professional nag -- and have been one for more than 15 years. And I'm busy because I have to patiently explain over and over the importance of eating right, sleeping well, getting enough exercise, and finding ways to beat stress. If you would just take my advice, you'd be the picture of good health. I mean, people! How hard can that possibly be?
That's a great question. I realized I didn't have the answer because, I'm ashamed to say, I've never actually taken my own advice -- well, not to the letter. I try, but often I go a week or more without aerobic activity, I sleep erratically and not enough, and I have absolutely no idea how many fruits and vegetables I eat (not counting potato chips).
So I made a promise. I vowed to practice what I've been preaching. My simple plan: To take my own advice for one solid month, add in the wisdom of a few experts, and see just how difficult it is.
Here are the things I'm always telling people to do -- and how well I did when I tried to do them myself.
I always tell people to eat nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day. "Nine" suddenly seems like a lot, so even though my house is stocked with kid-approved apples, bananas, and baby carrots, I cruise the produce aisle of an organic grocery store and pick up more grown-up options: Swiss chard, tomatoes, broccoli, yams, yellow peppers, leafy greens, a few persimmons and pomegranates.
The government says I need 1,000 milligrams of calcium. My cheese and yogurt addictions should help, but then I remember what Miriam Nelson, PhD, author of Strong Women, Strong Bones (Perigee, 2001), suggests: "Add some green leafy vegetables like kale." So I do.
But when I get home, a skeptical voice in my head threatens my optimism -- "How are you going to eat all this stuff?"
I need a strategy.
"Add vegetables to foods you already eat regularly" is the recommendation I get from Sonya Bolch Angelone, RD, former chair of the American Heart Association's nutrition committee, San Francisco division. "If you're having soup, pasta, or eggs, throw in some chopped peppers or tomatoes." What about crackers and cheese, my favorite snack? "Try having apple or pear slices instead of the crackers," suggests Angelone. Her other advice: Stock up on salsa. "A half cup counts as one vegetable serving."
I come up with some good health-writer tactics too. I leave a sliced persimmon on the kitchen counter and grab a piece every so often. By 10 a.m., I've had my third serving of fruit. I eat an apple with lunch and load up my couscous dinner with peppers, carrots, celery, and onion. My kids actually like the crunch of raw vegetables, so I don't have to make a separate meal for them.
On my first try, I hit nine servings and feel good about the day's efforts -- until I look at all that Swiss chard. I worry it might meet the same fate as the green mystery goo I recently scraped from the bottom of the vegetable crisper. How can I make sure I polish it all off? Angelone tells me to store produce on refrigerator shelves rather than in the crisper. "If you can see it, you're more likely to eat it," she says. So of course I hide the chocolate down where I used to keep the chard.
I'm always harping on the benefits of exercise, and honestly I thought I was okay in this department. I take two-hour hikes on the weekend followed by an hour-long bike ride on Mondays. But no -- these aren't enough to get me through the rest of the week.
How do I know? Jan Schroeder, PhD, senior exercise physiologist at IDEA Health and Fitness Association, tells me so. "Continuity is crucial," she says. She urges me to get in more activity on the days I don't work out -- walk the dog, play catch with the kids, garden, or walk around a mall without a credit card. It all counts toward the recommended 30 minutes of daily activity.
I also know that workout buddies and long-term goals can boost motivation, so I drum up exercise dates. One friend agrees to hike with me on Wednesdays; another talks me into taking a tough boot-camp-style class on Saturdays. Online, I find a mini triathlon (a half-mile swim, a 15-mile bike ride, and a four-mile run) that's six months away. I sign up before I can talk myself out of it.
To squeeze in all that exercise around my work schedule and my family's morning routines, I have to be up by 6 a.m. So to get the eight hours I'm always telling people they need, I have to be in bed by 10 p.m. What about Dave? And Jay? And Conan? I don't think I have a choice.
"Make bedtime a priority -- like homework is for your kids," says Joyce Walsleben, PhD, former director of New York University's sleep center and author of A Woman's Guide to Sleep: Guaranteed Solutions for a Good Night's Rest (Three Rivers Press, 2001). Okay. So the next night, I start winding down at 9 p.m. by taking a bath and settling in with a good book. Doctor's orders, I tell myself, as I resist the urge to throw in one last load of laundry or scan my e-mail. I feel anxious and guilty at first, but after a few nights, I'm not falling hopelessly behind on anything.
Walsleben also suggests that I limit caffeine, so I keep my morning cups of green tea but skip my afternoon chai latte. This not only makes it easier to get to sleep by 10 p.m., which is good, but also makes me want to fall asleep at two in the afternoon, which is not good. One day, desperate to clear my foggy brain, I take the dogs for a brisk 20-minute walk. It works! I used to think that such a short bout of exercise was a waste, but now the little hit of endorphins peps me up.
I know that exercise is itself a cure for stress, but for me relaxation really means indulgence. I don't have time for regular massages, manicures, and dinners out, let alone Gregorian chants or Tibetan mind washes. So I make a list of small-scale treats, like reading celebrity-gossip magazines, going with my husband to an R-rated movie (i.e., without the kids), and watching The Apprentice and Sex and the City reruns. When I settle into bed, gossip rag in hand, I read speculation that Britney may be pregnant again. It makes me feel glad that I'm not. Britney's stress is my stress buster. Perfect!
So how hard was it? Very. Healthy living takes work! So, dear readers, I apologize for all my nagging. And from now on I'll do my best to do unto myself as I tell others to do unto themselves. Not only that, but we can all be human about it. "Lapses are normal. Use them as incentive to improve rather than an excuse to quit," says John Norcross, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Scranton and coauthor of Changing for Good (Avon, 1995).
My consolation: Now I know it all works. After just a month, I'm sleeping enough, eating healthier, exercising more, and feeling better. Plus, I'm not a total hypocrite after all.
Originally published in Fitness magazine, June 2006.