Wednesday, October 6, 2010

How reading "healthy living" blogs has changed MY life

In the past few days, the "healthy living" blog world has exploded.  A recent article by Marie Claire magazine, which seems to have taken an extreme opinion of the blogs in question, has incited quite the controversy.  An article on Jezebel sums it up pretty well (and includes links to the article and the bloggers' responses), so I won't get into it too much, but:  The article takes to task the creators of several popular blogs, whom the author calls the "Big Six," saying that instead of promoting healthy food and exercise habits, they often encourage people to exercise too much, eat too little, and employ eating-disordered habits to keep themselves too thin.

Now, I have been reading most of these blogs for almost two years, and have to say that I haven't seen (or noticed?) too many of the things that the article mentions, at least not to the extreme that is suggested by the article.  I do agree with Rachel from Hollaback Health, though, when she says that perhaps we don't notice these behaviors on the blogs we read because we consider the bloggers to be friends - it's a little too close for us to be seeing clearly.  I think it's obvious that some changes are in order, and we all need to be a little more careful about what we say and how we say it.  Certain types of discussions about weight and food can potentially be damaging to readers with emerging or existing eating disorders.  Even though the responsibility is in the reader's hands when something is out there, we need to keep in mind that what we do and say does, ultimately, have consequences for our readers.

Moving on from the controversy, though: I feel that something left out of the article entirely was the perspective of the many, many readers whose lives have been changed for the better by reading these blogs.   I am one of those people, and I think my story was lost along the way when the story of these blogs was written, perhaps in favor of controversy and magazine sales.

Let's look at it this way: the majority of Americans at this point are overweight or obese.  This means that instead of it being one unhealthy person surrounded by people with healthier habits, most people in this country are eating too much, exercising too little, and caring WAY too little about their health.    In our society now, the "norm" is the inactive person.  This means that people like me, who got a bad start at healthy living but are trying to improve, do not necessarily have a support system or safety net at home.  The person who likes to run 5Ks on weekends, or will eat millet and butternut squash for dinner, is often doing these things alone because their friends don't understand the desire to be healthy, or have any desire to exercise together.  The "healthy living" blog community provides a space for people like us to find others who will support and inspire us along our journey.

Here, for your enjoyment, is my story, the perspective that was nowhere to be found in Marie Claire, which I feel is much more common than those who learn harmful behaviors from the blogs in question:

Growing up, I was always a "chubby," but happy, kid.  I can't recall a time after I was at all self-aware that I was not aware of being larger than most of my classmates and friends.  At first, it was ok - I was a bit taller than everyone else, too, and I didn't worry too much.  I think the self-consciousness came with puberty, when other people grew taller than me but I was still the "chubby" kid.  It didn't help that at school we had to wear these shirts at gym that had the actual size of the shirt written in huge letters on the outside - I think that was supposed to help the laundry people and the people handing out the shirts to us, but I distinctly remember trying to cover up my shirt for several years of gym class.  Not a good way to get kids to participate in gym, huh?

Throughout my childhood, I never really learned healthy habits.  When I came home from school, my grandma, who had the best of intentions but liked to spoil her granddaughter, would give me anything I wanted for a snack - even a taco from Taco Bell or fries from McDonalds.  I rode horses, but didn't do any other physical activity outside gym at school - I was never encouraged to, since I was a smart kid and was supposed to be working hard on my homework.  I was never teased too much at school for my size - although I never really ran with the "cool kids," either.  But I definitely didn't like being the size I was, and I remember being super excited when I lost about 20 pounds during the year I played lacrosse during high school.  Since I hadn't really learned to connect how I ate or exercised with my weight, though, I promptly gained all the weight back when lacrosse season ended and I didn't pick up any other sports.  I even stopped riding horses around that time in high school, and began to gain even more weight.  Sure, I was still growing a little since I was a teenager - but I was getting much larger.  College came then, too, bringing more than the "freshman 15."  Over the 4 years between sophomore year of high school and sophomore year of college, I gained a total of 50 pounds, with my max being at 235 pounds.

 My moment of realization came when I looked at pictures taken of me at the end of sophomore year of college.  I had been out with friends for a celebratory dinner, and dressed up nice.  We had a blast, and I am smiling in all of the pictures.  Happy and dressed up - I should look my best, right?  When I looked at these pictures, I wanted to cry - I was bigger than I had ever been, and I didn't feel happy in my own skin anymore when I really saw how I looked.  I knew something had to change.

