I recently heard a shocking statistic. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) 39.8 percent of the adult population in the US is now obese. Being overweight or obese increases a person’s risk of multiple health problems including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, some cancers and sleep disorders. We are in the midst of a national crisis.
Why are overweight and obesity rates increasing at such an alarming rate? The reasons are complicated and involve a tangled web of cultural, economic, emotional and spiritual factors (it would require an entire column and more to discuss). There was a time when I was obese and weighed 80 pounds more than I weigh now. Thinking back to this time when I was a teenager, it was far less common to be overweight. However, by today’s standards, eighty pounds of excess weight doesn’t even seem that severe. But for me, it felt very debilitating. Participating in sports or recreational activities felt arduous. Climbing stairs left me breathless and I experienced constant heartburn. Worse than this, I felt sidelined in the game of life. What made it even harder was the fact that I invested so much energy trying to lose weight. Every day I would start a new restrictive diet and end the day bingeing as a result of extreme hunger. There were times when I managed to endure a starvation diet for a few weeks, but eventually panic and hunger would throw me into an overeating frenzy. Oh, what suffering I endured! Ultimately, it was my chronic unhappiness that motivated me to find a way out of this painful existence.
When I started college, I began to immerse myself in a new wave of literature that addressed emotional eating. I had entered a new arena of learning that forever changed my relationship with food. It started to become clear to me that if I ever wanted to find my way out of the self-destructive cycle of eating, I had to address the emotional issues that caused me to overeat. This was a powerful turning point for me. I stopped dieting and started to listen to my body’s signals. By trusting myself to make decisions about what I needed to nourish myself physically, emotionally and spiritually, I began to understand that my need for nourishment extended way beyond food. I wasn’t hungry for food, what I really hungered for was fulfillment in other areas of my life: social, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. My “epiphany” felt empowering as I finally understood that my fate was in my own hands, not in a diet or “magic” plan. As I learned from my newfound inner trust to make my best choices, I gained knowledge and understanding of what I needed to do to take care of myself. I finally started to lose weight and gradually reached a healthy weight that I sustained without struggling. After I gave birth to my son, I lost an additional twenty pounds and I have maintained a healthy weight for the past two and a half decades. I am not alone. Thousands of people have lost weight and kept it off according to the National Weight Control Registry, a prospective study of people who have lost a minimum of thirty pounds and maintained it a year or more.
As a writer, mentor and coach, I have listened to the stories of hundreds of people who struggle with weight and health issues. Initially, most people present with feelings of hopelessness and a sense of having failed at something they have tried so hard to overcome. Like me, they came to this dark place after years of vacillating between extreme dieting and overindulgence. They often give up for a while, only to return to another “new” method and repeat the whole cycle again. I find it baffling that people will seek the same solution again and again despite the same disappointing results. These unsuccessful attempts only reinforce feelings of failure and hopelessness.
It is not hopeless. Everyone has the capacity to lose weight, increase their level of fitness and improve their feelings of well-being. Achieving this is not unlike other life challenges. Obtaining an academic degree, competing for a job or becoming a good chess player all require acquiring knowledge and learning new skills. Also necessary is commitment to the task, a reasonable level of self-efficacy and effort. But effort is not to be confused with torture. When you initially enter a new domain of study, it feels unfamiliar, even arduous. But over time, as you grasp the information and learn the skills, it gets easier. You don’t start at the top; you evolve gradually by incorporating changes incrementally and creating your own personal strategies. It is not magic; it is an education. By building on your success instead of your failures you will find your way. It starts with trusting yourself.
The following are my key strategies:
- I gave myself permission to eat. Yes, all the things I love such as ice cream and cookies, but in small amounts that now satisfy me. I do not go on diets. I did not learn anything from these plans. Instead, I choose what I want to eat and no longer rely on other people to tell me what I should and should not eat. I have learned to eat intuitively by listening to signals of hunger and fullness and trusting myself to make food choices that are good for me. We all possess a hunger on/off switch that signals us when we need food and when we have had enough. I had spent so many years starving and overeating that my switch had become disabled. By paying attention to my body’s natural signals and responding appropriately, my on/off switch started working again to inform me when I needed nourishment.
- I sought professional help to understand why I was eating for emotional reasons. I had used food to numb my fear and feelings of sadness. By facing these feelings, I was able to resolve many of the concerns that plagued me.
- I weigh myself every morning. In the past, I feared the scale so much that I would avoid it at all costs. I was living in a constant state of denial about my weight problem. Then I would catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and feel devastated by what I saw. By viewing the scale realistically, as an inanimate object, I started to use it as a tool. Weighing daily provides information and keeps me in a state of reality. If my weight goes up, I no longer see it as a tragedy since I know that I am in control. Knowing what I weigh eliminates my fear of the unknown.
- Gradually, I came to love a healthier way of eating. Since I no longer deprived myself of the foods I liked, I stopped craving many of them. I learned to prepare high quality meals with lots of vegetables, fish, lean meats and poultry. I have lost interest in calorie dense fast food, store bought baked goods and eating as a contact sport. I don’t like General Tso’s chicken.
- I take time for my meals and try to share them with other people when possible. During my travels abroad, I observed how Europeans take time for leisurely meals and enjoy small portions of thoughtfully prepared fare served in courses. I make time for shopping at farmers markets and cook most meals myself. I limit takeaway and I avoid eating in restaurants too frequently.
