Toward a Broader Definition of Fitness by Beth McCuskey

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Beth McCuskey lives in West Lafayette, Indiana and works as the Associate Vice President for Housing and Food Services at Purdue University.  She has a B.S. in Economics; M.A. in Education; M.S. in Industrial and Labor Relations; and Ed.D. in Education Leadership Studies,  all from West Virginia University.  She has also reared two children in the wondrous state of Wyoming and they vow they will never leave the Rockies, so ski trips will always be in her future.  In the interest of full disclosure, Beth recently became engaged and is moving (across town) in a week, and (spoiler alert) is currently not doing a very good job of any of the things in this blog.

 

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Fitness has meant different things to me throughout the years and I think I am finally figuring it out.   You see, it’s not about a dress size or the successful completion of a diet—it’s about attitude and feeling good in my own skin.  It’s about living life to the absolute fullest each day and reflecting that attitude to those around me.

As a child, I was far more interested in books than sweat socks.  My mother tried to get me interested in some sports, but the results were sad.  I quit gymnastics when I whacked my head doing a cartwheel and lasted only one swim lesson because I didn’t like water in my nose.  Sweating and breathing hard were not of interest to me and fitness was the last thing on my mind.

As I got older, I recognized the direct linkage between diet/exercise and appearance.  I tried fad diets, and exercise programs du jour.  At times, I bought clothing a size too small as a way to inspire weight loss and (sadly) starved myself to fit into it.

As a young mother, I paid little attention to my fitness as the needs of my children, husband, job, and (fill in the blank) always seemed to trump my own.  Even being diagnosed with breast cancer in my early thirties did little to change my sedentary ways—and in fact, my weakened condition post-treatment contributed to my lethargy.

My rude awakening came with another round of breast cancer six years later.  The disease came at a time when I was struggling with other major issues including losing my mother to her own cancer battle.  This time, I knew that my life needed to change.  I needed to embrace fitness in the broadest sense of the word.  These are the steps I took:

 

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1. I learned to let go. Letting go is a form of trust—trust that things that will work out as planned.  In the past, I would always be wound up about something.  Did I offend somebody by an offhand quip in a meeting?  Did I make a good impression?  Did I spend enough time with my kids tonight?  The list was always long.

Learning to let go gave me the capacity to focus more sharply.  Rather than being consumed by worry, I turned my mental energies to more positively engage with the world around me.  I became present.

 

2. I began to nourish the body.  At one point it dawned on me that I was treating my car better than I treated my own body.  I would never put garbage fuel in my gas tank, so why in the world would I eat foods that were of dubious nutritional value? I began eating more vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins—simply as my promise to put good foods into my body. 

As I grew accustomed to my new diet, I recognized some side benefits as well.  I had more energy, and needed less sleep at night.  I was sick less.  I also realized that I didn’t crave sweets or salty foods when I wasn’t munching on them regularly.  It was also cool to lose a few pounds in the process.

 

3. I realized that I needed to exercise for sanity.  I started by going for long walks each evening and realized that my burden seemed lighter with the miles.  I started practicing yoga regularly and, over time, began to relish the connection between my mind, body and soul. The combination of walking/running and yoga sustains me to this day.  I get the aerobic benefit and mental release from hitting the pavement and the strength, flexibility, and mindfulness from yoga practice.

Exercise has become my way to burn off stress and aggression.  I know that I am a much more pleasant person after exercising.  Not only can I feel it, those around me notice too.  Given my earlier aversion to sweat, I am fortunate to have found activities that I love.  I believe that everyone has this capacity if they try new things and keep an open mind.

 

4. I began to strive to be a giver, not a taker.  I often use this phrase as my mantra as it speaks of my desire to leave a positive imprint on this earth.  This also ties to many values I deem important, including kindness, humility, and a focus on sustainability.  In the broadest definition of fitness, the mindset of “being a giver” necessarily reminds us to be our best self.

 

I wish I could say that I can fully optimize each of these steps every day; however that would be quite far from the truth.  I will say that I rely upon them to be my guiding principles as I strive for better fitness, and, overall, to be a better human being.

I do know that each of these elements intertwine for me in interesting ways.  If I’m not letting go, I tend to get controlling and become more a “taker” than a giver.  This stress is also more likely to lead to mindless eating as my head is off worrying somewhere rather than focusing on whether I’m truly hungry or not.  Similarly, if I exercise, I am more likely to let go of my stressors and less likely to make poor food choices.

Fitness for me is a lifestyle.  It’s much more than doing time at the gym or measuring my portions.  It’s about striving to be a better person and ultimately contributing to a better world.

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