By Shawn Syms
It’s well into the new year now, and lots of people I know have mentioned their struggles with resolutions, many of them already broken. I’ve been there before too, but I managed to avoid this pressure cooker myself this year—by simply not making any resolutions at all.
Promises of dramatic behavioural change can be difficult to bring to fruition and even harder to sustain. So it’s no surprise that, from fad diets to complicated exercise regimens, January is, for many of us, a time when ambitious plans are made and later cast aside. So this year, I’ve been thinking in a lot more general terms about positive directions I’d like to move in.
This includes some fitness stuff, some interpersonal matters, and just a few things I’d like to accomplish in terms of my personal interests and passions. I’ve come up with some incremental steps to set me in the right direction. And now it’s already February, and some of those steps I haven’t even started yet!
Perhaps this slow-paced approach to change sounds a bit like laziness or even procrastination. But I’m pretty upbeat about things so far. Definitely not feeling like I’ve set myself up for failure as in some years past. I’ve come to realize that our society mandates instant gratification, often to our detriment. So I’m trying to slow down.
Consider our culture’s obsession with dieting. People make radical adjustments to what, when and how they eat—some experience short-term success, but most eventually gain weight back. Our cookie-cutter approach to diets fails to take into account genetic variations like body type and metabolism.
The leanest person you know may be unhealthy; the largest one could be in great shape. Or vice versa. We can be healthy at any size. The “fitness industrial complex” may bombard us with supposedly ideal bodies—but ultimately, wellness is less about how you look and more about how you feel. Don’t get me wrong. If your goal is to build a specific type of body at the gym, go for it. There are plenty of resources to help, from the web to trainers to other buddies who lift. I just don’t believe in a “one size fits all” approach when it comes to working out—or choosing not to.
Some of my healthier eating goals have included cutting out caffeine or reducing my reliance on processed foods—bringing homemade lunches to work and avoiding excess dependence on restaurant food. And though we haven’t been completely consistent about it, in my home we have joined the growing trend of instituting a weekly Meatless Monday—one way to help both oneself and the planet.
If I’ve learned one thing through this process, it’s to be gentle with myself and allow permission to be flexible with my goals. Canadian nutritionist Michelle Allison suggests we focus on “normal eating,” which involves awareness and leaning toward healthier choices, but not obsessing over them. She cites dietician Ellyn Satter, who says “normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.” It’s about being mindful of your needs, and addressing them.
Speaking of mindfulness, here’s one great thing I’ve discovered as an alternative to crash diets or suddenly switching to a 7-day-a-week gym regimen: meditation. There are all kinds of resources online about how to meditate, but at its simplest, meditation just means this: taking quiet time for yourself, clearing away the thoughts of a busy day and focusing on your breathing.
This can be done almost anywhere, though it helps if you have a space where you can be alone for a while. Sit or lie in a comfortable position and close your eyes. Breathe in and out naturally, and focus your thoughts on the experience of breathing. Any time other thoughts try to crowd in, notice them and set them aside, and just focus on the power of your own breath instead. Even trying this for 5 or 10 minutes a day, or just at times when I feel particularly stressed at home or work, I’ve been surprised at how energetic I have felt afterward. Meditation is empowering—it proves that change can “come from within.”
Exercise goals can be phased in incrementally as well. I never really enjoyed most fitness activities growing up—this almost sounds like a stereotype, but as a queer kid I was picked on a lot and felt the sting of being selected last on teams in gym class all the time. And as a fat kid, I grew up with a lot of negative feelings about my body—and any sort of physicality just reminded me of the corporeal aspects of being in the world that I didn’t feel very good about.
These days, I’ve found running to one form of exercise I’ve really enjoyed. I stumbled onto the sport almost by accident, but since then I built up my skills to the point of being able run a marathon. I sure wasn’t the fastest to cross the finish line, but the physical rewards have been great, not to mention the sense of accomplishment. I’ve taken a bit of a break from running—using the coldest Ontario winter in decades as an excuse—but that excuse won’t hold for much longer. In the meantime I’ve been taking the stairs instead of the elevator at work. Baby steps!
Despite the imperatives of our high-speed culture, I’ve learned that most things really don’t need to happen in such a hurry. The examples I’ve given are just what has worked for me. Everyone’s experiences and abilities are different, in the current moment and at different points in our lives. What resonates for you culturally and personally may be very different. All in all though, when it comes to making changes for the sake of physical, mental and emotional well-being, I’d say I’ve decided to consider integrating healthy life choices as a marathon rather than a sprint.
Shawn Syms has written about sexuality, politics and culture for more than 25 years.
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