Fitness at 40+
Woo-Woo Alert: It’s Actually All about Happiness
It's the most important part of weight loss. Starting right now. At exactly the weight you’re at.
If you are a fellow child of the ’70s or ’80s, you might remember a Sesame Street book called The Monster at the End of This Book. The story revolves around Grover, who is freaking out because he heard there is a monster at the end of the book. As you turn the pages with your grubby toddler fingers, he gets more and more frantic, with illustrations of him trying to nail the pages together to avoid getting to the end and facing the monster. And, of course, when you get to the end, the monster is him. Cute, adorable, lovable Grover.
It’s some deep shit if you think about it.
This may not be what you want to hear, but I’m just gonna go ahead and say that this book ends the same way. Your weight-loss journey ends the same way. Even when you achieve the body of your dreams, there you are. The monster is you. If you have a lack of confidence now, that same lack of confidence will creep in, even at your goal weight. After the initial rush is over, your brain will find its default settings, and no matter how hot you look in those jeans, you are going to feel pretty much the same way you do now.
And this is where you say, “What? That’s bullshit! If I’ve done all the work to get down to my goal weight, I want to feel like Scarlett Johansson!”
Exactly — you want to feel like Scarlett Johansson. You don’t actually want to lose weight. Let’s get clear about that. Do you really care about your gravitational pull on the earth? Nah, fuck the earth — you just want to be buff. Why do you want to be buff? Because you want the feeling you think you will have when you are buff. Sexy. Confident. Free. Proud. Happy.
It’s the feeling that we really want — not the actual weight loss.
This is one of the most misunderstood things about goals: we usually lose sight of what we truly want. We think we want that sweet job or a million bucks or for George Clooney to give us a massage. But no, we want the feelings we think will ensue — in essence, happiness.
Don’t believe me? Think about it. Take any goal you have and ask yourself why enough times, and you will always get to happiness.
Example: I want to win the lottery.
Why? So I can buy a geothermal biodome and live in the country.
Why? So that I can feel in harmony with nature and hang out with my family.
Why do you want to do that? Because it will make me happy.
Example: I want to have visible abs.
Why? Because I want to rock a bikini with pride.
Why? Because I’ll feel sexy and proud of myself for doing something really hard.
Why do you want that? Because it will make me happy.
Do you see what I’m getting at? You don’t really care about having a flat belly or qualifying for the Boston Marathon or whatever. You care about feeling gorgeous, athletic, energized, alive, attractive, light, accomplished. Basically, happy.
What I’m proposing is that you skip right to the end and start working on being happier NOW. Otherwise, you are going to get to the end of the book and discover the monster of unhappiness is right there waiting for you — at any weight. You’ll get your flat abs, but then find that your upper arms are utterly unsatisfactory. And that is not a cute surprise like it was for Grover at the end of the book. Your lack of fulfillment will ultimately create a monster that will set you up for a lifetime of discontent. There is no way I’m going to let you get to the end of this book and find that monster. That Monster of Dissatisfaction can totally suck it. Starting now.
Which is why we are going to start the most important part of your training program immediately — and that’s training your brain to access those happy feelings. Right now. At exactly the weight you’re at.
Here’s the thing, my love: if you can’t be happy now — at exactly the weight you’re at today — you won’t be happy at your goal weight. It will be like trying to use a muscle that has atrophied from lack of use. Just like you’ve got to train your upper body muscles so you can do push-ups, you’ve got to train your brain to be able to access your sexiness, your confidence, your freedom, your pride, and your happiness.
Now I can practically hear some of you shouting at me: “But, Oonagh, I can’t practice feeling happy now — you don’t understand. I’m, like, gross. I’ve got this secret cellulite that no one knows about, and my thighs chafe when I walk out of the shower, and my boobs rest on my belly when I sit down, and if anyone ever saw me naked with the lights on they would turn to stone…” Etc., etc.
First of all, I hate to take away your special snowflake identity, but everything you think is secret and gross about your body is probably totally common and normal. We just never see it.
Side note: This is why I kind of think everyone should be naked all the time. It would be the ultimate smackdown to the shame that so many people have about their totally normal bodies.
When I was traveling with that theater company, one of the coolest things we did was tour Scandinavia and stay with local families. Taking a sauna is a part of basic hygiene in Finland, so my host family would often ask if I needed a snack, a drink, or a sauna. Coming from Canada, where a sauna is a fancy-schmancy spa thing, I opted for the sauna when the opportunity first presented itself.
