Small Steps to Big Change: My Interview with Carla Birnberg


Back in November I attended the Texas Conference for Women and I had the greatest pleasure of meeting and interviewing Carla Birnberg, author of Mizfit and What You Can When You Can, the latter creating its very own movement on social media through the hashtag #wycwyc. 

I was excited about the opportunity to talk with Carla because What You Can When You Can was perfectly written as if it were just for me.  It might as well have been handwritten on spiral notebook paper, folded into a paper football, and signed, “Lylas.”

And, because she’s a health professional who successfully lost weight many years ago, and has kept it off, I was hoping that by meeting with her, some of that healthy thinking would somehow drizzle off of her and into my brain, and I’d walk away craving cardio.

Here’s our interview, below, but let me start by telling you that I talked for a good ten minutes before ever asking her one single question.  

I do this when I’m nervous:  talk about myself and ramble on in an apparent attempt to hypnotize my victim into liking me, except the rambles happen in my outside voice, which is so unbearably loud, it causes the person sitting across from me to wince and furrow their brow as they lean back slightly.

Carla didn’t do this, though, and I appreciate that.  God bless her.  

On Exercising

Me:  The very first part of your book is about mindset.  How does someone like me get the mindset right, to where it needs to be?

Carla:  The whole book is based on the premise of “small steps to big change.”  My philosophy is to do less than what you’re capable of.  Because then tomorrow you’ll get up and want to do more.  Because - and a lot of people don’t believe my philosophy because it’s not worth it to them if they aren’t completely exhausted - but for me, [if I did that,] I would get up tomorrow and I wouldn’t want to do it.

Me:  I love that, it makes perfect sense for me.

Carla:  The first thing I’d suggest is that you buy a pedometer.  Getting a pedometer changed my life.  I didn’t realize how little I was walking - I’m a writer.  After I got the pedometer, I saw I was doing only like 3,000 steps.  I was all excited and told the people at company that gave it to me for work, and they were all, "Oh, are you on bed rest?"  I didn't realize you were supposed to do 10 [thousand]!

So.  Buy a pedometer.  Change nothing.  Just wear the pedometer so you can see where you are.  The next week, maybe add 50 more steps a day.  Then add 100 more then next week.  It’s the teeny, tiny steps like that that add up.

Me:  Ok, yes.  Makes perfect sense.  So you don’t have to be like, exercise, exercise, exercise.  

Carla:  Exactly.  We underestimate the power of thinking, “When I wake up tomorrow, I’m going to add 50 more steps to my day.”  

When I was a personal trainer, I didn’t attract the type of clients that wanted balls-to-the-wall workouts because I’m not that way.  

Me:  My doctor once told me that people need to stop thinking of diet and exercise as something you do until _____.  He said there’s never an end.  You don’t just change your diet until you lose the weight.  It’s got to be something you’ll do forever.  

Carla:  Exactly.  When my husband was working on his PhD, I asked him, “Are you dreading this whole dissertation thing?”  He said, “No, I really actually love the process of this.”  For some reason, that stuck in my mind, and I thought, “That’s what I need to find for fitness.”  

You have to make it so that you love the process.  I put this into play with exercise.  Look, I’d love to be a runner.  I love the idea of how they travel, and they pull on their sneakers, and they run around their town.  

But that’s not me.  If you ever see me running, something bad is coming up behind me.  

Me:  **laughing hysterically**

Carla:  Truly.  I just don’t like it.  People ask me all the time, “What’s the best exercise?”  I say, “It’s whatever you will do.”  For me, I will walk.  That is it.  And I’ll lift weights.  But truly, it is just for 12 minutes, and I’m done.  If I had to do an hour, I would die.  For me, 12 minutes every day until I’m dead, and I’m good.

It needs to be what we can do consistently.

Me:  You’ve said in the past that when your family is going through stressful times - like when your husband was gone a lot, the long stretches of “single parenting” made you feel like, “I didn’t sign up for this!”  But you were able to shift your attitude to, “this is more bonding time with my kid,” and I think that’s an important skill when it comes to getting healthy, too.

Carla:  Yes!  Well, our brains believe the stories we tell them.

Me:  I wish - as far as physical health goes - that I could do that.  Because I’m really good at doing that when it comes to anything else in the world.  But when it comes to health and fitness, I think it’s just deep in my brain that I’m programmed to be overweight.  

Which is bizarre because I didn’t used to be.  It started when I was in my 20’s, and then I just started getting bad habits one by one.  I’ve really struggled to take off the baby weight after my last baby.

Let me interrupt here for a quick disclosure of information that I declined to share with Carla.  I failed to mention that my “last baby” was 110 months old at the time of our meeting.  