The summer between sophomore year and junior year, I joined a gym.  I had nothing to do that summer, aside from studying for the LSAT (funny, since I'm a PhD student now).  I devoted 1-2 hours each day to the gym and found ways to eat healthier.  I remember being scared at the gym at first - I felt like everyone was watching me, and I didn't even know how to work the elliptical machine.  I took it slow, though, building up time on the machines and weights as I went, and eventually joined the classes, taking a liking to the yoga and dance classes.  During that summer, I lost 20 pounds, and during the next year and a half, I lost 15 more, for a total of 35 pounds.

I still didn't have a support system, though.  Whenever I was tired or stressed, I still ate too much - and as I was getting busier and busier with schoolwork going into graduate school, I had less and less time for exercise.  My priorities were shifting away from my health, and I started to become less healthy again.  I only gained back a little over 10 pounds, but the change in my lifestyle was having other effects.  I couldn't cope well with anxiety and was starting to feel like a failure in grad school, despite the fact that I was right on track with my progress.

And then I stumbled upon "healthy living" blogs.  I was looking for a recipe, and through links I ended up reading through several of the blogs that were mentioned in the Marie Claire article.  Of course, a few years ago, they weren't as big as they are now - but I found them very interesting.  I never really paid too much attention to the "what I ate all day" posts, but I definitely started to branch out with what I ate and try some healthier choices (more veggies, whole grains) because of the recipes they posted.  But it was their love of exercise - really, of activity - that was most inspiring to me.

I didn't think I could ever become a runner, but I saw how these girls had started off slow with running and become "real" runners with time - and I was inspired to do the same.  I started with Couch-to-5K, which was recommended by several "healthy living" blogs (I remember Caitlin mentioning it many times, but I'm sure that I saw it elsewhere too).  After a few months of that, I completed my first 5K in the spring of 2009 - I did it run/walk, but I finished it.  Over the next year, I kept at it - slowly, sometimes with breaks - and stayed at around 2 or 3 mile runs most of the time.  I found that I really loved running, and that doing some sort of physical activity helped me cope with stress and made me much more even-keel during the day.  I felt like I had control over my life again.

Finally, this January, I saw a promotion for the 13.1 Marathon half-marathon series, which had a race in Boston that benefited the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation.  I know a few people with Crohn's or colitis, and as an immunology student, I know how little we actually know about what causes IBD and related diseases.  I know we need more money for research - and I wanted to do something about it.  I couldn't raise a lot of money - everyone I know is in graduate or law school, or just out of school - but in January of this year, I committed to running the half marathon at the end of June.  Having read about training plans in several of the blogs I follow, I knew how to create a plan and stick to it.  The knowledge that other people out there were doing the same thing - and some tips and tricks from the blog community - helped me gain the confidence I needed to train for the half marathon and complete it.  During my spring of training, I also completed a 5K race, running the whole thing and coming in with a PR, and finished the 10-mile Broad Street Run - both of which I'm very proud of.

I have now completed two half marathons this year, and I am training for another in November.  I have lost a few pounds, but am still not back to my lowest weight from college - and although this is disappointing, I know that I am eating to fuel my training, and that this is what my body needs right now.  As I wrote in my running recap this summer, I plan on backing off running for a bit after this last race - I would like to concentrate on strength training and eating better, which I can only do if I have the time and hunger level of someone who's not training for a long-distance event.  I'll stick with shorter distances for a while, and while I write my thesis this winter I will hopefully be getting stronger and losing a bit of weight.  I know that my current weight isn't yet in the healthy range - and I'm focusing on getting to a happier weight - but I'm also more concerned with feeling stronger, leaner, and faster, not necessarily the number on the scale.

I am forever grateful to the blog community for providing the support, inspiration, and advice that I could only get from a community of like-minded people.  I know that sometimes we need to watch how we approach certain subjects, and that some people can take well-meaning advice to the extreme, but I think more people's stories are like my own, and that overall the community is a positive influence.

If anyone has any other perspectives or anything at all to say, I encourage comments - I think the community has a lot to discuss right now!

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