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Martha Gets Real

Body+Soul, October 2009

She only eats real food. She's really serious about exercise. She puts in real time on the yoga mat. And this passion for health runs in the family (just ask her daughter, Alexis) -- an undeniably good thing. 

Martha Stewart doesn't diet. She never has. When it comes to healthy living, her rule is simple: Eat real food. And by real, she doesn't mean something that passes for food. She means you grew the cucumbers yourself, plucked them from the vine, and put them on your plate. 

As an avid and passionate gardener, this approach comes naturally to her. But even when she's food shopping or eating out, the same rules apply. "I'm totally entranced with fresh and organic," she says. In her house, if you want something to eat, you make it yourself. "Convenience food is just not in my vocabulary." 

Growing up as one of six kids in Nutley, New Jersey, Martha was unaccustomed to anything but fresh food, mostly because there were no other options. "We had no money to buy anything extra like candy or canned stuff," she recalls. "We got our milk from the dairy and produce from the garden. My mother did a considerable amount of preserving and freezing." 

In addition to eating as healthy as she can, Martha also takes a small regimen of supplements customized by noted herbalist Donnie Yance, founder of the Centre for Natural Healing in Ashland, Oregon. "I take things I feel I need at the moment, and not everything I could take," she says. "But my test results have shown that I'm right on target for optimum health." 

Martha raised her daughter, Alexis, in much the same way: on real food. In fact, soda never so much as crossed the threshold. But it was less in the name of health, she notes, than it was about quality. "Health was never part of the discussion," says Alexis, who cohosts "Whatever, Martha!" on the Fine Living Network and "Whatever with Alexis and Jennifer" on Sirius/XM. "It was, 'Eat this, it tastes good.' " As a kid, Alexis admits to occasionally absconding to friends' homes, where she could do the unthinkable: sit on the sofa, watch television, and eat junk food. 

Sure enough, Alexis grew up to become a passionate chef and baker, and very tuned in to what she's eating -- just like Mom. She's also a committed vegetarian: What started as an aversion to boiled meat served at boarding school has since evolved into a conscious and values-driven decision in the name of not only health but the environment, too. And after a penny candy phase in her twenties, she now avoids sugar because she's hypoglycemic. 

Fitness and Keeping Stress in Check The other part of the health equation is fitness, which both mother and daughter take seriously. Alexis works out daily, including weekly yoga classes and sessions with a trainer. She also started her own health club. As a New Yorker who spends time in the Hamptons, she grew increasingly frustrated with what she saw as a lack of decent fitness outlets there. So in 1995, she opened the East Hampton Gym, followed in 2002 by the Sag Harbor Gym, launched through a partnership with a fitness trainer, and the South Hampton Gym, which opened in 2008. Alexis also helped create the New York studio Karma Yoga, which has since been sold. 

For Martha, exercise is nonnegotiable -- and it starts bright and early. While others are hitting the snooze button, Martha's meeting her trainer, Mary Tedesco, at 6 or 6:30 a.m. each morning for a session in her home gym. She also fits in a daily session of yoga with an instructor at the Martha television studios. "That hour is so important to me," she says. "Yoga is incredibly relaxing, but strenuous, too." And while Martha says she does suffer occasional aches and pains ("probably from riding in the car -- but also from stress and the economy," she notes), exercise and yoga have helped tremendously.

In addition to their rigorous fitness regimens, the two have decidedly utilitarian methods for keeping their stress levels in check. For Martha, gardening helps her stay balanced, as does walking with her two French bulldogs, Francesca and Sharkey. As for Alexis, the more stress mounts, the cleaner her house gets. "I've never had a housekeeper and I never will," she says. "Cleaning does it for me." 

So why is it so hard for people to get -- and stay -- healthy? If you ask Alexis, she'll tell you that confusion and sometimes even sheer ignorance are to blame. "Some people just don't know the difference between what's good for you and what's not." Martha believes that the real challenge to a healthier life has to do with the pace of our days. "A lack of time holds people back," she says. "It's hard to find those minutes in the day where you can take care of yourself and not feel guilty." 

The good news? Some of the most crucial steps we can take in the name of good health are also the most basic and inexpensive, says Martha. "Take good care of your eyes. Brush your teeth more times a day than you can imagine." And, she adds, her tone taking on a decidedly maternal cadence, "never, ever put earphones in your ears. We have a whole generation of people who will be deaf from blasting those MP3 players! I never put anything in my ears. And I have acutely good hearing." 

We hear you, Martha. Loud and clear. 

Martha and Alexis on...

Biggest indulgences

"Sweets. I probably eat more sugar than I should, though I only eat it in desserts. I made blueberry crisp recently, but I used blueberries I grew myself." -- Martha

"I don't care about sweets. If I never had another piece of chocolate I'd be fine. I'd rather have cheese than anything." -- Alexis

Can't-live-without food

"A perfectly poached farm egg." -- Martha

"Crunchy salad greens, vinegar, lemon juice, whole wheat and spelt pasta. And most importantly, salt." -- Alexis

Go-to stress cures

"When I need to break out of a stressful pattern, I weed. And prune." -- Martha

"I find it relaxing to scrub the floor while listening to an audiobook. And I get a pathetic sense of having accomplished something." -- Alexis

Coffee or tea

"I like a small cup of good cappuccino in the morning." -- Martha

"Earl grey. Boiling hot with nothing added. And genmaicha with matcha green tea." -- Alexis

Best diet advice

"Eat moderately and well." -- Martha

"Give up one thing you like that's not good for you. You have to avoid it for a while to get over it, but you will." -- Alexis