If you have ever played Monopoly with me, you know that I can be a *bit* competitive. And, I promise, it’s not about winning. (Ok, except when I’m playing with Curt. Few things give me as much satisfaction as bankrupting him in Monopoly.) Mostly, though, I just really like a good challenge and proving to myself that I can meet it. This probably started back in the second grade when my classmates and I had the opportunity to collect stars for reading books through Pizza Hut’s Book It! Program. I think we had to read ten books to receive a star and get five stars to earn a personal pan pizza. Now I didn’t even really like pizza as a kid, but I loved filling up my Book It! button with stars. When I moved into middle school, the challenge progressed to racking up Accelerated Reader points. But my desire to take on ridiculous challenges peaked when I joined Academic Decathlon in high school. I voluntarily signed up to study ten subjects (in addition to my regular schoolwork) and spend several Saturdays a year taking tests over what I learned. And, of course, all of this was for the opportunity to earn points and medals.
So when Fit4Mom Boise unveiled the Healthy Mama Challenge last fall, I was beyond excited. This would be an opportunity for me to focus on making better choices about exercise, food, and how I spend my time. Plus, I would get points! And maybe even prizes. At the end of the month-long challenge, my team was victorious (shout out to Michelle and Stacy, my fellow Westside Women Warriors), but I actually received a lot more than a TJ Maxx gift card and some fun swag. The challenge helped me to reestablish a sustainable exercise routine, incorporate more fruits and vegetables into my diet, rediscover my love of reading, and prioritize quality time with Curt and the kids. But in the months following the challenge, I gradually replaced carrots with cake donuts and strawberries with Snickers. I also fell back into the habit of zoning out to random Netflix series rather than reading and Facebooking instead of really paying attention to my family.
This year’s Healthy Mama Challenge couldn’t have started at a better time; I was desperately in need of something to help me re-focus on healthy choices. I was a bit hesitant, though. Many of last year’s healthy habits just didn’t stick. What would be different about this year? How could I make sure that I would continue to choose water over Diet Coke even after I wasn’t getting points to do so?
Well, as an educator I am aware of the research that shows how detrimental rewards systems can be. When we give kids pizza or medals or money or toys or even grades for completing a task, studies show that they become focused on the reward and their intrinsic motivation to read, learn, help out at home, or even use the bathroom (in the case of potty training) declines significantly. Sure, the rewards work in the short term, but if we really want to help kids cultivate intrinsic motivation, we need to go beyond rewards to fostering relationships, competence, and autonomy. Perhaps I could use this understanding to help myself not only be successful in the four-week challenge, but to really develop healthy habits. Instead of focusing on earning points (and possibly prizes), I decided to put my energy into areas that–at least according to science–would help me sustain important changes.
Exercise is the one habit that I have been able to maintain since last year’s challenge, and I am convinced it is because of the relationships I have with the people I exercise with. While my children’s sleep–or lack thereof–gets in the way of my 5:30am classes much more often than I’d like, I almost always make it to Stroller Strides several times a week, Body Back Boost once or twice, and circuit training or TRX a few times. I look forward to spending time with my friends, and it’s an added bonus that I get in a good workout while doing so. Running has also become an important part of my life and exercise routine. Occasionally, I enjoy a long run by myself, but I never would have gotten to the point where I am capable of running more than a few miles if it wasn’t for my sister and running partner, Abby. We spent the summer training for a half marathon, and it was wonderful to have time together each week to catch up and chat. I can say without a doubt that I would have never been able to run 13.1 miles if I didn’t do it with a partner.
So how could I harness the power of relationships to help me meet other goals? The first thing I did was to recruit my good friends Shelley and Yanina to do the Healthy Mama Challenge with me. Together we became Team Just Say Yes. (J for Jess, S for Shelley, and Y for Yanina — Clever, right?) I have already learned so much from these two amazing women, and I knew that I would gain even more by experiencing the challenge with them. And I did! We attended classes together, shared recipes, discussed struggles, and just had a lot of fun. Every time we met up, it seemed like Shelley was constantly sipping from her water bottle and talking about fun exercise classes she attended. And Yanina would bring a vegetable soup for us to take home or make us kale and fruit smoothies. I think our time together was so motivating to me because we explored positive things we could do — how we could just say yes to healthy choices. It’s so easy to fixate on what we think we shouldn’t do, but my friends kept our energy focused on adding good. Additionally, there was an entire week of the challenge dedicated to sharing the healthy choices we were making. All of the teams were encouraged to post pictures of exercising, nutritious meals, and doing things that enriched our minds, bodies, or spirits. So for a week, Facebook and Instagram were flooded with motivating pictures. (Search #hmcboise to check them out!) Peer pressure is real, and I hope to continue to feel “pressured” to make healthy choices. (Except for when we go to Bodovino. Then I am happy to be pressured into trying all the wine.)
