Why do it?


I intended today’s conversation to be about my recent walks in -30 Celcius weather along the nearby Sawmill Creek path through our neighbourhood. It follows a creek that meanders like an untied ribbon until it flows into the Rideau River. How snow squeaked as I walked and beside me the frozen creak rattled, as though something underneath was trying to escape. So many things creaked. Branches creaked from the lightest chickadee whose weight seemed too heavy to bear in this cold. The metal bridge creaked and the tall grasses creaked in the wind. The current creaked under the ice. Three crows creaked as they flapped tree to tree.

As I breathed through the scarf wrapped around my face and over my nose, my glasses iced over. All I observed was my breath. All I heard were my footsteps and my heartbeat. I couldn’t see the snow on the other side of the creek where sometimes lean coyotes pad, hunting for rabbits.

You might ask why I was walking in Hell-frozen-over cold. Why I risked frostbitten fingers, toes, earlobes, nose, and cheeks and trod through snow and ice, ice, more ice. Because in September I decided I needed to shave off some weight and over three months I lost the equivalent of 10 pounds of butter. I dodged cookies, hid from bacon, took cover from cake and candy and beer and wine. But all the lost pounds found me again at Christmas. Brick by butter brick I added back the weight. And so, swaddled in an insulating layer of protective fat, I decided I needed to walk.

And what stuck in my head during the most recent walk was a New York Times op-ed piece called “The Only Way to Keep Your Resolutions” by psychologist David DeSteno. In short, willpower is out and gratitude and compassion are the keys to self-control.  According to DeSteno’s research, employing extreme willpower comes at a cost to health.  Bodies suffered from increased stress responses, and “premature aging of their immune cells.” Interesting, eh? Does this mean willpower causes wrinkles? An oversimplification, no doubt, but the article points out that those who fail by use of extreme dedication “…report a hit to their well-being that is 120 percent greater than that reported by those who follow a less stressful path.” Suddenly I was worried about all my dieting failures over the years and what was going on under my wrinkles.

DeSteno argues that what works is building strong relationships and that we should strive to form relationships that allow us to put something, or someone else, ahead of our own desires which will help cultivate gratitude, pride, and compassion.

Gratitude – showing appreciation – apparently directly increases self-control. DeSteno’s research shows when you make someone feel grateful, “…they’ll spend more time helping anyone who asks for assistance….” Pride, too, works in a similar fashion. “Making people feel proud – not arrogant – but proud of the skills they have – makes them more willing to wait for future rewards…work longer and harder….”

He concludes that pride, gratitude and compassion improve the ability to value the future and encourage us to help our future selves. “Feeling pride or compassion has been shown to increase perseverance on difficult tasks by over 30 percent.” But, for those of us who diet and fail, here’s tomorrow’s salted caramel candy: “Gratitude and compassion have been tied to…a greater willingness to exercise and eat healthily….”

DeSteno isn’t talking about dieting at all, of course. He’s talking about becoming a better human being by connecting with others. But I buy the heartfelt science that cultivating social emotions can make it easier to forestall more shortbread and a third glass of wine.


This isn’t a quick fix, is it? If I want to carve off 10 bricks of butter and keep it off forever, it’s going to take more than sheer willpower. Because, when I look at the reasons for diet failure – or weight gain – the inability to forestall a piece of lemon meringue pie now versus a brisk walk along the creek path and fitting into my pants in three months – I’m not just looking at willpower. I’m looking at a lifetime of habits and behaviours that haven’t nurtured compassion, pride, and gratitude. And I have to ask why. And that’s way harder than willpower. Self-examination versus failed willpower? It makes me want to diet instead because otherwise I have to tackle two issues – restraint in the face of delicious food AND becoming a better human. Can I, at 60, a chubby larvae stuck in a cocoon of me, develop eulogy virtues? There’s more at stake than tight pants.

37 thoughts on “Why do it?

