Have you noticed how you can intellectually know all the practical actions you need to take to get the result you want, but you still don’t do it?
Of course! As Derek Sivers would say, “If more information was the answer, then we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.” But we’re not. Because you need more than information. More than just the formula.
You need the belief system that will inspire you to take consistent action towards your goals, especially when you hit the inevitable obstacles. Without the right mindset, you’ll sabotage your own progress over and over again. Fortunately, cultivating an empowering belief system is something you can get better at with practice, at least it is according to Carol Dweck’s research on having a growth mindset.
Cultivating the right mindset is a key component to getting what you want, whether that’s losing 15 pounds, running a marathon, or writing your best-selling novel. For the purpose of this post, I’ll define mindset as a collection of thought habits and beliefs that shape how you interpret and interact with the world.
Mindset Habits for Success
Here are 13 mindset habits which I see in my most successful clients, in the top performers I study, and which I strive to cultivate in myself.
Focus on the Gain (the progress you’ve made) vs the Gap (how far you have to go). Where were you a year ago? What have you accomplished? Pat yourself on the back!
Get back on track quickly. Goal progress is rarely linear. Sometimes you get off course. Recovery quickly. Don’t make it mean something about you. It’s just part of the journey. Just keep moving forward.
Curate your consumption. This applies to every area of life, including the food that fuels your mind and your adventures, the media you consume, the relationships you imbibe. Everything you take in is impacting you on some level. For everything, ask is this helping me become the person I want to be or not?
Focus on process over result. Knowing where you’re headed is important, but once you set your sights, focus your energy on the day to day actions. Like a thru-hike, progress happens one step at a time. Looking at the finish line too often can overwhelm you.
Prioritize and optimize your energy above all else. It’s your most precious resource. Do something daily just because it feels good and restores your energy. This is a true expression of self love and it’s not woo. It literally primes your brain for more consistent positive decisions.
Be weird. If you want an average life, do what everyone else is doing. If you want an extraordinary life, do things your way. Let go of caring what other people think and instead focus on creating the life you want.
Clarity comes from action. You might not know the best way forward, but moving 100 mph in the wrong direction is better than staying stuck in analysis paralysis. Take action, get feedback, iterate, move forward.
Your past is not your future. Even if you’ve tried and ‘failed’ at a goal multiple times before, use the failure as feedback of the path that doesn’t work. Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb.
Ask for help. None of us achieves everything alone. Getting support in your goal can help you hit goals 100x faster than you could alone, figuring it all out yourself. Before you take advice from the random guy in the internet forum, ask yourself if he has the result you’re seeking.
Don’t wait for motivation to strike. Mood follows action, not the other way around. Act in the direction of your goals and the motivation will follow.
Focus on getting the basics right and push back on complexity. You don’t need a more complicated diet or $200 running shoes to get the body you want. Have you mastered the basics? Are you eating mostly real food? Are you committed to 30 minutes of walking each day? Start there. Put your attention on a strong foundation.
Commit to higher vision for yourself. You’re here to live an extraordinary life. You’re totally capable. It’ll take effort. Recommit to your vision daily and take action.
Define the outcome clearly. It’s hard to get to where you want to go if you don’t know where that is. The brain needs a target to aim for. Be specific.
Which of these do you already embody? Which would you like to adopt? Remember that changing your mindset is a matter or repetition and practice. When you catch yourself in a limiting thought loop, pause, and re-frame the thought to some believable, yet more empowering. Little by little, you’ll upgrade your thoughts and your entire life.
There was a time in my life when I lacked the motivation to even get out of bed. I felt hopeless and overwhelmed. I knew I wasn’t living the life I wanted to, but I didn’t know how to get out of my rut. I wanted to make better decisions for myself, and when I failed to do so, day after day, I would feel even more frustrated.
This cycle repeated itself until I finally started to make tiny shifts each day, which compounded, eventually resulting in an entirely new way of experiencing my day to day life. Having been in and out of this cycle multiple times, it’s now easier to recognize when I’m falling into a funk, and I now have a set of tools that get be back into an optimal state more quickly.
Having a toolkit of physical practices and mental frameworks provides a means to move through these challenging emotions and into a place of greater personal power. From there, I’m much more effective at supporting those around me and acting in alignment with my truth.
This post goes into some of those tools that have helped me shift out of anxiety, fear, anger, and despair. Feel free to take what works for you and leave the rest.
For a long time, I fell into the trap of believing that my mental and emotional suffering wasn’t “severe enough” to be worth addressing. I now realize that suffering is relative, and the world needs each of us feeling our best so we can show up to do the work we’re here to do, whether that’s through our jobs, or as parents, or by sharing our stories, etc.
It’s important to note that our physical, emotional, and mental health are intricately intertwined. When one is suffering, the other pillars inevitably suffer as well. For instance, when you’re treating your body like crap, you’re less emotionally and mentally resilient. We’ll get more into why that is in a minute.
Finally, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t feel our emotions. I think it’s important to feel, to acknowledge, and to work through them, but not to get stuck in them.
Why do I feel like crap?
Before I get into the practices that help move me into a better mental and emotional state, here are some factors I’ve identified that consistently contribute to feeling less than ideal. When I notice myself in a slump, I can usually find one or more of these at play.
I’m caring too much about fitting in or meeting someone else’s expectations or being “perfect” … essentially, I’m giving other people’s/society’s opinions too much weight.
I’m hyper focused on myself, my needs, and my own experience.
I’m taking myself too seriously.
I’m creating the illusion that I’m alone.
I’m viewing my own sensitivity as a weakness rather than a gift.
I’m acting out of alignment with my value system.
I’m not supporting my physical body (e.g. under- or overeating; not enough sun; not getting out in nature; not making time for rest and pleasure.
Based on the above, you might guess that some of the strategies for moving into a different state are essentially the opposite of the root causes.
How do I shift my mental and emotional state?
Focus on eating real food. This means whole foods, like fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, legumes, and salmon. Cut back on hormone-disrupting, inflammatory foods, like processed sugar. Quit dieting. Learn how to tune into genuine hunger and how to stop when satiated. For an explanation on why real food supports better mental health, read up on the food-mood connection, the role of the microbiome in neurotransmitter production, and the effects of blood sugar stabilization on mood.
Daily practices that rewire my brain towards seeing the positive. The negativity bias is the notion that we’re hard-wired to look for dangers and threats in our environment. For me, a daily journal session focused on anything that’s going right in my life (even if it’s the tiniest thing) slowly trains my brain to find the positive.
Cultivate resilience by framing challenges as lessons and as an essential part of becoming my most whole, expressed self.
Raise my self awareness through personal development work.
Reframe sensitivity and empathy as a gift and learn to set boundaries appropriately.
Define what matters to me and what my values are. Act accordingly.
Zoom out to see the bigger picture. I have a Pale Blue Dot print which reminds me that this life is short and fleeting, and that my ‘problems’ are probably not as big as they seem in the grand scheme of things.
Is it selfish to spend time on self care?
I believe that having compassion for others goes hand in hand with having compassion for ourselves. When I take care of myself, I’m better equipped to take care of others. Remember, it’s not selfish to put your own oxygen mask on first.
When it comes to your health, how do you measure “success”? How do you know your health efforts are “working”? If you’ve never given this much consideration, read on.
I’m not a fan of the word success, especially when it comes to health, because it’s so nebulous. It’s not well-defined, and so we accept the default definition that’s handed to us by society at large. By not creating our own parameters for success, we succumb to other people’s metrics and take them on as our own.