So there I am, sitting in this wooden box with my towel wrapped around me, congratulating myself because the steam is probably good for my pores or something, when much to my horror, the whole Finnish family comes in to join me — whipping off their towels to sit on them, and casually asking if I have any brothers or sisters back at home.
I later grilled my Finnish friend (FF) about this shocking mixed-gender family nudity:
Me: “So, you’ve seen your dad…naked?!”
FF (laughing): “Of course! He’s my dad! You’ve never seen your dad naked?”
Me (barfing): “Of course not!! He’s my dad!”
For us, growing up in North America, nudity = sexy times. So, the only nudity we see is in porn (or ads and Instagram feeds that are trying desperately to look like porn). Finnish kids grow up seeing normal body diversity in their peers and parents, and there are studies that indicate it leads to a much healthier body image later on in life. I know my two boys are going to be exposed to my post-breastfeeding boobs until they weep for mercy. And when they get older and realize that nudity actually does = sexy times occasionally, they will be going into those situations with realistic expectations about what human bodies actually look like.
So, whenever you feel shame or embarrassment about your body, know that what you think is hideous and unlovable about your body is probably totally normal and on display at a Finnish sauna somewhere at that very moment.
Second, I’m going to challenge you that it is totally possible for you to be happy or sexy or whatever you want to feel at exactly the weight you are right now. Let’s look for evidence that this is possible.
Have you ever seen anyone who is your size or larger who is sexy? I just Googled “sexy plus-size celebrity,” and now this book is never getting written because I’m just gonna stare at Danielle Brooks and Ashley Graham all day. If it’s possible for them to be gloriously hot at their size, why not you at your size?
On the other hand, can you collect any evidence that skinnier doesn’t always equal sexier? Have you ever seen anyone who is skinnier than you but holy-shit-not-sexy-at-all? I’m thinking about Mr. Burns from The Simpsons as my Exhibit A.
The point here is to bust your false beliefs that your weight is what determines your sexiness. Keep researching until you are forced to admit that it’s possible to be as fat as you are right now and still be sexy as all hell. And that even when someone gets skinnier it doesn’t always mean they’re sexier. Once you’ve got overwhelming evidence of diverse bodies also being hot as hell, I’m hoping you might realize that even you, with your hideous, probably-totally-normal-and-therefore-glorious body can be sexy and happy right now, at exactly the weight you are. Once you believe it’s possible, it’s time to start training. Because if you want to feel sexier when you lose weight, you’ve got to start accessing that feeling now.
Throw on your “Eye of the Tiger” confidence mix. (If you don’t have a playlist of sick tunes that make you feel like strutting, go to my site and grab mine. Bust out the clothes that make you feel incredible at exactly the size you are right now. Dance in your living room. Sing sultry torch songs in the car on the way to Walmart. Wear red lipstick to vacuum the house. Go flex in the mirror and congratulate yourself on being A Powerhouse That’s Not to Be Trifled With. Take your first belfie (butt selfie) and send it to someone who deserves to bask in your magnificence.
And yeah, it might feel like total bullshit at first. But that’s no different from any muscle you are trying to train. When you first start working out, you are weak as hell. Because you’ve never asked your body to do anything, your body has wisely conserved the energy and allowed those muscles to atrophy. You also haven’t created any neural pathways to do that particular motion, so it feels super awkward.
Then, you start doing push-ups. Your body will say, “Holy shit! Girl is doing push-ups! We need to figure this out neurologically and also strengthen those muscles, so we suck less and get the job done.”
The same process applies to feeling sexy, confident, and happy. When you first start practicing these feelings, you will feel awkward and weak, but the only way to get better at it is to train and start practicing. Because, again, the ultimate goal is those feelings.
On the other hand, if you’ve been training for something your whole life, you will be amazing at it. Let’s say you were a trained belly dancer. You would automatically start twitching your hips when music comes on. You wouldn’t even have to think about it. Your core muscles would be strong because you would be used to activating those muscles. You would also feel totally confident in a belly top because, like the physical act of dancing, feeling confident and sexy in a belly top is a neural pattern you’d been practicing your whole life. No big whoop.