- I discovered the joy of movement. I started running in my twenties and have since then embraced hiking, Pilate’s, strength training, yoga and most of all walking. Walking daily has helped me achieve optimum fitness physically, emotionally and spiritually. I exercise most days of the week and I really miss it when I skip it. I no longer view exercise as a chore: My movement calls me.
- I have identified personal sources of stress and have worked to mitigate them. I try not to multi-task or take on more than I know I can handle. Whenever possible, I avoid interacting with people I find toxic.
A few final thoughts:
- Accept that change is a process that gets easier over time.
- Ask for help. It is not easy to make lifestyle changes without support. Seek professional help through a mentor, counselor or coach.
- Stop beating yourself about the current state of your weight or health. This will only stand in your way. Loving yourself and accepting where you are now will open the door to moving forward.
- Trust yourself to find your way.
Susan has struggled to control her weight since she was a teenager. The early messages she received from her parents about food, exercise and how to cope with emotions created a “blueprint” that led to years of unhappiness and health problems. But all that has changed for the sixty-four year-old Pennsylvania resident during the past year.
“As a child growing up in Brooklyn, NY, I really wanted to participate in sports and other activities like ice skating,” Susan recalled. “But my parents discouraged me from being physically active because I had asthma and they thought if I exercised, it would make it worse.” Susan’s parents were not physically active either and she always knew them as being overweight. “They had terrible eating habits,” Susan reflected. “We had a lot of junk food in the house such as cookies, chips and chocolate.”
Family dinners were stressful in Susan’s home. “On Saturdays and Sundays my mother would spend a better part of the day preparing a pot roast or chicken. When we were all seated at the table, my father would start criticizing her cooking, telling her the pot roast was dry. There was always a lot of yelling.”
Susan was very thin as a child and out of concern, her mother fed her large bowls of mashed potatoes sprinkled with wheat germ to help her gain weight. When Susan reached puberty, suddenly she started gaining weight. “Being overweight so unexpectedly, felt uncomfortable to me,” Susan shared. “I would go shopping with mother to buy clothes and she picked out shapeless tent-like dresses. I remember thinking, ‘This is what she wears,’ and I did not want to be like her.”
Susan felt determined to lose weight, so she went on a high protein diet with her father. “We both lost a lot of weight very quickly,” she recalled. “But it was so restrictive that I couldn’t stay on it. I remember one day my father even fainted on the subway.”
For the next several years, Susan went on and off various commercial diet plans. She always lost weight initially, but when she got down to her goal weight, she would start gaining the weight back. At one point she went to see a nutritionist. “I remember eating quinoa and artichoke pasta, but I couldn’t maintain this either. My eating habits were really ingrained.”
Thinking back on this experience, Susan believes that these programs promoted weight loss exclusively and did not teach her how to eat nutritiously. Additionally, until recently she never learned how to cook. “My mother never really learned how to cook either,” Susan explained. “Vegetables in my house were overcooked and salads were just iceberg lettuce and maybe a slice of tomato.” To make matters worse, Susan’s mother loved chocolate and would eat it for emotional comfort. “If I felt sad, she would offer me chocolate as comfort,” shared Susan. “This association between chocolate and comfort has stayed with me to this day.”
These early family imprints led to a vicious cycle that Susan became stuck in for years. She would go on a restrictive diet and lose some weight, but inevitably she would revert to old habits like eating chocolate when she felt sad or anxious. “After eating the chocolate, the self- berating would start. ‘You really can’t do this,’ or ‘I have failed again,’” were some of the typical thoughts that would run through her mind like tape. “I saw only two choices,” shared Susan. “Being on a restrictive diet and being in control or being off a diet and being totally out of control.”
Susan had a successful and fulfilling career as a litigation attorney for twenty-eight years. But the stress and long hours of her practice took a huge toll on her health. “I would stay late at work and end up skipping dinner. By the time I got home, I felt starved. I would eat a frozen Lean Cuisine meal, which did not fill me at all. Then I would start overeating unhealthy food. I never made time to shop so there was no food around to prepare healthy meals.”
Over the years, Susan started to develop health problems. Her weight continued to rise along with her blood sugar levels and she developed joint disease that required she receive a hip replacement. “When my blood sugar level reached 6.4 my doctor told me that if it goes any higher, I will be a diabetic.” Additionally, physical movement had become increasingly difficult for her. Susan remembers thinking, “I am getting older and I cannot continue like this. I already had one hip replacement, if I don’t take better care of myself, I will need another one.” Susan tried to resign herself to what she thought was inevitable as you age, but she did not feel satisfied. “I started to realize that if I want to live longer, I will have to find a reasonable way to approach my health.”
Susan’s first step toward her journey of improved health was making the decision to change careers and take a part-time position with a small local company that develops solar projects. She also decided to pursue her long held desire to become a lay minister. Now professional life is more fulfilling, less stressful and she has more time to take care of herself. But ironically, it was the pandemic that really pivoted Susan to a path of serious change. “Initially, when we locked down, I was eating a lot of junk food and I didn’t feel well at all,” Susan recalls. She heard about Noom, a weight management program, on the radio and decided to sign up. “I always become excited when I learn about something new,” Susan mused. “Although the program is not that different from other plans that I had been on, I felt that I could do this on my own. Also appealing, is there are no foods that are not allowed, so I get to decide what I should eat.” Being locked in provided even more time for Susan to focus on herself. “We couldn’t eat out anymore and we didn’t feel comfortable getting take-away, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to get my eating under control.”