And what are the metrics we traditionally use to measure health? Here are a few: weight, calorie count, step count, and macro ratios. How much emphasis do we usually put on those numbers? In my experience (and I’m completely guilty of this), the answer is way too much. Those things might be part of health. But, in my mind, REAL HEALTH is about so much more.
So, I invite you to consider this:
How are you currently measuring your health success? How do you know that the things you’re doing are working? Are the things you’re measuring leading to the long term result you want? If not, how do you want to redefine success and measure health more holistically?
To me, the point of eating real food, and moving my body, and getting enough sleep, and engaging in self care is to live a life of joy. It’s a life where I have plenty of energy, and I feel good, and I can go on outdoor adventures and feel strong. It’s a life where I feel sane around food, my inner dialogue is loving, and I’m moving my body from a place of joy. It’s a life where I’m present for my relationships and the work I’m here to do in the world.
Though I rejected diet culture long ago (through much experimentation and self inflicted suffering), I still get caught in the trap of mainstream dominant paradigm. The one that tells me that my weight, and the number of calories I consume, or the amount of exercise I complete define my self worth. When in my heart, I know that my life is about so much more than that.
Remember that you don’t have to embody the toxic messages that come from much of the “wellness” industry (which, yes, I’m a part of; and yes, it’s confusing to find a voice you trust when there’s so much info coming at you. I get it.).
You get to write your own rules. Or to say F it to rules, entirely.
I invite you to take a little quiet time to define for yourself what “healthy” truly looks like. How does healthy feel to you? How do you spend your time? How do you talk to yourself in the mirror? What are you able to do that is a struggle for you now? How do you show up in your relationships and in your day to day moments? Are you rigid, scattered, controlling? Or are you calm, grounded, and present?
If you’re willing to share, comment below!
To learn more about what it means to live a truly healthy life, find more freebies here.
Hitting the pantry more often than normal these days?
If so, take solace in the fact that you’re definitely not alone. AND you’re completely (biologically) normal. Stress, anxiety, boredom, grief, and procrastination are just a few of the many reasons that we eat when we’re not physically hungry. Here are some practical tools to navigate emotional eating with more intention and ease.
This post is not about telling you that emotional eating is ‘wrong’. As with anything, you decide what’s best for you. If this is a behavior you’re engaging in and it’s not serving you, here’s a compilation of tips that are supporting me and that I hope will also serve you.
Why do we stress eat?
It’s not that you just ‘have no will power’. The fact is, we’re biologically wired to eat more when we’re under emotional duress.
This article cites three science-backed reasons that underlie stress eating. To summarize, the first reason is that stress activates the sympathetic nervous system (aka the fight or flight response). When the SNS is activated, we reach for quick hits of glucose (ie. sugary, snacky foods). The second reason is that the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for impulse control, doesn’t work as efficiently during stress. We’re, therefore, less able to resist the call of the pantry. The third reason we eat under stress is because when our brain senses danger, the threat response system within our brains is activated. Sugary and fatty foods can dampen this response and temporarily make us feel comforted.
Fortunately, we can use the following strategies to coax the nervous systems back into parasympathetic (aka rest and digest) mode, so that we can make better decisions. Notice that these tactics are focused on reducing stress as opposed to taking a food-focused. This is a root cause approach. Go for the cause (stress), not the symptoms (overeating, snacking, emotional eating). These are taken directly from this post.
Take a Breath
As soon as you find yourself with a craving, simply stop and take a few breaths:
Sit or lay comfortably with your back straight.
Place one hand over your stomach, just below the ribcage, and your other hand over your chest.
Inhale deeply for 3-8 seconds through the nostrils, directing all air to your belly. Only your stomach should lift or expand, not your chest.
Breathe out through your mouth for 3-8 seconds.
Repeat 3-10 times.
Get into Nature
Just 20 minutes of exposure to nature has been shown to significantly lower stress hormone levels. Try to get out at least once a day, especially when you’re craving a snack.
Engage in Meditation
Meditation being one of the most effective ways we can get ourselves out of stress mode and into a healthier physical state of being.
Move Your Body to Reduce Food Cravings
Studies show that regular exercise helps reduce food cravings for up to a couple of hours even after you’ve finished exercising. It’s a bit of a double-whammy with exercise; it can help you reduce food cravings AND reduce your stress level with even short bouts of movement.
Additional tips to manage stress eating
This post from Precision Nutrition offers the following 3 tips:
Go ahead and overeat. The idea is to notice and track what is going on around the time you overeat (e.g. a long phone call with mom? A stressful work meeting? Going too long between meals? Alcohol?). This develops awareness around what triggers your overeating. It also removes the guilt and shame. If you’re “allowed” to overeat, it suddenly doesn’t feel so urgent, and perhaps you just have one or two cookies instead of the whole box. For more details on how to uncover your triggers, reference the full post. Once you’re aware of the trigger, decide what to do about it.
Create a nourishment menu. This step provides tools to help when your triggers (see #1) are activated, and you want to break the trigger-response cycle. The idea is to ‘pick a thing (an action) to do before a thing (the stress eating). It’s called a nourishment menu because it contains options that nourish you in other ways, many of which we may be feeling deprived of right now (time in nature, movement, fresh air, sunlight, connection, etc.). Examples include: take 3 deep breaths, drink a big glass of water, mentally check for signs of physical hunger, play with your pet for 5 minutes, do some quick stretches, listen to a favorite song, go for a short walk, do some housework, journal). Think of non-food things that offer the sense of relief you were seeking from the food. To make it more likely you’ll do it, put your list on the fridge, and make your menu items as easy and quick to accomplish as possible.
Take a self compassionate approach. This means an attitude of generosity, honesty, and kindness towards yourself. This tip helps you understand that your behavior around food doesn’t define you as a person. Right now, it makes sense that you may not be eating (or exercising, or working, or living) the way you normally do.
But feeling bad about being out of your routine could make stress eating even worse. So don’t beat yourself up. And don’t make “perfection” the goal. Self compassion is giving yourself a break, being honest and seeing the big picture, being kind to yourself. It’s not giving yourself a permanent ‘get out of jail free’ card, ignoring your problems, or letting yourself off the hook.
And if you still decide to eat the snack, portion out the food you want into a bowl, sit down, and eat it mindfully.
A few more ideas
Guard your mind carefully. Reduce incoming stress-inducing media by turning off your TV, monitoring news consumption, and reducing social media use.
Start your day with a ritual and visualize yourself making health supporting choices.
Eat whole meals which include fiber, fat, and protein to keep your blood sugar balance. Start the day with protein to avoid the tendency to overeat later.
Get 7-8 hours of sleep.
Keep healthy snacks on hand and easily accessible. If there’s a certain food you tend to overeat, don’t keep it in the house.
Create a meal plan, including snacks, and stick to it.
Set up your work space away from the kitchen.
There’s a lot here. Pick one or two ideas to focus on for now. Keep what works and leave the rest.
Rewiring our psychology around food is complex. It’s an ongoing practice. My own messed up relationship to food + my body goes way back, and yes, I still stress eat. But it helps to have tools.
An ACE certified personal trainer with over 30,000 backpacking miles, Heather became the first female triple triple crowner and the first female calendar year triple crowner when she hiked the AT, the PCT, and the CDT in one March-November season in 2018. She holds the overall self supported FKT on the PCT and the female FKT on the AT and AZT. She is also an ultra marathoner, peak bagger, and mountaineer working on several ascent lists in the US and abroad. Heather is a speaker, and is author of the book Thirst, which chronicles her PCT record.
