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Penny began her gym journey for the first time ever at 72. This is how it's going.

Late last year Medium reader Penny Nelson decided to take her life in hand. Without the loud fanfare that so many people love to announce a Big Life Change, she quietly hired a trainer and started going to the gym.

Mind you, Penny is no stranger to work. She has a farm, animals to feed and care for, and a busy family. She's also a retired geologist, and a spinner, so she sits a lot. Too much, it seems,like most of us, including myself. And like so many of us she's got a very bad sugar Jones.

She wrote me after she'd been working out for a while and finally let me in on the fact that she had indeed been going to the gym, and by god loved it. While she professed to being nearly as overweight as I was when I began my weight loss journey 35 years ago (85 lbs) she also said that her trainer made it clear that weight loss happens in the kitchen. Strength happens in the gym.

Periodically I've seen Penny comment on various aspects of her journey. Yesterday she did it again, and this time I'm sharing it, because as with all things brand new, the gloss nearly always and inevitably wears off. At some point, the brain's love of that novelty becomes a habit, or we get bored, or in some way we begin to see our new habits as annoyances, or we just want to change things up. I love how Penny is managing her journey.

Since we are still in the first week of January, this is the time of year when so many folks are now doing what Penny did some months ago. That cohort, particularly if they committed, as so many do, to taking better care of their bodies, may well have thrown themselves into a gym or an activity or some insane diet which will often flame out in a few months. So very few of us actually inculcate those new ways of being into our beings for life. Therein lies the problem. Penny's taking this in stride.

Here's what Penny wrote:

I am a beginner at the training process since I started only last fall at the age of 72. There is a learning curve to the process, to the machines at the gym and to how hard and often I push myself. I started with my trainer twice a week but soon added a third visit to the gym on my own. Now I'm at 5 months and feeling that I need more of something. More days in the gym, perhaps or more walking/swimming on my non-gym days or maybe just longer sessions at the gym. Last week I had to miss one of my gym days so decided to make it up this week. Turns out I have loved going to the gym four days this week. I'm not sure what I will settle on as the increase going forward but I love more days at the gym.

I started working out before I tackled the serious work of changing my diet. I have always been addicted to sugar so I knew that would be the hardest part. It's now been almost two weeks without sugar. I've also changed other parts of my diet but the sugar continues to be the hardest thing. Last night was the first night where I was pacing around the house hunting for sugar. I've cleaned out much of what would be triggers for me - all the leftovers from Christmas including the cookies, coffee cakes and breads are gone along with the pies and other goodies have been expunged from my home. I settled on a red pepper and the last of the home made hummus as my "desert"(sic). Good job, me! (author bolded)

What I so love about this most recent comment is that she is solving the problem of the body's boredom, and the challenge to an intelligent and lively mind as with the brain's love of easy habit. The body does this too, taking the path of least resistance, which is why the body, mind and spirit love variety. And why changing things up has a lovely way of keeping us engaged for life.

When I changed my diet thirty-five years ago, it took me a year to drop the 85 lbs. As a serious donut lover, I continued to battle my eating disorders for many more years before I was finally able to curb that problem. So in the spirit of full disclosure, I didn't truly get that handled until eleven years ago. What I actually ate was healthy, but I ruined my teeth and my jawbone by chewing sweets up and spitting them out. I didn't swallow but the sugar did untold damage anyway. If that doesn't underscore just how dangerous sugar is, I'm not sure what will.

My answer to this was to shift to more fruit. My favorites are the tropicals, mangoes and pineapple. However, all fruits are now my sweets, which a particular emphasis on the fiber-filled berries which are so colorful and full of goodness. My snack of choice is a big fat cold Honey Crisp apple or banana.

However as many of us discover, the sugar detox is real:

Sugar Detox: Symptoms, Side Effects, and Tips for a Low Sugar Diet
When giving up sugar, which some people refer to as a sugar detox, people may notice side effects. This article looks at the bodily effects of doing so and shares tips for a low sugar diet.

From the article:

Mental symptoms

Cutting added sugar from your diet may lead to a number of emotional and mental symptoms, including:

  • Depressed mood. Some people may feel down when they cut added sugar from their diet. This is partly due to a decrease in dopamine release.
  • Anxiety. Feelings of anxiousness may be accompanied by nervousness, restlessness, and irritability. You may feel like you have less patience than usual and are on edge.
  • Changes in sleep patterns. Some people experience changes in their sleep when detoxing from sugar. You might find it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep through the night.
  • Cognitive issues. You may find it difficult to concentrate when you quit sugar. This can cause you to forget things and make it hard to focus on tasks, such as work or school.
  • Cravings. Along with craving sugar, you may find yourself craving other foods, such as carbs like bread, pasta, and potato chips.

She's feeling those. I did too. We all do, most likely, and too many of us return to the poisons that can cause so much havoc just to stop the symptoms. They will abate, but the damage to our bodies won't.

That's why knowing what to expect and planning for it is so essential.

As Penny did above, I also have hummus around, along with satisfyingly crunchy celery and bright, sweet red peppers. It's remarkable to me that when we wean ourselves off the intense sweetness of ultraprocessed foods, the natural sweetness of Nature's great bounty suddenly becomes apparent.

