How do you learn how to do something that seems impossible?
Three years ago, at the age of 42, I had a huge setback. I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, a chronic progressive disease that could ultimately lead to horrible complications and shorten my life. However, what seemed at the time to be a very bad turn of fate has turned out to be an extremely positive thing. This mid-life crisis helped me to take back control of my life and begin an odyssey of personal transformation that has brought a great deal of joy to my life. This essay is about what I've learned about personal transformation over the past several years.
With my diabetes diagnosis I was forced to confront my own mortality. After a quick round of the seven stages of grief (I remember that denial lasted about 24 hours), I decided that I was going to do whatever it took to slow or stop the progression of this disease. I took my inspiration from Polya's mouse, who kept trying every single gap between bars of the cage, looking for a way out.
I knew that medications could help to lower my blood sugar and keep many of the consequences of diabetes at bay, but to really improve my health, I needed to lose weight and reduce the resistance to insulin that was causing my blood sugar to go so high. However, I'd struggled with weight for my entire adult life, and it seemed like nothing had helped- I just kept adding on weight every year. By the time I was diagnosed with diabetes I was up to 260 pounds. I resolved that losing weight and getting down to the "normal" weight range (a BMI of under 25) would be my main goal.
I planned to attack this problem on several fronts, by changing my life style to include regular exercise, cutting back on the portions that I ate, and slowly eliminating some of the worst junk food from my diet. Fundamentally, losing weight is about burning more calories through exercise and daily activity than you take in by eating.
It's true that exercise alone is not enough for most people to lose substantial amounts of weight- even burning 800 calories per day with very vigorous exercise won't make up for eating 1,000 calories per day more than you need. Many people try to lose weight by extreme "starvation" diets, but few people can keep this up for very long. However, the combination of exercise with calorie restriction really does work. I found that adding about half an hour to an hour of exercise a day, and restricting my intake of calories was enough to begin losing weight, at the rate of a pound or two a week.
At first exercise was a boring routine. I'd go to the gym and walk on the treadmill or use the elliptical trainer or stair climber. I'd bring a magazine to read or listen to my MP3 player to pass the time. It wasn't fun, but it was helping me lose weight, so I kept at it. As I began to lose weight I found that watching the scale and recording my new record low weights provided motivation for me to keep going. Furthermore, as I lost more and more weight, I started to have more energy for various activities, and I started to feel netter about myself. It was good to know that even in my mid 40's I still had the ability to learn some new tricks and grow as a person.
The changes that were happening to my body occurred over a period of months, so they were slow enough that I didn't notice them on a day to day basis. However, my family did experience the changes in a different way. During this period my wife Sue was gone for months at a time, taking care of her elderly mother. Each time she came back she was shocked by the change in me. However, she was always supportive and encouraging, even if she thought I was a bit obsessed.
As I lost weight, I lost a lot of muscle in addition to the fat. My friends and family began to notice that I was really skinny to the point that it seemed unhealthy. I resolved to add some strength training to my exercise regime to gain back some of the muscle that I had lost in going from 260 pounds down to under 160 pounds. Lifting weights was different from the cardio that I had been doing. Week by week, I could see myself getting stronger- this was obvious from the additional weight that I was able to lift, but I could also begin to see changes in my body- muscles started appearing where there had been nothing but fat before. I'm never likely to be as strong as many of the more serious young guys at the gym, but I am still gaining strength, and the process of gaining strength through lifting weights makes me feel differently about my self and my body.
I also decided to add a yoga class to the mix, since I had always been extremely inflexible. Even more so than with weight lifting, my first yoga classes left me feeling horribly inadequate. At one point I scored at the 8th percentile for my age/sex group on the sit-reach flexibility test- I simply couldn't come close to touching my toes. However, I quickly learned the important lesson that yoga isn't about twisting yourself into pretzel like positions so much as it is about personal transformation through regular practice. Practicing yoga often brings me to very scary places- where discomfort approaches pain, and nervousness about trying something new sometimes verges on real fear. There's an incredible feeling when I manage to do something new in yoga, like kicking up into a handstand, that I've never done before and didn't think that I could ever do. My yoga teachers Marisa and Melissa keep challenging me, week after week, and year after year. Along the way, I've had a lot of support from my lass mates. I simply couldn't do it without their encouragement. At the same time, there's another very meditative aspect to yoga. My intention in yoga is always to simply be there in the moment, focusing on the yoga and letting go of my normal worries and concerns. When I succeed in doing this my yoga sessions turn out to be incredibly relaxing.
One day, after a couple of years of walking on the treadmill, I decided that instead of walking up hill for half an hour, I'd try running, just to see what it felt like. I was not prepared for what happened next! For whatever reason, I found that running on the treadmill was much more enjoyable than walking. I actually liked running. Furthermore, I wanted to run faster and further. Within a few weeks, I was running up to three miles at a stretch, and steadily cutting down on the time it took me to run that three miles. Soon after, I started participating in fun runs and 5K races. This has blossomed into a serious addiction- I've now been running at least 100 miles a month for the past year and a half, and I'll soon run my first marathon.
Racing against other runners added another dimension to the experience. I'm not fast enough that I can race against young men that are 20 years younger than me, but I can compete with others that are my age, and sometimes I can even win my age group. Even when I can't win a prize, I find that running in competition with others helps to motivate me to give my very best effort. I feel better after a very close and hard fought race, whether I win or lose in the end.
All of these experience have helped to transform my life. The common thread that runs through them is simple. Keep trying to do new things, even impossible things. Keep working at it day after day- the daily practice and the resulting personal transformation is more important than the particular milestones (weight lost, a new yoga pose achieved, or a new 5K race record.) Friends and family can help a lot, both by supporting you and cheering you on, and also by competing with you.