It’s that time of year again…where we start reflecting on the past 365 days and making resolutions for the next 365 days. So many of our determinations revolve around health and exercise; including those who plan to do a long-distance backpacking trip as their New Year’s Resolution. But why do we spend so much time resolving to do better in the arena of wellness and often times not end up following through?
I think so often our goals are unreasonable. We want to
attain perfection without the work. Or, don’t fully understand the commitment
to lifestyle and mindset change that is not temporary. These, along with our deep-seated
dissatisfactions with our own selves, are fuel for the “failure fire.” I could
write volumes about this, but for this blog I’m going to focus on a few points
especially with regard to preparation for a big, physical goal (like a race or long-distance
hike) since that’s my specialty as a personal trainer.
First of all, I’ll start with the essential (and shockingly, often not obvious) truth that you need to know and accept: You are capable.
You are capable of achieving your goals. It might take you a
longer time or more work than someone else, but you are capable of effecting
great change, massive health improvements and finding yourself able to complete
things you couldn’t previously. The key is to believe in your ability to
Secondly: Set stepping stone goals.
I’ve worked with a lot of people over the years and the number one reason people drop out of a program is because they’re not seeing the results they expected right away. The truth is you won’t see the end result without long-term work. It’s great to have a big, audacious goal. But once you have it, break down the steps you’ll need to get from where you are to that goal and focus on building from one sub-goal to the next. You’ll stay motivated in your training when you’re seeing the results you expect as you reach each subsidiary benchmark.
Take a cue from long distance hiking: when you start the Appalachian Trail, you’re going to get demoralized thinking about walking 2,193 miles. Or even across 14 states. Think instead about hiking to your campsite each day, or to the next town. These short term, attainable goals feed that sense of accomplishment you need to keep going. One by one, all these mini-goals stack up to make a whole thru-hike. In the same way, looking at your long term goal through the lens of all the mini-goals that make it up and you’ll find a string of successes that builds upon itself.
Third: Realize this is a commitment to life-change, not just
means to an end.
It’s fine to make a dietary or physical activity change for
short term goals, if that’s what you want. But realize that if you’re serious
about becoming healthier, preparing your body to age well, or prepping for a long-term
physical goal it will require life change. You’ll be undoing ingrained habits
and replacing them with new ones. Chances are you’ll have to start with concreting
foundational changes that may seem imperceptible into your routine before
moving on. That’s why the first two steps I listed are so crucial. If you set
unrealistic goals, or go too hard too soon you’ll burn out. Think of the
changes you’re aiming for as a journey, not a destination. Just like you can’t
get from Springer Mountain, Georgia (the southern terminus of the Appalachian
Trail) to Mount Katahdin, Maine (the northern terminus) in 10 days on foot, you
can’t completely overhaul your wellness and exercise habits in a day either.
If you’re looking to make the changes necessary to really prepare you for long term success remember to take it one piece at a time. Set your intention not just for the New Year, but for your life. Begin making changes and focus on cementing one solidly in your foundation before moving on to the next. Start with the goal of 20 minutes of exercise every day. Once you’re successfully doing that without missing days you’re ready to take the next step…toward whatever your long-term goals are. If they include preparing to complete a thru-hike you might consider the Adventure Ready online course that Katie Gerber and I have collaborated on.
To stay in the loop for the next enrollment period for Adventure Ready, and to get on the VIP list for early bird promotions, join the email list here (plus get a free winter wellness guide!).
When it comes to making progress in anything, being consistent is key. As I often talk about with clients, it’s not one meal, or even one day, of poor choices that ruins your progress. It’s what you do day in and day out, over time.
Staying consistent is something that most of us struggle with at some point, especially when we’re first implementing new habits. Maybe it’s staying consistent with your 5am workouts or sticking with your keto (or paleo or vegan or whole foods or…) eating plan. Or maybe you want to meditate daily or stop drinking sugary beverages.
Your start with good intentions. You’re so dedicated to sticking with your goal that you can’t imagine how anything could possibly get in your way. And then the dog pukes on the carpet right when you’re headed to spin class or you didn’t have time to hit the grocery store and now you don’t have healthy snacks on hand.
Suddenly, all bets are off. Your good intentions fall by the wayside and you end the day feeling defeated. You vow to try again tomorrow. Or, worse, you let the failure feeling spiral into the F-it mentality. I ate one slice of cake, so now I may as well eat 4. Sound familiar?
Progress, Not Perfection
Implementing and sticking to your well-intentioned plan can be a challenge. Fortunately, there are a few tools you can use to set yourself up for a greater likelihood of success. We’ll cover that in a moment. But first, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to be perfect in your habits to make progress towards your goal.
In fact, I recently read an article where the authors analyzed over 1000 nutrition clients to assess how consistent you need to be to see body transformations over the course of a year. It turns out that you don’t need 100% consistency to see results. Even a little bit (10-49%) of consistency in your health habits resulted in an average of 11 pounds lost and a 5-6% reduction in body fat. Of course, more consistency led to greater results, but the point is that you can let go of the idea that you need to be perfect to see results. You can miss your health habit half of the time and still see progress. Whew, what a relief!
When habits are in place, we no longer rely on willpower to do what we know we ‘should’ do. Once we’ve put in the effort to establish the habit, it more or less keeps going on auto-pilot, and we can direct that precious energy elsewhere.
When it comes to creating habits, and being consistent, here are 7 tools to set you up for success.
Know Your WHY
This seems obvious, but it’s so often overlooked. It’s truly the foundation for everything. When you know your WHY, you’re more motivated, and the obstacles which will inevitably arise, are easier to overcome.
Take 3 minutes, get quiet, and understand your true motivation for wanting to implement a certain new habit. Allow the truth to come up without judgment. Do you want to be healthy so you can play with your kids? Do you want to lose 10 pounds so you look better naked? Do you want to journal everyday because it helps you be a better spouse? Whatever it is, write it in a note on your phone and revisit it often. Daily is ideal. Stay very connected to your WHY.
Baby steps. Don’t overhaul your entire life and attempt to change all your habits at once. Let’s call this the New Year’s Eve effect. We all know that person who is a sedentary junk food eater and decides to quit smoking, go vegan, and start working out daily all within the first week of January. What happens? By January 7, they’re back to their old habits, feeling like a failure.
Sustainable change and new habits happen one building block at a time. Focus on one new habit for at least 2 weeks before moving on to the next. If this habit is a particularly big change, give it your mono-focus for longer. Additionally, if your desired outcome is a big leap from where you are now, create ‘stepping stone’ goals. These should be ridiculously easy to achieve. So easy that failure is impossible. This prevents overwhelm and creates positive momentum.
Do the Hard Things First
Prioritizing your challenging tasks is especially important when building in new habits. Implementing new behaviors requires energy input, which is often higher at the beginning of the day. Furthermore, when it comes to something like working out, it’s often easier to fit it in first thing in the morning, before the chance arises for something to throw our well-meaning plan off course (i.e. an unscheduled meeting, an unexpected phone call, an appointment that runs long, etc.).
Set Yourself Up for Success
Remove as much thought and effort from the process as possible. For example, when it comes to maintaining healthy eating habits, try meal prepping, a home delivery service, or keeping the pantry stocked with staples for quick healthy meals. This way, you don’t end up making poor choices because you got home late and didn’t have the time or energy to make something healthy. Likewise, say your goal is to go for a 30 minute walk every morning. Set your outfit out the night before, prep your coffee or breakfast in advance, and set your shoes by the door.