  1. I walk much more than I ever did and that’s because I put my dog before myself in that instance – he has to go for a walk, and I want to make it worthwhile for him, so I walk further – and I get the benefits not only of walking but of seeing all the wonderful things I see.

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  2. What a great post! Thank you for that! All good ideas and you inspire great comments too!

    You mentioned that DeSteno concluded that we need human connection, and to put someone or something before ourselves. I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea, and I heartily agree. When I hear people say you must take care of yourself first, I just don’t agree. I disagree on the “first” part. I feel like some people use that as an excuse to be selfish and never get around to caring for others. I have found that connecting with others, helping and being real with them is sometimes inconvenient and slightly uncomfortable. It would be easy to say “I don’t have time for this. I need to take care of myself first.” And “first” is one of those words that can be invoked at any time!

    Connecting with others and having real conversations is SO rewarding. Perhaps we could motivate ourselves to exercise more or eat healthy because we see those activities as rewarding as well.

    Anyways, perhaps I’m talking to myself more than anyone else! 🙂

    Thank again for your insights and keep it up!

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    • Interesting comment and idea that self-care is part of caring for others, Theresa. It echoes Dr. DeStenos article. Self care shouldn’t be exclusive and I see your point that some people use it as an excuse to indulge themselves. Sometimes I think self-care is confused with pampering versus psychological well-being. I agree that being real with people is hard work and can be uncomfortable. Its hard to do the right thing but its better to try and be clumsy than do nothing at all, right?


  3. Happy New Year, Susanne and what a brilliant start to the year to read this. This year, I decided to make ‘revelations’ rather than ‘resolutions’. My idea is that if I have a revelation about how to do something and stick to it (I won’t bore you with the endless list of things that I could address) then I don’t set myself up for the success-failure cycle that ‘resolving’ and using will-power have. This article seems in some way to defend my half-baked notion and I am fascinated by the idea that willpower may actually be damaging (speaking as someone who is capable of a will of steel and suffers acutely with anxiety, I perhaps rest the good Doctor’s case). And you are right …. there is so much more than fitting into sylphes clothing at stake. I want to live a good deal longer and to achieve that I need to embrace holistic good health and stick with it for the long haul. I wish you great success and I am in awe of you getting out into that creaking landscape to start as you mean to go on. You have inspired me!

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    • I was intrigued by the articles revelation about the effect of willpower failure on our delicate psyches. Your half-baked notion sounds like its been scientifically proven correct! Did you see the book Maggie recommended in her comment? It sounds promising and I’m going to see if I can get it out of the library along with the book by DeSteno referenced in the Times’ article. Here’s to a year of gentle revelations – nothing too biblical – and kind improvements.

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      • I will check the book she recommends out – I hadn’t noticed so thank you for pointing me back. And the one DeSteno referenced I have already asked the library to order for me. We are hugely fortunate in the City with a fantastic network of libraries including an International one and they are SO helpful. Deep respect for librarians. Gentle non-biblical revelations and kind improvements sound very much like a good objective 🙂

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  4. Wow, I love that philosophy. I can see where the stress of extreme willpower is bad for the person in every way. I am hoping that all the steps I put into chasing cats will help my health without me using willpower, but I think I need to start walking more regularly–and I don’t even have ittle bitty cold to deal with outside. What a wimp I am.

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    • I love eating, Liz. Why does it have to be so darn complicated? Open mouth, insert pie, chew. But I’ll do the work because I want to be a better human, not just a thin human. Wishing you ample photo opps and happy trails in 2018.

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  5. I’m sure you struck a chord with your readers with this post Susanne it is hard to really look at ourselves . A better human?? Maybe we just don’t give ourselves enough credit when we are compassionate,giving and the other virtues we feel we should live up to? Happy New Year my friend after reading this post you’ve confirmed what I have been pondering lately… time for a change in attitude. Thanks Sue for your lovely writing always thoughtful and thought provoking.

