A Fitness View from the Trenches

If you are old enough to remember the Presidential Physical Fitness tests in elementary school, I was one of those kids who only managed a bronze award  – once.  I could never manage to run the 600-yard run.  In my teens, I put on weight and at one point weighed about 20 pounds more than I do now.  I was not a star athlete, to say the least.

Somewhere in my mid 20’s I started to get serious about exercise.  I’ve done it all (just about): Jazzercise, regular aerobics, step aerobics, Body Pump, boot camps, running, and recently even Zumba.  I have managed to keep my weight steady through my 20’s, into my 30’s and now through my 40’s.  Along the way, I have learned two key secrets to weight control:  portion size and group exercise.

These two actions have been my guiding principles over the past twenty-five years and helped me to maintain my weight and a healthy lifestyle.  Once you get started and incorporate these two actions into your life, it is nearly painless to maintain your weight.

Portion Size

You can go online and find all kinds of portion control advice.  Some of it is simple and some, downright complicated.  Here’s what works for me.  Eat what you are currently eating, but cut your portion by 25% (or more if you can).  Instead of that venti latte, try the tall size.  Instead of a large serving of ice cream, order the small or even the mini.  Trust me on this, because there is no food that I love more than ice cream, but once you teach your body to accept a small taste of any food that you love, you will accept and eat less.

As an ex-pat living in Europe, I was so impressed with the “normal” portion sizes that are served in most restaurants and cafes in Europe.  I lived near a fantastic gelato stand in Amsterdam and for 1.60 Euros; I could get two normal sized scoops of gelato.  And by normal sized, I mean a regular scoop of ice cream that fit neatly on the top of a cone and didn’t melt down my hand before I could eat it all.  Not the $5.00 “small” dish that vendors here in New York City, where I currently live, serve, and which I can neither finish nor manage to eat before it melts into soup.

If you can’t manage to order a smaller portion size, for example at a restaurant, try the trick that a running friend of mine (who is almost 60 years old and still in great shape despite a killer work-travel schedule) employs: eat only 75% (or less) of what is on your plate.  Put your fork down and just stop eating.  Your mother or grandmother isn’t going to tell you to clean your plate.  Mom only meant for you to clean your plate when restaurants actually served normal-sized portions.  Trust me on this!

Group Exercise

My second principle for maintaining a healthy weight is group exercise.  Exercising with someone or in a group will help you to stick to an exercise plan.

I’ve tried working out at home by myself.  I never have the space (as in right now in my shoebox-sized NYC apartment) or I find one hundred other things to do (Oh look! The dishwasher needs to be emptied.), or I just don’t get to it.

However, when I know that I have to meet someone for a run or when I have a planned class to attend, I am just that much more inclined to actually do it.  There is just no way that my pride will allow me to call a friend and beg off time after time, so I go.  And as fitness experts will tell you, once you get into a routine (of not begging off on a run or walk with a friend) it’s that much easier to keep up that routine and to actually get out there for that walk or run.

Keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities to find other people with whom to exercise.   I once met a running partner via a Dutch language class when we were asked to speak (in Dutch, naturally) about our interests and activities and lo and behold, one classmate said that she liked to run.  I approached her after class and we started talking about places to run and pretty soon we were meeting on Saturday mornings at 8am to run!

I ran for years with a colleague before work a few mornings a week and I ran with a neighbor whom I met on the local bus, on the weekends.  Although I moved to NYC without knowing a single person, I found a parent at my daughter’s school who is a fitness trainer and who runs a group two days a week along the Hudson River.  It has been a great way to exercise with a view and it actually keeps me coming back for more.  In the process, I have met a few other people in the neighborhood.

Fitness Classes

When I don’t have a friend with whom to exercise, I use the technique of going to a fitness class.  Any fitness class will do.  One good recommendation is to find a local yoga studio, as they will often allow you to jump into a class whenever you want, without having to have a membership.  Try a few different types of classes until you find something that clicks with how and when you want to exercise.  For example, I have a weak ankle (and a lack of coordination but I won’t go into that) so a complicated step aerobics class is just not going to work for me anymore.

Yoga Classes

Start with the lowest level class you can find, for example an introduction to yoga class or a weight-lifting class that allow you to do as little or as much weight as you can do.  This allows you to build your confidence and then you’ll be more likely to keep going.

Finally, if you do go to a class, pay attention to the style and tone of the teacher.  Frankly, I’ve had instructors who were dismal and others that were great.  In Amsterdam, I had a spin instructor who was so incredible that her classes had a cult-like following.  Here in NYC, my level one yoga teacher is a lovely French woman with a beautiful accent and the perfect yoga-bendy form.  Along the way, you will find a class and instructor that suit you.  You just need to keep trying.

My experience has been that when I find time to exercise even once or twice a week with someone or in a class, I actually find it that much easier to add in a couple of solo workouts on my own.  I try to add in a solo run, at least once a week.  As I got fitter I also found it easier to “sneak” exercise into my regular day – for example to get of the bus a couple of blocks early and walk or to park further away in a parking lot.  Any little bit helps.

Lifestyle Changes

These two small lifestyle adjustments have allowed me, a non-athlete, to never have to diet (diets makes me completely food obsessed), to have dessert in a restaurant (I do watch my alcohol intake as I find alcohol to be empty calories and a dessert for me, is far more satisfying.) and to maintain my weight and to remain in pretty darn good shape for a gal in my late 40’s.

[box type=”note”]And the best part is I hardly have to think about actually doing them, that’s how easy are the two acts of portion control and regular group exercise! Simple eh?[/box]


I'm an ex-pat who lived in The Netherlands from 2004-2010, a runner and fitness buff, cat owner, mom, and shoe aficionado. Not necessarily in that order. In my spare time I write a blog about my experiences as an ex-pat and my reflections on returning to the US and living in New York City for the first time in my life.

3 thoughts on “A Fitness View from the Trenches

  • November 5, 2010 at 10:16 pm

    Portion size is something that’s actually worked well for myself. I find that when I’m trying to trim down, there’s an adjustment period where it takes a while to getting used to eating a little less. Once you do adjust, it becomes normal and the weight drops off.

  • November 4, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    That’s such great advice! It took me 54 years to learn it :-( But it’s the key to my losing 30+ pounds since February without feeling deprived or giving up my beloved chocolate and red wine.

  • November 4, 2010 at 11:22 am

    On the topic of portion control (critical on Weight Watchers for me)…my nutritionist introduced me to a new product which has just come out, but it’s hard to find in stores. I ordered it online from http://www.PortionControl.net since they offer free shipping. It’s definitely a why-didn’t-I-think-of-that product, and it really helps me with daily portion control, while making my cooking easier and tastier. I LOVE THEM. It’s really a nifty idea, and I recommend it if you like cooking at home but are struggling with eating right.


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