When we move to a new place, one of the very first things we do is to start in on a new ambit. Your ambit is the area where you walk around your neighborhood, also known as your stomping grounds. Everyone has one, or at least everyone who leaves the house, but for most people it stops somewhere around the driveway or the mailbox.
We chose an apartment that is technically within walking distance of our old place, two miles or about forty minutes. We had passed the place many times, on foot, on the bus, even on bikes. A big chunk of the new neighborhood was already in our old ambit, and that helped us feel at home. We weren’t necessarily looking to feel ‘at home,’ though, being more in the mood for something fresh and new.
On Sunday we set off.
We were still unpacking, but we had enough done that we both felt we could afford to take a break. There’s a certain point in moving in to a new place when it no longer feels obvious exactly where everything should go, when the remaining boxes are full of trickier items. The law of diminishing returns sets in. People start wandering around, looking into one box and then another, no decisions being made, and the work grinds to a halt.
A lot of people never get past that point! They just leave the boxes packed, sometimes for years or through several additional moves.
This is when it can be so incredibly helpful to take a break, get away from it all for a couple of hours, and walk back into the room with fresh eyes.
That’s what we did. We had no internet and it was too late in the day to go to the tea house. A local library branch happens to be open for a few hours on Sunday afternoons. There’s a closer branch, but this one is within the two-mile range we are willing to walk. We’d set out on a little adventure and go exploring.
There happens to be a very nice walking trail in our part of the world, and most of the route can include this trail. In a car we wouldn’t have thought to go that way. On foot it was obvious. At least, it was obvious because we scoped it out on a map first, and as neighborhood walkers, we look for the green blotches that indicate parks. About a quarter mile of our route wound through neighborhood houses.
This is a nice part of creating a new ambit, too. You can start to get a feel for your neighborhood, seeing familiar faces, meeting dogs and babies, checking out gardens. Your very presence helps the neighborhood become safer. Foot traffic deters crime. That’s the sad irony of people feeling like they aren’t safe to walk where they live. Go out and bring your phone, bring your friend, bring the people who live next door. That’s what my family used to do. Invite someone to walk with you and make an ambit.
The area we explored on our way to the walking trail? Was much nicer than our own block!
One of the hazards of making a new ambit is that it can spark some house envy. It’s a good place, though, to start talking about home improvements and savings accounts and repair projects. Something about seeing someone else’s nice yard is so much more inspiring than sitting indoors on your own sofa.
We walked along. “This feels like vacation,” said my husband, who had been unpacking a box only half an hour before.
THIS FEELS LIKE VACATION!
We walk everywhere on vacation, because for us that’s the whole point. You can see so much more of a place on foot. You can meet people, you can overhear their accents and check out the local streetwear trends.
I think there’s also something about the rhythm of walking that just feels right for a human. A dog too, probably. For our dog, walking is a religion. His little ears bounce with every step. It always surprises us how many people have dogs and don’t take them around, because having a dog is such a compelling reason to explore your ambit.
We walked along. We got to our walking trail. It was green and beautiful in the summer light. We got into a conversation about Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird based on my recent reading of Furious Hours.
Suddenly, we were there. That was two miles, really? Are you sure??
Let me tell you, that walk was almost entirely uphill, but we didn’t even feel it.
The library itself is much nicer than the one in our old neighborhood. That library is large, new, pretty, well-lit, and reasonably well-stocked. Unfortunately, there’s a used bookstore in the lobby that runs on donations. Its musty smell is so strong that I literally hold my breath several paces before walking in the door and don’t breathe again until I’m almost to the YA section. You can smell the funky old donated books outside on two sides of the building. This is a bummer because there are few things better than a public library to expand one’s ambit.
This new library, though! I could see this becoming a thing with us.
We found two chairs side by side. WiFi, hooray!
I got a few things done, such as changing our address. It didn’t even feel like work.
Then we decided to check out the outdoor seating in the back and I accidentally set off the alarm on the emergency exit, but it was okay. I didn’t even have to go to jail.
On the way home, we went a different way, which is always a good idea when you’re working on a new ambit. Sometimes the other route is nicer. We found a place with non-dairy ice cream and got ourselves some. We sat in a tiny grassy park and ate strawberry ice cream and a dog came over and licked my husband’s face.
Then we went home refreshed and got back to work, grubbing around unpacking and breaking down boxes.
That entire day, we spent two hours exploring and twelve hours working. Guess which part of the day we actually remember?
Boxes are everywhere and my neck is all gimped up. We’ve been packing for almost a week, quota five boxes a day, and I’m feeling it. All I can do right now is fantasize about doing yoga in our new living room.
There isn’t a huge difference between a 612-square-foot studio and a 650-square-foot one-bedroom apartment. It’s just enough, though, that there might be enough room to do a workout in the living room when there wasn’t before.
I’ve tried P90X. I’ve tried yoga. I’ve tried burpees. I’ve tried hula hooping.
The only thing I can effectively do in my studio apartment, even when I move furniture out of the way, is to jog in place.
I often do. At the end of the day, if I haven’t quite done enough to impress my activity tracker, I jog in place until the green loop is closed. I would go outside but then I’d have to put my shoes back on.
I’d go to our apartment gym, but there lies madness. I love working out late at night, see, and once I started using the elliptical at 10:00 pm I’d be out there every night. This doesn’t work when you have upstairs neighbors who get up between 4:30 and 5:30 every morning.
The first law of the workout is to understand your constraints. Know your first sixty-five layers of obstacles, reasons, complaints, and excuses so you can plan something that is actually possible in your routine life, every day.
I’ve got grievances that have affected my workouts.
