Working Out Isn’t An Option For Me

Working out is not an option for me. I don’t mean that in douchey “I can’t lose my gains” way because exercising to achieve physical strength and better fitness is only about 20% of the reason why I drag myself to the gym 5–6 times a week. I exercise for sanity.

Exercise, nutrition, and getting enough “down time” is my anti-drug i.e., the key to me living a happy, healthy, and medication-free life. I believe medication is a wonderful (and in some cases, extremely important) tool to help people live their best lives. It did not do that for me. Over the course of about eight years I was put on ten different medications and various combinations. They made me:

  • Depressed
  • Anxious
  • Feel like things were constantly vibrating (super annoying)
  • Sleep-deprived
  • Unable to sleep
  • Lethargic
  • Overstimulated
  • Never hungry
  • Constantly hungry
  • Numb

The last one was the final reason I decided to go off meds. Even though the meds helped with the dramatic mood swings and intensely negative feelings, they began to rob me of any feelings. I wasn’t depressed or anxious, but I also wasn’t happy or even aware of what was going on most of the time. It felt like I was merely existing rather than living, and I was not about that life.

I told the doctor I was seeing while I was away a school (who I hated) that I wanted to go off meds and try alternative ways to treat my bipolar disorder. She said that was impossible and I would need to be on meds for the rest of my life. After that I never saw her again. I told my parents I was going off my meds, which promptly caused them to panic and call my doctor at home to make sure I wasn’t about to lose it. She said that people who suffer from mental illness, depending on the severity, can live without medication as long as they find alternatives. Exercise and nutrition were the top choices. I was in.

It’s been about six years since I went ‘on the wagon’ and while it’s not always an easy choice, for me it was absolutely worth it. Popping five pills in the morning was easy, getting up in the morning and going to the gym is not. However, I’ve built working out into my routine and found something that really works for me (after much trial and error).

Taking care of my mental wellbeing is my number one priority, because if I don’t I can’t do anything else. I realized, very early on, that no one was going to do it for me so I had to learn how to really take care of myself. Certain things that seem simple and natural are actually a lot harder when you’re battling a mental illness. In the beginning, I had to remind myself to take showers regularly. I know that’s gross, but when my mood shifted to depression I would go an unpleasant amount of time without a shower. I had to learn how to eat properly so I could give my body and mind the nutrients I need to be healthy. I quit smoking and started running, which I promptly realized was not a sustainable exercise for me (too boring). I’ve done yoga, pilates, boot camp, weight training, spin, barre, team sports, and pretty much any other class or activity I could find. It took me several years to finally find the right combination for me (because we’re all different); CrossFit and spin.

CrossFit helps me build muscle (which help me deal with a permanent back injury) while also allowing me to feel like I’m part of something. I used to alienate myself when I feel depressed, manic, or anxious, which only made me feel more depressed, manic, or anxious. The community of CrossFit makes me feel included, and gets me to the gym in the morning because I know if I skip class I’m going to hear it from my coach.

Spin just makes me feel good. Although I like being part of a community and being around people most of the time, there’s another part of me like relishes solitude. Spin is a great way to workout in a group while still being alone. I can show up to class and not say a word to anyone (without looking like an asshole) if I’m not feeling up to talking to people. It’s great.

Exercise also nutrition go hand in hand since I need to make sure I’m eating enough quality foods, which has helped tremendously with the body issues and unhealthy relationship with food I’m still dealing with. I also don’t feel as bad if I indulge in one (or four) cookies after spin class or power lifting at CrossFit. I can’t tell you how much this has improved my overall wellbeing.

Regardless of your mental health status or situation, I strongly encourage you to clean up your diet and hit the gym. I cannot say this enough — eating well and working out will change your life. I know it’s hard to find the time or spend the money, but it’s become something that I don’t even give a second thought about. If I were physically sick, I would do whatever it took to make myself better and I hope you would do. Mental health is just as important than physical health, so do your body and mind a favor and take care of them simultaneously.

Challenge Completed! Whole30 FAQ

I did it!  I went 30 days without gluten, sugar, dairy, soy, or booze.  I’m really excited that I was able to do something that sounded near impossible 30 days ago.  While the whole experience was filled with ups and downs, it was overall really great and I’m definitely glad I did it.

