Sunday, August 21, 2016

I Used to Be The Healthy Guy

I used to be the healthy guy.

You remember that guy – watched what I ate, didn’t smoke, rarely drank and was always exercising.
Not that I was the only person like that, but I remember routinely standing out as different, whether at work, at social events, at parties or even among fellow athletes I competed with and against.

At work I’d always receive comments about how healthy my lunch was and conversations typically revolved around how no one else had time for exercise what with their busy schedules and how nice it must be for me to stay fit when the rest of them had absolutely no time.

At social events, others would be devouring excessive amounts of chicken wings or meatballs or pork ribs all the while sounding completely shocked that someone could survive or exist in this day and age who ate a mostly vegetarian diet (I’m a proud pescetarian, to be exact). The fact that my parents didn't let me eat sugar (not totally true, but not completely false either) and that I was the only one who didn't want the hamburgers being served at a dinner event stunned my friends.

At parties, if I went at all, I was the “lightweight”, the designated driver, the one who had to get up early for a tournament or a workout the next morning which meant for long evenings of nursing a few drinks while others drank and smoked as if there was no tomorrow. Not that I didn't partake, but partying had to fit into the rest of my life and not the other way around.

Not that I was an angel (no one has ever made that comparison) – I had, and continue to have, my vices – chocolate, cheese, and ice cream to name three and, back in my earlier days, I consumed an incredible amount of carbs (almost as if they were soon to be going out of style, which they did). And not that all others were unhealthy, hard-partying gluttons, but I definitely made a name for myself as the healthy guy.

And, I won’t lie, I loved that distinction.

Sure it was frustrating walking up to a buffet at a tournament and seeing only meat dishes. And sure it was annoying having only one option on a menu (fish and chips) at many restaurants. And sure it wasn’t fun being made to feel weird or odd or different for the choices I was making that, in my mind, weren’t that weird or odd or different. It was exhausting to always have to explain to others why I didn’t eat meat and why I, alone, didn’t eat or drink the overly processed or high in sugar or salt foods and beverages that everyone else seemed to be enjoying. Again, not that I didn’t indulge, but I was the healthy guy.

Back then, and to this day, I believed in balance and that everything in moderation was always better than some sort of crazy diet. I always felt that totally depriving myself of something I loved wasn’t the answer. So although I seemed that there was so much I didn't eat and that I exercised a lot, I really felt that I was striking a great balance and I was happy.

But, times they are a changin’. Gone are the days where living a healthy lifestyle is considered unique. These days seemingly everyone is paying a lot more attention to living well. This is a great development. It is exciting to see friends and acquaintances become fitter and happier. It is great to show up at a potluck dinner and be able to sample almost everything without a guilty conscience. It is wonderful to see parks and playgrounds and beaches packed full of people running around and enjoying the West Coast lifestyle.

But, in my mind, the news isn’t all good. Everywhere I go, I see people who are downright fanatical about diet and exercise. I feel that there is so much more of a focus right now on healthy eating and living than ever before in my 45 year lifetime (my memory is a little hazy of my first few years). There is so much focus that I would describe what we are experiencing as not completely healthy. Everywhere you turn, we are being inundated with more and more and more about how to be as healthy as humanly possible. I personally find it tough being a healthy guy in these health-crazed times in which we live. It’s no longer satisfactory to just be healthy as the pressure is on to leave no stone unturned, to eliminate every “evil” vice and to be doing crunches in your spare time.

Because if you aren't, you know the person next to you is and they are tweeting about it.

So many people are watching with super-vigilant detail exactly what they put in their body, monitoring every step, counting every calorie (“there are no free calories” a very thin lady at work said to me the other day while eating her lunch of celery sticks and baby carrots), weighing themselves daily, and using Apps to obsessively track all exercise. Again, many of those things are great, if approached with a somewhat relaxed nature, but the obsession I see and hear on a daily basis is starting to mess with me and I won't stand for that, not on my watch.

And yet, these others seem really happy.

They do.

Happier, in fact, than they have seemed in years. They are lighter, wearing slimmer clothes, demonstrating a boost in self-image and basking in all of the positive comments they justifiably receive on a regular basis. They do look good in that shirt. And, yes, they are literally glowing. And I am happy for them, I am. But, it is starting to drive me crazy. Where conversations around the lunch table used to avoid the topics of exercise and diet as if they were taboo, those topics now infiltrate every single social interaction to the point where it makes me want to scream.