I also have a history of thyroid problems, and when I quit working out for an extended period, I descend rapidly into a netherworld of chronic pain, fatigue, migraines and tension headaches, low mood, and general crabbiness. I can feel it happening. I can feel the difference between the lower range of thyroid function and the middle range.
It’s like quicksand. The more tired I get, the less I want to do, and the more I sit around, the farther I fall.
My life is easier when I work out at least a little every day.
That’s why I wear the fitness tracker, it’s why I walk everywhere, it’s why I always take the stairs even when I’m carrying a suitcase, and it’s why I’m so invested in whether I can do a floor workout in my living room.
This is part of the connection between clutter and physical health.
My people do not like the feel of a reasonably arranged room. They will continue to pile up boxes and bags to prevent having extra space or blank walls. Alas, the effort involved to carry in shopping bags and pile them around is not enough to keep one’s energy levels up.
Living in a tiny, crowded room means sitting still most of the time.
Thus the nest. My people usually have a nest that is easily identified from across the room. There will be a spot, for instance in front of the computer keyboard, that will be surrounded by small important items like a tea cup or the TV remote. Other popular areas are the bed, a spot on the couch, a favorite chair, or the driver’s seat of the car. While there are seated workouts that can be found to accommodate physical therapy situations, my people aren’t doing them.
It’s not a problem, of course not. It’s not a problem when 40% of Americans have zero workout. It’s not a problem for extended phone stroking, gaming, binge-watching, or other seated activities.
It only starts to become a problem when it’s time to pack and move, or in an emergency situation when sitting still is no longer an option.
Eh, but that’s not gonna happen, right? *wink*
Here I am, packing our stuff, working on Box 28 and maybe ten to go. I’ve walked home balancing stacks of folded cardboard on my head, causing a man in a convertible to pull over and ask if I needed a ride. (Nice). I’ve folded and taped, lifted and hauled and stacked. Not currently being a weightlifter, I am feeling this unfamiliar effort in my neck and shoulder. That’s a place where I carry a lot of tension because my real workout, my true default mode, is hunched over a keyboard.
That’s my reason for walking so much, walking when there are tons of other outdoor workouts available to me.
Walking causes thousands of micro-movements when I swing my arms. I would never do that much physical therapy in any other situation. Walking, though, is fun. It’s something I can ignore, too. I walk to do my errands because we sold our car over two years ago. I walk when it would take twenty minutes longer to wait for the bus. I walk to go to the movies, the library, the grocery store. I walk a minimum of four miles a day, usually six, sometimes eight to ten.
When I’m not doing as much walking, like when I’m home packing boxes, I start to feel it right away. I feel it in the middle-aged places.
Habit research shows that people tend to have the easiest time switching habits after a major change like a move or a new job. I know this is true because I’ve moved so many times in my adult life. My husband and I are both planning around this blip in our schedule, thinking about what we want to be different.
One difference in our new place is that we’ll be on the fifth floor instead of the ground floor. We have the option to take the stairs when we walk our dog and do the laundry. Our building is also on the same block as our martial arts gym.
Mainly, though, we won’t have upstairs neighbors anymore. I’m trying to remember what it was like when I could sleep as much as I wanted, back when we were newlyweds, back when I started running for the first time. I’m trying to hold a vision of something I want.
I’m trying to imagine what I will do differently when I have room to move.
I never thought I could “afford” to travel. Then I thought I was “too old.” In my mind, only people in their early twenties got to go anywhere. This is completely weird, because I started flying alone at the age of seven and in some ways I grew up at the airport. Scarcity mindset is powerful.
CAN’T AFFORD end of story!
The biggest problem with scarcity mindset is that we are so locked down, we don’t even bother to find out exactly how much something costs.
I went through this earlier this year. I had been wanting a new desktop computer, and I sat on my wallet forever and ever, a couple years past the point when my old laptop was even usable anymore. Finally I felt like I had “enough” saved up. I went down in trepidation, very nervous about spending “that kind of money.” (Same kind of flat green American dollars I spend on anything else?)
It turned out to cost less than half of what I had estimated, even after accessories and tax.
Travel can very much be that way. If you save $25 a week for a year, you can basically buy a round-trip airline ticket to anywhere in the world.
(Not, like, Antarctica or Area 51 or inside Fort Knox, but you know what I mean).
Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to travel right at this very minute, for various reasons. For instance, if a friend is coming to town and we haven’t seen him in several years, we’d probably rather stay home and visit with him than go somewhere else. Maybe someone is finishing school, or it’s monsoon season, or we’re waiting for the cherry blossoms. There are all sorts of reasons why it might be better to wait a bit before going on that dream trip.
In the meantime, you can start planning and preparing, for real, right this minute, as soon as you finish reading this.
There are two things that it is very smart to do if you want to travel, and they don’t cost anything.
The first is learning to ride various kinds of public transit. You don’t actually have to pay to get on the bus or the tram or the water taxi or the funicular or whatever to do this, if you’re geographically isolated or you believe you are too broke for bus fare. You can look at maps and timetables and watch instructional videos. There are zero good reasons to skip this part, if you’re serious about your trip. It’s part of fine-tuning your vision and clarifying what you want.
The second thing that is very smart to do is to walk a lot, especially uphill and especially up long flights of stairs.
Not everyone can walk, true. If there are mobility issues then it’s even more valuable to practice ahead of time. Just how are you going to get around?
One of the saddest things I ever saw was a woman struggling to keep up with her friends at a historic site in Spain. We were coming down the (uneven, primitive) stone steps after looking at some incredible cave paintings. The woman was recovering from knee surgery. Her party wanted to know how many more steps there were and what the terrain was like. The sad but true answer was that there was no way she would enjoy the tour, and maybe a 5% chance she could actually do it, given the nature of the site. She was going to wind up sitting outside in the rain and cold for an hour, all because nobody thought to do the research. A quarter mile of slippery stone steps up a steep hill! What were they thinking, putting her in that position?
