This post has been adapted from “Love Your Age: The Small-Step Solution to a Better, Longer, Happier Life” (National Geographic/AARP 2018)
A few years ago, I stood on First Avenue with my two daughters and my husband, a few friends and neighbors, and lots of strangers. It was a glorious fall day and we were all watching packs of runners go by, caught up in the excitement of the New York City Marathon.
But despite the beauty of the day, all I could think about was how far I felt from the determined athletes passing just a few feet away. Unlike them, I was at one of the lowest points of my life. Facing 50, I was feeling sluggish, slow, low-energy, and anything but strong and ambitious. I didn’t like how my clothes fit or how my hair and skin looked. Having just packed on a few new menopausal pounds didn’t help, but neither did the fact that I wasn’t doing anything about it.
Stuck in my personal pity party, I watched the runners—especially those over 40—with amazement. I was filled with wonder about how anyone could run 26 miles. I couldn’t even imagine walking that far. . . or wanting to. Running represented only dreaded memories of Field Day in elementary school. It was like we were entirely different species.
Lost in my negativity, I was surprised when my younger daughter suddenly blurted: “One day I want to hold up a sign that says, ‘GO, MOM, GO!!’” Everyone stared at her. Then, as if on cue, they all turned and stared at me. My older daughter looked doubtful. My husband looked amused. I probably looked trapped. Feeling simultaneously horrified (really, what was she thinking?) and weirdly excited, I paused and said, “I don’t know how, and I don’t know when. But I will run this race. I promise.”
On that day, which was immediately scorched into my memory bank of pivotal events, I vowed to make some changes—one small step at a time.
Still skeptical about running but inspired by my daughter’s outburst, I looked for a program that didn’t seem too intimidating for an out-of-shape woman in her late forties. After spending a bit of time on the internet, I discovered running expert Jeff Galloway’s Run Walk Run program, which (as you might have guessed) alternates running and walking throughout the course of a workout.
“Okay,” I thought. “I think I can manage that.”
To ease into it, I started by simply taking walks every day, slowly making them both longer and faster. After a few weeks, I added some jogging. Not much at first—just a few steps here and there, but eventually I worked up to a fifty-fifty split between running and walking.
My routine was simple but steadfast: on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, after I got the family out the door and before I started my workday, I’d don my running clothes, tie up my sneakers, pop in some earbuds, head to Central Park and run (well, run/walk/run). My routine varied only to the extent that I sometimes spent a little more time running than walking—or vice versa, depending on my mood, the temperature, and which Tom Petty song was playing.
I couldn’t have imagined it at the time, but choosing to adopt that one simple habit of running three times a week—rain or shine, all year long—became the foundation of a whole new life.
I think the key was that once I decided to do it, I didn’t look back. Running became non-negotiable, and I realized that nothing else was so important that it couldn’t be accomplished after my run or on my days off.
And then something magical happened: my one new habit sparked a few others.
- ATE BETTER. Once I started getting regular physical exercise, I was inspired to fuel my body with better food, resulting in more energy, lost pounds, and improved overall health. I reconsidered every meal and slowly gravitated away from take-out and packaged food and toward home-cooked veggies, legumes, and healthy protein. Since I was paying more attention to how my body felt, I noticed that big portions, fried foods, and sweets didn’t sit very well. So I cut back on them and got into the habit of eating smaller meals throughout the day, which lessened food cravings and kept my blood sugar levels stable.
- SLEPT MORE. Because I was more active during the day, I was more tired at night. This simple shift caused me to go to sleep earlier, and sleep better, longer and deeper, which, in turn helped me feel more alert, upbeat, and energetic than I’d been in years.
- GOT STRONGER. I became interested in strengthening my body so I could be a more powerful runner, and created a daily habit of doing push-ups, planks, and squats. My muscle tone firmed up and my entire body looked and felt younger, and bonus: I was doing a great job at fighting osteoporosis.