Essentially, do whatever you can to make it easy to follow through with your desired habit.
This is more important for some people than for others, so it’s helpful to know yourself. If you know that you do better when someone is counting on you to show up, then create accountability around your desired habit.
This might be connecting with a workout buddy or a trainer who meets you at the gym 4 days per week. Or perhaps this looks like you announcing your goal to a supportive group that can hold you accountable. Or if you’re really committed, you enlist the help of a coach who helps you clearly define your goals and then keeps you on track towards reaching them.
Track Your Progress
In the same vein as creating accountability, tracking your progress can be a powerful way to build momentum. You could use a basic wall calendar where you mark each day with an “X” when you perform your habit. Put the calendar where you will see it daily and never let two days in a row go by where you don’t have an “X” on your calendar.
When I work with clients, we use a simple spreadsheet to track consistency. We both have access to the spreadsheet and I review it regularly, which also leverages the accountability principle.
Identify Potential Obstacles & Develop a Plan (ie. Worse Case Scenario Thinking)
It’s so much easier to make the ‘right choice’ when we envision in advance what might go wrong and how we’ll handle it. I do this all the time in the wilderness. What would I do if a bear ate all my food tonight? What would I do if I encounter a creep while I’m out here alone? What would I do if I got bitten by a venomous snake while I’m hiking alone? I run through all these ‘worse case scenarios’ and decide how I would proceed. That way, should any of these events occur, I’m not caught off guard. I don’t have to think through how I’ll proceed in the moment. I already know.
You can leverage this same principle with developing habits and staying consistent. For one week, pay attention to the times that you don’t follow through with your desired habit. What are the circumstances when this happens? What is your ‘excuse’? No time? No healthy food on hand? It was raining so you couldn’t go out for a walk?
What are all the ways that you currently throw you off or that could potentially throw you off? Write them down. Now, go back down the list and decide what you could do in advance to prevent that from happening or to handle the event so you could still accomplish your habit.
Perhaps the solution is to schedule 2 hours of meal prep every Sunday evening so you’re set up for healthy eating all week. Perhaps you hire a trainer for a month so you learn the ropes at the gym and feel confident with your workouts.
Identifying our obstacles in advance helps us to make the right choice when/if we do bump up against an obstacle that threatens to derail our plan. When we’ve made the decision ahead of time, we tend to follow through more in the moment.
“Fall seven times and stand up eight” -Japanese Proverb
Remember, progress, not perfection. If you’re reading this, it’s quite possible you’re am ambitious, type A, overachiever. You’re likely used to doing well at things and you may even have the habit of beating yourself up when you ‘fail’. Hey, I get it.
But, please, don’t waste your precious life energy doing that. If you fall off the wagon, pick yourself back up and start over. That’s it. We’re all human. We all mess up. Use that energy that you would’ve put towards self-flagellation and redirect it towards getting back on track.
If this information was helpful to you, consider enrolling in our online course Adventure Ready. It’s designed to up-level every area of your health from body composition to gut health to fitness so that you can get out on your dream adventure feeling your best.
How I prepared for a sub-100 day thru-hike of the Continental Divide Trail
Let’s get something out of the way right up front: this post is not about the newest “biohacks”. Rather, it’s about the “basics” and how to build a strong foundation. These are the strategies that, if applied consistently, will give you the health you need to take on any adventure (chronic illness or not).
At least that’s been the case for me. I’m all for tactics, such as intermittent fasting, cold thermogenesis, infrared sauna, ketosis, etc., but if you haven’t mastered the basics, don’t waste your time or money on the other stuff.
By focusing on the concepts outlined below, I’ve become a stronger backpacker than ever before.
My outlook after I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s and adrenal fatigue was bleak. I’d built my identity as a long distance runner and backpacker. My self worth directly correlated to the number of miles I ran or hiked each day.
I felt disconnected from my life and my body. Extreme fatigue had become the norm. My hair was falling out in clumps. I was gaining weight with no change in diet or exercise. I was depressed and listless.
On top of the physical and mental symptoms from my illness, I was grappling with losing my identity as a ‘young, fit, endurance athlete’. I was running 10 miles daily and had been a vegetarian for over 15 years. I believed I was the definition of health. I knew it was a waste of mental energy, but I couldn’t help but fall into the ‘why me?’ mindset.
To make a long story short(er), I tried every trick in the book to get my health back: different diets, supplements, exercise routines, and protocols. My healing journey felt like I was taking two steps forward and one back. My progression towards wellness was far from linear, but there was indeed progress, even if it was subtle. Slowly I found my way out.
I’m not fully healed, but I’m strong enough to do what I love again: walk and run long distances in the wilderness.
Fast Forward to 2019
I’d been dreaming of this hike since before I got “sick”. Most thru-hikers complete the CDT in 4-5 months. My goal was to complete a sub-100 day hike. I needed to know that all the work I’d done on my health was worth it. My goal was to not just get out there, but to truly crush it.
I wasn’t trying to be that ‘young, fit, endurance athlete with flawless health’. Rather, I wanted to demonstrate that with a commitment to true self care, that I could hike as well or better than I had pre-illness. In turn, I hoped it would serve as inspiration for anyone else struggling with their health; those who felt like their adventure dreams were out of their reach.
But first, I needed evidence that these strategies worked. I didn’t talk about my goal much before my hike because, honestly, I didn’t know how it’d go.
I completed the 750-mile Oregon Desert Trail (ODT) in the fall of 2018 and felt great, but my pace wasn’t as aggressive as what I had planned for the CDT. Holding it together for 1 month on the ODT was one thing; holding it together for almost 3 ½ months on the CDT was quite another. Did I really have the health to do this when the memories of not even being healthy enough to run a few miles were still fresh in my mind?
Thru-hiking is for EVERYONE (if you’re willing to put in the work)
Good health and fitness don’t just come naturally to me. I work for it. It’s a commitment and a priority. I work to be at my healthiest because it’s imperative for engaging in what is most important to me (getting outside) and for living fully.
There’s a stereotypical image of what a ‘thru-hiker’ looks like: mid-20’s, fit, white male (with long beard and short shorts). That’s not me. But I’m just as competent of a hiker.
I say that not out of hubris, but simply to remind you that there’s a place at the table for everyone. I also don’t mean to imply that competition, or a certain speed, or high mileage days, “should” be the goal. That was my goal because it was a proxy of health for me. And because I like to push my physical limits. It’s how I connect with the wild, externally and internally.
Adventure Ready is on online course designed to help you optimize your physical health so you can take on your next adventure with confidence. You’ll learn to master your mindset, find the ideal diet for YOUR body, develop a training plan that won’t result in overuse injuries, increase your energy, and much more!
Here’s how I built good health and prepared my body to perform optimally on a 3000 mile hike. These strategies will work, whether you have a chronic illness or if you’re just looking to be at your healthiest so you can get into the outdoors with confidence.
Master Your Mindset
First things first. It starts with what goes on in your mind. This applies when it comes to adventures, but in truth, it matters for anything in life.