Maybe they could have waited a year, and done a different trip during her recovery?
It’s not about limitations, it’s about making life as interesting as possible within the constraints that we have at this moment.
There is a third thing that we can do to prepare for a dream trip, and that is to study the local language. It is SO helpful, especially when reading signs. On that same trip to see the cave paintings, we would have missed out except that we were willing to go along with a Spanish-language tour. We probably got 50-80% of the information, enough to feel like we understood what we were looking at.
The thing about travel is that it is extremely specific, moment to moment. That’s what makes it interesting. You’re standing on one specific square foot of the world at one specific moment in time. At that moment, either the restaurant or attraction that you wanted to visit is open for business, or it is not. Either you have the correct currency or form of payment, or you do not. Either you have read the map correctly, or you have not. Does this make sense?
You’re not “in England,” you’re in the Underground station in a hot and stuffy hallway, trying to figure out which of two tunnels to enter. You’re not “in Iceland,” you’re standing in front of a gravel parking lot, realizing that the museum you wanted to visit is not only closed but completely demolished. Travel means RESEARCH and lots of it, every day, every time you transition between one activity or location and another.
Part of what makes travel cool is that it magically transmogrifies you into “a traveler.” What does that is the process of figuring out how things work. That develops a mindset that is distinctly flexible and robust. You learn how to deal with confusion and disappointment and unexpected problems, such as getting stopped in security because one of your plane tickets matches your maiden name and the other matches your new married name. You learn perspective about what kinds of problems are worth getting upset about and which are just part of the game.
Eventually you learn to anticipate most situations ahead of time and just avoid those types of problems entirely. Like the overpacking problem and the “late to the airport” problem and the “quarrel over which restaurants to go to” problem.
Travel is just you in a different place for a while. That means you can solve for many of your travel problems in advance, while you are still the at-home you. Then when it’s time to leave, your trip will be a dream come true.
The numbers are in and we are maniacs. My husband and I walked over 83 miles and climbed the equivalent of 167 flights of stairs on vacation. In 11 days. What does this mean?
What it means is that we’ve figured out our idea of fun, and it includes a lot of walking. If we want to see the world for a week or two at a time, then we have to stay in the game the rest of the year.
There are two types of trips that we tend to go on. One is the urban type, like staying on the Las Vegas Strip or walking from Waterloo to Kensington Palace. The other is the wilderness expedition. It doesn’t seem at all obvious, but both kinds of travel add up to a lot of miles on foot, a surprising amount of elevation gain, and often, a backpack weighing anywhere from ten to fifty pounds.
There isn’t much that is interesting to see, in our opinion, from the inside of a car, the inside of a hotel room, or a lounge chair.
Traveling revolves around value. Frankly it can be very annoying and expensive to go anywhere, and every time I go through airport security I swear off it, “and this time I mean it.” That’s why it’s important to make sure that you’re doing as much of your favorite stuff as possible, and spending as little time and money on anything else as you can manage.
For us, we don’t see the point of doing certain things on a trip. Those include, but are not limited to:
Watching movies that we can see at home
Going to a shopping mall
Looking at souvenirs, none of which are locally made
Eating at American chain restaurants
Carrying around more than maybe 16 ounces of extra luggage
Trying on and rejecting various outfits
We also aren’t really fans of dance clubs and we don’t drink.
What we really like to do is to SEE EVERYTHING. Parks, museums, architecture tours, public art, archaeological sites, all cover a lot of ground. Many of them are impossible to see without going up and down a lot of stairs. Our second-biggest day of stair-climbing was done in just six hours in Edinburgh.
We weren’t like this when we first got together. We both drank a lot of cola and we hadn’t yet been camping together. That was also before we lost 100 pounds between us.
Walking everywhere used to be really hard on my hubby because he had a childhood foot injury that caused nerve damage. After about two miles of walking he would be done. He’d be walking with a limp and really struggling. I had an easier time walking, but I still had chronic pain issues and my fitness level (and pain threshold) was very low. We would just be too tired.
I never would have thought, after being together for thirteen years and aging a wee little bit, that we would be covering so much more ground now than we could when we were both still in our thirties.
Walking a lot toughens your feet. That part is obvious. What isn’t so obvious is that getting fitter can reverse what felt like permanent and total damage in other parts of the body.
My dislocated hip and dislocated rib, fixed.
His herniated disks, no longer a problem.
Knee pain, back pain, shoulder pain, fibromyalgia, geez we really are middle-aged... All the problems we used to be able to list off are fading into history.
All of this has been encouraging to us, partly because of course it’s better not to be in cruising pain from the moment you start the day. It’s also encouraging because the more we travel and the more active we are, the more ability we seem to be buying ourselves.
I won’t lie, there were a couple of points during the trip when my feet were so sore that I wanted to ask for a piggyback ride. Daddy carry me. My boots weren’t really designed for twelve miles on concrete. It got easier day by day, though, and the other thing that happened was that the waistband on my pants loosened up.
The human body was designed for walking. When we say “hunter-gatherer” what we’re really saying is “walks all day every day.” I think of my pioneer ancestors walking thirty miles a day next to their covered wagons, some of them probably barefoot and certainly not wearing modern athletic shoes. Before 1950 or thereabouts, most people both urban and rural probably put in ten-mile days routinely and never thought twice about it.
We meet a lot of people on the road, and some of them are considerably older than we are. I think we both saw someone who caught our attention on this trip. Mine was an American woman of about sixty, who was in much better shape than I am and looked like she could easily do a handspring into the pool. I couldn’t take my eyes off her shoulders. I knew I wanted to be as fit as she is when I reach her age. My husband’s was a Scottish grandfather playing soccer on the village green. His calves were indistinguishable from a young man’s even though he had to be over seventy. He was executing footwork that his grade-schooler grandkids couldn’t do, probably because he had been kicking a football every day for, oh, at least sixty-five years. Will we do the same?
