I went on my first diet when I was 14. I had been a gymnast and a diver when I was younger, and as I slipped into the more sedentary life of a teenager – and my body entered puberty – I started worrying that I weighed too much.

I came by it honestly. My mother went on a diet every Monday morning for most of my childhood. By Thursday, we were eating cookies and ice cream for dessert again and her weight – which I actually never noticed – didn’t change much.

I became a runner in my 30s and for years that allowed me to eat what I wanted to eat and stay within a comfortable weight range for myself. It wasn’t really until menopause that I entered another phase of having trouble keeping weight off.

Fitness After 50 is More than a Number on a Scale

I’m almost embarrassed to say that it took me that long to realize that the number on the scale, the shape of our body and how we feel about that shape is not something we can fix or correct or change with a short-term eating plan. As trite as it may sound – and as many times as we’ve heard it – being fit really is about how we live, not about how little we can manage to eat or what we put into our mouths.

More than anything, fitness is a result of paying attention to what and how much we eat, moving our bodies every single day, enjoying a mix of good, healthy foods and making this a lifetime commitment, not a short-term fix.

Paying Attention to What and How Much We Eat

More and more, fitness and weight loss plans are getting on board with the approach of paying attention by providing computer apps that help you track what foods you consume each day. This makes it infinitely easier than writing down each granola bar and chicken breast you eat, but the idea is the same. It keeps you accountable to yourself.

If you know you are going to record what you eat, it makes you pay attention. After a few days of noting what you’re consuming, you start thinking about food before you eat it. Do I really want to have to write down that I ate a half a box of Wheat Thins? Maybe I’ll have a sliced apple instead.

Most of the programs give you a range of calories or points for food items based on your objectives so you know that if you stay within that range, you can achieve your goals.

Moving Your Body Every Single Day

You don’t have to run marathons to get in shape or stay there. You need to move every day and you need to gradually increase that movement when you’re ready. If it’s been awhile since you’ve walked around the block, try a half a block. Let’s face it – it’s better than sitting on your couch.

Researchers believe that as we age and begin to feel that our bodies aren’t as capable as they once were, it may have more to do with the fact that we stop moving than it does with actual decline.

Keeping our bodies going, including some kind of cardiovascular movement and some kind of weight-bearing exercise, is what we need to get through the long haul. The cardio keeps our blood flowing and the weight-bearing work builds muscle and bone density. We all need that whether we’re trying to lose weight or gain it.

Enjoying a Mix of Good, Healthy Foods

For most of us, when we start thinking about losing weight or getting into better shape, we immediately think of having to eat foods that are “good” for us, and nothing that is delicious.

Although it’s not a good idea to live on hot dogs and French fries, it’s the balanced diet that will allow us to make this a lifestyle and not just a quickly failing, one-shot venture.

We all know that it’s a good idea to eat fruits and vegetables, lean protein and fiber, and it’s easier than ever today to follow this guideline. Grocery stores even sell packaged meals that are both fresh and frozen.

The good news is that you can also have a treat every once in a while, especially if you’re paying attention to what you’re consuming and how much of it you’re eating.

Making This a Lifetime Commitment

I wish my mother had lived long enough to realize that we all struggle with staying healthy and fit and that no new diet plan is going to change that.

They key is always moderation, but it’s also remembering to see fitness in the same way you think of any aspect of your health. You would never say, “Well, I brushed my teeth for three months so now I don’t have to do it anymore,” or “I slept a lot lost week. I think I’ll stay awake all this week.”

We need to be smart and realistic about our weight and our fitness and there’s plenty of help in the world these days to get there. Look around online and find a good app for tracking what you eat. Find out which works best for your lifestyle.

What “treat” foods do you have trouble moderating? Maybe try keeping smaller containers in your cupboards, but still let yourself have a little bit now and then. Meet with a friend who also wants to get into better shape and make a health plan together. Who would be a good partner as you embark on this new lifestyle?

How have you committed to fitness in your life? What have you found most helpful in avoiding pitfalls? Do you have a group of friends with similar goals? How do you support one another? Please join the conversation.

Ginny McReynolds is a longtime writer. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College, and writes about communication, retirement, reinvention, self-concept and creativity in The Washington Post, Curve magazine, and Together.guide. Please visit her blog called Finally Time for This: A Beginner’s Guide to the Second Act of Life.

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