When I was a kid, my mom used to tell me, “Good health is the ultimate wealth.” I agreed with that sentiment. Yet, I received mixed messages as a tween and teenager about health. Adults told me to take care of my body, eat a balanced diet, and get enough exercise. But there was a problem with this sentiment.
My peers—and most of the women in my family—were focused more on appearance than health. Plus, every magazine I picked up in the grocery store featured thin white women on the covers. I wanted to be “healthy,” but the messages I internalized didn’t focus on health. I equated love, belonging, and success with being beautiful and thin.
My obsession with becoming thin started when I was a tween. I came down with the flu and was absent from school for a few weeks. I lost about 15 pounds, along with my energy and strength. When I went back to school, I couldn’t believe what my peers told me. They said, “Oh, Tammy you look so good!”
I remember feeling shocked. I had been ill and still didn't feel 100%, yet everyone thought I looked good. I felt like something was wrong with my body. That’s when I began to equate being thin with social acceptance, and I developed an eating disorder. It took me two decades to realize that my values should not include thinness or body type. It wasn't until I was in my late twenties that I began to love my body—no matter what it looked like. I also shifted my focus toward building good health through physical and emotional strength.
Building emotional and physical strength is extremely important to me, especially in the context of my past history and new diagnosis. In February 2016, I was diagnosed with arthritis and degenerative disc disease in my lower back. Both my doctor and physical therapist told me that I needed to build my strength to regain my health.
Today, I’m going to share the action steps that have enabled me to gain strength over the past eight months. Please remember, the action steps I’m going to share are specific to my body and wellness plan. My plan may or may not be right for your situation. If you’re struggling with a health challenge, consult a licensed healthcare professional to create a wellness plan that’s right for you.
With that caveat, let’s dive into the actions that have helped me the most since February.
1. Moving my body and facing fears
Earlier this year, I joined the Rogue Valley Masters Swim Team. Getting up early and swimming with the team is one of the best choices I made in 2016 because, in conjunction with physical therapy, swimming helped me build strength and regain my confidence. In addition, I became curious about CrossFit because some of my friends and family members are CrossFitters. Their adventures made me wonder if I could lift weights. However, I was really scared to try CrossFit because of my back issues.
After telling my cousin Aubrey about my fears, I realized that I needed to give CrossFit a try. Earlier this year, she was in a horrible cycling accident, and I’ve been inspired by the progress she’s made since her time in the hospital. Aubrey is living at home with her folks, working hard in physical therapy and going to CrossFit!
Aubrey encouraged me to call the local CrossFit gym and have a conversation with the coaches. She told me to see if the gym would be a good fit for me and my health issues before I dismissed the idea. Aubrey also explained that good CrossFit coaches modify exercises based on ability and their aim isn’t to injure people.
After I had talked to Aubrey, I called the CrossFit gym in Yreka and spoke with Mykala—a coach and the gym’s co-owner. She was so helpful and kind! Hearing her talk about safety, form, and the broad range of individuals she’s worked with made me feel comfortable and safe. So, on September 16, 2016, I did my first CrossFit workout. The workout kicked my ass, and I was incredibly sore, but my back felt great.
Since mid-September, I’ve been attending CrossFit classes. The support and encouragement I’ve received have been invaluable. The classes are small, which is perfect for me. There is so much to learn, and I feel comfortable asking questions. Also, I appreciate how focused the coaches are on form and safety. Sure there is a risk that I’ll hurt myself, but that’s true for any kind of activity. As long as I listen to my body and communicate my limits, I know I’ll be okay.
2. Tracking food via MyFitnessPal
After a few weeks of doing CrossFit, I told Mykala that I was feeling fatigued. She thought it was likely that I wasn’t eating enough and suggested that I start tracking my calories and nutrients in MyFitnessPal. Initially, I was hesitant to try this because I didn't want to obsess over calories or what I'm eating. However, the app has been really helpful, and Mykala’s hunch was correct. I was fatigued because I wasn’t eating enough food. Eating more food—and tracking nutrients like protein—boosted my energy levels. I feel much stronger!
I won't always track what I eat. However, I’m going to track my food and nutrients for three to four months to get a better sense of how certain foods affect my energy levels and moods. My aim is to eat real food and stay away from processed, sugar-laden meals. Overall, the app helped me realize that I’m a healthy eater and that my focus on building strength over thinness is a good thing.
3. Not drinking alcohol
In mid-July, I read Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol by Ann Dowsett Johnston. The book was informative and honest, and I saw myself reflected in Johnston’s story. The book caused me to examine my relationship with alcohol and ask myself hard questions like, “Do I drink too heavily?” and “Am I an alcoholic?”
I talked with my counselor about my concerns surrounding alcohol. I’m not an alcoholic. However, in the past I’ve used alcohol—and sugary treats—to cope with life challenges. Those kinds of behaviors don’t contribute to good health, and, at this point, I don’t have a desire to drink because it doesn’t make me feel good.
For example, if I have one glass of wine or beer with dinner, I sleep poorly and wake up with a headache. I enjoy the taste of wine and beer, but the adverse side effects that I’ve experienced over the last year aren’t worth having a drink. I’d rather sleep soundly and wake up feeling energized. I’m not saying that I’m swearing off alcohol forever. But for now, I’m going to listen to my body and stay away from booze.
4. Earning less money
In a recent Instagram post, Amy Purdy wisely said, “You have to listen to your body. When it is telling you to stop … Stop.”
I had grand plans for the first three months of 2016; plans that didn’t happen because I came down with the flu, and then experienced disabling back pain. Rather than teaching more online classes, writing additional blog posts, and trying to hit my income goal for the year, I decided to stop pushing so hard. Instead, I let go of my plans and made my health the top priority.
I’m incredibly grateful because Logan—my husband and best friend—agreed with me. I was the primary financial support while Logan was in grad school, and this year he’s supported me. I’m incredibly grateful for his financial support. I’m also thankful for our emergency savings account because we used some of those funds to pay for my physical therapy bills.
Learning to stop, listen to my body, and remind myself that my self-worth isn’t tied to my net worth is important. It’s easy for me to think that I can control everything—including my health and business plans—but you never know what’s around the corner. I’m not going to make much money this year, and that’s okay. I’m able to walk without pain, swim, lift weights, and that is an incredible gift. I’m hopeful that my business will do well as I move into the New Year.
5. Asking for help
Asking for help and seeking out the advice of licensed healthcare professionals—like my doctor, massage therapist, and counselor—changed the course of my year. Based on their expertise, I developed a wellness plan that works for my body and mind. I’m grateful that I can afford to visit the doctor and a massage therapist and engage in activities like swimming and CrossFit. Having access to these resources is a privilege I try not to take for granted.
Important notes: I am not a medical professional, and this article is based on my personal experiences. If you have back issues, an eating disorder, or physical or emotional ailments, please consult a doctor or therapist. A licensed professional can help you create a wellness plan based on your specific health challenges, needs, and desires.
Other helpful resources include: