The Academic Redneck Fitness Challenge

If the face above couldn’t launch a thousand fitness infomercials, I don’t know what could. I’ll confess at first I was uncertain about having my photo appear on the U.S. Represented grid slider for a week, but then I figured what the hell. Since this is an article about diet and exercise, I’ll just feature my “you have a pretty face . . . if you’d only lose some weight” image, in honor of those backhanded compliments a lot of us “voluptuous” women have received over the years.

At my age, though, I’m not bothered by the suggestion. In fact, I accept the truth of it. Now, before I get all the e-mails from readers alarmed that my self-esteem has been eroded by the patriarchy, unrealistic standards of beauty, Vogue magazine, the Barbie doll, and so on, let me just politely request that y’all spare me the well-intended but totally unnecessary “you’re beautiful on the inside and out” affirmations. For one thing, I’m a middling decent human being, but I’m actually not always beautiful on the inside. Sometimes, I’m mean-spirited, envious, and just plain pissy. Likewise, on the exterior, the raw material Mother Nature gave me is pretty good, but the extra weight I’ve been carrying around for a while undermines my health and overall appearance. There’s no use in dissembling about it. In reality, I have an extremely high opinion of myself (one time somebody on Facebook even called me pompous), so my self-esteem isn’t a problem.  I’m confident enough to look in the mirror and do a truthful—and literal—gut check.

I love to eat, and it shows. But I’d like to look and feel better. I could say I’m only interested in improving my health, but I’d be lying. Truth is, if it were possible, I’d probably trade about thirty IQ points to look the way Cheryl Ladd did in a bikini circa 1978. All right, just kidding. I’d certainly trade no more than twenty IQ points in any fitness Faustian bargain.

Some of my favorite female celebrities have struggled with their weight and kept their senses of humor, which I admire a heck of a lot more than militant feminists who deny that appearance matters. When Dolly Parton once talked about herself when she was overweight, she sighed and said, “Lordy, what a hog” and laughed merrily in her Dolly way. Even the magnificent goddess Elizabeth Taylor admitted that when she got fat, she could suck down a bottle of vodka and half a bucket of KFC without much effort. I’ve always admired their honesty.

We live in a country of abundance, where more people are dying from obesity than from starvation. It’s not fat-shaming to say point blank that most of us could push away from the table sooner and move our carcasses a little more often. Rather, it’s sound advice.

It’s not that we Americans aren’t aware that diet and exercise are important. We spend billions every year on “miracle” solutions we hope will help us lose forty pounds in five days.

When I was a young girl, my mother and I ordered just about every gimmicky weight-loss product and apparatus “as seen on t.v.” Richard Simmons and Deal-a-Meal? Check. Jane Fonda’s workouts? Check. Some were relatively sensible. Others were just plain wacko.

In 1981, we bought Judy Mazel’s book, The Beverly Hills Diet, after we saw the author on The Merv Griffin Show. We started consuming inordinate amounts of pineapple to “cleanse” our systems of toxins that supposedly impeded weight loss. We did lose some weight—regular diarrhea from all that pineapple accomplished that—but our success was short-lived just as soon as we gave in to our craving for Krispy Kremes.

We were also certain we’d look exactly like Suzanne Somers if we used her signature Thigh Master to exercise. Alas, after only a week or so, it began collecting dust in the back corner of the closet. (I’ve always thought the Thigh Master could have been rebranded as an alternative to the stirrups on a gynecologist’s examination table.)

Later, Mother and I bought Cheryl Ladd’s Body Slide, which required us to don a pair of booties like surgeons wear in the operating room and slide back and forth, skater fashion, on a plastic slip-and-slide-looking thingy, but without the water. Our efforts met with predictable results. Try as we did, we just couldn’t replicate Cheryl’s elegant maneuvering. Eventually, the Body Slide joined the Thigh Master in the back of the closet, where Mother, as an empty nester, would exile other infomercial products like the George Foreman grill and anything Ron Popeil happened to be selling from 1983 to 2012.

Sadly, for all her good intentions to do something about her health, Mother never really altered her diet or exercised, even after she was diagnosed with diabetes. A stroke in 2013 paralyzed her left arm and leg. I suspect 90 percent of her current ailments could have been avoided had she taken better care of herself.

I’m trying to use Mother’s situation as a cautionary tale. Unless I get my weight under control, in twenty years I could easily be dealing with many of the same problems her own poor health habits have doomed her to endure for the duration of her life.

On the bright side, I can report that I’ve made some extremely positive changes since November 28 of last year, when I began to take control of my physical health. Since then, I have lost 25 pounds (25.2 to be precise) and have set a goal to lose 50 pounds by the end of 2017. I’m trying to make gradual progress toward being fit—and yes, totally hot for a fifty-something woman. Maybe not Cheryl Ladd hot at this stage in my life, but as goddessy as I can manage. (Just sue me for being superficial, all right?)

