What a 21-Day Health Program Taught Me About Self-Love

Self-care involves so much more than planks and shakes, but these might be a good place to start.
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Self-care involves so much more than planks and shakes, but these might be a good place to start.

When you log on to Facebook in the days before New Year’s or the weeks before spring break, you'll see them everywhere: persuasive posts lauding 5-day detoxes, 21-day cleanses, and 30-day workout challenges. If you’re like me, you imagine how great it would feel to have more energy and less trouble getting dressed in the morning in just a matter of weeks. Your next thought is that there’s no way you have the time, motivation, money, or all of the above to put a plan like this into serious effect. So you scroll on.

Recently, though, one of these posts struck me. It wasn’t about losing weight or getting a “beach bod” but rather about staying healthy to enjoy what was then the upcoming holiday season. 

The year prior, despite having two young boys who were pumped about Santa coming down our nonexistent chimney, I wasn’t looking forward to Christmas. There were too many places to be, people to see, and things to do. As November came to a close, I brainstormed how I could make this year better. Christmas is an important time in my faith. I wanted to continue building on my young family’s traditions, but I was tired just thinking about it. I needed something to spark my enthusiasm for the season.

So I gave my friend responsible for the Facebook post a call. We chatted about the three-week commitment to a daily protein shake and vitamin regimen, the cost (a month’s supplies came in at just under $150), and what I could expect to get out of it: a few pounds lost; healthier skin, hair, and nails; strengthened immunity; and, most importantly, the energy I needed to make the most of each day.

I remained skeptical though. Was I playing into a marketing scheme? A gimmick? I wanted any changes I made to be sustainable and realistic. I wasn’t sure this was either.

Further investigation revealed I was eleven pounds overweight and could be on my way to a health issue that a family member had been recently diagnosed with. The time for change had come. A box of protein powder and vitamins were shipped to my door, and I went all in.

I opted into an additional planking practice in the program; so on the morning of day one, I was tasked with a thirty-second plank. Eek. The duration of the hold increased each day until I'd reach nearly three minutes. Double eek. I had resolved to set aside time in the morning to do this, but I’m not an early riser by nature. I reconsidered what I'd signed up for every time the buzzer went off. But once I trembled my way through each day’s goal, I found that accomplishing something I thought I was incapable of before 7 a.m. left me feeling empowered for the rest of the day.

Eating within the prescribed, although loose, dietary guidelines (low carbs, lots of veggies, lean protein) also presented challenges. I needed to rethink how much food I was eating and when. I was nine months postpartum and still nursing, so I knew I needed some extra calories in my diet, but I’d been overdoing it. Snacking had become an automatic reaction to feeling tired or overwhelmed. Through ongoing conversations with the program’s coaches and other participants via Facebook, I tried new recipes and started using food to energize myself rather than to fill a void.

There were nights when I prepared a different dinner for myself than for my family. That meant needing more time for prep and cleanup and a kind of disunity at the table that I wasn’t comfortable with. I worried about my kids seeing me eating differently than they were or replacing whole foods with powder from a canister. Was I modeling a healthy relationship with food by avoiding it?

While I could feel the changes taking effect in the first week, I still had my doubts. I felt sheepish telling friends I was trying to lose weight with a replacement drink. It seemed I was admitting I couldn’t take care of myself the traditional way, with balanced food and regular exercise, and that relying on an all-in-one-package was a sign of weakness.

Melinda Usandivaras, holistic health coach, mother, and founder of HappiestMommy.com, sees it differently. “Balance and exploration go hand in hand when you’re designing a sustainable lifestyle for yourself,” she says. “Though makeup/lotions/jewelry often feel somewhat justifiable, many women—moms specifically—think twice (three, four times) before investing in any kind of coach or personal development program.” Parents are often willing to make sacrifices of time and money to give their kids music lessons or put them in organized sports, but Usandivaras has observed that, “a gym membership, nutrition program, or hobby (like painting, language class, etc.) just doesn't make the cut as a valuable investment. We insist that we don't ‘need’ these things.”

So did I “need” this program after all? I finished the three weeks on the cusp of a healthy weight, standing up straighter for my stronger core, and with clearer skin and shinier hair for all the water I’d been drinking. The weeks afterward were tougher, though. I was still using the leftover products, but didn’t have as much accountability. Because of the holiday celebrations, there was party food in the house all the time. I stayed up too late playing cards and board games with family, then sacrificed my morning planking routine for more sleep.

I've come to learn that moderate indulgences are nothing to be ashamed of. The real goal is balance; what I miss out on today, I can reach for tomorrow. Now, when I strayed from my routine, I made more thoughtful decisions for the rest of the day. I'll opt for a long walk with hot tea to catch up with my sister-in-law rather than sitting over a sugary whole milk latte. The products I purchased and used were helpful as supplements, but they were, as the name suggests, additions or enhancements to greater lifestyle changes. Ultimately, it wasn’t the shakes or vitamins that made the change: It was me.

Investing time and money in this program was my way of giving myself permission and a solid starting point to put my health at the forefront, and for that it was worth it. Now I choose to start each day with five minutes of stretches, a two-minute plank (“Seize the Day” from Newsies plays just long enough to accompany me), and ten minutes of good reading from an honest-to-goodness book. My family helps me prioritize this time for myself—with the exception of the plank, which my early-rising eldest child likes to do with me.

Before this challenge, I considered myself a woman who takes time to care for herself in the midst of marriage, family, and work responsibilities. But now that I’ve taken the time to seriously look at the ways I’m caring for my body and mind, I see that there’s room for improvement. There are concrete changes I’ve made that are working. I am proud of the responsibility I am taking for my health and wellness as I continue to seek out the foods and best practices that work for me and my family. That’s worth much more than the cost of a box of vitamins and shakes to me.

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