A lot of people have been asking me questions about it, so I thought I would do a little FAQ.  Feel free to post any other questions or comments you have.

Do you feel better?

Overall –  yes.  My clothes fit better, my energy is generally higher (minus the dips from stress), and my performance at the gym has been tremendously better.  I feel and look leaner, which was a big part of why I wanted to do a Whole30.  My cravings also went away – finally!!  Even though it’s over, I still packed a Whole30 breakfast and lunch, and will be making a Whole30 dinner.  I feel good eating these foods and they also sound good to me.  Pizza and cake doesn’t sound very appealing…at least not today.

Although I’m very pleased with the physical benefits, the mental health benefits were not as profound as I had hoped.  I did have a solid week where I felt like nothing could bring me down, but I also had those weeks pre-Whole30.  Unfortunately, eating better did not have as strong an impact on my mental health as I had hoped, but it certainly didn’t hinder it in any way.  However, because I was eating better and feeling better about my body, I was able to perform better in the gym which definitely helped my stress levels.  I am still a strong believer in the correlation between healthy living and mental health.

Did you lose weight?

A little.  I lost 6lbs, but I wasn’t really trying to lose weight.  This will make me sound like a dick, but I also didn’t need to lose weight.  Weight loss is not the goal of doing a Whole30, it’s just an added bonus.  I lost 6.5 inches which is what I’m most psyched about, especially the 2 whole inches I lost from my waist.  Those two inches were definitely wine, cheese, and candy.

What was the hardest part?

Going out.  If I was going to go to a restaurant I had to research the menu beforehand and ask the server annoying questions, like what the food was cooked in or if I could substitute half the meal.  Also, being at a bar sober is not fun.  I know some people don’t mind it, but it’s not for me.  My company’s biggest party of the year fell on a Thursday during the Whole30.  I was not happy about that.  Although I had a great time, it was really hard to walk past the whiskey tasting we set up for the after-party back at our office.  The food at the party also looked amazing and walking past the donut table (yup, a whole table of just donuts) made me die a little inside.

What was the best part?

Performing better at the gym.  I hit PRs (Personal Records) on multiple lifts and workouts while doing the Whole30.  We did a WOD (Workout Of the Day) at the beginning of the Whole30 and repeated it at the end – 10 reps, 8 reps, 6 reps, 4 reps, and 2 reps of thrusters (with a weighted barbell) and burpees over the bar.  It was unpleasant the first time and it was just an unpleasant the second time, except for one new factor – I did the workout the second time almost a full minute faster.  That was an amazing feeling.  I feel stronger and that is way more important to me than I number on a scale.

Another thing I really loved about doing this was learning so many new recipes.  My boyfriend and I made something new about 4 times a week and almost every recipe was worth repeating.  We’ll definitely build some Whole30 recipes into our dinner repertoire.  

Are you going to have an epic cheat day?

Nope.  After not eating gluten, dairy, or sugar for 30 days, I’m slightly horrified about what will happen if I aggressively reintroduce them to my body.  There’s a Whole30 reintroduction plan that I’m going to stick to.  The only twist I’m going to put on it is I’m going to allow myself to have booze in moderation.  Some candy might be ok here and there as well.

Would you do it again?

Absolutely!  Although I’m very dedicated to living a mostly paleo life going forward, I know there will be times where I’ll fall off the wagon.  If that starts to happen too often then I know I can do another Whole30 to get back on track.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to do one?

PLAN AHEAD.  I cannot emphasize that enough.  Meal plan, meal prep, and always have something on hand just in case (I keep an Rx Bar in my purse).  I brought my breakfast and lunch to work every day because it was too hard to have to try and find something – and I work in Manhattan.

A few other results I want to share:

  • One of my pairs of jeans is now too big for me to wear, and the other pair that barely fit before now fit quite comfortably.
  • I haven’t had a headache or migraine (which I get fairly often, especially when stressed) since I started the Whole30.
  • I’ve had enough energy to go to the gym after work – something I haven’t had the energy do since I started my job about 8 months ago.
  • I got my front squat weight into the triple digits and can deadlift more than my bodyweight.
  • I haven’t had heartburn, acid reflux, or the feeling of being over-stuffed in 30 days.
  • I have not had a panic attack in 30 days!!!
  • My back has not spasmed in 30 days (I have chronic back pain from a high school injury).
  • My recovery time from working out skyrocketed.
  • I no longer feel like a slave to sugar.  I finally slayed the sugar-addiction beast!

