Early to Rise

About 4 years ago something happened to me that I credit with the re-energizing of my daily life: I started waking up early to exercise.

I had never been athletic (unless you count the few times I played defense in Pee Wee soccer games—I was the one picking daisies), and I had never been an early riser. In fact, during the last semester of college, I prided myself on managing to schedule all of my classes at 1 p.m. or later so I could sleep in until noon. When I started working regular business hours after school, I calculated the absolute least amount of time it took to squeeze out a shower and a quick “Hello” to God before running down to the train station: 27 minutes. That was the bare minimum, and it showed. I hit the infamous “3 p.m. slump” every day after the excitement of lunch had worn off, and I was left to stare into the abyss of an Excel spreadsheet.

My eating habits have always been up and down. Until recently, consuming any form of breakfast was outside my repertoire. I once tried to eat a piece of toast before 9 a.m. and gagged. My body just rejected it despite everyone’s warning that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Water was always a last resort for when I ran out of coffee or Diet Coke or money or all of the above.

But love will do funny things to people, so when I got engaged in the summer of 2002, I suddenly became aware that I was going to be seen in a very unforgiving dress before my future husband and everyone we knew in a mere 4 months! There was no way I could continue on the path I’d been walking—CRAWLING—for much longer. It was time to begin a little regimen, and given the goal of looking spectacular on my wedding day, I was ready to do whatever it would take to get started.

I found that, given my susceptibility to waking up late, a lack of time was a big issue. How does a normal human being cram work, prayer, meals, exercise, a social life and a good book into a 16-hour day? It took me a while, but the answer finally came to me: 5:15 a.m. I began rising earlier and earlier to allow for a decent workout at the local gym and more time to be quiet with the Lord. Finally, I found that the earliest I could awake without feeling like a zombie was 5:15 a.m. More than just spare time, early mornings became precious as they allowed me to weave together the movement and stillness of my body. In my movement, I delighted in the coursing of blood throughout my body, fulfilling its God-given purpose. In the stillness, I enjoyed the permission just to be in the Lord’s presence without an agenda.

Of course rising early to pray and sweat forces the whole breakfast issue. No reasonable person could run for 30 minutes on an empty stomach. Again, it took a gradual effort, but I worked my way up to a bowl of cereal with my (one) cup of coffee. No more tummy gurgles around 10 a.m. and feeling like I was going to jump out of my skin. This was at the height of the “no-carb” craze, when everyone was eating bacon and eggs for breakfast and steaks for dinner. I never bought into the notion that bread was the tool of Satan, but I did become aware of how many times I reached into the bread basket at restaurants. A wonderful book called The Wedding Workout by Tracy Effinger suggested going light on the carbohydrates after 4pm each day, and that proved helpful and successful.

I woke up each morning with a spring in my step that served to give me more energy at the gym, which fueled my energy for the rest of the day.

It’s been said that doing anything for 6 weeks creates a habit. With that in mind, I set a 6-week goal for myself of 30 minutes of cardio at least 3 times a week with 5-10 minutes of abdominal work each day. That, coupled with a newfound love for eating semi-healthfully (I was still addicted to coffee in the morning and dessert), was the key to my good mood, good humor and confidence on my wedding day. My mind was sharp, my heart was full and the dress fit like a glove.

After the wedding, I decided to keep up my routine simply because it felt so good. I can honestly say that I haven’t had a “3pm slump” for two years. I know the meaning of “partially hydrogenated,” and water is my friend. What’s more, I competed in a sprint triathlon last July—something I’d never wanted to do before and really, truly enjoyed.

For the gifts of health, peace and awareness of God’s work in my body, I have many sources to thank. I have never been good at orthodoxy, so subscribing to any one diet hasn’t been my modus operandi. Rather, I’ve picked up a little here and a little there, experimenting along the way. Here are some basic tools and rules that I’ve adopted. If you can start to work them into your day, you’ll find that a little goes a long way.

1) Eat breakfast. My favorite is oatmeal because it supplies a ton of energy, fills my tummy, and helps prevent heart disease (the number one killer of women in the U.S.) by lowering cholesterol.

2) Sweat for 30 minutes at least every other day. Think of this as your foundation, your basic, stripped-down workout. When I exercise on my lunch break or don’t have a ton of time, this is the only thing I do.

3) Cook at home. You would be astounded to know what you’re putting in your mouth when you eat out at a restaurant. Even the healthiest establishments rarely sacrifice taste for healthfulness. Instead, have people over and test your cooking abilities at home. Stop complaining that you a) can’t cook, or b) don’t have the space. Honestly, no one cares.

4) Drink no more than 2 cups of coffee each day. I don’t have any scientific evidence to back this up, but it is my experience that coffee affects the appetite. The more I drink, the more I want to eat.

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5) Pump iron at least twice a week. Building up resistance through weight/strength training is the gift that keeps on giving. Not only will you be amazed at how easy it is to lift the sofa to vacuum underneath, your muscles will continue to burn more calories when you sit and watch television. God made them to do that.

6) Drink a glass of water as soon as you wake up. I don’t know how this works, but if I chug at least 8 ounces (1 cup) of water within 5 minutes of getting up in the morning, I am more alert than if I’d only had coffee. Plus, it knocks down one of the eight glasses I’m supposed to drink before I go to bed that night.

7) Go easy on dinner. Perhaps due to the nature of competition in the free marketplace and the American workday (i.e. eating lunch at your computer), the tradition of a large mid-day meal has shifted to a large evening meal. Families may have no other option for gathering around the dinner table, but the rest of us can take the time to cultivate a love for filling, energy-inducing lunches that carry us well into the evening. If you find yourself struggling against your big-dinner tendencies, learn a few solid, hearty soup recipes and pair them with salads. This has become my favorite dinner.

8) Read nutritional labels. If you take only one thing away from this article, let it be this: No hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils. Essentially, your body can’t break this stuff down. Food companies use hydrogenated vegetable fats because they allow longer shelf-life and give food desirable taste, shape and texture. You’d be surprised how much of what you’re currently eating contains these oils: margarine, white chocolate, cereals, granola bars, microwave popcorn, coffee creamers and peanut butter (unless it’s all-natural).

9) Walk. Even if it’s just across the room. Avoid driving everywhere. Set a goal to lower the amount of money you spend on gas by 15% and walk the rest. You will save money, spare your car and boost your energy.

10) Eat what the Lord provides through the earth. If you think about it, these are the foods that all the health experts suggest: fruits, veggies, whole-grains, nuts. I had a really hard time with veggies until I learned how to prepare them the way I like them. My absolute favorite dish is roast asparagus and broccoli. Heat your oven to 450°, spread fresh asparagus (snap off the fat ends) and broccoli florets on a cookie sheet, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and heat for 10-15 minutes. It’s easy, it’s delicious and it’s good for you.

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