One bodybuilder friend of mine told me that she did an extended fast. When she ate a banana afterwards she was shocked at how sweet the fruit was. That for me is a reminder of how Big Food has trained our taste buds completely out of whack. What Nature gave us really is quite enough.

Assorted berries at a market in Prague
Photo by Timo Volz / Unsplash


Penny did precisely the right thing to protect both her progress and her progress.

She removed the temptation.

I have done the same thing. It tends to work pretty well.

Better, make sure that for those nights you and I roam the grounds in search of the errant leftover cookie, that there is something that can satisfy the craving but without damaging ourselves.

Last night, just like Penny (this is why I love her comments), I was in a sugar mood. I either grab fruit, make green tea with honey or eat raisins, which are very sweet and caloric. However, given the options, a piece of cake, a cookie or a handful of raisins, the raisins win hands-down.

I have vacuum-sealed clear storage containers full of all kinds of nuts from macadamias to pecans to walnuts to seeds. I've tried to find those with less salt. The crunch of a cashew mixed with a few raisins is lovely. Those are high-calorie snacks, natch, so a small handful goes a long way. However, nuts and seeds are incredibly good for us, and all too often the Christmas leftovers aren't.

Even better they are full of fats and fiber, and a small handful goes a very long way to quell the hunger.

The point here is that for us to succeed over time we have to arm not only ourselves with the commitment, but to set the house up, as well as our cars, purses, backpacks and everything else, with the kinds of foods and snacks that won't torpedo our progress. We also have to mind our minds, in that the body loves the easy way, loves to cheat, and will choose easy most of the time.

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The body will fool us by signalling "tired," and "I want a nap," when in truth it really wants hard work like a good brisk walk or a few minutes slinging weights around. As soon as that blood gets going so does the brain.

For my part, I am gifted- or burdened, as the case may be- with a body that takes bloody well thirty minutes just to warm up. So for thirty minutes my brain is barraging me with all the excuses in the world to go back to whatever I was doing. It doesn't matter how old I get, I still conveniently forget that warm up is half an hour, then I shift into gear.

That is a fine lesson not only for me but for so many of the rest of us, who listen to the body's complaints (and there are plenty) and decide that "it's too hard." Discomfort is feedback. If it's real pain, that's possibly an injury. Discomfort from effort, however, is different. The longer we've been away from regular exercise, the more coaxing we may have to do.

However again, to Penny's comment above, HER body loves that extra day. That is what happens when we acclimate our athletic selves- and we were all designed to be athletes in our own ways- to more work. We have to get over the hump. Once we are, then the body in its infinite wisdom asks for more exercise, and better fuel to make sure that exercise is supported.

Those of us who are better-suited for distance work and long sessions, that ramp up to warm up is part of the challenge. The body loves the work, I guarantee it. I used to train with an endurance cyclist thirty years my junior. The two of us spent the first half hour spitting, cursing, complaining and laughing at ourselves until we shifted into the next gear.

While you may find this genuinely annoying, the way I see it, it's like taking a daily trip into the realm of your own mind/body connection. We never know what we're going to find.

Finding our way to health is a lifelong journey made up of daily journeys, minute- to-minute and second-to-second decisions about how we are going to treat ourselves. Far too many of us choose the easy route and laze in front of our screens with a vast bowl of goodies to keep us company.

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Reversing this is possible. I did it. Penny is doing it. Many more folks have done it. However, as Penny will discover and as I have lived it these past 35 years, sustaining our weight loss and healthy habits is lot harder than taking that wonderful "AFTER" photo and sending it out to our adoring fans.

My response to those who do that, as long as they are young enough, is to say,  "Talk to us in thirty years." The proof is in the sustainability of our results.

Penny is finding out how important it is to change things up. Shift things around. Challenge her body and her brain, and retrain the reward centers to salivate more about a bowl of fresh berries than a dozen donuts.

Given our lifelong training to eat crap by Big Food, this is with us for the rest of our lives. Perhaps the biggest challenge is to wean ourselves off the sugar and the ultra-processed food.

This your life we're discussing here. Not some walk in the park. It's your ability to walk in the first place.

Penny and you and I will all experience setbacks. What is of the utmost importance, and I have had plenty of practice, is to know those days are coming, plan for them at some level, and allow yourself permission to have an off day.

Mother Nature engineered her fruits (and yes, we just hadda engineer that too) to be full of delicious fiber, natural fructose and to be so filling, that when we grab the apple instead of the bag of popcorn, we can indeed feel just plain righteous.

The body feels that way too. I have never overeaten apples, and felt awful later. I have done that with flavored popcorn. It pays to pay attention. And that is the whole point.

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It doesn't matter  when you begin. Penny began at 72. Her journey is everyone's journey, as so many of us have taken a long road away from vibrant health. Hers is heading back there. She isn't concerned with looking like a 24 yo fitness trainer. Neither am I.

We want options.

At this age, at any age, perhaps the finest thing we can do is decouple ourselves from unfair expectations, enter the journey to better health with an open mind, a curious heart and a loving commitment to the body that will take us the rest of the way home.

That is a fine gift to ourselves indeed. The time to start is now. For the rest of your life.