If you’re considering doing a Whole30, I strongly encourage you to do it.  Don’t say you’ll try it, do it and commit to it.  It’s really not that hard and you will feel so much better, I promise!

Building the Wall: Healthy Living & Mental Health

Today sucks.  Nothing particularly frustrating, bad, or tragic happened, it’s just one of those days where I feel pretty bad.  I feel incompetent, depressed, and alone.  Nothing specifically brought on these feelings, which is the most frustrating part.  On days like today I curse having an open office.  I feel exposed and vulnerable.  I feel like people can see that I’m not happy or they’re checking to make sure I’m working on some stupid document that no one will ever read.  I’m sure neither are true, but that’s how it feels.

I think the sad truth is that no matter what I eat or do, I will always have these feelings.  Everyone feels down from time to time and I honor that.  I felt so happy and confident last week that I unrealistically thought it would last forever.  My energy dipped and I haven’t been sleeping well again, but that’s not because of the Whole30.  I feel fairly certain that my energy and sleep would be a lot worse without the Whole30 right now because there’s a deeper, darker culprit than sugar withdrawal (which is thankfully over); stress.

I am stressed out of my mind at work.  I bit off way more than I can chew and it looks like I won’t be getting the help (i.e., a junior writer) for much longer than I had anticipated.  Stress is so incredibly powerful, it amazes me how it quickly knocks down all the barriers I put up to protect myself.  I looked at eating well, exercise, and sleep as a kind of ‘Berlin Wall’ that protects what I think of as my ‘self’. This ‘self’ is made up of my feelings, emotions, and thoughts; it’s essentially who I am.  ‘Self’ gets beat up a lot by internal factors (like changes in my brain chemistry and hormones) and external factors, so I try to keep it safe from the inside out.  Eating good foods actually has a tremendous effect on how I feel physically and mentally; that I can say with full confidence and back it up with scientific evidence.  Exercise, sleep, being around people I love, reading good books, writing, and drawing are all things that make ‘self’ beam.  Doing these things, especially eating well, exercise, and sleep build a protective wall around ‘self’.  

I need this wall because my particular ‘self’ (we all have one), is extremely vulnerable since it has outside forces and inside forces (stupid brain chemistry) attacking it.  Stress tries to break down the wall.  When I feel extremely stressed, it feel like there’s a breach in the wall.  Stress oozes in like tar and attacks ‘self’.  Suddenly things like drawing, exercise, and even being around loved ones sound horrible.  Stress poisons the ‘self’.

But order can be restored.  I’ve realized that bingeing on candy or booze to kill the stress actually kills the ‘self’.  Eating an apple instead of a candy bar certainly doesn’t give the same relief…at least not immediately.  But in the long term, skipping the sugar and having a cup of green tea or going for a quick walk becomes and even better relief.  Sugar and alcohol screw up the positive thoughts that can rejuvenate the ‘self’.  Instead of thinking, “Stress is right, I can’t do all of these projects”, the ‘self’ can think, “F*ck off stress – I can do these things, not just all at once. I’ll find another way.”

Making healthy decisions is not bullsh*t; that’s the point of this post.  Everyone has a ‘self’ that needs a wall to protect is from stress, trauma, and other unpleasant emotions and experiences.  Some people try to build this wall with alcohol, drugs, sex, and bad foods, but that’s like trying to build a bridge with match sticks; you need a solid base if it’s going to last.

You don’t have to do a Whole30, but look at what you put into your body – do you think it will build a strong wall?  

 

Whole30 Day 1

Today is the first day of the Whole30!  Today’s meal plan consists of:

  • Breakfast: Egg “muffins”
  • Lunch: Salmon Salad
  • Dinner: Beef Stew

I spent the vast majority of yesterday in the kitchen, which is also my living room since I live in the city.  The apartment smelled amazinggggg.  My boyfriend/roommate was doing his meal prep as well so our tiny kitchen saw a lot of action.  We now have a very happy and very full fridge for the week.

