Fat Writer Running – The Myth of Discipline and White Knuckles

Hi all, Fat Writing Running checking in. I’ve been keeping pretty busy so it’s been tough for me to prioritize these blog update. But it’s been too long so here are some quick bullet points on where I’m at and what I’m thinking about. After that, there’s a bit more I want to dive into as it relates to this idea of changing diet and exercise as some result of Herculean indomitable will. (Spoilers: it’s not really if you’re doing it right).

  • I have my first official half-marathon run coming up in a few weeks and I’m really excited. I’ve done four 13+ mile runs solo since August and while they’ve been very challenging and I haven’t mastered the alchemy of what to eat/drink before/while/after running to avoid some pretty intense post run nausea quite yet, I’m confident and eager to get out there. Running is awesome!
  • I’m also deep into a new writing project. Not much I want to share on it yet but it’s occupying a lot of my time and attention. Writing is awesome!
  • I read this story when it was first posted and I have a ton of thoughts about it: Everything You Know About Obesity is Wrong. I’ve tried to distill those thoughts into something readable for this blog but I haven’t figured out how to really approach it in a way that satisfies me. I strongly recommend you read the story. There’s a lot going on and it’s very thought-provoking. Thoughts are awesome!

Anyway, let’s talk about discipline. I shared that news story above on my social media and a friend reposted it. She added a comment that referenced me and my experience in a way that I thought was flattering but also inaccurate. She wrote (I’m paraphrasing) that I had lost > 100 lbs through “sheer hard work” and “discipline.”

Nah. That’s not how I did it.

I maybe haven’t been clear enough about this so I want to skewer this myth right now because I think it’s a big obstacle for people. They deeply believe that the only way to make changes to regular diet and exercise is through some kind of masochistic fortitude and that if they’ve ever tried before and had mixed results they must be weak-willed or incapable. That’s a deeply self-destructive and self-defeating idea and the very large (and lucrative) health “lifestyle” industries are counting on it. They reinforce this whole “willpower” narrative and then offer their solution as a magical life hack. It’s deceptive marketing, you guys, and it’s awful.

Here’s how I think about it. I’m going to use bullet points again here for clarity:

  • The things we eat and the activities we do (or do not do) are largely a result of learned behaviors and habits.
  • Learned behaviors and habits exist for a reason. We have found validation, satisfaction, or simply enjoyment from them in the past. We eat food that might not be the healthiest for us because it tastes good or makes us feel good. Doughnuts are fucking delicious, you guys, and it’s not discipline to argue otherwise; it’s denial.
  • We don’t change these learned behaviors and habits by shouting at them and hating ourselves for having them and we won’t have a lot of luck quitting them in exchange for doing things we hate and can only imagine doing for limited lengths of time. We change them by learning- or re-learning- other behaviors and habits that also give validation, satisfaction, and enjoyment. Ideally, we find these other behaviors and habits feel even better.

So, the secret of my “sheer hard work” is that I looked at the life I was leading and asked myself “how come I’m doing this?” and when I had those answers (“tacos are tasty AF!” “I don’t have time to go to the gym” etc.) I thought really hard about how I could get the same physical and emotional reward from doing something else that might also be healthier for me. Tacos remain tasty AF, but I now I make tacos a little bit differently so that they are still tasty AF but are a little leaner, a little more nutritious. Or I found ways to shift my approach to exercise. I listened to podcasts or music while walking at first, things that gave me genuine enjoyment so it didn’t seem like a chore. My wife and I recently got a treadmill and I can get some miles on it while I’m watching Netflix. Netflix is awesome!

There’s another layer to this that goes to a deeper place. I cannot and will not speak for everyone that’s had similar physical struggles. As a society- as individuals- we really need to have a lot more empathy and a lot less judgment when it comes to everyone else’s bodies. The notion that obesity (however defined) is a moral failing is one of the most profane and offensive puritanical notions that we’ve allowed to continue into the 21st century. There are a hundred passionate blogs in those last few sentences alone but I digress to talk about my personal experience: For me, food was and is a source of tremendous comfort during times of emotional distress. This is not the only reason why I was “fat” nor is it a character defect. It’s just a behavior I learned and found that it rewarded me.

The night I found out my grandmother passed away, I ate an entire Dominos pizza. I ate until my gut was full and my brain was bombarded with chemicals telling it “YES YES THIS FEELS GOOD.” Biologically our bodies are hardwired to reward us for simple calories because it wasn’t that long ago in biological terms since food was scarce and quick and easy access to caloric fuel was a decisive advantage against looming death. When I ate that Dominos Pizza my body was probably thinking FUCK YEAH SCORE NOW EAT IT ALL BEFORE WOLVES FIND YOU OR THE WINTER COMES AND YOU CAN ONLY FIND ROOTS AND MICE TO EAT but what my body didn’t know is that we don’t have wolves anymore and Dominos Pizza is totally down to bring you pizza in the winter. The net-result was the same- I ate too much because it made me feel better. And it still will. That hasn’t gone away and I don’t expect it to. If I get a gut-punch from life, eating an entire Dominos Pizza will make me feel good. So will a lot of drugs and alcohol. So will going for a run.

What I’ve endeavored to do is give myself an alternative habit to process grief, stress, and anxiety. This wasn’t- it isn’t- easy but it’s more about being vulnerable with my own feelings and candid with myself about them than gritting my teeth and spouting some American folklore about bootstraps. I need to feel better when I’m hurt or afraid or insecure. I deserve to feel better when I’m hurt or afraid or insecure.  I also need and deserve to eat delicious food and need and deserve to do awesome things that bring me joy. Willpower might allow me deny those needs for a little while but it won’t make them disappear. “Sheer hard work” and “discipline” are admirable traits and a little bit of that is always required when making changes in your life but they are woefully insufficient and too often they’re traps. If you see two options and one is not doing anything at all and the other is impossible hard work all the time that you do just because you’re a bad ass, well, I think that explains the really dispiriting statistics about the number of people that are able to successfully lose weight and keep it off.

I have a lot of advantages that have really helped me do what I’ve done. So many that I’m not sure I could list them all if I wanted to. One of them that’s especially useful is a rad support network including healthcare and mental healthcare professional. Another is a love of cooking and a diverse palate that makes it easy for me to make delicious AF food that’s also healthy AF. A stubborn work ethic is another very important advantage but I think it’s helpful to know where that came from. I experienced some lousy things as a kid and I made some lousy choices with my life. At fifteen years old I was a high school drop out living in a trailer park with my single mother, supported entirely by government assistance. I was grossly obese, cripplingly depressed, and was statistically and realistically likely to fall into a life of mental illness, addiction, and poverty. A handful of great people believed in me (my grandmother was one of them) and somehow instead of giving up and sinking into that mud, I found some final reserve of strength and trusted those great people and I got the fuck up. This was not willpower. This was survival and it was the kindness of people that didn’t need to be kind and maybe it was also some greater purpose beyond all of this skin and bone. In the wake of that experience and in the years that followed, my stubborn work ethic has always rewarded me with validation, satisfaction, and enjoyment (also a house, a wonderful wife, and a couple of spoiled Chihuahuas). I’m proud of my stubborn work ethic but it’s not a magic life hack. It’s something I came by honestly and selfishly and it’s something anyone can have. Mystifying discipline and turning it into some kind of super power gives hard work too much and too little credit for what it actually is.

Geez. I wrote a lot more than I planned to. Keep writing and keep running everybody. I have some of that to do myself. Until next time!

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