I learned this lesson very clearly while hiking on the Appalachian Trail in 2009. I joined a friend for the start of his thru-hike, thinking I might thru-hike too, if it worked out. Nope. This is the wrong mindset with which to embark on any epic undertaking; particularly one which will require you to overcome challenges. When my off-trail life went haywire, I left the trail. I don’t regret the decision, but the point is that I hadn’t fully committed to thru-hiking. If I had, I would’ve found any way possible to make it work. Any obstacle can be overcome if you’ve committed and you know your desired outcome very clearly.
Action: Before your next adventure, write down your desired outcome and include 1-2 sentences about WHY you’re taking it on.
Dial in Your Perfect Diet
Pushing your body to the limits and maintaining the energy for 35+ mile days is much easier when you’re eating the right diet. I don’t suggest that there’s one single best diet for everyone, but you do need to figure out what works for your body. This is true for everyone, but it’s especially important with a chronic illness because the ‘wrong diet’ for your body could lead to a lot of inflammation.
For the endurance athlete, inflammation can impact performance and compromise immunity. The physical strain of hiking long days is already creating some degree of inflammation in the body, so limiting excess inflammation coming from other sources is important.
Perhaps the most underappreciated of the health pillars is sleep. Prioritizing sleep is HUGE. Research shows that “sleep disruption is associated with increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system and hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, metabolic effects, changes in circadian rhythms, and proinflammatory responses. In otherwise healthy adults, short-term consequences of sleep disruption include increased stress responsivity, somatic pain, reduced quality of life, emotional distress and mood disorders, and cognitive, memory, and performance deficits.”
Action: Maintain a consistent sleep time. Stay off screens at least an hour before your planned bedtime (blue light disrupts melatonin production). Aim for 7+ hours per night.
Optimize Gut Health
“All disease begins in the gut.” Hippocrates nailed it. Microbiome research is one of the hottest areas of research, with recent findings revealing that gut health has implications in a wide variety of diseases including obesity, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, depression, and cardiovascular disease. For the long distance hiker, good gut health means better immunity, increased absorption of essential nutrients, decreased inflammation, and increased motivation, to name a few of the many benefits.
Action: Include plenty of probiotic-rich fermented foods (kimchi, sauerkraut, kvass, etc.) in your diet. Feed those probiotics their favorite food: soluble fiber. Think oats, beans, citrus, apples, lentils, and peas. Consider a professional-grade supplement (click here for 10% off).
Stress not only creates hormone disruption and systemic inflammation, it can impact focus, memory, gastrointestinal function, and the cardiovascular system, to name just a few of it’s wide-ranging impacts.
Could this invisible force really be impacting my overall wellness that much? After fixing my diet, my training, my sleep, and my gut health, and still struggling with some lingering symptoms, it was apparent that I needed to address any other factors that could be at play. It’s an ongoing practice, but when I prioritize joy and keep a watchful eye over where stress is seeping into my life, I’m noticeably happier and healthier.
Action: Ask yourself, “What are all the ways, small and large, that stress has seeped into my life? More importantly, what can I do to eliminate or mitigate it?”. Some of the methods that work for me include a morning journaling practice, meditation, running, walking in nature, baths, and calling people I care about.
Train Your Body
This strategy comes last because it matters, absolutely, but if all of the above is not in place, a good physical training plan can only take you so far. I tend to maintain a decent base fitness level year round through hiking, running, HIIT workouts, and yoga. Other than a few longer weekend hikes, I didn’t do too much extra training for the CDT.
Depending on where you’re starting from, everyone’s physical training plan will look slightly different. In general, start low and slow, and build up from there.
Action: Develop an appropriate individualized training plan. To avoid injury, it’s important to assess where you are now and build up fitness gradually. You can work with a trainer or enroll in our Adventure Ready course for guidance on how to assess your current fitness, find potential weak spots, and build a training plan that will get you ready for your hike without injury.
It may be cliche at this point, but it’s been my experience that our greatest struggles turn out to be our greatest lessons. That’s certainly been true for my journey as an endurance athlete with an autoimmune illness. I wouldn’t have asked for it, but it’s caused me to dive deeper than I ever would have otherwise into what it means to create true health and resilience.
We dive much deeper into these topics in Adventure Ready, an online course designed to help you up-level your physical health so you can take on your next adventure with confidence!
What kind of character do you want to play in this lifetime?
Do you want to be someone who is calm, resilient, and adaptable in the face of adversity? Or do you want to be someone who is easily perturbed and thrown off kilter each time an unexpected road block is put before you? Most likely, you chose the former.
There’s actually no right answer. The real point is that you get to choose. You have the opportunity to train yourself to be whatever type of person you want to be. Have you ever taken the time to ask yourself who you want to be? Have you considered how you want to interact with reality to sculpt yourself into the type of person you desire to be?
This article examines specifically how you show up during moments of discomfort, but know that you can actively sculpt any part of your character at any point in your life. And the even more exciting part is that life is constantly giving us opportunities to do this 🙂
We’re conditioned to believe that we’re either born with certain personality traits or we’re not. ‘He’s outgoing.’ ‘She’s assertive.’ ‘He’s uptight.’ It’s as if this is what we’re born with and that’s it. However, what I believe, and what I’ve found to be true in my own life, is that we have choice over which traits we strengthen within ourselves and which we weaken.
Even if you already know this to be true, have you intentionally decided how you wish to sculpt your character? I think many people, either consciously or unconsciously, make the decision to float through life. They allow life to happen to them. They unconsciously react rather than consciously creating what they want.
While it’s certainly possible to continue drifting through life, reacting to whatever comes your way, I find that it makes for a far more fascinating journey to actively engage with reality in a way that turns me into the type of person I desire to become.
Seek Discomfort to Speed Your Growth
I’ve found adversity, challenges, and obstacles (i.e. anything which elicits discomfort) to be particularly powerful for character sculpting. The truth is that to get stronger, we must push ourselves just beyond the edge of our comfort zones. And, by definition, that requires discomfort. This applies whether we’re talking about getting stronger physically, mentally, spiritually, or emotionally.
Like any animal, we humans instinctively shy away from discomfort. That’s our nature. Society encourages and reinforces that behavior. We have machines that can perform nearly any task for us, so that we no longer need to do much physical labor to attend to our daily lives. We go from our temperature-controlled home to our temperature-controlled car to our temperature-controlled office, so we never have to feel the heat or the cold or be exposed to severe weather. When we don’t get first place in the spelling bee, we’re given a participation award, so there’s no disappointment to experience and no reflection on how we can improve. When the partner breaks up with us, our friends tell us that they didn’t deserve us anyway, so we never have to reflect on the role we played in the break-up and how it potentially could’ve been avoided.
This comes at a cost, though. We lose our ability to adapt. We lose our resilience. We miss out on golden opportunities to grow, expand, learn, and become stronger.
There are countless ways, both subtle and obvious, where we circumvent emotions and experiences which could actually be alchemized into our greatest gifts. If we train ourselves to shift our perspective, we are suddenly rewarded with the chance to become a better version of ourselves. In essence, to up-level.
When we train ourselves to lean into discomfort and excavate the lesson from each experience, we free up so much precious life energy. We no longer waste energy resisting what is. Instead, we’re able to use that energy to sculpt the version of ourselves that we desire.
Instead of being in victim mode and saying “Why did this happen to me?”, what if you shifted the question to “How is this happening for me?”? Do you see the mind shift there? One is disempowering; the other is transformational.
“No tree which the wind does not often blow against is firm and strong; for it is stiffened by the very act of being shaken, and plants its roots more securely: those which grow in a sheltered valley are brittle: and so it is to the advantage of good men, and causes them to be undismayed, that they should live much amidst alarms, and learn to bear with patience what is not evil save to him who endures it ill.”