We’d like to visit every country in the world, and at the rate we’re going, we would have to start doing about twenty a year if we want to catch up. We’ve talked about how sad it would be if we finally had the money and leisure but lacked the strength or the energy. We still have time today to keep walking and keep climbing stairs, huffing side by side as we plan our next trip.
I married a jocknerd. Then I became one. I may well be married to the only aerospace engineer / football player / ice hockey player / ex-lumberjack in the galaxy. When I was young, I was such a snob that my top two criteria for a boyfriend were 1. Can beat me at Scrabble and 2. Does not watch football. My identity as an intellectual included a sizable chunk dedicated to Not Being an Athlete. As usual when I based my decisions on resistance and rejection, I had no idea what I was talking about. I didn’t have to sacrifice any of my alignment with books or other brainy pursuits in order to inhabit my body more fully. I didn’t have to feel like a spy crossing over hostile enemy territory. All I had to do was to embrace the fact that being a nerd and being a jock are not mutually exclusive. It turns out that there are many jocknerds among us.
The nerd life chose me. Due to my July birthday, I was always one of the youngest, smallest kids in my grade. That weird policy of putting kids in school based on one chronological deadline means that some kids in the same classroom may be nearly a year apart in age. Those kids who were a few months older than me were also larger and more coordinated. Then, in second grade, I was placed in a split classroom with both second- and third-graders. The school approached my parents about having me skip a grade, but it was decided that this would be too hard on me socially. TRUE! Being both small and smart set me up for some hassles. I was also awkward and clueless about the rules of team sports. P.E. alienated me from any kind of physical activity until I was over thirty.
If I had the chance, I’d offer a symposium of advice for physical education teachers who wanted to reach all the uncoordinated shy kids. 1. Offer more options that teach proprioception and spatial awareness rather than having bigger, tougher kids crash into everyone, throw balls at heads, etc. 2. STEP IN when you even suspect bullying. 3. Encourage and never, ever tease shy kids. What worked for your personality won’t work for everyone.
Now that I’m a small adult, I understand that my tiny frame gives me some major advantages. My height-weight ratio allows me to carry disproportionate amounts of heavy weights, such as an expedition backpack. I have an easier time hoisting my own weight, such as when I want to climb a rope, do a pull-up, climb a fence, get back into a sea kayak, or complete an obstacle course in an adventure race. My metabolism suits me for endurance racing and long backpacking trips. I’m great at yoga. I wish they’d told me any of this when I was a little kid, rather than forcing me to play dodgeball with aggressive boys twice my size.
As a grade schooler, I used to fantasize that I was in a prison camp, and try to imagine whether I could withstand torture. I pictured having my fingernails ripped off, and whether I would faint from the pain or just refuse to give up state secrets. There was a tough person inside of me. It says a lot that my POW daydreams seemed ever so much more appealing than going to gym class.
One day in eighth grade, a boy came up behind me in gym class and pulled a pair of boy’s underwear over my head and face. Did the teacher do anything? I’ll give you three guesses.
Ugh! This post wasn’t going to be about trauma, but I guess it is. Only those who have suffered it understand just exactly how deep the aversion to physical activity can go. Our picture of “move your body” is the picture of public humiliation and shame that we endured as an educational requirement in school.
What I learned through the patient tutelage of my now-husband is that it’s different for adults. We choose when and where we come and go. We choose our own training schedules. We pick out our own equipment. We can change gyms and trainers and routines any time we want.
I also learned that I LOVE working out. I love it. Building muscle and cardiovascular endurance takes me to places that books never did.
I also learned that nothing is mutually exclusive. I can and do read while working out. What I also learned is that there are a lot of jocknerds out there, because physical culture is a fascinating area of research in its own right. People you might have been taught to think of as “dumb jocks” know tons of stuff about sports physiology, nutrition, physics, first aid, history, game theory, and of course mundane topics relating to current events, their careers, and more. Middle-aged athletes tend to be high achievers in all areas of life. I never would have guessed it, but the jocknerds I have met tend to be smarter than the bookish sedentary people I always would have chosen before.
“Going to the gym” is a totally different experience for adults than it is for kids. We’re mature! Everyone in the gym is just trying to fit a workout into a busy schedule. There are grandparents, young moms, business executives, college students, and all sorts of distracted people who have no time to stare at you. Nobody cares. Nobody is looking at anybody. We’re watching our form, listening to podcasts, reading magazines, sometimes messing with our phones. You’re allowed to wear a stained t-shirt with holes in it, drip sweat, and have messy hair. You’re even allowed to maintain your self-image as whatever you want, mentally holding yourself above it all. You don’t even have to be a jocknerd to go to the gym; you can just be a regular nerd. Welcome to the adult playground, the one with no dodgeballs.
Not everyone realizes this, but it’s not okay to change your fitness routine. It’s not okay - it’s MANDATORY. First of all, doing the same routine over and over can eventually lead to stress injuries. Second, it’s boring. Third, the body adjusts and the law of diminishing returns sets in. Perhaps most importantly, any single routine may neglect entire areas of the body. This is why it’s so vital - and fun - to occasionally pause and pivot.
I first started switching up my workout because my college gym had strict 30-minute cardio sessions. If you tried to stay on the machine longer, a bouncer would come over with a clipboard and evict you. I used the cardio equipment while I read my homework, and a half hour wasn’t enough. I learned that I could get a better/longer workout if I signed up for adjacent time slots and simply moved from one machine to another.
I also learned that more than five minutes on the stair climber made me want to barf.
