By MARY HOOD HART
It’s that time of year again. Newsstands are stacked with the magazines promoting weight loss tricks and exercise strategies. More Americans are overweight than ever before, yet a new year makes us hopeful that, once and for all, we’ll find that elusive self control and lose those lingering pounds. January is that kind of month .. full of promise for future good habits, full of regrets for past indulgences.
But by mid-February, many will have surrendered to failure — once again. Sometimes it seems only people with Richard Simmon’s energy and Oprah Winfrey’s pocketbook can succeed. With a mixture of bitterness and shame, we finish out the year in the same predicament, unhappy with those pounds, but seemingly incapable of shedding them.
I’ve been there. Overweight much of my adult life, I remember well the frustration, the despair. I say I remember those feelings because for almost two years, I’ve maintained a 45-pound weight loss. No one will ever describe me as “thin,” but at 42, I’m in better shape than I was in my 20s.
I tell you this not as a testimonial for a weight loss plan or product. In fact, there are too many plans, products, diets and theories — some dangerous, some useless, most only marginally helpful. Yet when people ask me how I’ve kept from regaining my weight, I am passionate about one subject. It’s the one benefit I can recommend without reservation, and I believe it’s made the biggest difference in improving my health and reducing stress. It’s also free and accessible to almost anyone. Indeed, something most of us do all the time — it’s walking.
Two years ago, I did a small thing that made a big difference. I set the alarm 20 minutes earlier than usual, I made myself get out of bed, threw on sweat clothes and started walking. Gradually, I increased the time and distance. When I started, I was walking less that a mile, three times a week. Now I walk three miles just about every day. I began walking at a comfortable pace, and I’m now walking so briskly most people can’t keep up with me. I started walking alone and have since been joined by a neighbor, Ellen, and our trainer, Louie, my 2-year-old boxer, a dog who entered my life when I needed a coach and companion. If it were up to Louie, we’d run those three miles, so we walk very, very fast to keep him happy.
Since I started walking, interesting benefits have resulted. First of all, I don’t nag my kids to get up and get ready for school the way I used to. I don’t do that anymore, because I’m not at home; I’m walking. It’s amazing how self-reliant they became the day I stopped making sure they did what they were supposed to. When I come home from walking, my 11-year-old son has showered, dressed, packed to go and often made his own breakfast. This never happened before I started walking.
Another benefit? I’ve made friends with my neighbors. Circumstances permitting, two neighbors have joined me on my walk over the years, and those 45 minutes we spend together each morning created friendships I didn’t have time for before. There’s something about stumbling out of bed, splashing water on my face, quickly running a brush through my hair that breaks down all my pretense and defenses and makes forming friendships easy.
Other benefits? I’ve seen deer, rabbits, herons, cardinals, robins, a hawk … all within the confines of my wooded community. I’ve walked through snow flurries and sudden rainstorms and found them invigorating, if not pleasant.
In the two years I’ve been walking, only one bad thing has happened. Last fall, a neighbor’s Labrador followed me. Darting across the road, the dog plowed into me, causing me to wrench my knee. As it turned out, I tore a ligament, and after weeks wearing a brace and therapy, I’m walking again, same distance, same pace. One good thing about the injury was its quirkiness: when asked how I got hurt, I did enjoy saying I was hit by a dog. Tearing the ligament was good in another way, too. It made me appreciated something I’d taken for granted for 40 years: the ability to walk.
Mary Hood Hart lives in Calabash, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and their four children, ages 6 to 14. In addition to The Miscellany, Hart is a columnist for The Mirror, diocesan newspaper of Springfield — Cape Girardeau, Mo.