Around the same time, she joined the Spring Health Transformation, a weekly group that that meets virtually that started in May of this year. “Fay’s group is extremely helpful because it explores health in a holistic way. We do not just talk about weight. We explore other issues such as emotional and spiritual nourishment, how to manage energy, stress, and ways to incorporate more movement into our lives. We also learn how to prepare nutritious meals.” Team members share resources which Susan has also found helpful. “I learned about HASfit, a series of exercise classes on YouTube,” shared Susan. “I finally discovered some classes that felt doable. I even enjoy them.” Susan began to feel more encouraged. “Before the hip surgery, it was so painful to take a step that I had gotten to a point where I felt afraid to walk. I had developed an association between pain and movement which made me fearful of any movement.” Now Susan has a variety of classes she does at home, and she is able to walk outside for two miles.
Susan has made many other important changes as well. “I am much more mindful about what I eat. I take time to enjoy my meals and nourish myself with nutritious food. I do this out of kindness for myself,” she shared proudly. Susan has learned how to prepare vegetables in ways she enjoys, so she now incorporates lots of them into her eating plan. For lunch and/or dinner she prepares a delicious salad of romaine lettuce, sliced carrots, peppers, and cucumbers. Fish, chicken and vegetables like asparagus and broccoli comprise most of her meals, but she will treat herself to a steak occasionally when she is in the mood for one.
The weekly connection with the other members of the wellness group has been extremely helpful for Susan. “Talking with others who have similar concerns about sleep habits, food preparation and how to manage stress is really beneficial. I can share that I had difficulty one day and everyone is very encouraging. The approach is holistic. I have learned that wellness involves so much more than what you eat. The physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of my life are important as well.”
However, the biggest paradigm shift occurred for Susan when she realized that she needed to stop striving for perfection. “I was so hard on myself. I was a perfectionist in everything I did. I believed that if I did not follow a meal plan perfectly, I was a bad person and that would make me want to overeat even more.”
Susan has lost 28 pounds since starting her journey in May. Her blood sugar and blood pressure are now in the normal range. “I feel so encouraged and now am in the habit of living this way. I have a different relationship with food. I know I can have a small dessert at the end of the day and not end up eating a whole box of cookies. I feel more confident that I will continue to work on my health and less afraid of suddenly losing control. Being more physically active has improved my mental outlook and I feel less depressed. I realize that it is not going to be perfection. I have embraced the attitude that I am doing my best.”
For Susan, living a healthy lifestyle is now a choice and she has a whole new mindset:
“It just feels better to live this way.”
A new Spring Health Transformation Group is starting on Tuesday, February 16 from 5-6pm. For more information or to sign up email Fay at firstname.lastname@example.org or click the button below:
Are you willing to commit 30 days toward a lifetime of improved health and happiness?
Reduce your risk of complications from COVID-19, achieve a healthy weight, improve fitness, share ideas, have fun with your team members!
4 easy steps to participate:
- Weigh yourself daily
- Record what you eat in a fitness app or log
- Exercise 30 minutes a day
- Participate in weekly progress discussions, receive compassionate support, track your progress and learn new strategies to improve your health
Communication will be virtual. The cost is $25 a week for the 4 week program. Tuesdays from 5-6pm on Zoom. Starts on February 16, 2021.
Email me at email@example.com to sign up or for additional information. I look forward to your participation.
I have always loved going to the movies. As a child growing up in New York City, I remember waiting in line at Radio City Music Hall in the frigid cold winter, my faux fur muff wrapped around my hands. I felt excited and eager. Cinema is a great form of entertainment and going to the theater always feels like an event.
The experience of watching a movie can transport us to a different place and story. This momentary reprieve from our own insular lives can provide perspective, something we can easily lose sight of. By paying attention to how difficult life can be for someone else, we become kinder, more compassionate and more generous of spirit. A film can also be an education, an exercise for the brain that can enlighten and inspire. In a two-hour period a film can open a window to another culture and people whose experiences are vastly different than our own.
Increasingly, film is a powerful medium for change. The vast archive of titles now available through streaming has made it possible to discover the plethora of exceptional film makers that exist throughout the world. These artists are taking their talent and desire for social action to the screen by sharing the struggles of people whose voices might otherwise go unheard. Many of these courageous writers and directors have produced these films with scarce resources. Some have faced imprisonment for taking a stand against their government.
The passion, outrage, and determination to tell the truth exemplified by these heroic storytellers can feel like an antidote to the spurious news stories we are regularly bombarded with. The integrity and kindness of the characters we meet through these films can feel like a soothing balm for these turbulent times.
The recent lockdown has provided me with an abundance of time to view some of these exceptional works of art. I picked out a few of them to share with you. I hope you will not be deterred by the subtitles. Once you get used to them, you will not even notice them.
Sweet Bean, Japan, 2015. Directed by Naomi Kawase
The owner of a dorayaki shop (red bean patty cafe) in Japan posts a help wanted sign and an unlikely candidate applies for the position. What begins is a remarkable friendship between three people, decades apart in age who are bound together through loneliness, longing and grief. Delicately crafted, this film confirms that our need to feel loved, valued and connected to each other is fundamental to our search for purpose and meaning. This graceful, moving study of the human experience is just lovely.