I’d like to issue a challenge to any readers who’ve been thinking about doing something about their health but  haven’t yet taken the initiative. Now is the perfect time to start. I’ll be your fitness buddy if you want to have someone to share your results with. You can e-mail me at the address below to tell me about your progress, and I’ll give you a shout-out here (or not) if you’d like the encouragement. In fact, it was my own fitness buddy, Christy Bruce, who reached out and encouraged me when I needed it most.  At first, I wasn’t necessarily trying to get fit for me. I just didn’t want to disappoint Christy after she offered her help. After a while, though, I became more optimistic about my fitness regimen and wanted to do it for myself.

Being accountable to others can indeed help you (and me) stay on track. That’s why I will be reporting on my progress to USR readers every month throughout the rest of the year. My next fitness update will be Monday, August 7.  Again, any of you who are interested in accepting the challenge and improving your own health, please share your stories with me. Even if you don’t need to lose weight but are simply adopting more healthy habits, let me know. Your stories might encourage others who are struggling with the same issues.

There are plenty of good diet and exercise programs out there to help you get started on your fitness journey. My colleague and editor, Eric Stephenson, has written an excellent article with some common-sense suggestions on how to begin to gain control over your overall health. Also, here are a few tips that have helped me stay motivated in the last seven months. They may not work for everyone, but they certainly can be modified to suit your needs.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race: Most of the time when people try to lose weight, they get into a big hurry and expect to see dramatic changes overnight. Then they become discouraged when that doesn’t happen. I’d recommend that you not even focus on losing weight initially. Just commit to eating better and moving more. Even small, positive changes can improve your fitness level and frame of mind enormously. Eventually, your body will reward your hard work. Your pants will feel less snug, and you’ll be able to tie your shoelaces without practically fainting, which will in turn motivate you to make even more positive lifestyle changes. I didn’t set any specific goals for myself until I had lost my first ten pounds. Even then, I was pretty general, just thinking to myself, “I just want to see how much healthier I am after one year of trying to improve my health.” That’s a good general goal: Challenge yourself to stick with a healthy diet and exercise plan for one year. Then go on from there!

Begin with Exercise: I’ve made the most significant improvements in this category. In 2017, I’ve only missed two days of exercise. In fact, today is the 92nd straight day I’ve managed to do at least 20 minutes of some physical activity. I generally strive for at least 30 minutes of exercise, but some days I just haven’t had that much time.  I compensate for those shorter days by doing 45-minute workouts most weekends. I’m proud to say that physical activity has now become as much of a routine for me as regular grooming. I wouldn’t dare go out in public without brushing my teeth. Likewise, I rarely leave the house now without doing my daily workout.

If you can get yourself into a routine of doing some sort of exercise for at least 15-20 minutes per day, you’ll be amazed at how much better you will feel. You don’t have to run a marathon. Taking a 20-minute walk can make a difference. As you gain confidence, you can concentrate on varying the types of exercise you’re getting so you’re doing aerobic, anaerobic, intervals, strength training, stretching, and so on. I like doing Leslie Sansones walk aerobics routines, which provide me with a moderate intensity aerobic workout with strength and interval training. Now that summer is here, I also supplement my daily exercise routine with a 20-minute walk after dinner with my husband and the dog.

I’ve also tried my best to make exercising as fun and pleasant as possible. My husband helped me turn the boring old basement junk room where I exercise into a bright, dedicated fitness space where I can’t wait to work out every day. We spent just a little money on a couple of gallons of paint and some inexpensive furniture, and it looks great. Also, I’ve stopped exercising in baggy t-shirts and bought myself some colorful workout clothes that are comfortable but snug enough to see my body’s transformation. Granted, you don’t have to spend any money on your exercise space or clothes to get fit. However, any effort you can make to make fitness more enjoyable will help you stick with it.

Diet: This is the hardest one for me. I have a big sweet tooth, so cutting back on sugar has been a challenge. My weight loss would have progressed more significantly if I were more disciplined with my eating. However, I have made some progress in this area as well. I try to limit myself to one day a week for a major dessert, but lately, I haven’t really had the desire for sweets. In fact, my husband and I bought a couple of cheesecake slices about two months ago, but we were both underwhelmed by the taste.

Portion sizes are also a major impediment to my progress, but I’m trying to eat a filling breakfast (eggs, turkey bacon) to give me energy throughout the morning. I like to have a protein shake for lunch and a snack mid-afternoon. Then we typically have a very nice dinner. My husband is a great cook, so we eat like the Downton Abbey folks at a lot of meals. (We had prime rib last night.) We can also polish off a good bottle of Cabernet with these fancy dinners, so we both need to eat lighter in the evenings and limit the vino.  I plan to keep on working on this aspect of my life in the next few months.

I think the best words of wisdom I’ve ever heard regarding fitness came from Leslie Sansone: We will deal with our health one way or another. Either we will be proactive and sensible about taking care of ourselves, or we will confront all of the health problems that result from poor eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle. We can increase our longevity if we just make a few small but significant changes.

If you’re trying to improve your own health and fitness, I’d love to hear from you. Please send me a message at I will provide my next progress report on August 7.

Be Well!
Dana Zimbleman
The Academic Redneck