Throughout the day, every day, I hear people saying the following statements that a few years ago I never heard:

“I need to get my steps in”
“I’ll have a couple but only because I went to the gym this morning”
“No thanks, no carbs for me today”
“I’ll pass – my weigh in is tomorrow morning”
“I’m really watching my calories”
“I’m just starting another cleanse.”

Gone are the days where I can enjoy my lunch (usually quite healthy) without feeling assaulted by their comments regarding the new diet, the new food items being excluded, the new self-imposed restrictions when it comes to eating. And on those days I bring some leftover pizza (I know! Gasp! I still eat pizza!) I am aware of all of the looks I get that fall into two categories: doe-eyed longing and head-shaking disapproval.

Not that I’m being competitive, but wherever I turn someone else is eating supposedly healthier than I am and that causes me to stop and think and question my choices. Am I doing all I can do to be healthy? Could/should I attempt to lose weight? Is giving in to my food desires still okay? Do I look good in my shirt? It is so hard not to dwell on these thoughts as these topics are on a constant endless reel-to-reel playing each day.

Everywhere I look someone new has recently stopped eating gluten or dairy or sugar or rice or potatoes or fruit with a high glycemic index or highly acidic foods or anything processed in anyway and so on and so on and so on. Nothing is safe anymore! That’s right, you heard me! Even you kale and broccoli and spinach – watch out, you could be next! No food is perfect. There is something wrong with everything. 

Wherever I turn someone else is exercising harder and more frequently than I am and that causes me to stop and think and wonder if I am doing enough. Everyone one and their dog is “hitting the gym” on a daily basis or going to a boot camp or walking everywhere or tracking workouts on a detailed spreadsheet that is linked on all of their devices. Taking a day off? What’s wrong with you? Going home to sit on the couch when you could be doing crunches or lunges or burpees? Why do a 30 minute jog when you could do two hours of cardio followed by another hour of weights followed by a bike ride home followed by squats all evening in front of the TV? Tired? Too bad! Drop and give me twenty if you want your flax seed, dairy-free, grain-free organic smoothie.

In case you can’t tell, I don’t agree with this heightened sensitivity as a society at all. Yes, we should eat well and be healthy, and yes, we should be active and care about fitness, but I see so many people developing what seems like mental health issues of obsessiveness and compulsion and anxiety regarding food and exercise. And, while comfortable and confident with who I am (mostly most of the time), it is just so hard on my own mental health to be surrounded by people who are constantly consumed with their own health.

Now I know that I am seen by others as a bit of an exercise fanatic and I know I am seen by others as someone who really watches what they eat, and I am both of those things. But I also believe that I have discovered a happy balance in life, where I can exercise a few days a week and totally kick back on the others. Where I balance my own activities, with activities for my family and where I use my free time to exercise as well as write, cook and read. Where I can enjoy veggies and greens and wild fish and then melt cheese all over some noodles, enjoy some homemade chocolate chip cookies and devour a bagel covered with cream cheese and smoked salmon.

A colleague once said a very telling thing that I believe captures this entire crazed times we are in. He said “nothing tastes as a good as skinny feels.” Yes it feels good to look good and to be able to stand confidently and proudly in front of a mirror or a room of people or on the beach (don't bring a mirror to the beach, people will stare). But, the goal shouldn’t be skinny; the goal should be healthy. And one shouldn’t be forcing themselves to exercise and denying themselves food items because they are leading too crazed an existence because they believe that is the path towards health.

There are fine lines in life – many of them – and there are some really important ones here. Mental health is as important as physical health. Eating what you love is as important as eating well. Exercise is as important as allowing your body to rest. Moderation is the goal, not exclusion.

I used to be the healthy guy. 

The different one with the weird eating habits who was always off to a workout. I’m still that same guy (albeit, an older, more wrinkled version), but the world has changed around me. I no longer stand out, and that is great – the changes to society are so positive up to a point. I just don’t love the extreme focus on being as healthy as humanly possible all the time and I hate that it makes me second guess what I'm doing. I don't think it's entirely healthy and it sort of drives me crazy. I hope that things will correct back to a happy, middle ground at some point soon where we can have our cake and eat it too (and go to the gym tomorrow).