The problem is that most people who want to lose weight have been practicing shitty neural pathways of discontent and self-hatred. They are literally training themselves to feel shitty by repeating their negative thoughts over and over again. For example, if you look in the mirror every day and think, Gross. I hate my muffin top. I look like someone stuffed Jabba the Hut into skinny jeans. Look how it hangs over my pants. I need to cover that shit up. I would be so happy if I didn’t have a muffin top, then here’s what I can guarantee you: You won’t be happy when the muffin top goes. Because you haven’t been practicing being happy. You’ve never looked in the mirror and found something positive to think. Your brain hasn’t built those neural pathways. How could it even know where to begin thinking positive thoughts? It would be like expecting your muscles to do a full pull-up when you’ve never even carried your own groceries.
If you continue to focus on negative thoughts and somehow managed to lose your muffin top, you will look at your new body in the mirror and think, I’ll be happy when my thighs don’t touch. Or Look at all that gross, loose skin. I should look into surgery.
And here’s the other thing — you probably won’t lose your muffin top if you are looking in the mirror and thinking, Ugh, I hate my muffin top. It will probably just get bigger.
Because that kind of self-hating bullshit doesn’t work. It has the opposite effect.
A 2017 study from McGill University found that feelings of shame and self-criticism are associated with increased hunger and weight gain. On the other hand, feelings of confidence helped with habit regulation and weight loss. Another study done at Duke University asked women to eat doughnuts quickly. After the doughnuts, some of the women were given messages of self-compassion, telling them not to be hard on themselves for indulging. The other half didn’t get any self-love message. Later on, the women were given bowls of candy and invited to eat as much as they wanted. Guess who ate almost three times as much candy? The ones who didn’t get the reassurances that it was okay to eat the doughnut.
I know you think that if you play boot-camp sergeant with yourself, you will be able to shame yourself into behaving properly, but negative, self-hating thoughts will lead to negative, self-hating behavior. There is no other outcome. No one ever hated themselves into a body they loved. That has never happened.
Remember the pleasure and pain exercise from the last chapter? I had you connect to the emotional pain of your current trajectory in order to change it. But once you’ve got that emotional fuel, you’ve got to be 100 percent focused on what you want: the pleasure of having the hot and healthy body you want. Remember the story about the one girl in my theater-school class who focused on her objective of living versus the rest of us who kept focusing on why we didn’t want to die? She was the only one that lived. Let me give you a few examples of how this self-love-positive-thinking-woo-woo shit plays out in the real world when a girl is just looking to lose a couple of pounds.
Example 1: My client Cathy had a beach vacation planned, and it was important to her to look and feel amazing for her big trip. The problem was, she really didn’t. She hadn’t been on top of her food and nutrition for the past couple of months, and she was feeling it. So, she posted in one of my online groups: “Okay guys, I’m going to try a cleanse this week to get in shape for my trip — wish me luck!”
A few days later she posted: “So much for my cleanse. I just killed a bunch of toast with half a jar of peanut butter. What is wrong with me? I can’t believe how much I suck.”
Now imagine these two alternate versions for Cathy’s inner get-ready-for-vacation monologue:
Cathy #1: “Oh shit, shit, I screwed up so badly! I can’t believe I’m so fat. I’ve got my trip coming up! How did I let this happen? I suck!”
Cathy #2: “Even though I’m not at my goal weight yet, I still totally love myself and the body I’m in right now. I’m going to have the best time on my trip. I’m going to make mostly healthy choices with a few indulgences and come back feeling refreshed and ready to smash my fitness goals. I’m so excited for ALL of it!”
Cathy Number 1 is mad and disgusted with herself and feels like she should be punished. Cathy Number 2 is realistic about her body’s current condition but still giving herself tons of love, with full confidence and excitement that she is on her way to achieving her goals. Now you tell me, who is going to have more fun on her trip? Who is going to come home and end up getting ripped and healthy? And who is going to end up in the peanut butter again?
Example 2: You are going to a wedding. Your ex will be there. For whatever reason, you’ve gained fifteen pounds. It’s time to put on your dress and it’s, um…tight. Like, two sizes too small.