Sometimes all the cardio machines would be booked. That’s when I started learning to use the weight machines. I was getting over a bad breakup, so my girlfriends would spot me and encourage me and keep me company. That boy was no gym rat and it was one place on campus where I could sulk in peace.
I started to see the gym as a place of refuge, a solace, and a mood adjuster.
Over the next fifteen years, I learned that Gym Me had high energy and a good mood, while Default Me was mopey and got sick a lot. I also had to change what I was doing many times due to relocation, job change, injury, or forgetting who Gym Me was. For a while.
Being fit has a tendency to reveal mysterious superpowers that weren’t even what you were training for. I’ve astonished myself with the suddenly revealed ability to climb a rope, do a headstand, or whip out a new hula hoop trick after watching someone else do it for a few seconds. The fun stuff!
The fun stuff, like toppling a 250-pound huge dude with a jiu jitsu throw.
I’m doing a pause and pivot right now. It’s been really emotional and difficult, because I’m stubborn as all-get-out, but it has to be done. I recognize this. It’s my own idea and my own plan, and still I’m struggling with my traitorous emotions. My feelings, always getting in my way and trying to ruin my strategic vision.
I’ve been enrolled in a martial arts school for nearly a year and a half. I convinced my husband to join, and we’ve been going to kickboxing classes together, a lot of the time at least.
There have been problems, though.
On his end, he’s lost nearly twenty pounds. His neck mobility has vastly improved and his chronic back pain is almost completely gone. He revels in fighting and he’s been getting the blue belts to teach him higher level secrets. He’s in the best shape of the fourteen years I’ve known him. He’s as happy and excited as a little kid with his first skateboard.
On my end, I’ve been going through several months of health struggles. I got a bad cold in the beginning of August, and that somehow turned into being sick 40% of the time between August and January. I missed (and paid for) weeks of classes, which unfortunately cost 25% more because I had just leveled up to the advanced classes. I went to the doctor to find out why I kept getting sick, fearing the worst, and she said she had known a fellow doctor who had the same problem. She wasn’t getting enough sleep during her residency, her stress level was high, and she could never quite recover fully before she was exposed to another cold. This doctor told me I would probably keep getting sick until the end of this year’s cold and flu season.
I mean, at least my blood work is good.
I did some research on my own end. It turns out that intense exercise can lead to being more vulnerable to colds and flu. Yeah. It makes sense. I would keep pushing myself a little too hard and trying to get back into classes a little too soon. I’d start going out and trying to work out at my normal intensity every time I reached 80% recovery. It was like trying to shut a door and having a mosquito fly in. Again and again and again.
After literally the twelfth time I got sick in eight months, I finally realized I had had enough. I need to give myself a break before I wind up on an inhaler. I paused my gym membership and told everyone I’d be back in six months or so.
This has nothing to do with grit or perseverance or fortitude. Those are the qualities that got me into this mess.
This also has nothing to do with abdicating on my body and burrowing into a recliner. I know I can’t do that because sedentary behavior impacts my thyroid, and I feel far, far worse when I sit around all the time.
This is a sabbatical, a pause and a pivot.
The first thing I’m going to do is to get over this most recent cold. I’ve been organizing my digital files, catching up on email, reading, and sleeping as much as I can between my neighbors’ centaur races or whatever they’re doing up there.
My pivot is to focus more on cardio over the summer. My husband and I talked it out, and remembered that when I was training for my marathon, I felt great all the time and I never got sick. I didn’t get sick that entire year! The only reason I quit was that I overtrained my ankle and wound up in physical therapy for six months.
I know more about stretching and cross-training now. I also know the warning signs. There’s no way I’ll do that to myself again.
The other thing is that I gained fifteen pounds in my shift from endurance running to boxing. Granted, some of it is muscle, but it doesn’t seem to be doing me many favors. My weight regain is perfectly correlated with the return of my night terrors, migraines, and vulnerability to seemingly every passing airborne virus. It’s gotta go.
The great thing about testing weight gain or loss as a variable is that it’s temporary. If you don’t like the results, you can always go back in the other direction. If I lose “too much weight” I can just eat more and put it back on over the weekend. *shrug*
The most important factor in a pause and pivot is the feeling of returning to center, of fully inhabiting one’s physical vessel. I am my body and my body is me. High energy is my birthright. I’ll do whatever I need to do to take care of myself and give myself the utmost strength and mobility.
First off, don’t get in the van. This is an R-rated post about physical danger and self-defense. When you read the phrase “Get in the van,” hear it in a grim and menacing voice, the voice of a highly trained sadist and criminal who intends to do you great harm.
If you’re looking for motivation, here is your motivation.
Someone might try to throw you in a van one day. Worse, they might grab a child, your child, your friend’s child, and throw the kid in the van right in front of you. What are you prepared to do about it?
I train in Krav Maga, a system of martial arts designed for smaller, weaker people to fight larger, stronger people. A core training goal is the fighting mindset, to continue to fight when you are physically exhausted and confused and demoralized and experiencing a massive adrenalin dump. Part of our discipline is to vividly imagine specific physical threats and then confront them.
As a result, I have practiced several ways of getting out of chokeholds and wrestling my way out from under attackers. I have practiced gun and knife disarms. I have practiced fighting with knives, hammers, screwdrivers, and ink pens. I can throw eight different kinds of elbow strikes, and that’s just to the rear. I have fought five people at once. I have fought with my hands duct-taped together. I have fought in the dark. I have fought with a sack over my head.
(You have to pay extra for that, though).
The owner of our school is a man so physically imposing that it’s impossible not to notice. He trains police officers and soldiers and military contractors. He has the natural ease and stance of pure confidence. It’s arresting. He holds the room effortlessly. This is what he has to say about training in self-defense.
