The story of the month for July 2009 comes from Monica Shaw of Smarter Fitter.

It is a pleasure to share with you Monica’s story because it shows undoubtedly and teaches beautifully what a new mind set and motivated attitude can do for us when it comes to health and fitness. Change does not happen over night, it can, but to make it really meaningful and realistic it is a process that should always be fuelled by the acquisition of new knowledge and the willingness to put it into practice.

Monica is from the UK and is a tremendously inspiring example of what personal motivation and knowledge can do when it comes to our health and wellness. I feel that her story is useful for all, but especially younger people who find themselves caught between addictive habits and a decreasing quality of life. She has been chronicling her journey online for others to get inspired as well through her great food and recipe writing and photography.

Please welcome Monica, as she shares her story with us:

Area(s) of My Health and Wellness that Needed Change

“If I start now, in a year I’ll feel great.”

It seems like this has been my mantra since I was old enough to know that I didn’t like how I looked in a bathing suit. I wasn’t a fat kid, but I wasn’t a fit kid either. And even though I knew I wanted to feel better about my body, I didn’t know where to start. So the years ticked by and the habits stayed the same. My love of cheese evolved to epic proportions, or should I say “cheese” because the stuff I was eating was probably more chemical than anything else: orange American “cheese” melted into my buttery grilled cheese sandwiches; the sawdust that Kraft passes as Parmesan; and for a special treat, Velveeta’s signature shells and cheese.

My tastes evolved in college when I discovered pre-shredded cheese. One of my favorite rituals was to come home after a night out and make myself one (or maybe two) quesadillas loaded with colby jack melted between two flour tortillas with a bit of salsa. I swear those quesadillas fended off dozens of hangovers. On the other hand, those same quesadillas, and all the pints of Killians Irish Red that preceded them, led to a whole lot of a weight gain and general feelings of unprettiness. Sure, in the moment I was having fun and enjoying my night cheese, but at the end of the day I felt like a slug. “If I start now, in a year I’ll feel great.” Even with all that schooling (a math major is not the way to learn the practical things in life), I still didn’t know where to begin.

For lack of a clue, I started smoking. And then I started graduate school, where general stress and studying led to more smoking and drinking and other bad habits that occasionally passed as “fun” but were generally self-destructive. At the end of it all, I simply felt tired. My twenties were slipping away from me in a haze of booze, cigarettes, and theorems, and the longer I waited to take control of my life, the harder it would be to start. I wanted to know what it felt like to be fit and healthy. Most importantly, I wanted to not be so damn burnt out all the time. “If I start now, in a year I’ll feel great.” I was sick of looking back on the years knowing that if I’d just started like I said I would, then I would be feeling a helluvalot better than I was at that moment.

Strategies I Implemented & Their Results

A few things happened that got me going. I managed to quit smoking with the support of my amazing boyfriend, Tim, who also managed to quit the cigs after a few-year habit. Shortly thereafter, we started running together. Both of us were pretty clueless about how to go about becoming “runners” so we took it slow, building up our runs one minute at a time. That first 15-minute jog was a bear, but eventually we worked ourselves up to running 30-minutes, then an hour. Soon we were reading books on training and adding interval workouts and hill running to our routine. We signed up for 5k and 10k races, we set goals, and we met them. Then, a year after we started running, I really was feeling great, if only for the fact that I was doing something good for myself.

After our first 10k race, I experienced a bit of a set-back. We had a great training routine that we followed all the way up to the race, but when the race was finished I suddenly reverted back to many of my old ways. I managed to avoid smoking, thank goodness, but my eating habits went to pot and my drinking habits were even worse (there’s a reason why they call Christmastime in London the “silly season”). I ended the winter feeling worse than when I began. That February, visa issues meant I had to leave London and go back to Austin, this time without Tim. It was a sad time in my life, but on the plane ride back, I realized this was an opportunity.