Internal Monologue #1: “SHIT! Fuckfuckfuckfuck this is too small omg I can’t believe I’m so fucking FAT! How did this happen?! It’s all those cookies from that bakery on the way home from work. I can’t believe I’m such an idiot. Well, what am I going to do now? Everyone is going to be talking about how fat I am. Maybe if I wear a blazer over the top, people won’t notice. But I will get heatstroke in a blazer. Well, that’s the price I pay for allowing myself to get into this condition. That’s it. Right after this wedding weekend, I’m going on a cleanse, and I’m never eating those cookies again, and I’m only going to have salad all this week. This sucks.”
Internal Monologue #2: “Whoa! This dress is tighter than I remember. Well, I guess that’s what happens when you discover an awesome new bakery that’s on the way home from work… WHOOPSIE DAISY. But actually, it kind of looks sexy in a Kardashian-over-the-top kind of way, and my boobs look AMAZING. I should remember to lean over all the time to show off — this is by far the best cleavage I’ve ever had. And my legs look amazing in heels. Why don’t I wear heels more often? Could I be that mom who does the grocery shopping in heels?”
Now, which one of these people is going to have a wicked time at the wedding and be super attractive? Which one is going to end up looking tense and weird and probably cry when the bouquet hits her in the face? Which one is probably going to drop the extra fifteen pounds over the next few months? And which one is going to start a cycle of “cookies to cleansing” and wind up even heavier?
Now, don’t freak out and think you are doomed if you are someone who currently has a pattern of negative thoughts. Next time you catch yourself having harsh thoughts, here is your new pattern interrupter: Even though I sometimes beat myself up, I accept myself exactly as I am. Besides, the fact that I am now aware of these negative thoughts means that I’m getting sick of this script and it’s time to move on. Yay, me!
Example 3: I got this question from a client named Tina. “What is the best way to burn more body fat, especially on the front and back of thighs? I eat mostly well, feel very strong, and I’m working out, but how do I get defined muscles and reduce the appearance of cellulite on my thighs?”
I know Tina personally. She isn’t lying when she says that she eats well and works hard and has muscle…and she probably isn’t lying when she says she also has cellulite. (About 90 percent of women do. If Tina lived in Finland, she would know this and wouldn’t expect her thighs to look like marble.)
So, as a personal trainer, I was faced with a decision. My first option: I could tell Tina about a whole bunch of strength-training exercises that will build her quadriceps and hamstrings. Tell her to limit her already healthy eating and reduce all carbs and alcohol to really lean out and get some definition. Tell her about using Preparation H and fake tanning cream to reduce the appearance of cellulite. (Little tip I learned from some of my bodybuilding students when I was teaching the Personal Trainer certification course. Told you those Orange People know their shit.)
So yeah, Tina could achieve her goal, but it would be a lot of work. And I suspect that Tina has enough work to do in her life. Putting in that kind of effort for her thighs would probably be way beyond the effort that Tina could sustainably give. Here’s an example of an effort-to-result chart for Tina:
My other option was to ask Tina WHY she wants muscle definition and no cellulite on her thighs.
She’d probably roll her eyes and say “Duh,” but if I asked her “Why?” enough times, we’d probably get down to the fact that she wants to tone up her legs and reduce the appearance of cellulite to feel confident and hot in a bathing suit or short shorts.
And who would blame her? Feeling confident and hot RULES. But I would argue that the most efficient way to achieve the goal of feeling confident and hot is simply to practice feeling confident and hot with the thighs you have. Like I said, confidence is the first muscle you need to train.
So here was my suggested training program for Tina:
- Do activities, listen to music, and wear clothes that put you in the state of feeling confident and hot.
- Hang out with people who think that you (and your thighs) are fucking awesome. Ghost on anyone who makes you feel yucky about yourself.
- Challenge yourself to go ahead and wear the short shorts, and every time you hear yourself thinking Oh no — can they see my cellulite? try to replace that thought with something like Everyone is looking at my hella hot legs. You’re WELCOME, world.
Now, I’m not saying this stuff is easy. But on the other hand, neither is a grueling leg-training program combined with no carbs or alcohol. And which one will make you happier in the end?
Here’s my example of training my confidence and happiness muscle. I have always been self-conscious of my midsection and wanted to challenge myself to bare my midriff with confidence. This is a picture I posted on Instagram right before making my shirtless debut at the gym:
Now, some of you are probably thinking, Easy for her to practice feeling confident — she is skinny!
