Organizing Theory & Artistry

Perfectionism in the Pursuit of Diet and Exercise

Woman being weighed, state fair, Donaldsonville, Louisiana (1938). Photo by Russell Lee for the U.S. Farm Security Administration. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

I am now 8 days into my new diet and exercise regime. I can tell that I am getting stronger and gaining more stamina in my exercise program and I am getting used to thinking about fruits and vegetables all the time. But, to be sure, nothing I am doing is “perfect.” It might not even be “good,” but it is a step in the right direction at least.

Too often, when we think about diet and exercise, we think in absolute terms. We inherently assume that our own diet must be so terrible that we need something extreme to fix it. Forget moderation, we go right for the nearly impossible diets: no sugar, no fat, no carbs, no meat, low calorie, etc. It is probably true that if you were actually able to stick to such a diet that you would see an improvement in your health and lose weight to boot. The problem is that for most of us, these diets represent a goal that we have a very low chance of achieving before we cheat or give up out of hunger or frustration.

The same goes for exercise. Rather than start something simple like a walking regimen, people go for marathon training or P90X or something that is really ambitious. After a few days, they give up out of exhaustion, injury or being overwhelmed and disillusioned.

I often wonder why we do this to ourselves. Why do we always go to the extremes? The answers I have come up with are:

  • We lack knowledge about what a realistic diet and exercise plan looks like. All we know are the extremes: couch potato or fitness fanatic.
  • We buy into the fantasy that we could be the kind of person who _______ (eats only pure, organic foods, goes for a 10 mile run every morning, etc.) but are not willing to make the sacrifices that the person who actually lives that lifestyle makes.
  • We want a criterion to judge our progress (or others’ progress) by. We prefer simple judgments like “Does this have sugar?” to complex judgments like “How much sugar does this have?”

I am living proof that a person can eat a pretty awful diet with minimal exercise and not be obese or have terrible health problems. (Of course, I know I should do better and that I may not enjoy this advantage forever. . . hence, this month’s theme.)

I think a big part of my success to date has to do with having a healthy psychological relationship to food. I don’t eat in secret and I don’t make a big deal if I overindulge in sweets or fatty foods (or if my kids do). I don’t obsess over my own appearance or anyone else’s. I see beauty as a complex formula of confidence, clothes, hair, skin and body size that does not have one answer. My priority for exercise is to have a body that functions the way I want it to with good energy, strength and flexibility rather than fitting into a particular dress size. Yes, sometimes I wish my body looked like a supermodel or some airbrushed image in a magazine but most of the time I have too much else to do to worry about that. I also accept that some people have the magic concoction of genes (or plastic surgery) that lets them look like that with minimal effort on their part.

So, as you read the posts this month, please don’t assume that I expect everyone to follow the diet and exercise plan that I am trying. I am just encouraging you to think through any challenges you are facing in this area and to find creative solutions that will work for your lifestyle. I hope to provide a successful example but even if my example is not successful I will have gained knowledge in the attempt and hope that you will too.

Do you always find yourself attempting the “perfect” diet or workout plan? Why? Do you think you could accept a realistic plan? Please share in the comments.