The summer of my fortieth year I was called to be ward Young Women’s camp director. Believe it or not, I ws thrilled at the prospect. After all, as a young woman my greatest love, as well as my vocation, had been camping with young women of the Church. But now, twenty years and six children later, as I lay prostrate and panting in the middle of a backpacking trip on a mountain somewhere in the Uintahs, I finally realized that while the spirit was still very willing, the flesh was mighty, mighty weak.
What had happened? Where had all the “young girl” gone? Why was I so physically unprepared for this particular challenge? And finally, was this experience just a dramatic example of other, more subtle indications that though I was not really sick, all was not well?
Mothers have incredible demands placed upon them. Not only must they be up at the crack of dawn, they are usually the last to bed after a long session with the laundry and/or a lonesome child. They are managers of the mundane, but they are sacred guardians and teachers of principle as well, responsible for helping to increase the level of family love and understanding. So who in the world needs to be in better physical and mental health than a mother—and who in the world has less time and energy to spend seeing that she is?
Perhaps therein lies the answer to why I couldn’t make it up that mountain, and why I sometimes can’t make it through the dinner hour. What I was apparently suffering from was not outright ill health, but a lack of full health—a sort of “second gear” existence, brought on not by the passage of years but by what I had failed to do during those years. Indeed, I submit that a good deal of the fatigue, lethargy, depression, and frustration a mother sometimes faces is not due entirely to the many responsibilities she carries, but rather to her inability to muster the energy and vigor it takes to meet them with efficiency, objectivity, and humor.
It has been said that “health isn’t just the state of not being ill. Health is the ability to use the body to perform all needful activities; health is strength, vigor, endurance, and a robust appearance; health is lack of fatigue, the ability to think and make decisions quickly, unhampered by physical lethargy; health is bringing the body to the same level of perfection to which the Lord admonishes us to bring our spirits.” 1
I suspect that when judged against the above, I fall to meet the standard.
Fortunately for us all, the Lord, in his mercy, has endowed our bodies with amazing resilience. Even though it has taken years of imperceptible slipping before we are aware that we are really down, we can, through concentrated effort, change to habits of good health that will have considerable positive effect within months.
If you’ve checked out your own situation and found it wanting, and if you’re ready to make the commitment to strength, vigor, and endurance, there are some ideas that will be helpful to consider when making your plan for action.
First, there are no shortcuts or miracle roads. A healthy life demands a healthy, balanced lifestyle. “Total health comes from a totally healthy way of life, including the way we eat, the way we treat our bodies, and the way we deal with the Lord and our fellowmen.” 2
Second, your answers will not be found in the “Health and Beauty Aids” section of the supermarket. It makes little sense to fill up with vitamin supplements if we continue to eat too much or too haphazardly, refuse to walk farther than from the house to the garage, and stay up to watch the late show every night.
So now to the actual plan for improvement. We will identify actual areas of concern where change will be beneficial, and one or two practical ways of effecting that change.
Nutrition. “We all eat. But what we eat makes a great deal of difference in our lives. Improper foods can keep us alive for years, just as smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer the first week a person smokes. But improper foods don’t allow us to be truly healthy.” 3
I am no nutrition expert. I have always just assumed that if I ate well-planned, nutritionally balanced meals, I’d be all right. It’s an assumption I think is basically sound. The flaw comes not with the actual food, but from lack of attention to the “well-planned” and “nutritionally balanced” aspects.
Viewing myself as a reasonable competent household manager, I was shocked, after a good hard look, to discover what the Vriens family was really eating. All those wonderful, healthful foods brought home from the market or picked from the garden were generally being consumed in a much more haphazard and nutritionally ineffective way than I had ever imagined. Not infrequently, a toasted cheese sandwich or a lone hotdog would win out over creamed cauliflower for the sake of convenience. So as a busy mom who needs all the convenience she can get, I came up with two procedures that really do ease the burden of meal preparation while still ensuring good nutrition.
1. Set an inviolate time each week, come P.T.A. or influenza, for menu planning, food purchasing if necessary, and advance preparation if possible. Sit down with your kindergartner’s chart of the four basic food groups, and plan your menus for the week. Then, with plan firmly in hand, do the marketing. (You’ll be surprised how much money you can save when you know exactly what items you want and what items you will resist.) Now go home, put the little ones down for their naps, and prepare at least one item you can pull out of the freezer for quick and easy meal preparation next week. As you’re waiting for that item to emerge from the oven, go over your plan again, deciding what you will do to prepare ahead for every meal.