Carry on…

Me:  ….and I’ll just fill up my day with excuses:  too busy, no time, whatever.

Carla:  Listen, you don’t have to block off 30 minutes or whatever to get your movement in.  Ten minutes here, ten minutes there - walking - that’s why a pedometer is so great.  You can see how your steps add up.  

One thing I talk about in the book is de-conveniencing your lifestyle.

For example, when I’m at home, I pee upstairs.  I mean, there’s a bathroom there, I don’t just pee upstairs.  But there’s a bathroom downstairs, too.  I get my steps in that way.  I make myself go up the stairs to go to the bathroom.  

Plus, I never sit when I’m writing.  I amble around the house and voice dictate everything into my phone.  I walk while I’m doing Twitter, emailing, whatever.  I think best when I’m walking.

On Food

Carla:  Keep a food journal.  Again, don’t change a thing.  Just keep a journal so you can see what you’re doing now.  Then next week, if you go to, say Chick-Fil-A, and you order the fried chicken, the fries, and the shake, then maybe add in a small salad.  

Don’t take anything away.  Just add in the health.  Then down the road you may say, “You know what?  I’m ready to go to a small order of fries, or maybe take away the fries altogether.

Me:  So, I marked this in your book, where you say that people may think, “OMG, eating healthy means I can’t have all those yummy things I really love.”  That’s so me.  So tell me this:  do you think if I force myself through these baby steps like this for like a couple of weeks, it’ll eventually become a habit?

Carla:  Yes, I believe it.

Me:  Even for someone my age?  I’m 47.  I’m an old dog.

Carla:  But you can retrain your brain.  And you know what?  I would also encourage you not to cut out whatever your thing is.  Like - and I get so much flack for this - but I love Diet Coke, and I think, “You know, I am just never willing to give that up.  I’ll relinquish the french fries, but I’m holding onto my Diet Coke.”

And there’s a lot of backlash against the word, but I can’t think of another one: cheat.  People say, “don’t have a cheat day.”  But I used to ask my clients, “what’s your favorite food?”  If they said, “pizza,” then I’d say, “Ok, then every Saturday night is pizza night.”  It's not cheating.  Again, it has to be something you can do forever.

And so if they get that, “Ugh, it’s Monday,” and then “It’s only Tuesday - I need pizza,” feeling, then they’ll think, “Oh, I can wait till Saturday.”  

You know why?   Life is too damn short.  

I had a friend who died of ovarian cancer a decade ago, and I think, “How often did she deny herself the cookie… the everything?”

Because - look - I’m not training to be an Olympic athlete.  I want to be healthy from the inside.  I want to add in more steps, I want to do some weight training.  

But I want to live.

We need to start doing now what we can do forever.  

Me:  God, yes.  I can't imagine going the rest of my life feeling like I have to deny myself.

Carla:  Listen, I could eat super, super, super clean for maybe a month.  But then I’d just either binge or just go back to old habits.  

These food prep people, oh my gosh.  I mean, I love it, but for me, if I did a whole week’s food prep, I’d be kick-ass at it once, then I’d just feel depleted and would never do it again.

Me:   Oh my gosh, that’s so me!

Carla:  Yes!  So we need to do one thing, get that down, then layer on another thing.  

After that, I transitioned the interview back to talking about me (sweet Lord, am I like this all the time?), and I managed to hold her captive to do so for another 15 minutes or so, and she was so gracious about it.  

Later in the day Carla headed up a roundtable session about Twitter, and - much to her delight, I’m sure - I attended and talked her into taking a selfie with me.  

Hahaha, OMG I wish I knew what she was thinking in this one!  I should do a "caption this" contest!  

Hahaha, OMG I wish I knew what she was thinking in this one!  I should do a "caption this" contest!  


My takeaways from my visit with Carla Birnberg:

  • I’d rather bathe my eyeballs in a jar of pickled jalapeno juice than hear my shrill, recorded voice thundering out of my audio-notes ever again.
  • Carla and I are actually a lot alike, sense-of-humor-wise.  We clicked and it was so easy for us to chat about all sorts of things.
  • I need to get my Fitbit charged and start wearing it daily.  Gonna start that today.
  • I can add stuff in, food-wise and exercise-wise, without taking anything away until I’m ready.  It isn’t an all-or-nothing gig.
  • Consistency is the key.

You can - and should! - buy Carla’s book, What You Can When You Can right here.  It’s a quick, easy read, and the tips inside are so very easy to implement into your life right now.  You can also get her first book, Mizfit, here on Kindle.

You can also follow her blog, listen to her podcast, or follow her on Twitter.

Have you read What You Can When You Can?  If you have, or when you do, let me know what you think below in the comments.