Capernaum, Lebanon, 2018. Directed by Nadine Labaki
This heartbreaking story takes viewers to war torn Beirut, Lebanon where poverty and hopelessness have prevailed for many years. We meet twelve-year-old Zain, a Syrian refugee who is experiencing the unthinkable: living on his own without parents or anyone to take care of him. Part fiction, part real life, this unusual film portrays the devasting poverty, injustice and abandonment inherent in the lives of so many children due to this endless war. Thought provoking and disquieting, we owe it to these children to listen to their stories.
Departures, Japan, 2008. Directed by Yojiro Takita
The stark reality of our mortality is addressed fearlessly and unapologetically in this heartwarming and funny story. A young cello player learns that the orchestra he plays in is shutting down. Faced with the need to provide a living for himself and his wife he decides to take a position preparing dead bodies for funerals. Being forced to view death on a daily basis leads him down the inevitable path of facing his unresolved struggle with his father’s abandonment. Visceral and unfiltered, this daring film addresses the importance of our acceptance of death as a necessary component to live a fully engaged life.
Taxi, Iran, 2015. Directed by Jafar Panahi
A fascinating tour of life in Tehran, Iran all through the lens of film director turned taxi driver, Jafar Panahi. The highly acclaimed filmmaker has been banned by the Iranian government from producing films, so he brings his talents to the screen clandestinely while driving through the streets of Tehran. Original, provocative and intelligent, the delightful assortment of passengers he picks up provide a captivating glimpse of life in Iran’s largest city. Just watching Pahani’s face is sheer delight and his smile feels like home.
And Breathe Normally, Iceland. 2018. Directed by Isold Uggadottir
My heart ached throughout this riveting film that takes viewers to the edge of Iceland’s Reykjanes peninsula where two women have a chance encounter that binds them together. Unnerving and painfully wrenching at times, two single mothers, a West African asylum seeker and a native of Iceland, connect through their shared aloneness and desperate struggle to make a life for their children. These fragile and unshakable women feel like people we could easily know.
All this social distancing has gotten me thinking a lot about laundry. It is one of the constants we have that has taken on greater significance during this time of uncertainty. For me, doing laundry has always helped me feel grounded. Whenever I have to start a difficult project, I usually do a load of laundry first and it feels like I have a clean slate to move on to the more onerous task.
Cleaning one’s clothing is a universal practice. Every culture in the world has some method of accomplishing this if they are fortunate to have access to ample clean water. Having been born in the United States, there was a time when I took my access to electronic washing machines and the ease at which I could do laundry for granted. For years, I barely gave doing laundry a thought. I would throw in a load while talking on the phone, giving my son a bath or checking my e-mail. Then one day, I realized that I had done several loads of it and I had no recollection of the experience. So, I decided to pay attention to it.
There are times when doing laundry can feel like an endless task that really has no beginning nor end. You sort: whites, darks, colors; you load, transfer, dry; fold and put away. And after all that, there is always another load lying in a heap awaiting its fate. And there are the socks that seem to disappear into the dryer.
When I was dating my husband and visited his home for the first time, I noticed a small room off the hallway with mounds of unwashed laundry piled on top of the washer and dryer. I could not believe he could live like this. But he seemed unphased by it. He could sit at his computer for an entire Sunday and not give a thought to his unwashed laundry. He waited until he had no clean clothes left to do it.
I think my sister is afraid of her laundry and buys new clothes instead of resorting to the dreaded task. When my son was little, he didn’t seem to care at all about laundry either. He would leave his crusty socks in the middle of the floor of his room and walk right by the piles of clean laundry I would routinely leave on a chair outside his room.
A good friend of mine claimed she had the best solution for tackling laundry. “I just do all my laundry on Tuesdays,” she boasted. “You occasionally run out of a favorite shirt here and there, but at least I don’t think about doing laundry the rest of the week.” The next time I visited her, it was on a Friday and there she was throwing a “quick load” into the washing machine.
Some people are fortunate enough to send their laundry out to be done by someone else. I tried this once and it came back stuffed into a laundry bag: the clothes folded so tightly, they stuck together like slices of processed cheese. Others prefer to have someone come to their house to do their laundry. But let’s face it, laundry is a private affair.
I once saw a movie that featured a woman who died doing her laundry. Just as she was about to transfer it from the washer to the dryer, she collapsed. “What a way to go,” I thought.
I can recall visiting friends who had a new baby. Throughout the weekend, I watched them run up and down the basement stairs with alternating baskets of dirty and clean laundry, the dining room table piled high with folded onesies, tiny tee shirts and pajamas. The constant flow up and down never seemed to cease and their laundry doing seemed to take on a rhythmic pattern as if they were on cruise control. “I’ll just throw in another load while you hold the baby,” my friend informed his wife, seemingly unaware that he had been doing this for the past two hours. I thought about all the things they could have accomplished had they not been consumed with this monotony. And after all those loads I looked down at the bottom of the staircase and saw more piles waiting to be plunged into soapy water and spun out into damp clean masses.
But despite all this, I must admit that there is no greater joy than clean fluffy towels fresh out of the dryer. Or crisp, neatly folded shirts stacked dutifully in drawers. I only wish that at some point I could say, “My laundry is done.”
I suppose laundry is like life: it goes on and on. Perhaps it is true that “cleanliness is next to godliness,” but clean laundry always seems so near yet so far.
