​​​Miriam E.Tucker

Real Motivation for a Healthy Lifestyle

(Written in 2006)

We’ve all heard there’s a big-time obesity epidemic going on. Two-thirds of all Americans weigh more than they should, mostly because they eat too much of the wrong foods and don’t exercise enough. And, doctors say, they’re putting themselves at risk for all kinds of ills, from heart disease to diabetes to cancer. 

Indeed, in my job as a medical writer, it seems as if I hear about a new obesity-related problem just about every day. But as someone who consistently eats a healthy, low-fat, high-fiber diet and exercises daily, I’m puzzled. No, not about why others don’t do as I do. I mean, duh—Fattening food tastes far better than the gerbil grub I eat, and it sure feels nicer to sit on a comfy couch than to spend hours as I do, pounding the pavement. No, what really perplexes me is this: Why the heck am I such a freak? 

Well ok, I do have diabetes. Eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly make it easier to control the disease. But, in actual fact, all I really need to do to keep my blood sugar levels normal is to adjust my insulin dose up or down based on how many carbs I eat. Health-wise, what I’m accomplishing with the healthy lifestyle is to lower my risk of heart disease, the number one killer of people with diabetes. 

So then that’s my major motivator, right? Um, not exactly. To be honest, I spend far more time thinking about the cosmetic payoff of staying thin. Superficial? Perhaps. Unusual among habitual healthy lifestylers? Hardly. And yet, every overweight person knows that they’ll become thinner if they eat fewer calories and exercise more. So why don’t they do it? But more to the point, why do I? Surely there’s some overriding force that keeps me in line day after day…But what is it? 

A couple months ago I was on my walk, talking on my cell phone with a physician friend about the millions of dollars pharmaceutical companies are now spending to develop drugs to treat obesity and all its medical problems, like high blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar. Though most of these meds work well, they have side effects too…And they’re costing the country a fortune.

 I said to my friend, “You know, if people would just exercise and eat veggies, they wouldn’t need all these pills.” He countered, “Well, Miriam, we can’t all have your willpower.” Perhaps the hot sun that day had melted the barriers to my subconscious, but here’s what I blurted back: “It’s really not about willpower. It’s about feeling smug and superior.” 

Oops. I had never said that out loud before, and now I couldn’t take it back. Thankfully my friend, a Harvard grad, is no stranger to such sentiments. I could hear him smiling over the phone.

 While an inflated ego is not normally considered a desirable character trait, I have now come to believe that one can harness its potent power for a worthwhile cause. Adopting a healthy lifestyle is supposed to make us feel more positively about ourselves, so why not Super-Size that? After all, it’s not as if you’re going around telling people “I’m better than you.” This is your own private endorphin machine, like the mini-fan inside the mascot suit.

 Some of you may be saying, “I can’t feel smug and superior. It’s just not my personality.” Nonsense. This motivational tool is available to everyone—It’s just a matter of believing in yourself more than you believe in anyone else.

Start with some easy targets, like the plump woman piling on the mashed potatoes at the church picnic or the big-gutted guy in your office working on his second jelly doughnut. Now of course we don’t want to be cruel, even inside our own heads. We wish nothing but the best for these two, that they should both see the light and start adopting healthier lifestyles themselves.

 But you and I both know that it would still take our two friends quite a while to catch up to where we are…And that’s a great feeling.

Then there’s your spouse/significant other. If you don’t already believe that you’re better than him or her, here’s your chance. But beware: Sometimes when one partner begins to adopt a healthier lifestyle, the other feels threatened—as well they should. If possible, try to get him/her to join you. As the leader to enlightenment, you’ll still maintain the upper hand. In any case, don’t let your partner sabotage your efforts. You’re above that.

 Once you’ve cultivated your inner arrogance, you’re bound to see results. But if you feel you need a bit more assistance, I recommend the American Diabetes Association’s adorable little booklet entitled Small Steps, Big Rewards. (Available at www.diabetes.org). Not just for diabetics, it lists dozens of great incentives for walking, like “the 300,000 deaths caused yearly by poor diet and inactivity” and “your desire to live long and prosper.” And of course, your desire to stay a step ahead of everyone else. ###