Let’s look at a few examples. I think the physical realm is the easiest place to start.
This morning I attempted to do a 42-minute power yoga video. I say attempted because this was the first yoga I’ve done in about 5 months and I only made it about ¾ of the way through. The reduction in my arm strength was quite apparent.
I was initially discouraged, but I soon remembered what a gift this was. I could clearly see my weaknesses and tailor my training to address them. This happens to me often in fitness. I get so wrapped up in doing the same workout routine. The body adapts quickly and I stop progressing. However, I don’t notice that I’m stagnant, or at least it takes a while to notice. I’ve learned that if I want to keep improving, I have to be mindful and intentionally seek challenges.
In the mental, emotional, and spiritual realms, examples of this practice are a bit less distinct. One recent scenario that comes to mind is an experience I watched a friend endure. Said friend met a man while visiting a hot springs resort 5 hours away from her home. They immediately had a connection. They kept in touch when they were apart and she would come back to visit every 3-4 months, the connection becoming more flirtatious each time.
This went on for over a year. They hadn’t made any serious commitment, but she felt connected with him. On her most recent visit, right before she was about to leave, he kissed her very passionately in the parking lot. She left feeling elated. Now, several months later, after several texts and calls, she’s never heard back from him.
This certainly falls into the category of ‘challenges’ (emotional, mental, and maybe even spiritual). She could have let the un-knowingness of it undo her. And indeed, it required a lot of inner work, but she eventually came to a point where she could let it go and be at peace with the situation. She may never know what happened to him, but it doesn’t matter anymore. She took the energy that was going into suffering and put it into self care and inner growth.
“That’s why I come back again and again. To escape the false safety of the manufactured world for something less known. To create my own challenge, my own drama. Because on some level, the human knows it needs struggle in order to grow, and we’ll either unconsciously manifest it or we can intentionally build it into our lives.”
CDT hike Day 1 journal entry
I’ve seen this over and over again where we humans unconsciously create challenge or strife for ourselves (lookin’ at you, drama queens ;)). We claim we don’t want it in our lives, but then we keep creating the same circumstances. I think we innately know we thrive on a bit of discomfort, but when we don’t create it mindfully, it shows up in all sorts of unintended ways.
Again, it’s easiest to create this challenge in the physical realm. I believe that’s why the more sanitized our world becomes, the more we see people engaging in activities like obstacle course races, ultra marathons, and thru-hikes.
So, not only am I suggesting that we embrace the challenges that spontaneously arise, but even that we actively seek them out.
By far, the greatest benefit I receive from actively leaning in to the discomfort, over and over again, is a deeply embodied sense of resilience. The more challenging situations I face head on, and survive more-or-less intact, the less fear I have when I encounter the next obstacle.
I cannot understate how empowering it is to carry the belief, the gnosis, that “I can handle whatever comes my way. I don’t need to waste energy in a fear state because even if this sucks, I trust myself to make it out the other side even stronger than before.”
What would your life look like if you chose to lean into the discomfort, or even more boldly, if you actively sought out the discomfort? Those are the places where the real growth happens.
Embrace the discomfort. Welcome it. When you find yourself resisting it, take a moment to pause, and to shift your perception. The discomfort is a gift. It’s showing you where you have room for growth. You have the power to alchemize it. Use the energy you normally use to resist the discomfort and use it instead to create a better you.
Thank it. Learn from it. Grow from it.
Do you have an example of when embracing discomfort has ultimately made you stronger? Let me know in the comments below!
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This post was originally written for Wishgarden Herbs.
How do you prepare for a 3000-mile hike? It’s a monstrous endeavor, indeed, and after nearly 5000 miles of backpacking, I’ve learned that as much goes into the preparation as the execution.
The scope of my upcoming adventure is to hike the length of the continental divide from Canada to Mexico. Depending on the route I take, this will entail walking 2800-3000 miles of continuous foot steps, along the Continental Divide Trail. Commonly referred to as a ‘thru-hike’, I’ll be averaging 30-35 miles per day in order to complete the trail in one season.
Many hikers spend far too much time obsessing over gear, food, weather and other minutiae. While those things have their importance, it’s physical preparation and mindset that result in a successful journey.
To avoid injury and illness, it’s wise to optimize your health before hitting the trail. Before a long hike, I put additional effort into eating a nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory diet and getting plenty of sleep. This is always important, of course, but the goal is to optimize immune health and resiliency before enduring the physical stress of a long hike.
Building miles slowly is essential to a smooth transition to hiking for 10-12 hours per day. There’s no preparation that compares to putting on a pack and walking all day, but it’s hard to find time for that. Activities like strength training and trail running help build muscle and condition the cardiovascular system in less time.
I’ve seen so many people leave the trail from illness and injury that I created the Adventure Ready online course to help hikers hit the trail feeling healthy and prepared for what’s to come. We cover mindset, diet, gut health, sleep, training, sleep, and stress management.
As critical as the physical preparation is, it’s often said that a thru-hike is 90% mental. Mastering mindset starts with committing to myself to do everything in my power to complete my hike. To stay motivated over the long haul, I like to have a clear sense of why I’m out there. If I know my why, then when the going gets tough (and it will), I find reserves of energy and perseverance I didn’t even know I had.
I find it’s also helpful to anticipate challenges and how I’ll work through them. I know that I’ll miss my loved ones, be physically & emotionally uncomfortable (frequently), things won’t work out as planned, and I’ll be alone a lot. It’s easier to navigate these challenges when I’ve prepared myself mentally. Additionally, I know I’m bound to have a transformative experience.
Connecting with Nature
Hiking a long trail allows me to reach more remote areas which few others take the time to get to. This allows for more intimate connections with the wildlife, which can be both magical and frightening.
The most common question I get, besides “Do you carry a gun” (the answer is no), is “Why?”. Why put your life on hold for 4 months? Why walk across the country, putting your mind and body through so much?
I have many reasons, but perhaps the most compelling is the depth of connection I feel with nature during an experience of total immersion. For me, it takes a week or so of being out, but I can physically feel my body unwinding. The compulsive thought loops of ‘what do I need to be doing right now?’ fall away. I exhale deeply, knowing the only thing I need to do is walk.
The reduction in external input when I’m deep in the wilderness helps me to notice more of what’s around me. Instead of the constant distraction of my own thoughts, I pay more attention to the surroundings. I notice the changing landscape and the weather patterns because they directly impact my experience. I feel the pressure changes of a storm coming before I even see it.
There is space to just be. My mind needs that openness, that white space. I am never more creative than I am while on a long distance hike. I become the truest version of myself. I see this in others as well. They tap into their deepest desires and potential. Creative projects and business ideas are born.
On a 3000 mile walk, I find a different level of presence than I experience in my ‘everyday life’ and that’s what keeps me coming back for more every summer.
If you’re interested in following the adventure or preparing for your own long adventure, I’ll be logging my progress on Instagram (@katiegerber) and on my website.
Food is the through line for me. The growing, the preparing, the consuming, the sharing, and the downstream effects of those things–both on my own health, the health of others, and the health of our environment.
Food is, and always has been, a central part of my life, whether I wanted it to be or not. I write about it, I talk about it, I coach about it. I’ve been on and off of diets (though I never admitted to myself that my strict food rules were diets). I grew up in farm country and worked summer jobs at an agricultural research center. I operated an organic market garden for a season. I worked as a pastry chef, and in restaurants, preparing food for a living. I built wood-fired ovens and hosted community dinners. I’ve always loved the practice of growing food. Hands in the Earth: planting, tending, harvesting. The beauty of simply prepared real food captivates not just my stomach, but my eyes, my mind, and my soul.