I met my friend Kathrin when she came to the United States as a cultural exchange student twenty years ago. During the year she spent here, she shared stories of the life she had growing up a small village in Switzerland. The close-knit community, the simplicity and predictability that she described seemed so different from life in the United States. When I found out that she sewed doll clothes for the child she cared for, I realized that she was truly special. I had always hoped to visit her and see Switzerland for my myself. A few months ago, I finally got my wish.
Arriving at Zurich Airport, at first glance, the airport looked empty, compared to the congested and frenetic Newark International Airport where we had departed. Noticeably absent were the glaring televisions featuring prominent political figures and the imposing aroma of fast food. What we saw instead were stylish coffee shops, shoe stores displaying “made to last” boots, and alluring grocery stores fully stocked with enticing produce, freshly squeezed orange juice and a profusion of distinctive Swiss chocolate. A McDonald’s and a couple of other fast food restaurants were inconspicuously situated on the upper level of the airport.
Since it was eight in the morning, we headed to one of the coffee shops. Switzerland is comprised of German, Italian and French regions, so there is an abundance of great espresso. We had excellent coffee, hot chocolate and one of the freshest croissants I have ever had (no butter needed!). We were amused to see Ovaltine featured on the menu. Afterward, we approached an information booth and a helpful guide explained how we could get to our hotel via public transportation. With two-day unlimited passes we had access to all trains and trolleys. At one point during our journey we needed directions and asked a person who was loading up the dining car from the train track. He stopped what he was doing and went onto his smartphone and provided us with clear instructions. Then, politely he suggested that we download the app to our phones. This was the first of many encounters demonstrating just how much the Swiss value self-sufficiency. The public transportation system is impressive with trolley cars that seem to arrive the moment you get to the bus stop. The trains are immaculate and always (and I do mean always) on time. Conductors don’t regularly check tickets as riders are expected to be trusted to pay the required fair. The Swiss adhere to a code of personal integrity that seems to work very well.
Zurich is a significant city with a population of close to 400,000 people. Our Hotel was situated in Zurich West, a haven of ethnic restaurants and funky bars with American names like Holy Cow and Brooklyn Burgermeister that fill up with young locals every evening. Switzerland is not as expensive as we had anticipated. Prices for hotels and restaurants were comparable to the US but somewhat higher than other European cities we had visited.
Our next stop was lunch at a beer hall featuring traditional Swiss cuisine. We were seated at a long table with other customers. We shared platters of grilled pork cutlet and sausage which came with a salad of shredded root vegetables and a popular potato dish called Rosti which resembled home fries formed into a patty. Swiss cuisine is simple and hearty. I looked to the right and noticed a table of men sharing beers and platters of beef goulash. Their weathered faces and calloused hands suggested years of hard work. They were laughing and toasting each other in what looked like a regular ritual for them.
The Swiss walk briskly in their sturdy boots and practical clothing of wool coats, scarves, hats and gloves that are all similar, but somehow look different on each person wearing them. They seem not to question much. Although many rely on their smartphones to navigate, you don’t see them glued to them or sitting in coffee shops staring at their laptops. I did not see many overweight people in Zurich. The overall obesity rate in Switzerland is 19.5% compared with 36.2% in the US. Notable, however, is their high smoking rate; 27.7% of Swiss resident’s smoke compared with 17.2% in the US.
The next day we boarded a bus that would take us to Mount Rigi, commonly referred to as the “Queen” of the Swiss Alps. The ambiance of urban Zurich was quickly transformed to a beautiful green countryside scattered with an assortment of livestock grazing peacefully. “Here in Switzerland,” our tour guide boasted, “we have very happy cows. They must spend 90 days a year outside in free air.” She continued, “Switzerland has strict environmental laws that require approximately one third of the country remain forested. For every tree used for construction, it must be replaced with one planted.”
The bus stopped in a tiny picturesque town where we boarded a cable car to start our ascent to the top of the mountain. As we hung on a simple cable thousands of feet in the air, I looked down at infinity; a breathing taking bounty of green, masses of trees and tiny houses that looked like toys. The cable car stopped, and we transferred to a cogwheel train to continue our summit, passing quaint little towns sparsely sprinkled with modest houses perched on hills so steep they looked like they might fall off the mountain.
Mt Rigi is formidable with an elevation of 5,899 ft and breathtaking views from every angle. Lunch time called to us and we noticed a small house down the road with a restaurant sign posted out front. The one room dwelling was modestly furnished with two picnic style tables each serving 6-8 people. The owner came out and asked what we wanted to eat. “They only serve one entrée and that is goulash,” another customer informed us in English. I wondered if the owner lived upstairs from the restaurant. As we ate our simple goulash of beef, carrots and potatoes, the chef and his wife joined us for a glass of beer. Their cat climbed up on the bench and snuggled next to me.
The Swiss pride themselves at being on time, so the next day when Kathrin arrived at our hotel precisely at 9:15am as she had promised, we were not at all surprised. As we rode the train to Lucerne, she started speaking in German to a woman sitting next to her. I asked them how their health insurance works and whether they thought it was affordable and met their needs. Both expressed satisfaction with the quality, cost and choice they had with their health insurance and care. In Switzerland health insurance is mandatory and funded through a combination of private and public insurance with subsidies for those on low incomes. The system offers a wide range of choice that varies according to where you live. The Swiss have a life expectancy of 82.8 years, nearly four years higher than the life expectancy in the US which is 78.7 years of age.