There are predators in this world. They’re angry because they didn’t get what they wanted in childhood and they’re looking to take it out on someone. They pick on women because we’re easier targets. We’re smarter, but we’re smaller and weaker and we don’t have the same drive for aggression. We’re also distracted by our constant multitasking, and that makes us easy marks.
We should be on the lookout, aware at all times of who is within fifty feet of us. We should have our eyes up and our hands free. We should hold our keys so that we’re ready to unlock the door, not to fight with them, because punching with keys hurts and because you might break your keys. You need them to get away.
Even though intellectually we know that we should be alert, rather than distracted, we let ourselves get distracted. We’re distracted by our phones, our music, our to-do lists, our many bags, our children, and all the other things that distract the typical multitasking, busy woman. We don’t look up even when we know we should, and we have our eyes down when we don’t even realize we’re doing it.
That’s one takeaway. No matter how else you feel about anything else I write, please take away that anyone is capable of being more alert. At least a minute or two each day, keep your eyes up and your hands free when you’re going between your door and your vehicle.
Let’s think about predators and prey. What do prey animals do? How does a predator choose its prey?
Prey are weaker. Slower, older, younger, less physically capable. A predator cuts them away from the safety of the herd and takes them to a secluded area. A predator is excited when the prey animal runs faster, getting tired and further isolated.
How do we stop acting like prey? Stay alert, yes, but what else?
Take care of ourselves.
In the context of self-defense, this should not be considered controversial. It is a basic, quantifiable measure. Fitness literally means the ability to physically survive. By definition it is a biological survival trait. It applies to a vole or a sparrow just as it applies to us.
When someone yells RUN FOR YOUR LIVES, can you? (Wildfire, flash flood, gas leak, tsunami, tornado, terrorist, bomb threat, active shooter, home invader, serial rapist, murderer). How far can you run? When is the last time you tested that ability in yourself?
How much of what we do is visualization, the momentary excitement of watching a tense sequence in an action film? How much of what we do is physical, real action in real conditions?
I know how fast I can run up a flight of stairs because I run up flights of stairs every week. I know how fast I can sprint down the street because I sprint down the street. I know I can fight five people because I train it in class. I don’t have to imagine what it’s like to get my wrists taped together because I just did it.
I do have to imagine someone trying to kidnap a child right in front of me, because fortunately that has not happened. I have, though, had to sprint to grab a child (more than once) because little kids suddenly try to run out in the street or into danger. If I were slower I can’t say what might have happened.
This doesn’t have to do with body image. I don’t concern myself much with that. If I did, I wouldn’t be able to leave the house with a black eye and a big bruise on my face. People Will Think: my husband did it, I have no self-esteem, anything other than “she is a kickboxer.” It’s none of my business what other people think about my body and what my body looks like. If they notice me at all, they must have nothing better to do, and that’s boring and sad.
What I do concern myself with is what my body can do. How much energy do I have? How capable do I feel? The feeling of “no, no, I can’t” extends everywhere, into every part of life.
No, no, I can’t try for that promotion.
No, no, I can’t update my resume.
No, no, I can’t afford X, Y, or Z.
No, no, I can’t get sweaty or dirty.
No, no, I can’t set boundaries with other people.
No, no, I can’t make a fuss or inconvenience anyone.
No, no, I can’t make a mean face.
No, no, I can’t raise my voice and yell BACK OFF.
No, no, I can’t make a fist.
When someone yells at me to get in the van, I’ll get in the van, and there I’ll join the endless parade of dead women, made beautiful in their final photo, sainted and martyred by senseless violence. Even better, the photo of the little lost child who was stolen right in front of me, that photo will look great on the news. It’ll be a movie of the week.
“There was nothing I could do,” I’ll say, weeping prettily, because I never knew I could. I never knew there was something I could do.
That’s a visual that is motivating to me. I run through pictures in my mind, images of children who are important to me, laughing and happy, and then I picture the hands of an experienced predator grabbing at them. It gets my blood up.
There’s another visual that is motivating to me. It comes from horror films and it’s reinforced by true crime. I sometimes watch movies or TV episodes before I go to class, while I’m eating the large, heavy meals I eat before I train. A man, a scary man. Chases a woman, grabs a woman, chokes a woman. Stabs a woman. Pop culture runs almost purely on images of vulnerable femininity, and this is useful for training purposes. Picture that it’s you. Picture that it’s your friend. Notice a pregnant woman out in the world, and picture yourself standing between her and danger. I got you, honey, now RUN!
The fastest I ever ran was out with my husband, trail running in our favorite park at sunset. I slapped his butt and took off, and he sped up and came after me. I imagined he was an axe murderer, coming at me through the trees as the sun went down. It was exhilarating. I could hear his heavy tread behind me, his big boots thudding as we both ran as fast as we could. He couldn’t catch me and I got away. When I explained later what I was doing, he laughed and shook his head. “Whatever it takes,” he said.
I don’t give a damn about body image. If I do, it’s because I like to make people flinch when they see my big arms. I can ballroom dance backward in high heels, I can bring a crowd-pleasing lasagna to a potluck, I can plan a wedding, I can carry a child to bed without waking her up. I can also fight five dudes with my hands taped together. All of these images are consistent with womanhood. It is a core duty of an adult female to protect children, and fighting like a crazy bitch from hell can easily be integrated with that.
I hope at least one thing I have written here makes you angry. I hope it gets under your skin and that you can’t stop muttering about it. I hope it gets your attention enough that you make a change to your default behavior, and that if you pick only one, it is to keep your eyes up and your hands free.
I also hope it gives you cause to reconsider your relationship with your physical energy level and your body image. Come join me and lace up your gloves. You can hit me first if you want, I don’t mind.
