I had long fantasized that the fat around my midsection was held in place by a Velcro band, a thick, wide belt that I would some day rip off and throw away. It felt like it didn’t belong there. How could it be permanent? But every morning, there it was, and getting bigger.
I was so out of shape when I came to Breakthru Fitness that before I could sign up for the Peak program I needed a series of one-on-one sessions. My trainer would be a woman named Kanda Ferrar.
Kanda is my age, which is to say over 50. She’s raised two grown sons, rides horses, gets up at 4:30, does indescribably difficult workouts and is in better shape than I can imagine. She has short, blonde hair and moves quickly, like a knife in black spandex.
Ten minutes into our first workout I was bent over at the waist, my nose inches from my kneecaps, drops of sweat landing on my shoes, my lungs sucking for air. I was not prepared for this.
From what I had seen in health clubs, personal training sessions were leisurely affairs, the trainer leading the client from machine to machine, making sure that elbows and knees were in the right positions, no undue strain on the client’s back, and making notes on a clipboard. During my occasional forays into the weight room at my health club back in Chicago, I would hear them, the trainers and their pupils, chatting about ski trips and stock deals. This was nothing like that.
First, every exercise had a cardiac component, which explained why I was dripping wet and gasping for air. Get down on all fours. Now rise up off your knees and pretend you are running straight up a hill. Say what? I couldn’t do that one for 30 seconds.
Second, every exercise worked my core. There were several that didn’t involve pushing the weight away from my body, or pulling it toward myself; rather, they involved twisting at the waist and pulling the weight across the median of my body. This produced an immediate burning sensation in my abdomen. I know people have been working on their cores for years, but I was living in a crunch-free zone. Occasionally, I’d let my kids sock me in my gut and because I could take four or five slugs from a 10 year-old I told myself, “Good enough.” I was a runner, at least I was when I was training, and I was in decent shape. That was my story. But I knew better. My abs were soft as a baby’s butt.
Third, someone had thought these exercises all the way through. Every one touched a group of muscles I didn’t know existed. There were straps and pulleys, ropes and mats, machines and exercise balls… There was science at work here that was far beyond anything I’d ever experienced, way past pumping up biceps with bench presses.
Ten minutes into preliminary workout number one, as I teetered on the edge of oxygen deprivation, Kanda first mentioned nutrition. “What you want to do,” she said, “is stay away from dry carbs.” These she explained were bread, crackers, cereal, pasta, cake, etc. Fascinating. I could name 14 of my key weaknesses right there in that little group. What I heard her saying as I asked her to repeat the list, was, “Don’t eat these. You don’t want them. They’re not worth it. They don’t work for you. They don’t make you feel good. They’re not nutritious. So just don’t.”
I have always had a problem with, “Don’t,” and especially when it’s applied to bread. I don’t understand why the world is suddenly filled with non-bread-eating, gluten-free children; even though I’ve seen firsthand how my own kids breathe and function more cleanly when they avoid eating wheat. But how can you be allergic to bread? In church, when they give you communion, they say, “The bread of life.” It’s not, “Give us this day our daily gluten-free bread.” Life doesn’t get more basic or more essentially good than a fresh baguette. How did bread become the bad guy?
I don’t think Kanda ever actually said, “Just don’t eat…” any particular food. She did say – and this may have saved the day for me – “You don’t have to do this perfectly. Eighty percent will work.”
Eighty percent? Really?
Eighty percent seemed like a B-minus. Eighty percent seemed like a level I ought to be able to reach.
She explained that everyone has his or her favorite daily indulgence. Hers was white wine, Chardonnay. For Michelle, who created and leads the Peak Fit program, it was dark chocolate. I immediately thought of seven: blueberry muffins, chocolate chip cookies, sandwiches, beer, red wine, popcorn at the movies and ice cream after midnight. Maybe I could hold it down to one modest-sized digression per day.
Kanda talked about eating fruits and vegetables. She talked about eating protein, like meat or fish, but smaller portions, not too much. She talked about drinking enough water, which I never do. She talked about eating several times a day and not allowing myself to get hungry, which I do constantly. She said, if you don’t eat until you are very hungry you will “make bad choices.” That immediately struck me as true. In the coming days, as I began to bring a little more consciousness to the way I eat, it was easy to see that the longer I waited to eat, the worse food I ate, and the more I would undoubtedly eat. I remembered my dad’s decades of failed dieting attempts: skipping breakfast, starving himself at lunch, then blowing it all at dinner or, more likely, afterward. As I began to look carefully at the food I was eating, I realized I could eat two to three days worth of calories in about 90 minutes of screwing up.
On the other hand, if I spread the food out, didn’t allow myself to get too hungry and thought about it a little in advance, I actually could eat the right thing 80 percent of the time. I even advanced fairly quickly to the point where I wasn’t constantly bargaining: “If I eat that spoonful of pasta, will that be 22 percent exceptions for the day, or only 18?”
The great thing about being alive today is we know all this information. The data is in. Mostly, we know what to eat and what not to eat. What’s missing is the application, the “grace app,” that translates to acceptance and willingness.
There was something about the way Kanda talked that seated this program in the realm of common sense. She made it seem possible, like doing it was not that big a deal. Despite decades of failure, maybe this was a door I could sneak through; no pun intended, but maybe this was a door I could break through.
Then and there I decided that whatever I’d been doing all my life hadn’t worked. It hadn’t gotten me what I wanted; in fact, the opposite was true. My innate resistance and stubbornness hadn’t suddenly left me. I still wanted my comfort. But I wanted my results more. It wasn’t impossible. Others had done it. I had seen their before and after pictures. They were not doughnut-eaters. OK, perhaps they were occasional doughnut-eaters. They ate a few doughnuts in the 20 percent. But they weren’t in the practice of the daily stroll to the doughnut shop. I decided I wanted my results more than my comfort.
It was on the second day of the Peak program, remembering this formative session with Kanda, that I put a bowl in the sink and cracked an egg. I held the shell closed and let the egg white slide out into the bowl. Then I threw the eggshell and the yolk down the garbage disposal. I repeated this three times then swirled the four egg whites in the bowl and poured them into a hot pan. I put some salt and pepper on them and ate them. They had about a fifth the calories of eggs with yolks. They weren’t bad.
In the 10 weeks ramping up to the Peak program, Kanda would be there to beckon and/or shove me in the direction I wanted to go. I’m a sucker for anyone who sees that behind my self-deprecating cowardice is a big, fat pretentious ego aching to be challenged.