We arrived in the lakeside region of Lucerne, a beautiful tourist town fully equipped with outdoor markets, high end stores and restaurants. We sat at a café drinking coffee and looked out at the famous Chapel Bridge. After a walk along the many winding streets we were back on the train and Kathrin pulled an impromptu lunch out of her knapsack. “This is our picnic!” she explained as she spread out slices of cheese, meat and some hearty bread on our dining trays.
Our next stop was the small village where Kathrin lived. The provincial little town had winding alleyways and cobblestone streets. Kathrin’s house was a modern structure that resembled a simplified IKEA display room, with square rooms and sharply angled furniture. It was spacious and practical. Downstairs on the basement level, I thought it was unusual to have so much dedicated space for a sewing room. But the big surprise came when she opened a door to the fallout shelter. Switzerland requires all residences and buildings to have enough nuclear fallout shelters to accommodate its entire population. After our tour we entered the dining room where the table was already set. We watched Kathrin prepare raclette, a traditional dish of melted Swiss cheese poured over boiled potatoes and sprinkled with a special spice. The Swiss love their cheese!
For our last night, we decided to try traditional Swiss fondue. We booked a small restaurant that was tightly packed with locals. Our server helped us select our fondue which was made with mild and sharp cheeses, wine and Kirsch, a popular liquor made from fermented cherries. It came with chunks of white bread and boiled potatoes to dip in. We washed it down with some wine made locally as well. It was all so good.
I felt sad to leave this nice country where everything seems to make so much sense. The following are my top takeaways from Switzerland:
- The Swiss prioritize the basic human needs of their citizens as most important. They have excellent health care and a mandatory health insurance system that is accessible to all. A nationwide job readiness program ensures a highly skilled labor force, low unemployment and one of the highest gross domestic products per capita in the world
- They appreciate what they have. They love their food, culture and natural resources. They embrace their traditions and are committed to protecting their environment
- They value quality. This is reflected in the homes and buildings they develop, the food they eat and the goods and services they produce
- They have a good work life balance and offer reduced work schedules for parents and reasonable time off for all employees for leisure and activities of daily living
- They are a neutral country. They value being pragmatic rather than taking extreme positions. They have not been involved in a war since 1516
- The Swiss have won more Nobel Prizes and registered more patents per capita than most other nations
They must be doing something right.
Chaz has never been into fitness. As a child he deplored gym class. “I grew up in the South with corporal punishment,” shared the 59-year-old father of three and resident of Princeton. “My experience with gym class was grouchy men yelling at me.” This association always made it difficult for him to feel comfortable joining a gym. Always considered husky, but not overweight, his weight became a problem when he started practicing law 30 years ago. “I went into law because I could not figure out what else to do,” he reflected. “I liked my clients, but law was not a passion of mine.” Chaz felt miserable during the day in a sedentary job that he didn’t like. “When I came home from work, I would have a few scotches, some cheese and then have dinner. I felt that I deserved the food.”
This pattern continued for several years and his weight started to climb. Eventually he began to experience health problems. Chaz had elevated blood pressure and his blood sugar levels were high. His doctor told him he was prediabetic. There were periods when he felt motivated to improve his health and would set strict dietary rules for himself that included no alcohol or simple carbohydrates and drinking lots of water. He would lose some weight, then the pounds would creep back up when he resumed his previous habits.
In 2011 Chaz learned that he had a congenital heart problem called aortic stenosis that would probably require surgery in the future. “I knew it would be wise to start taking better care of myself in preparation for surgery, but I felt too tired to pay attention to myself,” he recalled. “I promised myself that once I retired from the practice of law, I would take care of my health.”
During that same year, Chaz made the decision to go back to school. He had majored in anthropology in college and that has always been the field he felt called to. He reduced his time at his law firm and studied part-time for the next few years, eventually earning a PhD in Human Sexuality. This was his first step toward creating the life he had always wanted.
Finally, in 2016 Chaz retired completely from the practice of law. He felt so much happier and he looked forward to having time to take walks outside, an activity he had always enjoyed. However, when he attempted to walk, he experienced trouble with his gait. “I was waddling from side to side,” he mused. “In cold weather it was hard to walk, and I had pain in my back.” At one point he ended up at the emergency room and was told he had a compressed disc. Chaz’s concern for his health felt more imminent. He wanted to be able to walk long distances again and be in optimal condition for the surgery he anticipated. But he became especially concerned when he noticed that his sexual functioning was not what it was. “I felt it was an indication that something was systemically wrong,” he shared. “I believed it might be due to my weight and the medications I was taking for high blood pressure and depression.”
Chaz’s final wake-up call came one day when he was having lunch with a former co-worker who complained that he was having trouble with his balance. His friend also shared that he was having difficulty putting his shorts on. Hearing such similar health concerns from a friend really hit home for Chaz. He knew it was time to get going on a path to better health.
