The Liberian Girl’s Guide to Getting and Staying Fit
By: Vannette Tolbert
For as long as I can remember, I have had a love/hate relationship with fitness. I guess you could call me a bit of an extremist. I’d spend a few months on one end of the spectrum; working out 3-4 times a week and eating super clean, then plummet to the other end; overindulging too frequently and making a daily promise to myself that I would get my act together tomorrow… or Monday… or next month.
When I was 28 years old, I went through a deep depression which resulted in 30 lbs of weight gain. Needless to say, my physical state was a direct reflection of how I was feeling emotionally. I eventually started working out and found that working out and taking care of my body made me feel better. Then I started to see results.
Looking better made me feel better.
I soon fell in love with fitness, so much that I went on to become a nationally certified personal trainer with specialties in body composition and women’s fitness. I wanted to give the gift of wellness to other women by helping them to take control of their bodies. I maintained a super fit lifestyle in the US for several years and enjoyed being in the best shape of my life… in my 30s!
Fast forward to 2016 when I moved to Liberia. To say that my fitness and dietary regimen was thrown completely off would be an understatement.
Our cultural norms didn’t make it any easier for me to stay fit.
The very bedrock of social interaction in Liberia is eating & drinking. With the food being almost too good to refuse, I ate… and I ate… copious amount of fufu and rice… fried this and fried that. My relationship with food completely changed. I went from being a conscious eater and consuming with purpose to eating too much of whatever I wanted whenever I wanted.
A few months into my life in LIB, I realized that I was about to eat and “enjoy” my way to being pre-diabetic, or at the very least, losing my bikini body that I had worked so hard for. I had to make a decision to recommit to fitness and wellness, which wasn’t easy and took a while to figure out. Living in a lesser developed part of the world requires constant innovation, adaptation and flexibility when it comes to fitness. Living a healthy lifestyle is difficult enough in a developed country, with easy access to personal trainers, nutritionists, affordable and clean workout facilities, health food, dietary supplements and other fitness opportunities.
Luckily for you though, I’m going to give you some tools and tips to get you started, and help you stay committed.
Set a Goal: Do you want to lose weight? Get thicker? Improve coordination and balance? Before committing to any fitness regimen, you must identify what it is that you are actually trying to achieve. When people tell me that they want to lose 10 lbs, my first question is usually, “Do you want to lose 10 lbs or look like you lost 10 lbs?” The truth is that muscle weighs more than fat. So you could lose 10 lbs of water/fat, but gain 15 lbs of muscle; and while the scale is telling you that you’ve gained weight, your body measurements and body fat percentage may have decreased dramatically. So if your original goal was to lose 10 lbs, and you actually gained 5, but look and feel amazing; you actually haven’t achieved your goal, but you look and feel great.
If you don’t have a specific ending point, you’ll never be able to determine the most efficient route to get there.
Don’t Starve Yourself: There is a common misconception that if you just don’t eat anything, you’ll lose weight. This is the worst weight loss tactic. The body is like a car and it can’t run without proper fluids and fuel. The body needs protein, carbs and fats for energy, in order to simply function. If you’re exercising, the body needs even more energy. When you don’t eat, your body goes into starvation mode. In starvation mode, instead of processing the food and using it for energy or eliminating it from the body as waste; the body stores the food because it doesn’t know when you will feed it again. Living in a constant state of starvation mode can be very dangerous and have negative long and short term effects on the body. It is best to eat four to five small meals each day to keep the metabolism going so that your body has the energy it needs and can burn fat.
Stay Hydrated: Keep hydrated to combat fatigue and avoid overeating. Drinking enough water also helps to flush out fat, waste and toxins that build up in the body and cause bloating and weight gain. I suggest drinking half your weight in ounces. So if you weigh 140 lbs, you should drink 70 ounces of water each day. Drinking plenty of water will also help you feel less hungry throughout the day and you’ll be less likely to overeat.
Reduce intake of Carbs: This one is a no-brainer, but it is so much easier said than done when the staple of most of the meals we eat is rice, or fufu, or some other high-starch food. Whenever I tell Africans to cut back on their rice intake, they look at me like I’m crazy for suggesting such a blasphemous act. Like most things in life, it’s okay to have it, but in moderation. Instead of eating a plate of dry rice with a pound of rice on it, try eating a half cup size proportion and filling up on proteins such as chicken, fish or beef. You can also try substituting rice with boiled plantain or sweet potatoes. If you must have your rice, try eating country rice or bulgar wheat, which are packed with nutrients and much better for the body than white rice.
Cut Back on Oil and Avoid Fried Foods: Another seemingly blasphemous remark. Let’s be honest with ourselves, most of what we eat is drenched in oil. Whether we’re eating fried chicken in our chicken gravy or potato greens soaked in vegetable or palm oil, we’re consuming entirely too much oil, which can lead to heart disease. A simple solution is to prepare your food with less oil. Try steaming, baking or grilling your meats, instead of frying. Chicken, meat and fish naturally have their own oil, so you don’t need to add much.
Eat more fruits and vegetables: We are very fortunate to have easy access to such fresh and delicious produce. Take advantage of this blessing! Eat raw fruits and vegetables throughout the day, because they provide energy and antioxidants. They’re also an excellent alternative to snacking on fatty foods like french fries or kala! Greens are also very nutritious. The provide the body with many vitamins that it needs to function, but they also aid in healthy elimination of waste, which can make you look and feel less bloated. So load up on potato greens, collard greens, cassava leaf, spinach, cabbage, bitter leaf, etc… but just be sure to prepare them with minimal oil.
Avoid junk food: We can be very creative when it comes to justifying the consumption of things that we know are not conducive to our fitness and wellness goals. So I’ll do you a favor and list a few of those things, in case you weren’t sure. Soft drinks, fried plantain, french fries, kala, donuts, milk candy, kanya and cake are all high in sugar and/or cholesterol and detrimental to weight management. Indulge on occasion, but in sensible portions. Do not let junk food be the staple of your diet.
Get Creative about Fitness: You can always join a gym or take yoga, spinning or bootcamp classes right here in Monrovia; but if those options don’t fall within your budget or schedule, you have options. You can get creative and use what you have to get in shape. Jump rope. Run on the beach. Climb up and down a flight of steps. Practice yoga alongside a Youtube video. Clear out your living room and have a one-person dance party. Get outside and do some calisthenics. Go swimming. Take a brisk walk.
Having variety makes it easier to stay committed.
Find an Accountability Partner: Once you start to feel and see the results of your new routine, you’ll be so excited that you’ll want to get your loved ones on board. Having a friend with whom you can share this experience will make it more enjoyable and maybe even a little competitive. A little friendly competition can go a long way. You’ll also be too ashamed to flake on her on lazy days!
These are just a few tips to get you started on your fitness journey in Liberia. Starting is the hardest part. No matter who you are, there will be days when resistance; in the form of soreness, fullness, fatigue, laziness, a sick child or happy hour; will present itself. The decision that you make in that moment is what will determine your success. It’s your responsibility to yourself to try your best to make the right decision as often as possible. As Jillian Michaels says, “At the end of the day, your health is your responsibility.”
When setting your fitness goal, remember to be SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound.
What are you favorite ways to work out in Liberia?