- STOOD TALLER. Feeling stronger inside and out resulted in a dramatic increase in my self-esteem. I became more aware of my posture and body language. Both reflected a woman who was much more comfortable in her own skin (and clothes).
As my good habits slowly started to create momentum, I realized that my former grumpy, frumpy, lumpy state of being wasn’t the inevitable result of getting older. It was the inevitable result of continuing to make the same unhealthy choices I’d been making for years.
Choices like putting everyone else first for so long that I felt perpetually stressed, rushed, and overwhelmed led me to other choices like driving instead of walking (I’m in a hurry!), binging on Netflix instead of turning in early (I just need to decompress!), grabbing fast food instead of cooking (told you, I’m in a hurry!). . . and on and on. All those little, seemingly insignificant choices I was making day after day and year after year had turned into habits that had commandeered my life – and, worse, were aging me prematurely.
But once my running habit snowballed into a better diet, sleep, and attitude, it was as if the clock started turning backwards. I lost weight, found my waistline again, stood taller, had more enthusiasm and better skin—and I smiled much, much more. I made a lot of new friends along the way, helping me to create a community of like-minded people. Thanks to my daughter’s crazy idea, I’d finally gotten inspired to swap my “get old fast” mode for new “live better longer” habits—and they were working!
Change your habits, change your future?
I know I’m not alone in having built up bad habits over the years. We all have them, and some might have even worked for us in the past. But the truth is that many of us are doing things every single day that are undermining the very things we want out of our lives: to feel healthy, happy, and productive for as long as possible.
Thanks to my daughter’s crazy idea, I’d finally gotten inspired to swap my “get old fast” mode for new “live better longer” habits—and they were working!
Why do we do that? Usually because we either don’t recognize the problem, are afraid to change, or simply don’t know how to make choices that are a better match for us now. Heck, for years I was wearing makeup that made me look older than I was, just because I didn’t know any better.
But I’m living proof that the little actions we take every day don’t stand alone: they all combine to determine how good we’ll feel today, tomorrow, and in five years. In other words, we need to invest in ourselves now to have the life we want later. While it’s never too early—or too late!—to let healthy habits into your life, you have to choose them over and over again every single day.
And these life-changing changes don’t have to be agony! You don’t need a live-in chef to eat more fruits and vegetables, a personal trainer to exercise more, or a professional stylist to overhaul your wardrobe. What you do need is information and inspiration (and maybe just a little nagging)—which is why I wrote this book.
But the most important tool for taking better care of yourself is in your own hands.
What is it?
The power of choice.
Human nature dictates that we are more secure in our comfort zones. But there’s a huge difference between “secure” and “stuck.” So if you’re stuck in a place that just doesn’t feel right anymore, you now get to choose whether to perpetuate the same habits that are keeping you glued there—or develop new ones that will set you free.
Here’s the best news: even if you’ve been doing everything wrong (doubtful), most of our patterns are easy to fix, starting right here, right now. Every single good choice you make will make a difference in how much you enjoy your life. The more you make, the bigger the difference.
Reaping the rewards
After I took that first small step towards taking better care of myself, my life changed forever. I was physically, emotionally, and spiritually recharged.
But one of the most important results was that I fulfilled the promise I made to my daughter. After a few years of building my health, strength, and stamina, I felt ready to do the very thing I never thought I could: run all 26.2 miles of the New York City Marathon… and enjoy every single second of it.
I never felt more proud or powerful than I did that day.
. . . Until I did it again a few years later.
And then again a few years after that.
And yes, again.
In fact, I’m training for my 5th NYC Marathon (6th overall and all since turning 50) and hope, one month before my 62nd birthday, to run my fastest marathon ever.
Who knows? Maybe running marathons has gotten to be a habit . . .
. . . one small step at a time.
I hope you enjoyed the intro to my newest book, LOVE YOUR AGE: THE SMALL-STEP SOLUTION TO A BETTER, LONGER, HAPPIER LIFE. If you want to learn all the small science-backed steps you can take to look and feel amazing at any age, click right here.