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  6. First of all Susanne, Happy new year to you! I write from the 30 degrees of Sydney! Second, I loved this post of yours! An introspection it sounds like. Third, at 60, please try to incorporate some weight bearing exercises in your fitness schedule. Walks are great, and more so in the surroundings you’re lucky to live in, however, lunges and squats work wonders with toning the body. Look forward to many more posts this year 🙂

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    • Happy New Year back at you, Shubha! Ah yes, the weight bearing exercises. One of my promises for this year is to be more regular about the regimen. I’m plagued with bad knees and hips but I know that I can make modifications to exercises to ensure I maintain muscle and bone mass. But its almost as hard as dieting!

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  7. I love your food analogies and metaphors. Nature rocks, methinks. I would also observe that you may very well gain more than just a svelte bod and clothes that drape rather than hug. I’ve heard it said its impossible to be in a bad mood whilst walking in the woods. I would venture to assume that to be true regardless of the weather, though a raging blizzard might be a possible exception.

    I loved this: I dodged cookies, hid from bacon, took cover from cake and candy and beer and wine. Nice writin’. 🙂

    Wishing you every success and a most happy New Year!

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    • I’m lucky to live so close to nature and a beautiful walking path, even if it is bloody cold! Its still pretty. The Japanese apparently have a practice called “forest bathing” which is supposed to be very good for your mental health and I believe it. Getting outside and walking among trees always makes me feel better.

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  8. Intention is important. If we all looked at things like we were parenting ourselves, would our self-care improve, or would we punish ourselves? Much to ponder.

    I enjoy winter but I don’t want to be in pain from the cold. A quick trip does fine — to the end of the street, a walk through the fallow field, roaming my back 40, maybe 15 minutes. On days like today, trips back and forth to the kitchen and laundry seem like exercise.

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    • Joey, once again you state it so clearly. Yes, we should look and talk to ourselves as though we are parenting the poor soul inside. I like to think I would be more patient.

      Yes, the cold is painful on exposed skin so the trick is to expose as little as possible. Today, though, even with my nose covered the nostril hairs froze.

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    • Hi Joey and Susanne – happy new year!

      I think that there’s a lesson to be learned about responding to pain.

      Like Joey remarked, I’ll bundle and take my butt out the door for a stretch if my body commands it. But only for a quick tour of the yard when the temps are that cold. To do a longer walk, just because “it is written thou shouldst walk 30 minutes a day, least thee be declared a slouch and a wicked layabout” is risky business.

      I’m learning to ignore body shaming and rigid rules in the food intake department. It’s just not sustainable, this business of denying ourselves something pleasing. More to the point, beating ourselves up for being overweight is not a motivator I can recommend. I gained ten pounds this festive season. I drank Bailey’s, doubled up on the wine, ate Christmas cake and cookies. With the weather as freaking cold as it’s been, I have not been getting out for walks.

      The cake is gone, as is the Bailey’s. I’m back to limiting processed foods and refined sugar. Happy hour is one glass of wine. I’m not saying that I don’t feel disappointment or ashamed of myself – old patterns are hard to break. But there’s something different this season. I allowed myself to celebrate and it was great!

      This sermon (sorry if it sounds pedantic. In my head, it sounds preach-y) reminds me of something my meditation teacher told me years ago about training the monkey brain to be quiet. Except she suggested that we consider the inner chatter to be a puppy – one we are paper training. If you harshly scold or otherwise berate or punish the pup when she moves from the paper, there is less chance for success. Not to mention leftover emotional scarring. If, however, we simply note that our “pup has strayed,” then all we need do is gently pick her up and put her back on the paper. And try again.

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      • I’m really enjoying hearing from others about their approaches to eating, exercise, and being nice to themselves. Your meditation teacher sounds like a true jewel, Maggie, and her suggestion makes a lot of sense to me. It sounds very much like what the NY Times article was advocating – less guilt and more kindness. I’m curious to how you go about limiting refined sugar which is for me the hardest thing to do. Sugar is like crack for me.

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        • Sugar is like crack. I understand. I am craving sugar, but am happy to report that I’ve already shed 3 pounds – all water retained to deal with the toxic crap.

