A funny coincidence came up the other day. Someone I’ve known socially for about a year asked what gym I go to, and then told me that he went to the same place for three years. Wow, really? It’s a martial arts school with a couple hundred students, not exactly a huge 24-hour commodity gym. He said he was in the best shape of his life at that time, and then added ruefully that he should get back on that. I paid attention to that, because he is at least ten years older than I am, and the older I get, the more I realize that matters.
Then I thought: What exactly does “best shape of my life” mean? When would that be?
Am I already there, was I there at some point in childhood, or is there still a “better” “shape” somewhere in my future?
I should throw in there that using the term “shape” is a bit ambiguous. It seems to refer to externalities like physical appearance, and that inevitably touches on What Other People Think. It’s much harder to discuss an internal sensation or overall experience of... what? Strength, agility, speed, power, peace of mind, potentiality...? Harder still when trying to get our heads around internal physical feelings that we may never have felt, like trying to explain a flavor or a musical genre without comparing it to other things.
I can easily imagine a few time periods that could compete for “worst” shape of my life. Crawling on the floor with the flu. Walking around during finals with my eyelid twitching from stress. The first time I ran down a flight of stairs and suddenly felt my back jiggle. The first time I walked up a flight of stairs and my vision started to go black. Swallowing radioactive iodine for my thyroid scan, and then struggling not to cough for an hour even though the enlarged gland caused a constant tickle in my throat. Being strapped to the table for my first nerve conductivity study. Et cetera. Hard times, scary times, sad times.
It’s because of this background of chronic pain, illness, and fatigue, though, that I’m so ready to embrace anything better. This is why I can’t give a care whether other people approve of my external physical appearance. Go ahead and fit-shame me; you won’t be the first. My health is somewhat fragile and I can’t live a conventional lifestyle in a conventionally relaxed, standard physique. I do what I have to do and that tends to result in certain external physical signs.
The body changes tend to be a mix of good, bad, and neutral.
When I was training for my marathon, my feet looked kinda terrible. They wound up growing a half size bigger and I had to get rid of every. Single. Last. Pair. Of shoes I had owned before.
Then I got more into backpacking and I wound up losing the nails on my two big toes. Took six months to heal.
As a cyclist, I learned that I always sweat out the crotch of my clothes first.
Now I’m boxing and doing martial arts, and I’ve had at least one visible bruise at all times since January. I’ve also scraped off my knuckles and broken off a chunk of toenail. Sexy stuff. I get teased because I have yet to find a successful method of controlling my frizzy hair during class, and I’ve resorted to wearing a dorky bandanna as a sweatband.
Athletic me: Frizzy, sweaty, bruised, muddy, looking like a laundry basket.
Ah, but then there’s the inner experience. It starts when the scary stuff gradually fades away. My thyroid nodule disappears and never comes back. I realize I haven’t had a migraine in a year, then two years, then three years, then four years. My shoulder quits spasming. I stop feeling like a human trainwreck.
Then I start to be able to keep up. I can keep up with the other students in class, I can do moves that would have left me quivering on the floor a month earlier, I can ride my bike or run at the same pace as my friend.
Then I start to notice that I’m doing weird things, like opening the pickle jar in one try, or running up a flight of stairs two at a time without losing my breath.
Then I start feeling very, very strange feelings, such as the desire to do core exercises. I read that an Olympian athlete does 700 sit-ups a day and I feel curiosity. Oh? How long does that take? All in one set or throughout the day? What else does she do?
In spite of all the evidence that my body is changing, because my experience of being in my body is undeniably different, it still surprises me when these changes show up on the outside. Brushing my teeth, I suddenly see the new definition in my triceps. Leaning forward, I’m surprised by the roll of my trapezius muscles. Getting dressed, I see the shadow marking my hamstrings. Whoa, what’s going on there?
Arguably, I’m in the best shape of my life right now. I’m about to turn 43. I can do stupid human tricks today that I couldn’t manage as an 8-year-old child. I still feel slow and ungainly in class, and I work out next to women and men who are as many as 35 years older than I am now. I can only assume that I’ll continue to improve, especially because I’m due to switch to advanced classes this summer. This makes me feel about 10% scared, 25% excited, and the rest just nonchalant, because it’s inevitable. What’s going to happen, though?
What will the best shape of my life look like, and when will it happen? How will I know?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.