2. Plan to eat, as nearly as possible, at the same times every day, and make some rules about everybody sitting down together and remaining together until the last morsel is consumed. Meals eaten in a hurry or under emotional stress don’t serve their best purpose.
Are these suggestions too simple? Well, that’s the way I like it. Maybe someday I’ll start counting carbohydrates and evaluating vitamins, but for now I’m depending on wise, consistent menu planning and peaceful-as-possible mealtimes to provide for my family’s nutritional needs.
Exercise. This is a favorite of mine—first, because the positive effects of a consistent exercise program are dramatically evident after a short period of time; and second, because I love the exhilaration of having pushed skill and physical capacity to their limits and coming off victorious.
As I lay recovering from anything but victory on that mountain, I was shocked at how long it had been since I had experienced that pleasure. Once again, innocent neglect had taken its toll.
Before giving specific suggestions for finding time to exercise, let me list some principles that may be helpful as you plan your activities:
1. Be consistent. The activity need not be the same every day, but the exertion level ought to be. If you work hard only once a week, the body tends to drain its own existing resources, leaving you hungry and exhausted—both very dangerous for a person like me who needs only the slightest excuse for a sandwich and a nap. However, if you are consistent in your efforts, the body soon catches on and begins to build strength and endurance. It is generally held that approximately twenty to thirty minutes of vigorous activity five days a week is enough to guarantee success.
2. Be sure you are working toward desired results. If you want to increase endurance by exercising the heart and lungs, you needn’t lift weights. Endurance requires continuous exercise such as jogging, swimming, brisk walking, or tennis. Lifting weights strengthens and tones muscles, while a stretching exercise program improves flexibility. Choose your objectives and fashion your program to achieve them.
3. It is important that you start at a level your body can tolerate in its present condition. But easy workouts continued endlessly, day after day, have limited value. You have to push yourself, progressively giving your body a larger load. Only in this way will you arrive at the level of fitness you want to achieve. A round of golf or several lines of bowling may improve your attitude, but will do very little to increase your endurance.
For most young mothers, the real barrier to an effective exercise program is the problem of what to do with the children. Practically speaking, a whole passel of toddlers can really get in the way of a good tennis game; and I can authoritatively report that no five-year-old can jog as fast as his mother—especially when he is trying to push a stroller. Over the years it simply became easier to stay home and talk myself into believing I was still as lithe, tanned, and vigorous as always. Here are some suggestions:
There is no rule that says all thirty minutes must be done at once. Take fifteen minutes to run around your yard while the children are in the sandpile, and another fifteen minutes while they’re napping in the afternoon.
There is help in numbers. A large rug placed in the middle of the cultural hall, scattered with toys from the Relief Society nursery, provided entertainment for toddlers in our ward while their mothers ran laps around them. If the church is too far away, get together with some neighbors. Surely someone has a good basement or a nice yard.
Thirty minutes is really not a very long time. If you work at it, inventing something to do with your children is much easier than you may think. On the other hand, if you want to extend that time for an exciting tennis match, you may have more of a challenge. The trick is to do those kinds of activities when your presence is not so critical, like when the children are in bed and daddy’s home to help. I have found three friends who don’t mind starting their exercise when others are thinking about going to bed. Every Wednesday we begin our tennis at 9:00 P.M.
Rest. As you have no doubt discovered when you don’t get enough sleep, rest is fundamental to both physical and psychological well-being. Resist the temptation to put things off until after the children are in bed. If your project demands that little helpers are not around, lie down with them when they nap during the day so your evening hours will be more productive. Seldom is a job done efficiently when you’re aching to go to bed; you’ll get twice as much done when you arise early but refreshed to finish the task in the morning. Sometimes a burdened and busy mind keeps a tired body awake. My answer to that is to exercise until I’m too exhausted to worry about anything except getting my nightgown on.
There is one important concept to remember as you formulate your plans for improvement. You are not to do the things we have talked about only if it is convenient, or if there is nothing else pressing at the time. You are to do nothing else, until you have made time for them. Only by turning your wonderful plans into deeply-ingrained habits will you be able to make it to the top of whatever “mountain” you are asked to climb.