28 Day Challenge

Matthew Fontana, 126

My time serving with the Peace Corps has no doubt been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I kind of expected that going into it. What I didn’t expect was the disastrous effect it would have on my health and the incredible amount of work it would take to undo that damage. To be fair, a lot of my poor health habits I brought along with me from home. I’ve always been one to over-consume when it comes to my vices; food, candy, alcohol, you name it. Being cut off from my normal support systems, coupled with the everyday stress of living in a foreign country definitely exacerbated my problems. Additionally, and I’m ashamed to admit this, I picked up the nasty habit of smoking during the short year and a half I’ve been here. That one came about not exactly out of peer pressure (because let’s be honest once you leave high school there’s no one who will outright pressure you into smoking, we all know it’s bad at this point) but I’ll call it peer influence. There’s just something about taking a moment to myself to reflect on things while simultaneously inhaling toxic chemicals that really appeals to me. And just like countless others before me I let that habit get out of hand with the rest of them until about a month ago when I reached critical mass and was at a real low point in my life.

Overweight, out-of-shape, and with barely enough self-esteem to fill a thimble I was at a crossroads. Either I continue down the path I was on or get my ass into gear and get in shape. Thankfully, I had two very close volunteer friends who acted as catalysts for my change and really encouraged me to give my all to this effort. Thus began my 28-day journey to turn things around. We landed on 28 days because apparently this is the typical recovery cycle for addicts. I don’t want to make it seem like I was some raging alcoholic, chain-smoker, but I definitely had my moments.

Looking back at my life I realize now that my relationship with alcohol was an unhealthy one; I’ve hurt some people and made a lot of bad decisions because of it.  At the same time alcohol, even cigarettes for that matter, has never been something I’ve yearned for on a daily basis. So if you’ve come looking for a story about how I had to lock myself in my room to keep from succumbing to the sweet temptress of the bottle or how I detail, hour by hour, my monumental struggle with withdrawal you’re going be disappointed. The truth is I made it the whole 28 days without either of those things and it didn’t bother me in the slightest. The real struggle came from a beast that, I think, is much more common back home; diet and exercise.

My weight has been something I’ve struggled with my whole life. Over the past 24 years I’ve gone through countless phases of motivation where I try to get into gear and lose weight and yet nothing ever sticks. No matter what my motivation always runs out and I’m left feeling like a failure again.  Here in Thailand it’s been no different, in fact, it’s been worse.  I have to face my body image issues amongst a sea of people who will call me fat to my face and in the same breath offer me food. It’s really enough to make me lose my mind or send me spiraling into depression, but that’s another story.

So the question was how was I going to make this time different? How was I going to ensure that the goals I’m trying to achieve stay important enough that I don’t give up no matter what happened? Turns out the answer, at least for me, was to slow the hell down. You see, in the past whenever the mood to get healthy struck me I would hit it hard, going full out with exercise and diet. I’m talking like intense workouts daily, sometimes twice a day,while also cutting my diet to shreds. You’re probably all rolling your eyes and thinking, “well duh there’s your problem.” It’s much more than that though, my real issue was relying on motivation to push me through the process. I’ve found that the problem with motivation is that it comes and goes but rarely will it stay with me long enough to make any lasting change. It gets me through a sprint, but life is a long distance marathon and for that discipline is needed.

Discipline is tough. It’s a choice made every morning when I get up and tell myself, “I’m in full control of my day and I’m going to use it to move a little bit closer to achieving my goals.” I can’t wait for discipline to hit; instead I have to dig deep down make it happen. But before that happens there has to be a goal.

Up to this point I’ve been a bit vague about what my goals were and to be honest I had some trouble with that early on. It’s not like I woke up day one and had all this figured out. It’s a slow process.When I first decided to do the 28-day challenge I just wanted to kick cigarettes and alcohol.  But then I realized I wanted to go for more – I wanted to look and feel healthier than I had ever been. Anyone who knows anything about goal setting will say that this is a terrible goal. What the does “look and feel healthier” even mean? Too broad, no quantifiers, and also no time frame for achieving it. So after a bit of retooling I came up with some smarter goals. At the end of my 28 days I hoped to achieve the following things:

  • Be able to bike to work in under 10 minutes
  • Be able to run for 15 minutes uninterrupted
  • Abstain from snacking in between meals and after dinner

These were the three tangible goals that I knew I could hit if I put in the work. The bar seemed low, but the last goal would be especially difficult given Thai’s relationship with food. More than often I’ll finish a meal, walk away, then just minutes later someone will come up to me offering noodles or ice cream or some other devilishly tempting treat to keep my fat face stuffed. Don’t even get me started on running because I have a similar issue there. The only thing more interesting to Thai people than a giant foreigner is a giant foreigner at high speeds. This elicits a response deep down in their souls that urges them to wrangle me into their homes and fill me with delicious Thai food. It’s very sweet but when getting healthy is my focus it’s definitely counterproductive. However, I had my goals and I knew if I focused and took one day at a time I would be able to achieve them and kick my bad health habits along the way.

The biggest change I had to make was an internal one, my relationship with food and exercise had to be reframed in my mind. I had to start thinking positively about these changes. I also had to allow myself to fail from time to time.  If I immediately demonized my actions it would eventually lead to my downfall. I had to start thinking of these goals in terms of the rest of my life in order to get serious about these changes. This may have been a “28-day challenge” but in reality I was making changes that I intend to carry on the rest of my life. To do that I couldn’t think things like “Okay I’ll eat healthy for 6 days and on the 7th  I’ll go all out on a cheat day.” No way. Instead I thought, “Wow I’ve stayed healthy for 6 days – I want to see how long I can keep this up.”  If I screwed up and devoured a delicious ice cream cone or ate an extra piece of fried fish at a party, I’d work to keep it as an isolated event. I wouldn’t let it be an excuse to let the rest of my day go to waste.

It was the same story for exercise. I started by doing a little bit every day: 10 minute jogs through the village, aerobics with the ladies in the afternoon, or even just a quick jump rope session here and there. And if there was a day when my body simply resisted even the smallest amount of physical exertion then I eased up a bit in the moment but got right back out to it the next day. Now I’ve gotten to the point where I occasionally want to go out and do more. I’ll tell you what, I never thought I’d ever feel that way. It’s pretty sweet.

I could pour over the details and dissect the struggles and little victories from each day of my challenge this month but I’ll spare you. There were aspects of living in Thailand that I definitely had to adjust for. Very rarely will you walk down the street in America and be offered food by every neighbor you encounter, nor is it likely that you’ll be offered a tall glass of whiskey by your coworker at 2pm on a Tuesday. While those situations were definitely unique to my life here the fact is no matter where I will live there will always be obstacles and distractions that get in the way of goals.  That is why it’s important to stay focused and positive and keep going even after a slip up. At the end of my 28 days, after a lot of struggle, a lot of small wins and losses, I achieved the goals I set out for. It doesn’t end here though. Now it’s time for new goals, new challenges, and continuing to push myself toward a happier and healthier life. It’s not easy, but nothing worth having is.

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