Have you ever looked in the mirror and freaked out? Has your morning face ever made you recoil, perhaps because you didn’t know you had blue ink on your mouth? (Just asking).
I woke up, wandered into the bathroom, and thought, “What have I done? I’m orange!”
A friend talked me into getting a makeover. This is probably something that most people did at some point as teenagers, or maybe even grade-school kids. Playing dress-up, trying new hairstyles, playing with makeup - none of that was really a part of my life. I’m honestly more comfortable looking at car engines than I am standing in front of a cosmetics counter.
Has anyone thought about this? I’ve done mise-en-place for four-course meals that had fewer ingredients than the number of bottles, jars, and palettes that some people have for their makeup routine. It’s terrifying!
Let’s not even talk about all the mysterious weirdness of getting... [looks up how to spell] balayage for the first time.
Confusion, intimidation, stretches of boredom, curiosity, anticipation, utter lack of idea what to expect - that’s me in a chair with a bunch of plastic wrap on my hair.
I thought getting my hair colored would mean going dark. I had nearly black hair when I was younger, in Oregon in the winter at least. It turns out that dark hair dye is really high maintenance because you wind up with a high-contrast gray stripe on top of your head every six weeks. I don’t care about having naturally gray hair, I don’t care about that at all, but I do care about adding one more recurring appointment to my calendar.
Apparently you get to an age where you don’t really get to be a brunette anymore. Either nature takes care of it for you, or you color it, and if you try to keep the dark locks of your youth then it gets to be progressively more complicated. Brows, lashes, skin tone. Eh, let it go.
If I had to choose, I’d probably opt to go silver or white or even iron-gray all over rather than Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, with pale roots.
Maybe it’ll be a thing. I probably won’t notice because I don’t spend much time clocking in as the Fashion Police.
After three hours, I got the reveal on the hair. Certainly not black, not silver, not the strawberry-blonde (???) suggested by the colorist, but... bronze? It looked amazing. A professional blowout is generally going to look amazing.
It looked so good that I got to meet the salon owner and we took pictures together.
Then we went down the street to the cosmetics counter, where I had a genuine makeup artist choose products and do my face. They wouldn’t let me look at myself until she was done.
When I turned to the mirror, I started crying. I didn’t look that good at my wedding. Or my other wedding.
“I look like Christie Brinkley!” I cried, “Don’t tell her I said that!”
Here’s what’s funny about this whole thing. I’m a size two. I can rock a bikini and get entire groups of middle-aged men to turn their heads as I walk by, not that I care, because I’m married and I’m not there for them. I do, though, have an enviable fitness level, especially for a woman my age. I know because I sometimes catch other women giving me dirty looks. I’ve been cussed out by friends. I’m like, I’ll work out with you any time you like, it’s not zero-sum. If you want to do two hundred squats or pushups with me at our next martial arts promotion, come on down. This is not genetic.
I have seen my physique as something I’ve earned through focus and hard work. I’ve seen my body as the battleground of several health issues, and the muscle I have now is the sign that I’m winning. I’m not robust enough to live the Standard American Lifestyle with the Standard American Body. I didn’t put all these years in or do all these pushups on my fingertips out of vanity but out of necessity.
The cosmetic stuff? That feels completely different.
You can run a marathon in less time than it takes to get balayage on your hair.
If you spend even twenty minutes a day on hair and makeup, that’s enough time to do a very professional, knee-wobbling HIIT workout and run a mile.
The time that goes in to applying perfect eyeliner, it all gets wiped off and washed down the drain twelve hours later.
That’s more or less what happened overnight, after all the hugging and crying and picture-snapping.
I looked lovely as a flower for a couple of hours, and then I woke up. Then I woke up and looked just like my normal self, only with bedhead and a radically different hair color.
There is a certain adjustment to radically changing your physical appearance. For a while, you might catch sight of yourself in a window reflection and think it’s someone else. Sometimes, when I first lost my weight, I would catch sight of myself and think, WHOA. I kept gravitating to the size tens and twelves on the clothing rack, years after they no longer fit (as a fourteen, and also going the other direction). The “real me” got to wear a certain style of clothes and look a certain way.
What happens to the “real me” that was? What happens when, objectively, the “real me” looks like a different person from outside?
“It’s the new you!” People kept telling me that. Um, no, you can’t just go to a salon and buy a new personality. Same me, different hair. Same me plus some eye shadow.
I came home to my husband with my salon makeover. He’s an engineer and I think he saw it as a sort of chemical, industrial process, like powder coat or electroplating. He commented that it looked more natural than my ordinary hair, which is usually reddish at the last two inches and three shades of gray on top. He’s right, and I can quit complaining about how it looks when I clip it up now. “It’s not orange,” he says (you dolt), “it’s auburn.”
After waking up in distress at the aftermath of my radical new look, I pulled my socks up and got it together. I styled my hair and tested out my new makeup samples. I am by no means an expert at that sort of thing, but it worked. I felt normal-looking again. I went out and did four pitch meetings and got everything I asked for and more.
It annoys me that most people seem so very responsive to physical presentation. That a kind-hearted person might be overlooked in favor of a rude but attractive person, that someone polished might go farther than someone brilliant. But then, how brilliant is it of me to ignore something so obvious? To disregard something that is a relatively uncomplicated technical skill? I got better results in life when I started working out, I got better results when I really learned to cook, and now I suppose I’ll get better results in life by learning what other people consider to be a basic life skill. I’ll get used to how it looks eventually, just like I got used to my gradually graying hair and my gradually firming arms and shoulders.
“Don’t overthink it!” I hear this a lot in my martial arts classes. True to form, now I’m overthinking overthinking. Or am I? I’m getting my head around the difference between athletes and people like me.