I think that another reason that I have been able to maintain my exercise habit is because I am aware of how much stronger and faster I am becoming. I have also noticed that my endurance has grown significantly. The other day I did about 75 burpees in an exercise class, and I actually felt good afterwards. A year ago I would have been sprawled out on the floor, possibly drowning in my own sweat. It is an incredible feeling to watch my body transform and know that I can keep getting stronger. I’m not sure whether I will ever choose to run a marathon, but I have no doubt that I could train for it and be successful.
Again, my question was how to develop this sense of competence in other areas of my life. Under the “enrich your mind” category of the challenge, we could earn points for spending time doing a hobby. I decided to focus on writing because it is an activity I love, but my fear of failure often gets in the way. And then I just don’t write. It’s immobilizing. But if I could identify growth in my writing, I knew I would be motivated to keep at it. So I committed to writing for at least thirty minutes a day and being ok with what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts.” A perfectionist by nature, this was no easy task for me. During the challenge, I wrote the beginnings of two books for National Novel Writing Month. Both are terrible, but I figured out what I don’t want to write about and I got quite a bit faster. Progress! I also published two blog posts and received some productive feedback. Enough that I am motivated to continue blogging and have a notebook full of ideas I am anxious to explore. Frequent practice, a dynamic mindset, and helpful feedback were the keys to me feeling competent. I should have recognized this truth many years ago because these were the three main components of the language arts classes I taught my middle and high school students. Why didn’t I listen to my own advice sooner?
As a teacher, I quickly learned that I couldn’t make anyone learn anything, but I could empower my students to pursue their interests, develop their skills, forge relationships and build community. This is also true for adults in less formal learning environments. If you’ve ever attended a group fitness class, you have most likely seen the limits of instructors’ power. Despite enthusiastic encouragements to “keep going!” or “you got this, ladies!” or “twenty more seconds — don’t stop!” there is almost always at least one person who is clearly not putting forth much effort. But when participants have options available to them, it is much less likely that they will opt out. For example, Rachel led a Boost class several weeks ago that featured a “Choose Your Own Adventure” map. We got to decide whether to begin with squats, sit ups, or renegade rows. Depending on which we chose, we were led to a new set of choices. The workout progressed in this way. And I was able to avoid doing ball slams!
There are many other ways that fitness instructors can promote autonomy. By simply having a variety of weights for clients to choose from to sharing knowledge about alternative exercises that work similar muscle groups, instructors support their clients in making choices that will help them get the workouts they need. I’ve been really lucky to attend classes led by awesome instructors who have really helped me develop autonomy. It’s been such a difference from several years ago when my exercise routine mainly consisted of occasionally struggling to follow along with some workout video.
Having choices while I exercise has been so helpful, so I decided that for the Healthy Mama Challenge I would focus on helping myself become more autonomous with nutrition. If you’ve ever gone on a prescriptive diet, you know that it doesn’t work. In fact, the vast majority of people who attempt diets actually end up gaining weight. But what if I put my energy toward creating options? It seems like it should be easy to begin each day with a fruit and veggie-packed smoothie, but I just can’t do it. I’ve tried and it lasts about three days. I need to be able to have a hearty bowl of overnight oats one morning and a breakfast bake the next. So for the challenge, I did try to eat two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables each day to get those points, but I also experimented with different ways to meet that guideline. Last year I had started almost every day with a spinach muffin. Whereas it was super nutritious and a definite improvement from my typical bowl of Peanut Butter Captain Crunch, I just couldn’t go on eating spinach muffins indefinitely. So during this challenge, I tried different smoothie recipes, experimented with several kinds of overnight oats, and baked breads that featured various vegetables. I definitely relied heavily on a few go-tos like steamed broccoli and apples with peanut butter, but I did find several new dishes that will become a part of my repertoire.
I don’t think I earned any more points than I did last year, but I am confident that I have taken important steps toward making sustainable changes in my life. However, regardless of the relationships, growing competence, and autonomy that I experience, I know that I will not continue to make healthy choices without a clear and compelling purpose. The truth is that putting in the hard work to be healthy just isn’t worth it for most people. It wasn’t for me. I spent much of my twenties eating Hot Pockets, drinking Diet Coke, and working 60 hour weeks. I was willing to work very hard for my students because I saw its immediate value. Honestly, I didn’t feel like I mattered enough to put much effort into myself. But then I became a mom. I need to be healthy for my kids. Not only do I want to have the energy for our daily adventures, but I also feel a responsibility to be a good example and support them in developing their own healthy habits.
Tomorrow we will get together for brunch to celebrate the progress we all made. The team with the most points will be announced, and my competitive side can’t help but hope that the winner is Team Just Say Yes. Whether we win or not, though, I definitely learned a lot about what it takes for me to change my habits. I will keep just saying yes to working toward goals with friends, putting in the practice necessary to see growth, identifying a variety of good options, and focusing on my why. There are many other areas I want to improve, so I am encouraged to finally have a clear heuristic for personal growth.