Nearly three months ago I joined Noom, that popular weight-loss app based on psychology and science. Researched and written by real nerds for real BMI-challenged people like me who are just plain sick of how we look and feel. We are so over it, and yet it stubbornly clings…and sags and puckers. For a lot of reasons. Which is why Noom takes such a deep dive into behavioral change, but in a fun way. Endless information in light conversational style, cartoons, puns, suggestions, pop quizzes, myth busters, group interaction if you’re into that, a personal counselor to cheer you on—by chat, of course.
The fellow who told me about his stellar experience with Noom at a Memorial Day party had me at “It’s been 4 months and I’ve lost 70 pounds.” Closing in on my three-month mark, I have lost nothing. Well, maybe four pounds but only because I had unknowingly ballooned beyond a never-before-crossed line. As if my body was always going to top out and hover at the high point I reached as a stressed-out single mom who downed a pint of Haagen Dazs every evening and wore the same clothes every week from the “Stevie Nicks, the Heavy Years” collection.
To be fair about this dismal three-month Noom showing, my life has continually upended itself since the day I signed up. Multiple trips both planned and impromptu, emotional upsets, red-alert family dramas—even relaxing getaways tend to be the 180 of healthy nutrition and regular good habits. And let’s be real. I have never before counted or even paid attention to calories. But as foreign as this tally has been, it has drawn back the curtain on a world of sabotaging thoughts and indulgent habits that have been with me since childhood.
This is not my first rodeo. About 10 years ago I stuck to a rigid Candida Cleanse Diet that removed sugar in any form, yeast, dairy, and vinegar. No alcohol, coffee or most other beverages. No bread, pasta, pizza, cheese or milk, coffee, baked goods, salad dressings, sweets or candy. It was simpler to make a list of what I could eat and drink. My friend Beth ran into me at the store and wondered if someone close to me had died. She had never seen me look so bereft and grief-stricken.
"Oh Beth, it’s my inner child. It’s like she can’t stop crying. I never realized before that chocolate was my first addiction and how much I needed that fix of sweetness. It’s just so very deep.”
Eventually all that inconsolable sorrow dissipated and tempting treats or rich desserts looked more like plastic toys than actual food. The sweetness of fruit was just as satisfying as a double hot fudge sundae used to be. As tough as that diet was for the first several weeks, it was relentlessly propelled by the force of a nagging physical sensation and an erroneous self-diagnosis. I was miserable and this was the cure. Turns out what I really needed was a doctor visit and a round of antibiotics but by then, I had an entirely new body and a routine of walking three to five miles each day.
Nothing that miserable and unrelenting is driving this Noom journey. It's going to take a steady dedication to My Big Picture, mindfulness, planning, perseverance, practice, patience, willingness to be uncomfortable, and the E-word. Effort. Because we train our brain to want what it wants, and true rewards—the stuff that makes our spirits and bodies feel so very good—nearly always demands some hard work.
Sometimes that hard work is purely physical. Melissa Urban, founder of the Whole 30 nutritional program, is constantly Instagramming photos of herself busting her ass doing some indoor or outdoor challenging activity. A few months ago her followers saw a photo of her cross-country skiing against a dazzling blue sky and sculptured canyon background that she simply captioned: “Attended the Church of Hard Work today.”
The Church of Hard Work. Flashing lights went off all over my brain. I’ve been to that church before and it’s never fun or even easy—at least not in the beginning. The thought of it has zero appeal. Less than zero. In my 20’s I was wild for a new boyfriend who was into endurance sports and outdoor activity. By God, at the very least I was buying a backpack and cross-country skis and taking up running. Me, the person who never ran an unnecessary step in her entire life. But also me, the insecure pleaser with such a desperate need to be loved and cherished that no human being could ever fill it. I was doing this thing.
First time out, I pounded my way up and down a few blocks—in Phoenix AZ in August, no less than 112 F degrees in the shade. Pretty much a near-death experience. Hobbling into work the next morning with shin splints, my boss wondered why I could barely walk. As soon as he heard that I was running on sidewalks with ordinary tennis shoes in mid-day heat, he suggested a softer surface (like the canal path a half-block from my apartment) and the right shoes.
“I thought all those pricy running shoes were marketing hype,” said I. “No, they are not,” said he. “And try running when it’s a few degrees cooler than the surface of the sun. It might be tough to pull yourself out of bed at the crack of dawn, but you're going to find it’s a great way to start the day.”
I can’t say running felt good or even natural for the first few weeks, but it did become easier. And I stuck with it. After all, I was romantically motivated to make a good showing. By the time we broke up 18 months later, the rewards had kicked in and so had my morning run. I even added drop-from-bed-to-floor yoga stretches as a warm up routine. No more pushing, no more hard work. No thinking or self-arguments. Most mornings, I was at least a mile from home before I fully woke up. Starting out each day with that rush of endorphins and feeling that emotional and physical lift all day and into the night had become who I was.
That’s the thing about the Church of Hard Work. The more you do, the more you can do, and the greater the surge of strength and self-esteem and body goodness. And if you remain at the Church of Hard Work, the thought of “doing that again”—a thought that used to be speckled with expletives and made you shudder—now stirs a little excitement. It doesn’t matter anymore that the reward is delayed. Reaching Nirvana is a cost versus benefit that becomes a total no-brainer, something you can’t imagine living without.
Walking through all the Noom lessons, one thing is becoming clear. Sustainable behavioral change is never sudden or extreme or easy. Especially for those of us who grew up self-soothing, escaping reality, and numbing our feelings in ways that were less than healthy but at the time were necessary for our survival. There’s a reason why “I can do hard things” has become such a battle cry from thought leaders like Glennon Doyle. Moving away from deeply ingrained habits that no longer serve us and creating new ones is always going to feel like hard work.
It’s not easy to grow in mindfulness and start feeling everything we’ve avoided or stuffed down. Walking to the edge of mental, emotional, psychological, and physical discomfort and learning how to stay, learning how to lean in. And it’s seldom easy to begin new activities that have little or no immediate gratification. Some hard work starts out as a grueling slog. What conscious effort and determination to keep going will offer is a slowly growing ease and long-lasting highs that don’t bottom out and leave us lower than we started. Natural highs with the potential to reach higher and ever higher ground like getting fit, meditation, yoga, healthy nutrition, or steady progress toward a long-held cherished goal.
No matter where we are on the journey, the precious gifts waiting to be explored in the Church of Hard Work can hold the keys to a shiny new life that we can scarcely imagine. Greater pleasure, clearer head, sharper intuition, stronger body, fully restful sleep, a published book, our own business. I’m joining a new church, one baby step at a time. Watch me grow.