High School Sweethearts and Health
Can you remember your high school sweetheart? Your very first relationship where you felt that spark and magnetism? That relationship you were certain was absolutely perfect for you, though in hindsight you can see that the flaws were evident all along but you were likely too young and inexperienced to recognize it. To be fair, some high school sweethearts end up happily ever after. For example, my instructor at flight school this past year has been married to his high school sweetheart for nearly thirty years and that marriage survived a 20 year career in the Air Force which involved multiple deployments and moves all over the world. Talk about beating the odds.
Most high school sweetheart relationships do not end up in the storybooks quite like that though. Let’s take a look at the lifespan and development of that first relationship. First, there is a level of physical attraction and emotional connection that generates spark. “Wow, I am attracted to this person, we listen to the same music, like the same movies, let’s see where this goes.” Next thing you know, you’re spending every moment with this person and your friends are wondering what happened to you. As the relationship progresses, you may have been certain that this person was the person for you. You knew that you could go away to separate colleges and remain together.
Then the big day comes and you go off to college. Immediately, you are bombarded with the challenges that come along with being in a new situation, learning more about yourself, maturing, and being exposed to new people and new ideas. Before too long the relationship that you were once certain was perfect is now in doubt, and ends up dissolving in a crushing heartbreak. After a period of listening to sad college break up songs and hiding your emotions at the dorm’s dining facilities and parties you end up stumbling into your next relationship with a new person and you repeat the cycle. (Or maybe that’s just me?)
Each new relationship teaches you more and more about not only yourself, but personality traits and characteristics you look for in other people. Over time you begin to recognize that spark is very important in a relationship but in order for that relationship to be successful, it ultimately has to have more to it than spark (spark is the easy part). In order to be sustainable, people in a relationship have to be in agreement over more pressing issues like finances, parenting, spiritual pursuits, and many other factors including the timing in which you came into each others lives (I’m not a relationship expert, so forgive my brevity). Then someday you hopefully find the right person that you have an immediate connection with and you match on a much deeper level than netflix shows you both enjoy.
What can our high school sweetheart relationships teach us about a sustainable approach to fitness, nutrition, and lifelong healthy habits?
Dr. Anna and myself have been to nearly every extreme of “dieting” and exercise and they have taught us several truths; 1) a well rounded approach to eating and exercising has to be sustainable, 2) the approach must be consistent with your goals, 3) the extremes of diet and exercise are NOT necessary.
Early on in your pursuit of a healthier lifestyle, you may have become infatuated with a particular diet or exercise fad. Maybe you went head over heels into a super restrictive diet that cut out an entire group of macro nutrients (carbs, fat, proteins). Maybe you jumped straight into a fad exercise program that leaves you rolled up in a ball on the floor at the end of your extreme workout.
For the first several months this new approach most likely caused you to lose a great deal of weight and brought on initial gains in strength and fitness you had not previously seen. Welcome to the novice window, or as I call it, the honeymoon phase of health. The reality is that anytime someone engages in a new diet or exercise program which leads to more physical activity and a decrease in calories eaten you WILL see initial positive results. But just like your high school sweetheart, this early infatuation does not necessarily translate to long term success. At some point results will taper off, you may burn out on the restrictiveness, and in many cases of restrictive diets and extreme exercise programs you may end up deficient in certain nutrients, injured from exercising too hard, or in extreme cases in a downward spiral of disordered eating and exercising.
Just like in relationships, the key to long term success comes from sustainability. In order to be successful you must understand that it is way more simple than many of these garbage online “influencers” want you to think it is (number of instagram followers does not automatically equal credibility). First, you must understand who you are and what your goals are. If you want to become healthier and improve vitality you don’t have to go to the new extreme workout gym in your town 6 days a week. If you want to lose weight to maybe get your blood pressure down and improve your insulin sensitivity, you don’t have to cut out all carbs, fat, and protein. Next, you have to find ways to stay active that you enjoy. I enjoy running and lifting weights, that makes it very easy to go for a run in the morning because I enjoy it. It doesn’t feel like a task to me. Maybe you hate running but enjoy walking in the woods. Or maybe you enjoy riding bikes in the summer and cross country skiing in the winter. There you go, you found your activity. Last, if you want to continue to see improvements in health, you have to understand that you can’t continue doing the exact same thing. For example, let’s say you want to improve your cardiovascular health. Initially, a program of simply walking every day will bring about fantastic gains. Fast forward half a year and you notice you have lost a significant amount of weight and your resting heart rate is down closer to sixty beats per minute, but now you want to see increased results like maybe changing body composition or hitting a goal in the 5K. This is similar to the seven year itch in a marriage. At that point in a marriage you may have to explore deeper to understand what really makes your spouse tick and find even deeper levels of connection. In diet and exercise, you will have to start exploring how to increase intensity, volume, and frequency of exercise and craft your diet to fit your lifestyle even further.
The reason for this week’s rant is because in 12 years of practice the onset of a New Year has taught us one thing: people love the extremes when it comes to fitness and nutrition. Many folks fall in love with the first diet and exercise program they get into even if it is not right for them and they cling to it with the same certainty they clung to their high school sweetheart with. Take a moment and reflect on a few things. 1) Where do you want to be in 20-30 years. Will your current diet and exercise program get you there sustainably? 2) What physical activities do you enjoy doing? Do more of those and less of the exercise programs you dread doing. 3) Just like you may have had to experience 3, 4, 5, or more serious relationships before you found Mr or Mrs right, healthy habits involve a lifetime of experimentation and changes and cultivation to meet the new challenges and circumstances that inevitably come with life.