          Last summer, after a series of baseline medical tests, my new MD was pressing me to take statins for borderline LDL levels. I “demurred” in her office and in my mind, flat out refused. So I was motivated to deal with cholesterol and hypertension by lifestyle changes rather than medicine.

          It was around this time that I explored Paleo and other no-carb diets. Since we do not eat industrially processed meat in our house, these approaches were not an option. Then I read Yoni Freedhoff’s book, The Diet Fix. Freedhoff, like your Times author, advocates kindness – the carrot rather than the stick, so to speak.

          So that’s the background – I had had a minor medical scare and I was stubbornly refusing to follow my MD’ orders – a bit of “I’ll show you that I can do this without drugs!” That helped me to ignore the sugary foods that my husband keeps in caches all over the house. My righteous indignation carried me through the cravings to the point that I began to lose weight – and there’s nothing like loose pants to motivate one further.

          But, following Freedhoff’s suggestion, I made sure that what I did eat was enjoyable and that I did not go hungry. I seasoned and garnished my food with spices and mayo. I stopped snack times. Or if I did have a coffee break, it was coffee or tea only. I greatly reduced breads, or at the most, only once a day. I did not eat after 7 PM.

          Finally, if it’s not in the cupboard, it’s not there to tempt. Not only sweets, but processed and packaged food. Though, that’s about impossible when you live with other people, especially other people who indulge their sweet teeth.

          I wish you well Suzanne.

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          • Thanks for all the background and putting this into context, Maggie. I’m going to seek out the book by Yoni Freedhoff. It sounds sensible and kind and easier than weighing and measuring every morsel. It sounds like your plan may have resulted in improved health, too. Is that the case?

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          • Overall, I was in OK health to begin with, apart from elevated BP. I’m not running marathons, but I have more confidence hauling my keister over the rock piles since I shed some pounds. I have noticed that I sleep better when I eat fewer sugars. I feel good about my lighter load, and the fact that I can wear my “skinny” pants from 12 years ago. I don’t shudder when I look in the mirror. I passed my stress test no problem though I was quite anxious about staying upright on the treadmill. Actually, the attending specialist suggested that I cut my BP meds in half – that my levels were too low. So that’s good. Time will tell about the LDL when I have a follow-up later this year.

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  9. Looking at the wrong cocoon here. I’m in hedonistic Italy for a reason. Here -2 C is freezing cold. Here we eat that extra meringue. And then we have one more. Here we carry our watermelons in front as proud mamas-to-be. Here it’s so hard to walk because nobody does it, kind of like Los Angeles, that’s why I thank bestia for taking me on regular walks. I remember that creaking, and dieting, from my masochistic country of origin, though. Oh yes, there are reasons…

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    • I love your comments and I love watermelons and so I’m sure I would love Italy especially the gelato! I love walking. For me it is like meditation. I think if I were to try meditating lying down I’d fall asleep.

      May life bring you all the pie you need in 2018, MMM.

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  10. Happy New Year, Susanne!
    I enjoy your writing and your point of view.
    I find myself looking for some sort of middle-ground, here. Must we give up ALL of our treats AT ALL TIMES in order to express our virtues?
    Years ago I read that instead of focusing on the behavior or habit that [I] want to break, focus on the one [I] want to cultivate, and eventually the new behavior will edge out the old one. This often works for me, because I’m not a fan of “cold turkey” methods.

    Thanks for braving the cold and creaking elements in order to bring us this post. Are you like the poet, Mary Oliver, whose walks in nature often inspire her poems?

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    • I like being in a sentence with Mary Oliver. Thank you for that, Leslie. Have you read her Dog Poems? Yes, a walk in the woods never fails to inspire, even on the coldest, quietest mornings when all i can hear is my heart and my breathing. I appreciate the tip to focus on a habit I want to cultivate rather than the one I want to break – a most sensible approach and it sounds less stressful and doesn’t exclude chocolate!

      Happy New Year to you, too!

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