And others might be thinking, Huh. Her body isn’t that hot. I don’t know if I would go topless if I were her. Yikes.
And some of you may be thinking, Jesus — did she really post that? I can totally see her nipple.
And to all those thoughts I have two things to say:
As I mentioned, I breastfed two kids. Nipples happen. (Finland knows what’s up.)
What other people might think about my body is their shit. I have no control over it. I’d go bonkers if I tried to anticipate what people might think of my body and adjust it accordingly. And it’s not my responsibility. I have one — and only one — responsibility, and that’s my shit. And by “shit” I mean my thoughts and feelings about my body.
Those thoughts and feelings about my body are the exact muscle that I was working on that day at the gym when I decided to expose my never-seen-before, pale-ass midriff and walk around the gym like some kind of glorious glowworm.
And here’s what I did to control my shit for my shirtless debut (about which I was minorly terrified, which is why I had to have that pep talk with myself in the bathroom) and strengthen my feelings of confidence: anytime I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, or heard any of the usual self-criticizing mental chatter, I gave myself a completely outrageous compliment. They should really start paying me to have a membership here, showing up looking this good. Or I look so hot that people are probably hoping I don’t wipe down the equipment after I use it.
Feel free to get ridiculous here. The point is not to delude yourself into believing that you can quit your job to start a modeling career, but to interrupt your pattern with humor and start to build positive associations with your body. Those outrageous compliments made me giggle a bit internally and, yes, made me happier and more confident.
Now, does this mean that we just go around doing whatever the fuck we want and as long as we keep the vibes high, we will lose weight and be happy? Not quite. Often when you ask people what would make them happy, the answer involves a corkscrew and a Netflix binge. This is an example of confusing happiness with pleasure.
Here’s the difference: Pleasure is a momentary feeling that comes from some external source. The external source could be circumstantial (you just made a sale, that hottie texted you back, you found an awesome parking spot, you got the job) or sensual (you just ate something delicious or tucked into a cozy bed on a cold night). Happiness, on the other hand, is internal and long-lasting. It’s the difference between the pleasure you feel when someone gives you a compliment (“You look like you’ve lost weight!”) versus the happiness of feeling so good in your own skin that you don’t give a fuck what other people think of your body.
Pleasure is hitting the snooze button on a cold morning. Happiness is feeling yourself getting fitter and stronger and healthier from your morning workouts. Pleasure is sleeping with the hot stripper at your friend’s bachelorette party. Happiness is playing footsies with your farty, but very funny, partner.
Now, I’m not knocking pleasure. Pleasure is a very good thing, and too many people are depriving themselves of pleasure for no good reason. I think people should give and get as much pleasure as they can out of life. The problem arises when pleasure comes at the cost of happiness. In order to have happiness, you have to feel like you are progressing toward your goals in a meaningful way.
So if you are looking for pleasure at the end of a fork or the bottom of a glass, it’s time to quit it and find something else that’s going to make you feel good in the moment. And I have suggestions coming up for that in part 2. We are about to get super practical on how to apply all this woo-woo shit.
But before we get there, I want to commend you for actually taking the time to Get Your Head Out of Your Ass. There are a whole bunch of people who are going to skip ahead to part 2: “Just Tell Me What the Fuck to Do to Get Skinny Already.” They are in danger of approaching this whole thing like just another diet. They are looking for the book equivalent of the meal replacement shake system.
You are the one who took the time to go deep and get clear on why this weight-loss stuff can be such a head fuck. In doing so, you have a much better chance at building healthy, long-term habits that are gonna make you one healthy and lean, sexy motherfucker.
Before we continue, let’s review what you’ve figured out so far:
- Do you actually want to lose weight? Is this a priority for you right now? If you do, that’s totally awesome, and don’t let anyone try to make you feel guilty about it!
- Do you give enough Fs that you will change your habits, even though you might be pretty damn attached to your current habits?
- Do you understand that it’s not really weight loss you want, but the FEELING you think you will have when you lose the weight? And that you need to practice accessing that feeling right now, at exactly the weight you are?
Check, check, check, and check? Awesome. Let’s do this.
Oonagh Duncan is a multi-award-winning fitness expert, founder of the Feel Good Movement, and speaker specializing in helping people get healthy and happy through a habits-based approach. Her book, Healthy As F*ck, is available now.
Printed with permission from Sourcebooks.