But the things is, for most of my life, my relationship with food has been far from serene and charmed. I share this story because food is central life, and the way we relate to food matters. Because how we relate to food is, in many ways, how we relate to all aspects of our lives. Whether that’s from a place of ease, flow, and joy, or from a place of shame, guilt, and restriction.
Your relationship to food, and in turn, to your body, can impact your:
*peace of mind
*ability to carry out your work in this world
*overall quality of life
Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all have a relationship to food. And, outside of the eating disorder community, I don’t think the impact of our day-to-day relationship with food is acknowledged enough. Full blown eating disorders are destructive, to say the least, but I also want to address the more subtle, nuanced feelings and behaviors around food that shape our lives every single day.
By sharing my story, perhaps you can connect the pieces of your own story. If your relationship with food has ever felt tumultuous (especially in your own mind), know that you’re not alone.
If you have no idea what I mean and you’ve never struggled with food, this post may not resonate. And if you’re here looking for strategies on how to eat and train, hang tight, there will be posts on that again soon. But that’s not the focus of this one.
How we relate to food is a topic that I haven’t written on much, but it’s so central to not just our health and how we perform (which is mostly what I write about), but to our entire lives. You can’t talk about health, performance, and diet without talking about our psychology around food.
I’ve avoided discussing it until now because, honestly, it’s something I struggled with for so long and I carried a lot of shame around the fact that it was a thing for me. But I believe shining light on something dissolves the shame (or it helps, at least). I also delayed writing this because my story is an evolving one. I didn’t feel like I was ‘there’ yet. ‘There’ being… completely neurosis-free eating behaviors and body love perfection? I’m not sure what I imagined the final destination to be. I just knew I wasn’t there. Sounds like the familiar trap of perfectionism.
However, I believe our experiences are what we have to offer. Whether or not we fully see their value, it can be helpful to share those experiences, acknowledging that we’re a work in progress. There is no such thing as perfect. After all, I’m leaps and bounds beyond where I used to be when nearly every bit of my mental energy centered around food: planning, calculating, weighing, measuring, controlling. I may not be neurosis-free, but I’ve learned a few things since then.
Ultimately, changing how I relate to food changed everything. Yes, in terms of my health, but also in terms of my creativity, mood, peace of mind, relationships, presence, and overall quality of life. And if this is an area where you’ve struggled, hopefully connecting these pieces can improve every aspect of your life as well. It may sound like a big claim, but bringing awareness to your relationship with food can be more transformative than any diet, exercise regime, or supplement could ever be.
Some days, I wake up shocked that I voluntarily choose to speak to people about food for a living. I was always the person who avoided talking about food and body image to others. I hated when people gave or solicited food/diet/exercise advice. I hated when coaches, teachers, family, and friends would comment on my body. It didn’t matter if the comments were ‘positive’ or ‘negative’. I hated that they noticed that I had a body and that they noticed that it had changed. I think I just hated that I even had a body. I’ve never lived in anything other than a female body, so I can’t say for sure, but I think being a woman and an athlete made this journey even more challenging as I took on everyone else’s expectations about what that body ‘should’ be.
Even more surprising than this being my chosen path is the fact that I actually love working with others around food and health. It’s challenging on every level, but it’s also incredibly rewarding to show up for others compassionately and empathetically as they navigate this intense and complicated space.
It may seem trite, but I believe our greatest personal struggles can serve as a jumping off point for the work we do in the world. Our challenges can be our greatest gifts if we choose for them to be. We can excavate the lessons and share them, if for nothing else than to let at least one other human know ‘I see you and you’re not alone in your suffering’.
In many ways, this feels like a tired story–one which everyone has their own version of. And it could’ve gotten much worse, so it almost doesn’t feel worth sharing. In fact, I know many women for whom it did get much worse. But it shaped who I am, so it’s worth giving voice to it.
There isn’t a single moment that defines this story, but rather a collection of memories. I remember that I learned to fear food early on. It was something to be cautious of. The body was not something to revel in, but something to control. It’s animal impulses were to be suppressed not just in the mind, but in the body as well, through denial, diet, and workouts. Lingering remnants of puritan roots.
One early memory comes from third grade, when a male classmate told me I had a ‘bubble butt’. Thus was born the awareness that I had a body and that this body was different than other bodies. Why, of all the memories, do I still remember that one? I was never overweight, but my build was always athletic and curvy. I also remember seeing my mother judging her own body in the mirror, fighting her appetite, and being compulsive about exercise. She was fighting her own battle and, of course, had no idea that I was noticing and absorbing it all.
And then there was athletics, when I became even more aware of my body and how it was changing. On the one hand, it was empowering to feel my own strength, but participating in sports also invited comparison and judgment. Being forced to march in parades in a skimpy majorette uniform. Track, swimming, and cross country practices and being valued on how my body performed. My shoulders growing too big for my sweaters during swim season. The comments of a male cross country coach after a summer of over-exercising and under-eating: “Now you’re starting to look like a real long distance runner”. What does that mean? What was I before? I wondered.
Then there was the concern/criticism/jealousy (depending on the source) of coaches, friends, and family upon returning from my freshman year of college 20 pounds lighter than when I’d left. I hated the attention on my body, no matter it’s size. No matter if it was criticism or praise.
This is not a pity story. It’s simply the events that I remember shaping the way I viewed myself and my body, and how that then impacted my relationship to food. We all have these stories. During that time, sadly, the primary purpose of food and exercise for me was to experience a sense of control. That view now feels so shallow to me because food, movement, and the body are all portals to so much more.
This path naturally led to an obsession with health. I read every nutrition magazine and book I could get my hands on. I experimented on myself, trying to figure out the secrets, the one right way to keep the unruly body in check. Like a game-show contestant, I knew the calorie count of every food by memory. I tracked and logged.
Looking back, I’m saddened by how much time and energy I wasted thinking about food, calories, exercise, and my body. So much time and energy that could’ve gone into creation, self-expression, learning, connecting, and actually living.
There were so many phases and rules, and it changed by the month. Only skim milk, never whole. Fruit is the only ‘safe’ dessert. Eat meal bars for exact calorie counts. No eating until your stomach growls. Don’t eat meat or dairy. Avoid social events because you don’t know what food will be there or how it was prepared. So. Much. Obsessiveness.
But I never did land on the ‘one thing’ or actually figure ‘it’ out. There was always a new article telling me to do the opposite of what I’d been doing. I tried and I tried. I chased perfection with my diet. I followed all my food rules. I never missed a day of working out. And no matter how my body changed, it never became ‘perfect’ in my eyes. So I beat myself up mentally and became even more disciplined.
In college, I was under more pressure than ever (at least in my own mind). Advanced classes, sports teams, multiple jobs, new peers, dorm rooms, and dining halls. All far from everything and everyone that was familiar and comfortable to me. Of course I grasped for control. The compulsive exercising and undereating became extreme.
After a year or so of anorexia, I was broken. My body was screaming for nourishment and thus came the binges. First it was only rarely. Then it was happening more often. Then it was daily. All the things I’d restricted. I could no longer out-exercise the binges, so then came the purging. And the bulimia. The shame. The secrecy. I couldn’t believe what I was doing, who I had become. A shell of my true self. I was living in a self-created hell of shame and destructive behaviors.