Sometimes we have to fall back to move forward again, and that’s what I did in Austin. My first two points of action were to start running again and to start a food journal. The running was like a gateway drug to all other kinds of active “sports” and I became addicted to the general feeling of being energized through sheer movement. I started cycle commuting and walking everywhere. Meanwhile, the food journal forced me to really have a good think about what I was putting into my body. That American cheese lost its appeal once I realized what it was made of. The more I learned about food and where it came from, the more I wanted to fill my body with high-quality, whole foods, and the more I wanted to cook them myself. I’d been a vegetarian since I was 12, but for the first time, I was a vegetarian who actually really loved vegetables!

How My Changes Benefitted Me

It’s been a few years now since I’ve been on this whole wellness kick, and the best part about it is that I finally feel comfortable in my own skin. I feel confident, capable and strong. Just this morning I was walking in a particularly hilly neighborhood and I recalled how hard those hills would have seemed back when I was a full-on smoker. These days, I enjoy the feeling I get from walking up hills because doing so actually makes me feel better rather than worse. The energy… the oxygen rush… it’s exhilarating, and it makes me want to take on bigger hills and greater challenges.

And then there’s food. Learning to cook has amplified my love of food immensely. And learning to cook with REAL food has made me enjoy what I eat more than ever before. I now see that food needs to be good to THINK as well as good to EAT. And knowing exactly what goes into my meals makes their enjoyment that much more pleasurable. I don’t feel like I’ve had to give up anything. I still eat fat and carbs, only in smaller portions and with high-quality ingredients. I also eat piles and stacks of fruit and vegetables. Again, knowing how to make veggies taste good makes all the difference.

Next Steps on My Health and Wellness Journey

The thing about health and fitness is that it’s a never-ending process of discovery. There’s no “goal weight” or “goal time” or “goal distance” out there on the horizon that marks the finish line when I can stop thinking about my health and go back to a life of pasta and cheese. Instead, I have to keep learning and adapting. I’m still getting to grips with food – should all of my food be organic? Should all of my food be locally-sourced? Should I be 100% vegan? Is there really anything wrong with a bit of butter once in a while? How can I make delicious artisan bread in my electric oven? How do I make my own nut milk? These are questions I hope to answer as I continue to read, learn and cook.

When it comes to fitness, there’s always room for improvement. In the immediate future, I want to go on lots of walks. I’m moving to the countryside in two weeks to a farm near the Cotswold Hills. I want to walk at least an hour a day, and do a day-long walk at least once per week. I also want to get stronger through skipping, pushups, pullups and situps. I’d also like to be more flexible and hope to add some more stretching – and maybe yoga – into my routine. But as I said before: one step at a time. I’ll start with the walking, then build up from there.

Wisdom & Inspiration for Others

  1. Learn how to cook real food. And learn how to cook it well. Food is meant to be enjoyed, and it can taste good and be good for you at the same time. The key is cooking with real, whole ingredients. Buy a cookbook like Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Simple Meatless Recipes for Great Food and start reading food blogs like 101 Cookbooks. Search Flickr for photos of your favorite foods. Get inspired!

  2. Look for opportunities to be active in your day-to-day life. You don’t need to drive to the grocery store just because everyone else on your block does. Take a bike or a long walk. It only takes an hour to walk four miles. Bring a friend and make it fun.

  3. Take it slow. If you want to change your life, then make those changes one step at a time. For example, start by taking a 5-minute walk every day for a week. The next week, add on a minute or two, and work up from there. It might be tempting to start a gym routine and a major diet overhaul at the same time, but don’t dive in too deep or you’ll sink before you know it. I know it’s hard, but be patient.

  4. Start a journal. You don’t have to count calories or keep an up-to-the-minute account of every exercise you do, just jot down a few thoughts about the day. And read you’re journal from time to time. It’s inspiring to look back and see how far you’ve come.

  5. Stop feeling guilty. You don’t have to be perfect 100% of the time. You deserve to treat yourself. So don’t attach guilt to anything you do, especially food. Love your life and your choices. Avoid regret. Remember, we’re talking health here, and health is as much mental as it is physical. Stress, guilt and anxiety – not healthy feelings! So try to relax, be patient and enjoy the ride. After all, the journey never ends, so you might as well enjoy it!