I made egg “muffins” for the week as well as salmon and sweet potatoes for salads.  Yes, you can put sweet potatoes on salad and it is delicious!  The “muffins” are a great way to sneak veggies into your breakfast and I must say, I didn’t even notice that I was eating swiss chard this morning.  I was also starving after this morning’s workout, but I’m pretty sure I would have enjoyed them either way.

Our workout this morning was not so much exhausting as it was challenging.  I’m not say that it wasn’t exhausting, everyone collapsed when it was over, but I struggled more with trying not to scream than trying not to pass out.  One of the exercises we do fairly often in CrossFit is called Double Unders.  It’s basically extreme jump roping; you try to get the rope to pass under you twice, rather than once, in one jump.  It usually results in a lot of whip lash.  I’m usually pretty decent at them…except for today.  I had an unpleasant commute (thanks to the terrible parents of New York) so maybe it’s because I already frustrated, but for whatever reason I really struggled today.  After the workout was over I was so tired that I didn’t care anymore, but there was a good chunk of time where I wanted to throw my jump rope and yell i.e., have a temper tantrum.  Fortunately I did not do that, nor did I punch anyone on my way to my office, so I’m going to chalk that up as a little win for today.

One of the things I want to do along side my Whole30 is track what I like to call my “little wins”.  Little wins are time when I feel my emotions spiraling out of control but muster up the strength to keep it together.  Some are easier, like not screaming at a jump rope, while other are much harder, like trying not to have a panic attack on the train (that’s a big win).  I’m hoping that as I nurture my body with good food and exercise, the physical and mental benefits will lead to more little wins.

You can make your own egg “muffins” and salmon salads with the recipes below.  Feel free to post any questions in the comment section. I’ll be posting the beef stew recipe tomorrow so make sure to check it out!

Egg “muffins” (makes 8)

1 Tbs coconut oil (plus more for greasing the pan)

1 onion, chopped

1/2 turkey kielbasa, cut into bite size pieces

2 big handfuls of spinach

4 leaves of swiss chard

8 eggs

Salt & pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease a muffin tin with coconut oil.  Melt the coconut oil and sauté the onion for 2-3 minutes.  Add the spinach, swiss chard, and turkey kielbasa.  Sprinkle with salt & pepper and cook until the veggies have been cooked down and the onions are golden, about 5-8 minutes.

Scoop the mixture into the muffin tins, I filled mine to the top.  Beat the eggs and fill each cup with egg (each cup takes about 1 egg).

Bake for 25-30 minutes.

Salmon Salad

For the salmon:

1lb Wild Alaskan Salmon

1/3 cup EVOO

2 cloves of garlic, diced

1 Tbs fresh lemon juice (or half of a large lemon)

1 tsp dried basil

1 tsp salt

1 tsp pepper

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.  Place the salmon and all ingredients in a plastic bag or tupperware container (make sure the lid fits on tight!).  Shake it up and let marinate for 2-3 hours. If you’re short on time, I’ve made this recipe after only letting it marinate for half an hour and it still tasted great.

In a glass pan, place the salmon in tin foil and pour the remaining marinade over it before sealing.  Bake 35-45 minutes, until easily flaked with a fork.  Voila!  You have salmon for salads for the week OR a tasty dinner!

For the salad:

Arugula or romaine lettuce

Kalamata olives

Sweet potatoes*

Salmon

Fresh lemon juice

Place all ingredients in a bowl (up to you to decide your portions) or Tupperware and squeeze fresh lemon juice (this is your “dressing”).  Mix it up and enjoy!

*For the sweet potatoes – clean and chop a large sweet potato into bite size pieces.  Place in a baking dish and drizzle with EVOO. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and garlic powder.  Bake at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes or until a fork can easily poke through.

The Whole30: Where It All Begins

In 6 days I will begin my first Whole30.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Whole30, it’s a “nutritional program designed to change your life in 30 days“.  It’s a way to hit the ‘reset button’ on your body to help restore a healthy metabolism, heal your digestive track, and balance your immune system as well as put an end to unhealthy cravings.  At least that’s the hope.

