My first brush with the phenomenon which I am about to describe happened in the early 1970s. At that time I had recently graduated from college and listened attentively as my mother told me about her friend Carol. The way she described it, Carol had been working as a cashier at one of the local department stores where my mother regularly shopped. It wasn’t long before they became friends. “She’s really embarrassed about her weight,” I recall my mother explaining, going on to observe that Carol would look great if she could only shed about a hundred pounds.
To this day I do not understand why my mother did this, but she took it upon herself to help her friend eat right, get some moderate exercise, and trim down; a truly formidable task into which my mom threw herself headlong, not having a clue as to what was in store for her.
Soon my mom was bringing Carol grocery shopping, trying to convey the importance of shopping for nutrition rather than taste alone. Several times each week Carol was invited to our home for balanced, low calorie meals and, like magic, Carol very gradually began to lose weight and, having dropped several dress sizes, needed to purchase a new wardrobe of better fitting clothes. She had become a new woman.
Then the problems began.
“Carol’s gaining all her weight back,” I recall my mother explaining to me out of frustration. “She’s stopped walking, and is gorging herself on some really bizarre fare.”
“English muffins,” my mom explained, shaking her head in disbelief, “several packages at a sitting…plain and untoasted.”
“You’re kidding, right Ma?”
“No, I’m not! She’s also been eating gallons of ice cream and several bags of Oreo cookies.”
I just laughed, figuring that my mother’s new friend was a head case…but I didn’t think it was so funny years later when, working in the fitness business, I began encountering others with similar, twisted appetites. One individual in particular comes to mind. Tom was his name. Tom had graduated from college weighing 185 lbs at a height of six feet three inches. By his early thirties he was moving in on the three hundred pound mark and gaining rapidly.
Via a program of exercise and sensible nutrition, Tom was able to drop more than twenty pounds and was well on his way to a new life. Periodically he would show me articles from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal stating that obesity was entirely genetic in scope. He would also show me advertisements for snake oil weight loss products, wanting to know why they wouldn’t deliver on their unbelievable promises. “If it sounds too good to be true,” I explained…you know the rest.
Soon Tom was well over 300 lbs and completely out of control. He had cut his workouts down to two a week, claiming his work schedule would not allow more than that. Pushing his credibility even more, he went on to justify his habit of regularly patronizing places like Burger King and McDonald’s, claiming that as a commercial/industrial real estate broker he needed to show loyalty to his clients. Who is kidding whom? Even though I urged Tom in the strongest possible terms to get out and walk on the days when he did not see me, it never happened.
On one memorable occasion, I was with Tom and his family at a restaurant. As we were getting up from our table preparing to leave, Tom, after having made sure that he thought no one was looking, literally inhaled the leftovers off of everyone’s plates. That boy moved so fast that all I saw was a blur. Sometime later he confessed to me that he had unusual dietary cravings…typically a dozen cranberry muffins washed down with a gallon of cranberry juice. His favorite treat was a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup placed on top of a jelly doughnut and heated in a microwave oven. Tom would do this several times a day and then wonder why he was gaining weight.
“What did you do that for?” I demanded to know.
“I like ’em and can’t help myself,” he attempted to rationalize. Wow! As my father would have said, “He must’ve gotten his wires crossed somewhere along the way.”
Most recently I have a 315 pound client who had packed on about 80 pounds in the past couple of years. Again, through regular exercise and a sane eating plan he had been able to trim down to about 280. To his credit he had also markedly increased both his strength, flexibility, aerobic capacity, and exercise tolerance. It was at this point that he began missing workouts for no good reason. Not coincidentally, he also stopped weighing himself, claiming that his scale was inaccurate. He is supposed to be walking on the off days for thirty minutes, but of course this never happens and naturally he always has an excuse for why he cannot do this. I’m intrigued by the fact that as he gives me these cock and bull stories for his noncompliance he cannot look me in the eye. Eventually he spilled his guts to me.
“I can’t help myself!” he whimpered, nearly in tears as if looking for sympathy, going on to reveal his penchant for gorging himself during the day on Table Talk Pies…three or four at a sitting, adding, “Y’ know, I can’t take my training as seriously as you do!” Well, if he had been looking for sympathy he would have been better off going to his hair stylist.
“As seriously as I do? Listen…you need to understand that I approach each and every workout with passion and devotion as if it were a religion. Now that I think of it, it may very well be. People like me are seeking to maximize our potential. In your case, I’m giving you the bare minimum so that you can function at a bare minimum level. You came to me with one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. Now that you are making measurable progress…you’re beginning to sabotage yourself. I don’t get it!”
Then I told him to make two lists, writing them down on paper when he got home. Not likely. “Under one heading I want you to list what you have to gain by improving your health and fitness. Under the other heading I want you to list what you have to gain by growing fat, weak, and out of shape.”
This is about promises, gang. Eventually we all need to promise ourselves to become the best we are capable of being. Spirit, mind, and body is the way the ancient Greeks put it. If, on the other hand, we choose instead to just let ourselves go, we shall be of little use to ourselves or to anyone else. If we can’t keep a promise to ourselves…how can we be expected to keep promises to our spouse, family, and friends. The way I see it, we may as well just roll over and die. As I think back over my mother’s experience with her friend Carol, I recall her telling me that the problem was actually Carol’s husband. Seems the gent had a problem dealing with his wife looking attractive to other men. I think Carol may have had a problem with that too.
There are a million stories in the world of fitness…this has been one of them.