Every aspect of my life suffered as all my thoughts revolved around food and exercise, and how messed up my life had become. Relationships fell away. Money was wasted. I lied to people I loved. I avoided social functions. I wasn’t truly engaged in anything I was doing.
Finding My Way Out
This was controlling my entire life in a way I could’ve never imagined if I weren’t living it.
The cycles of binging and purging, the overindulgence and the restriction, were not limited to food. It affected how I was expressing myself (or lack thereof) in every part of my life. I was ruled by perfectionism, control, and fear. My body couldn’t be trusted to know what it needed. If I just ate when and what I wanted, who knows what might happen? If I had to miss a day of exercise, I was grumpy and angry. My mindset reflected a deeply distrustful relationship to myself, my body, and the world.
Just as there was no one incident that led me into this hole, there was no one moment that pulled me out of it. It’s been a long journey and it’s an ongoing one. And that’s what I want to emphasize: it’s a process. Just as I slowly dug myself into the hole, finding my way out would take time and reprogramming as well.
It involved therapy, building a metaphorical toolbox of tools to deal with challenges, developing emotional resilience, and trusting (my body, my cravings, other people, the world). I worked on incorporating more joy into my life, connecting with a healthy social circle, and learning to see my body for the powerful force that it is. Finding my way out also included being vigilant about what I was feeding my mind, and examining the expectations I was setting for myself. It involved learning grace and learning to hold it ALL lightly.
Part of digging out of the hole of restriction and fear was understanding what these behaviors were doing for me. It’s different for everyone, but personally, these behaviors served as a sense of control when everything else in life felt like too much. So I learned how to bear discomfort.
Eventually, I became more alive, more myself. I learned to spot those Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) and to squash them, rather than letting them colonize my brain as I had before. I put more energy into relationships and laughing with people I love. I forgave myself for not being perfect.
In fact, I learned to laugh at the idea of perfection and embrace the beautiful flaws of being human. Indeed, it’s the ‘imperfections’ of others that make me adore them the most. Couldn’t I learn to turn that mindset inward?
Feeding myself and others became an expression of love and creativity. I attuned to my pleasures, my desires, and the way that life was seeking to move through me. I sought to release all the little knots in my heart and the ways I was resisting life.
I began to take immense pleasure in what my body could do. Using my strength and endurance to move through the mountains has been the most empowering, transformative force for changing how I relate to body. I noticed that I shifted from wanting to feel SMALL to wanting to feel STRONG. To feel the power in my legs as I glide up a mountain, to feel my lungs pound in my chest as I run along the trail, to truly inhabit my animal body, that is what lights me up now. The size of my thighs doesn’t cross my mind when I’m out in nature experiencing life.
Why Real Food is Always the Starting Point
But, before any of that, it started with letting go of ALL of the food rules and everything I thought I knew. The only guideline I followed was to just eat real food and listen to my body’s feedback.
When I focused on whole foods instead of ‘diet’ foods (like meal replacement shakes/bars and other highly processed items), everything became easier. I learned that when I ate whole foods containing fat, fiber, protein and micronutrients, that my body regulated it’s hunger levels. I realized that fat doesn’t make you fat.
Sure, it took time and practice, but eventually I could hear the feedback my body was providing. It was telling me how much food I needed. I could feel which foods were nourishing me and which I was better off avoiding for now. I found freedom from the diet mindset through real, as-close-to-nature-as-possible, foods.
It’s true that there are certain foods I tend to avoid, but not because those foods are ‘bad’, but because I feel better without them in my diet. It’s different to come from a place of love than a place of punishment. Unfortunately, most women I know tend to be really good at denying their bodies cravings and punishing themselves through restriction.
Whereas before my ‘food rules’ came from a place of fear and self-hate, any ‘rules’ I follow now come from self-love and a place of wanting to feel my absolute best. I want to be able to show up for myself and for those I care about. I want to be of service and to have all my energy available to do my best work in this world. I want to have my energy freed up to be present to the life unfolding around me.
Finding Food Freedom for Yourself
That’s why I don’t ascribe to one ‘perfect diet’ and why I don’t encourage clients to follow specific diets either. Maintaining an outlook of ongoing learning and adaptability to my body’s feedback is why it wasn’t as difficult as I expected to leave 15 years of identifying as a vegetarian to becoming a conscious omnivore. We have a tendency to think in ideals with diet and, for some, to make it an identity. But that will only limit our freedom and growth.
There are no rules, only choices. Rules are restrictive and prevent you from tuning in and listening to what works for YOUR body. Real health comes from real food and learning how to figure out what works for your body. And learning how to listen to your body is harder than following a set of rules. We want a pill, a prescription, a quick fix. The one perfect diet. But the real work of long term health requires more introspection than that.
There can’t be one simple set of rules because everyone needs something different and that changes throughout their lives. Following what works for someone else while tuning out our own bodies can have real impacts on our health and hormones. Ever had the experience of trying to eat the same diet that ‘works’ for your mom/friend/sister/boyfriend and find it either does not for you, or worse, makes you feel awful?
Our world if full of eye-catching headlines and snappy sound bites telling us what to eat and how to exercise. There’s so much conflicting information out there, with new studies coming out daily. It’s so.damn.overwhelming. No wonder most people are confused about what to eat.
Let go of seeking the perfect diet. Remember that it’s going to be different for everyone, but it will always start with just eating real food. That will never change based on new studies or fads.
It’s time to make peace with food and with our bodies instead of letting how ‘perfectly’ or not perfectly you think you’re eating control your mind, your self-worth, your confidence, your energy, your mood, and your quality of life.
We make it so much harder than it needs to be. And all of the rules and guilt keep us in fear, living a limited life and a limited version of ourselves. And this is not the life I want for myself or for you.
Your relationship to food is central to how you show up in every aspect of your life.
So, what is your relationship to food? Stop distracting yourself long enough to be honest. Because it matters. And it starts with awareness. Guilt? Shame?Joy? Make room for all of it. Because your relationship to food is your relationship to life.
Focus on the Journey (There is no destination.)
As I mentioned, this process is a journey. Give yourself some grace.
Years after I thought I’d healed myself, I was going through a particularly tough spot in life. I’d left a relationship, a business, a career, a home, and a community. I was on entirely new and shaky ground. Everything about my identity was in flux. Without even realizing what was happening, those old behaviors crept back in.
It wasn’t easy to navigate and I certainly stumbled, but I was able to approach it with more wisdom having walked that path before. It took time for me to get a handle on it, but the thing that actually helped was not fighting what was happening, but instead revisiting many of the tools that pulled me out of my mess before. Returning to the basics.
It’s a journey and a practice. There is no destination.
It all starts with real food. Food is a source of nourishment, joy, beauty, sustenance, and fuel for your adventures. It’s not something to fear. It’s can be a connection to others, to culture, to the past. It’s SO. Much. More. than calories, macronutrients, or a way to control life.
Good food is good for the planet.
Nourished humans can live their best lives: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. They can live on purpose.
Your body and food are vehicles for pleasure. Whether that means a perfect Greek meal made by your nanna or a lung-busting run up the side of a mountain (type 2 fun), enjoy this animal body while you have one because, as we all know, our time here is short.
That wraps up part 1 on this topic. In part 2, I’ll explore how all of this ties into how you eat on trail, or on any other adventure for that matter.
In the meantime, comment below. Did this resonate with you? Can you relate?