His first step was to join a gym. Since he had no idea what activities he would want to participate in, he thought it would be helpful to join one that offered lots of choices. Life Time Athletic Princeton, located in Plainsboro, was appealing since it is a large facility, offers many classes and has two pools. Since it was summertime when he joined, he began swimming daily and tried a few aqua aerobics classes. Then he started experimenting with other exercise classes like barre, small group training, Pilate’s and yoga. He also tried walking on the treadmill. Yin yoga proved to be the most beneficial for him and he now takes classes four times a week. “Yoga has helped me with my walking, posture and balance,” Chaz explained. “During each class, I have an hour to not think about anything other than paying attention to my body,” he continued. “In the past, my whole life has been in my head and now I am experiencing my body. It feels so good to move.” Chaz is finding that yoga has helped him emotionally as well. “When I feel myself getting dysregulated, I can calm my mind by removing myself from the situation, sitting still and breathing. I spend a lot of time now just being still and thinking about how I am feeling.”
Chaz’s next step was to change the way he eats. He decided to avoid “white” carbohydrates like white bread and pasta, opting for lots of leafy green vegetables, citrus fruit and berries instead. He also eats fish several times a week, especially small canned fish like sardines and herring which contain omega three fatty acids. He rarely eats red meat and prefers poultry instead. He continues to eat cheese, one of his favorite foods, as well as nuts. Sugary desserts have never appealed to him, but he will join in on celebrations. He also decided to limit his alcohol consumption to social situations. “I haven’t given up anything I like, because I know I can’t sustain that,” he explained.
Since Chaz loves walking outside, he has traded the treadmill for the four mile round trip walk to the gym. He has also discovered his love of the sauna. “Initially, I viewed going to the sauna as a treat to get me to the gym,” he shared. “However, now I believe that I receive many health benefits from it. The sauna allows my muscles to become soft so I can relax them. When I don’t feel muscular tension, my mind is less tense as well.”
Chaz’s effort has really paid off. He has lost 50 pounds and has maintained his weight loss for seven months. His glucose and cholesterol levels are down, and he is no longer considered prediabetic. His blood pressure is now stable, and he has been able to reduce the medication he takes for it. Chaz has changed in other ways as well. He takes time to go to the theater and visit museums, filling up on life instead of food. “I don’t find it a struggle to maintain my weight,” he explained. “When I eat in restaurants and I am out of my routine, I can revert to old habits and gain a few pounds. But then I get back to my routine and my weight drops back down.” Chaz weighs himself 4-5 times a week and this helps him stay on track. Since he is no longer depressed, he has stopped taking antidepressant medication. “My sexual mojo has improved a lot and I feel happier than I have ever been,” he shared proudly. Most important is that he feels so much happier. “Now when I go to the pool, I don’t mind showing off my body,” he beamed. “It has been a thrill to buy new clothes. I went from an extra-large to a small.” Additionally, he is enjoying the many compliments he receives about how he looks. “Someone in the class will say ‘You are so flexible!’ It is such a nice feeling to think I am good at something physical.”
Chaz feels so good about all he has achieved. But his proudest moment came when his 26-year-old daughter saw him three months after he started his new routine. “Her jaw dropped, and she said ‘Wow, I have never in my life seen a person make such a transformation!’ Like many of us, I have spent a lot of time and energy seeking (and generally receiving) my parents’ approval, but receiving my child’s approval makes me feel so, so happy.”
The following are Chaz’s recommended best practices:
- Hydrate more by drinking water as often as possible. This helps to prevent hunger and clear toxins from the body
- Eat small canned fish. Small fish are a great source of high-quality protein and healthy fat. Eating small fish is also good for the environment because catching them doesn’t burn as much fossil fuel as large fish
- Weigh yourself regularly at least 4-5 times a week
- Eat what you want. Don’t give up foods that you enjoy. This is the only sustainable way to lose and maintain a healthy weight
- Eat when you are hungry. By responding to your body’s natural hunger, you won’t need to eat that much
- Go to the sauna. It decreases stress and increases well-being
- Avoid being in the car. Walk to places like the grocery store instead of driving
- Try not to multi-task
- Don’t be concerned about the speed at which you lose weight, just create a lifestyle that works for you that you know you can stick with
Are you are interested in reinventing yourself?
Fay Reiter, M.A. is certified Social Worker, Lifestyle Fitness Coach and Personal Trainer. She has been helping people overcome health challenges for the past twenty years. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 609-468-4045 to schedule a complimentary coaching session.
The clock is ticking and there are just days remaining for congress to strike a deal to avert another government shutdown. In an effort to provide some assistance to people who rely on paychecks to survive (aka non-billionaires), I have decided to launch a new column. “Ask Wilbur” will offer tips and advice on how to survive without an income. The column was inspired by our illustrious Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, who gained much notoriety during the recent shutdown when during an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” he questioned why furloughed federal workers were going to food banks. Furthermore, he added that he did not understand why federal workers faced a liquidity crisis when they can just take out a loan.
I thought I might ask Mr. Ross for some additional advice for the hundreds of thousands of people who may find themselves once again without any income. However, due to the magnitude of Mr. Ross’ duties overseeing the United States Commerce Department, I assumed he would not be available for an interview. Therefore, I have taken it upon myself to come up with some other helpful suggestions for those who are struggling to cover the mortgage, pay for healthcare, and purchase groceries. Here are my top picks for the week:
- Start making withdrawals from your trust fund
- Create a small start-up company
- Consider letting the maid go (hopefully this will only be temporary)
- Airbnb your vacation home
- Ask your tween to design a new app and market it through Amazon
- Pawn your Rolex
- Enjoy a happy hour with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to lift your spirits
- Learn a new craft such as woodworking and sell your wares on Etsy
- Distract yourself by taking a free online course on investment diversification
If all else fails, run for Congress.
