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21 January 2023

Healthy habits aren’t as miserable as everyone says

There is a pervasive school of thought that says that making responsible choices has to involve endless self-sacrifice and little fun. It’s not true.

By Marie Le Conte

Much has been made of the downsides of splaying your life open on social media. If you bare your soul there is no guarantee that what you wrote won’t come back to haunt you years down the line.

Still, treating the internet as your own private diary isn’t all bad. I have been tweeting my every thought for more than a decade. Though it was never quite the plan, it means that I now have access to thousands and thousands of posts, charting my life over the years. Like inspecting the rings on tree stumps, I can look through old tweets and see how I’ve changed. Musings once posted in jest become oddly poignant, funny – or both.

Take the howl of anguish I posted in 2018, about soon leaving my mid-twenties. “Does this mean I’m about to start willingly buying asparagus?” I asked no-one in particular. Yes, it turns out: as I neared 30 I realised that I did in fact like asparagus, and even liked it enough to frequently buy some with my own hard-earned cash.

It wasn’t the only epiphany I had around then. After spending my first ten years of adulthood smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, eating cheesy, buttery pasta for nearly every meal and considering “five pints” to be a normal Tuesday night, I realised that something had to change.

It wasn’t social media campaigns around Dry January or the warnings of public health officials that prompted this. I just felt lousy all the time. I’d put on so much weight that I no longer felt like myself, walking up a few flights of stairs often left me on the verge of a cardiac event, and I couldn’t remember what a good night of sleep felt like.  

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It was a fraught decision to make: I’d always despised the idea of being healthy for its own sake and felt that, as a woman, staunchly refusing to take care of your body actually was quite a radical act. For every ad suggesting that a toned stomach would make me more attractive, I’d shovel some more pre-grated cheese into my gaping maw.

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I did feel bad all the time though. That’s what pushed me over the edge, in the end. I was still in my twenties but I was always bloated, knackered and at least slightly hungover. I wasn’t having a good time.

I’ll spare you the training montage that followed – no one needs to see that – but I do often reflect on what it taught me. I’d always equated healthiness with utter, joyless tedium and it was entirely wrong. I like my new life not because I’m no longer overweight, but because of everything else. I enjoy my trapeze and pole dancing classes because I’ve developed a lovely and unique bond with my instructors and fellow students. We meet once a week and delight in each other’s progress, and almost all of them are people I never would have met otherwise. There is also something deeply rewarding about the linearity of progress in sports: if you want to do something, you’ve got to train and train and eventually you’ll get there. There are no shortcuts but no secrets either.

I enjoy drinking less alcohol because it’s given me my weekends back. The outside world was once foreign to me before about 4pm on Saturdays and Sundays but I now go to the cinema, and to art exhibitions, and on walks in the park, and whatever else I fancy doing. Every week now comes with bonus time. It’s a thrill. Oh, and I get to save money, meaning that I can afford to do those sports I now couldn’t live without.

I enjoy eating better because it’s forced me to be more inventive in the kitchen. Despite being a lifelong fussy eater, I’ve discovered countless ingredients I assumed I would hate but didn’t. Thanks to various exploratory trips to eastern European, Asian and South American supermarkets, my pantry is now full of weird and wonderful things, some of which I didn’t even know existed until recently. In short, and in an unexpected turn of events: I am now both healthier and happier.

There is a pervasive school of thought, in Britain and elsewhere, that says that making responsible choices has to involve endless self-sacrifice and little fun. If you want to be fit you have to make yourself miserable in a thousand and one ways, but it is all worth it because being thin is its own reward.

This isn’t just dispiriting, it’s misguided. Much of life is about navigating various trade-offs, and this is just one of them. It’s true that I no longer get the joy of getting home half-cut and making myself a gloriously greasy meal, but instead I get to sleep better and do more exciting things. I no longer experience the catharsis of rushing out of a stressful meeting and lighting a cigarette, but I can use the money to go shopping more often. They’re all choices, with their own drawbacks but, crucially, their own advantages as well. It’s as simple as that.

If public health scolds framed healthier living decisions in this way, they would probably entice more people. Trying to patronise adults into acting better will simply make them assume that the lifestyle you’re pushing is a depressing one. “It’s surprisingly fun to be square” isn’t quite a glamorous slogan either, but at least it’s true.

[See also: Rebecca May Johnson’s Small Fires is a radical analysis of cooking]

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