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Don't Let Setbacks Kill Your Commitment to a Healthy Lifestyle

April 12, 1999|KATHY SMITH

After years of procrastinating, Ellen had finally gotten involved in a fitness program. She trained at the gym every day and ate healthy foods in sensible proportions. Not surprisingly, she lost weight, looked great and felt even better. Then she broke her ankle--and the whole plan fell apart, including her diet.

By the time her ankle healed, Ellen had gained more weight than she'd lost and lost more motivation than she had. Waiting for it to resurface, she wouldn't even make the smallest effort to stay in shape. It was either all or nothing.

To me, that attitude seems foolish and counterproductive. It's like deciding that you might as well never attend church again after missing last week. Just because Ellen couldn't jog or do aerobics didn't mean that she couldn't find other ways to work out. And it certainly didn't mean that she had to give up her commitment to healthy eating.

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In my opinion, the all-or-nothing principle is the No. 1 reason so many people remain unfit. They believe that until they commit themselves totally to exercise, they don't need to exercise at all. Then too, when they do begin a program, they often quit as soon as they miss a day or so. What they don't realize is that it takes much more effort to start a program than to maintain one, even at a minimal level.

The same is true with diet. When these people go on overly restrictive diets, they abandon them the moment they splurge on Ben & Jerry's. That's not the way fitness works.

Take me, for example. While I've exercised almost every day for the past 20 years, I don't necessarily complete a full workout every day. Some days I have time for only five or 10 minutes; other days, only 30; still others, 60. But whether it's for five minutes or 50, I make sure to incorporate some sort of movement in my day, be it strenuous or light, functional or fun.

If my schedule doesn't permit a trip to the gym, then I'll at least park at a distance from the office and walk briskly to and from my meetings. I'll take the stairs instead of the elevator. I'll stretch in my chair. I do these things not so much because I'm trying to burn off dinner, as because I don't want to fall out of practice or lose my momentum.

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Nothing in the world of exercise is harder than trying to start again from a dead stop. The key word is consistency, not perfection. We begin our new fitness programs with boundless energy and enthusiasm, intending never to miss a day of exercise or eat a morsel of fatty food. And while it's noble to aspire to perfection, it's unrealistic to think that anyone could be perfect all the time. After all, each of us is subject to emotional--and physical--highs and lows that impact our energy and commitment. The truth is that life is full of curves.

Unforeseen events--from medical emergencies to emergency carpools--can throw us off schedule. But when they do, there's no need to throw in the towel on a healthy lifestyle. Better to do what you can when you can than to do nothing at all.

If you accept the fact that, as Mama said, there'd be days like this, you'll be more likely not to abandon your program, no matter how many setbacks you think you've suffered. By walking a little when you can' run a lot, you make exercise a part of your life's fabric. And isn't that the goal? Because in my experience, the more active someone is, the less likely he or she is to consider exercise an all-or-nothing proposition.

If Ellen had adopted this attitude, she wouldn't now be struggling with trying to get back in shape--and feeling hopeless about her chances. As the ancient Chinese philosopher Laotzu noted, "The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step." To which I add, the burning of a thousand calories also begins with the first step.

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Copyright 1999 by Kathy Smith

Kathy Smith's fitness column appears weekly in Health. Reader questions are welcome and can be sent to Kathy Smith, Health, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. If your question is selected, you will receive a free copy of her book "Getting Better All the Time." Please include your name, address and a daytime phone number with your question.

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