There I was in my bedroom surrounded by neat little piles of what remained of my wardrobe. A few tee-shirts, trousers and underwear all obediently folded into tiny little squares. I stopped to pause, realizing that once again I’d fallen victim to the latest anti-clutter craze: “Tidying Up.”
Marie Kondo has brilliantly packaged a new approach to one of the most pressing dilemmas of our time, “managing our stuff.” In her austere little book The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, Kondo shares her minimalist concept advising readers to vigorously purge all possessions to the core, retaining only those that truly inspire joy. Yes, owning barely anything is the new rage and people throughout the globe are emptying their closets, dresser drawers and bookcases; reducing their possessions to minutia.
Many of Kondo’s ideas are hardly new; however she wraps them in the appealing new label of “tidying up” putting the much dreaded task of “decluttering” in a whole new light. As a start, Kondo asks readers to imagine their ideal lifestyle in order to create a vision of how they would like to live so they have a goal to aspire toward before they start tidying. Also key is her suggestion to focus on “what you keep” rather than on what you “eliminate,” placing the whole undertaking in the affirmative. This empowering new perspective helps shift devotees to the novel paradigm of making explicit decisions to improve their lives instead of just “giving things up.” Kondo’s uncomplicated style incorporates precise practices to help readers navigate the heartbreak of clutter: discarding items prior to commencing the organizing process, tidying by category instead of location and completing the task all at once (a very tall order, if not impossible for most) are some examples of her uncompromising method. However, it’s her focus on joy that really gets to the core of the problem, offering new found hope for people who are racked by over consumption.
For several years now, I have been gradually whittling down my own stockpile and basking in the glory of living with less. The stagnant energy that comes from being surrounded by stacks of unpacked boxes, piles of unsorted paper and lifeless incidentals always felt so incarcerating. By clearing them out, I have reclaimed my territory and restored my energy. I would never trade back my new found vitality for useless inanimate objects.
But as I thought about Kondo’s joy based prescription, I wondered, “How many people actually know what makes them feel joy?” Exulting in the merriment of life is something most people are no longer accustomed to. Moreover, having written about this topic for so long, I find it so baffling to understand why and how owning too many things has become such a monumental problem for so many people. Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, millions of people do not have enough. They carry the meager remains of their bombed out apartments on their backs, along with their children across their homeland, hoping for peaceful entry to a safe place to start over. While they struggle for bare boned existence, in the United States our overindulgences consume us. Where does this insatiable craving for materialism come from? Have all these possessions replaced the authentic abundance we truly long for?
Moreover, paradoxically I have yet to encounter a clutterer who does not have a secret desire to “lighten the load” and live with less. But how?
The following may help:
- Make a commitment to tidying your home and see it through to completion.
- Start by creating a vision of how you would like to live. Think of a home you have visited or seen in a magazine that inspires you. Use it as a blueprint to work with as you re- create your space.
- Consider the joy factor: Which of your possessions contribute to your feelings of well being? How would you like to use your reclaimed energy and space? Design a plan to help you work toward achieving your goals.
- Discard items that you do not use or do not inspire joy prior to beginning your organizing.
Take some advice from Marie Kondo: “Life truly begins when your house is in order.”
For many, the start of a New Year offers the opportunity to make a fresh start at practicing a healthier lifestyle. If you are interested in seizing this time to establish some New Year’s resolutions, I would like to offer the following suggestions based on my personal experiences and several years of helping people open pathways to lifestyle changes.
- Don’t expect to drop a ton of weight quickly (I know you want to, but you really should not try this if you want to sustain your weight loss). Replace foods that are high in sugar and non-nutritious fats and increase vegetables and fruits. Reduce portion sizes of the more calorie dense foods (US Dietary Guidelines).
- Avoid extreme diet programs and make sure you continue to eat the foods you enjoy.
- Take time for your meals and eat mindfully. Avoid doing other tasks while eating such as driving, talking on the phone or working. Make your dining experience pleasurable.
Increase physical activity:
- Walking is an ideal form of exercise and safe for most fitness levels. If you would like to create an exercise routine for yourself, follow the recommendations of the US Physical Activity Guidelines.
- Avoid sitting for long periods of time.
Clear away clutter:
If you are surrounded by piles of paper, boxes that you never unpacked since your last move or too much furniture, you are living in a congested environment that depletes energy. Clear these items away and free up space for your renewed energy.
If you believe you don’t have enough time to take care of yourself, consider how you are allocating your time.
- Do you devote your energy to the things that are most important to you? Is your health a priority?
- Explore barriers that are preventing you from improving your health. Do you overeat for emotional reasons? If so, what feelings are you attempting to numb or soothe? Are you feeling worried or even angry? Are there more productive ways of dealing with these feelings?
Pursue activities that inspire you:
Are you satisfying your intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs? Boredom is a common cause of overindulgence in food. Are there meaningful projects that you wish to take on, but have put off because they require a lot of effort and time? Set your intention to invest your energy toward these pursuits. Creating or listening to music, engaging in movement, art or sports are a few examples.
Spending time with friends, making new friends and engaging in stimulating conversation with like-minded people are important to most people.
Making lifestyle changes is a challenging process. Give yourself time to find your way.
I welcome your feedback in the comment section below.