I decided to do it because my CrossFit box strongly encourages us to try it out and it seemed like a good way to finally confront my candy addiction.  Although I’m excited to try something new, I fear that this will be quite the challenge because for 30 days you can’t have:

  • Sugar (minus the natural sugar from fruit – fruit is cool)
  • Grains (good-bye bagel Fridays)
  • Legumes (so long peanut butter, my old friend)
  • Dairy (don’t even wanna talk about it…)
  • Booze (by far the hardest to part with)

By this point you must be asking yourself, “Why would any sane person willingly give up cheese AND alcohol? What life is that?!” To which I respond with this – it’s only 30 days.  Will it be difficult?  Absolutely.  I have to completely restructure the way I eat and learn to incorporate vegetables for breakfast (ew).  But I’m not giving up cheese or wine forever because that is not a world I want to live in.  I’m doing this for three reasons:

1) I want to see if I can.

As someone who quit smoking cold turkey, I’d like to believe that I can give up dairy, sugar, and booze with minimal effort.  In reality, I know this will be incredibly difficult.  I use food (and occasionally wine) to comfort myself.  Not to excess, but it’s a still a go-to cheer me up. Bad day?  I’ll be swinging by the wine store on my way home.  Frustrated at work?  My office is full of candy, rice crispy treats, and granola bars (and whiskey).  I also use food and alcohol to celebrate.  After I took the GRE and got a significantly higher score than I anticipated, I went straight to Duane Reade and bought a bag of my favorite jelly beans.  I rewarded myself with candy, like a small child.  These are the habits I want to break.  After the Whole30 I’ll still bring wine to a friend’s house and have my ‘meeting whiskey’ with my boss every other Friday, but I want to stop keeping bottles of wine at home ‘just in case’.  It’s packing on unneeded and unwanted calories, as I suppose the sweets are too.

2) I want to see the physical effects.

I’ve been doing CrossFit for about 3 1/2 months which is the “golden time” for CrossFitters.  Since you’re new to the program, you typically see vast improvement relatively quickly before you hit your peak and have to really earn every single gain.  I want to see if eliminating foods that make you sluggish will help me be better, faster, and stronger.  Although I eat fairly healthy for the most part, I’m curious to see if the elimination of my evening glass(es) of wine and weekend carb binges help my performance.  I could also stand to lose the pounds I added over the holiday season.  Damn my love of carbs and lack of self-control.

3) I want to see the mental effects.

This is the most important one for me (saved the best for the last).  I’ve been using exercise, diet, and various versions of talk therapy (ranging from seeing psychologists to talking to my LCSW mom for three hours) for the past five years to manage, what doctor’s have called, bipolar disorder.  After being on medication for over seven years, I decided to take myself off all meds.  The good part was that I felt better than I ever had on the meds…most of the time.  The bad part was once I stopped taking care of myself (i.e., exercising regularly, sleeping and eating well, managing stress, and drinking in moderation), my symptoms came back almost immediately.  They don’t always come back in full force, but I feel the difference.  I not only pay for a weekend of eating poorly and binge drinking with a hangover and bloating, I cycle between feeling depressed and feeling manic.  Depending on how irresponsible I was, it can take weeks before I feel ‘normal’ again.  Although it’s very difficult to manage these times, I still feel better doing it without meds.  But that’s just me.  Other people who have mental health issues have stated that doing the Whole30 helped their symptoms improve drastically.  I want to know if it will be the same for me.  A few months ago I considered going back on meds because my symptoms (depression, anxiety, and mania) were becoming harder to manage.  I decided not to because I realized that during that time I was not taking care of myself the way I know I need to in order to be med-free.  While my psychiatrist told me that I may need to go on meds again some day, I know it isn’t time.  I want to see if the Whole30 can help change my eating habits and, as a result, help my mental health struggles.

According to the founders of the Whole 30, “More than 95% of participants lose weight and improve their body composition, without counting or restricting calories. Also commonly reported: consistently high energy levels, improved athletic performance, better sleep, improved focus and mental clarity, and a sunnier disposition (learn more here).”  I want all of those things, so I’m willing to try changing the way I eat to get them.

I’ll be posting my day-to-day progress along with recipes and workouts.  I plan to document my triumphs as well as my struggles dealing with candy withdrawal.  If you’ve ever done a Whole 30, are in the midst of one, or plan to do one in the future please leave a comment, I’d love to hear your stories!