It’s also the difference between anyone who is “natural” at anything and those who aren’t.
What am I doing in class that qualifies as “overthinking”? I’m asking questions when I’m doing something wrong, for instance trying to block a head shot and instead smacking myself in the face. What “everyone else” is doing is practicing the block over and over.
Makes sense, right?
The part that doesn’t really make sense is why an otherwise intelligent person would keep showing up in a room only to make hundreds of mistakes and punch herself in the eye with a boxing glove.
This is the essence of growth mindset versus fixed mindset. I’m in the room because I believe I can be taught, eventually, despite all evidence to the contrary. I believe it is necessary to my wellbeing to push myself to learn new things. I believe strength comes from facing obstacles and overcoming them.
“Everyone else” is there for more or less the same reasons: enjoying the difficult workout, needing an outlet for intense competitive drive and physicality, or simply loving martial arts culture.
Why are my fellow students grasping things so much more quickly than I do?
A young man in my classes hit upon it the other day. He’s young enough to be my son and he started training as a beginner around the time I got into the advanced class. He’s already better than I am.
“Did you do sports in school?”
I explained that when I was in school, girls weren’t allowed to play sports because Title IX wasn’t being enforced. The only option for us was girls’ softball, but that was a league sport.
“That makes no sense,” he said, mystified, and then explained why he had asked. He had two female friends who wanted him to teach them how to skateboard. One got it right away, and she had a sports background. The other, a musician, struggled terribly. He saw it as a matter of time spent rather than a matter of aptitude.
I’ve thought about this for a long time, and it’s interesting that it would be obvious to a young person. My husband, for instance, started on athletics as a preschooler. He can’t even remember exactly when he got on the swim team. It’s just always been a part of his life. He participated in every possible sport offered in his region.
Does swimming at age five have anything to do with swinging a sword at age forty? Evidently!
What all these “natural” athletes have that I don’t is a track record. (Sometimes literally on the track team!). They were up and moving their bodies at a younger age. Every year of our lives, these “natural” athletes have spent a significant part of their day in motion while I sat on my butt reading a book.
They acquired what I have to learn. It did NOT come “naturally” - it came from deliberate practice. It came from doing different things as children. It wasn’t always even their choice; their parents may have pressured them and insisted that they do stuff they deeply loathed doing.
In some cases, they’ve built a different physical framework than I have. For instance, my thirteen-year-old training partner is shockingly heavy for her size. If someone told me she had a titanium skeleton, I wouldn’t be surprised. She’s been practicing martial arts since the age of three, and her bones are undoubtedly denser than those of another child. Her body composition is also probably much more muscular and lower in fat.
These “natural” athletes have been building better cardiovascular fitness all this time. By ‘fitness’ I mean that exercise actually grows more blood vessels and expands the lungs, among other changes. While I was sitting around reading for thousands of hours, I was not building that same infrastructure.
The biggest difference is in proprioception, I’m sure of it. My classmates are able to watch something demonstrated once, maybe twice, and then copy it. I watch the same movements and I’m completely befuddled. I have to see the same motions at least five times before I start to get it. Often I’ll misremember whether to go left or right.
I have trouble knowing where my body parts are. I can only seem to track three out of four limbs. If I’m moving both legs and grabbing someone, my other hand seems to float off on its own. After a year I’m still being constantly reminded to keep my hands up. In my mind, I am! I can’t tell when my butt is sticking out. It feels like motions that should be in 3D are only 2D for me. What I’m worst at is moving with my face blocked, when I can’t see what I’m doing.
What I have is like being tone-deaf, which I’m not, or having a tin ear for languages, which I don’t. Colorblind, I’m not either. I’m fairly good at yoga, probably because I’ve spent so long in two dozen familiar poses over the years. I’m competent at ballroom dancing because I went to the kind of dance school where you drill the box step hundreds of times and learn where to put your arms separately. What I’m telling myself is that I’m already good at certain things, because I spent time on them when I was younger, and I’m not yet good at other things, because they are new to me.
I seem to be overthinking things in class because I lack the facility to copy what I see. This is strange to sporty types who have done it all their lives. They can’t understand why not everyone can do it. They don’t understand why everyone isn’t like them. They’ve never experienced being awkward or inept in the kinetic world. To them, it isn’t a subject of study. This is part of why I stay in a class where objectively I don’t belong, because I have as much to teach as I have to learn. If they can teach me, they can teach anyone.
So you insisted on joining that gym. You know what everyone says about New Year’s Resolutions and habits, and you believe that none of it applies to you. You signed up for a bargain membership at a commodity gym.
Congratulations! It just might work!
If you really and truly love gaming, TV and movies, music, shopping, fried foods, or any of the other cute and charming habits that people try to shed at resolution time, you can use that! You get to keep all that stuff. Well, actually you get to keep it either way. You can keep it with a fitness level that steadily deteriorates from year to year, or you can keep it while using it as fuel for your body upgrades.
Simply choose a form of exercise that allows you to indulge in your favorite activities at the same time.
Anchor the time in your schedule, the location, and the habits. Make gym time your indulgent time, time to get away with all the naughty things that are so fun to do.
Personally I like spying on people and eavesdropping on their conversations. I like checking out other people’s butts and wondering what workout they do. I like looking at their shoes and their workout clothes and mentally shopping. Would that combo work on me?
I also use my elliptical time to watch video clips, read articles, play Words With Friends, look at recipes, and dink around doing all the stuff online that I normally don’t have time to do. Sometimes I’ll read a potboiler that I only allow myself to read while I do cardio. It makes me move faster at the scary parts. I’ve tried watching movies or hour-long TV episodes, but it makes one minute feel like ten. That’s why I like the fragmented articles and short videos.
Sometimes the elliptical machines are taken. No surprise, since there are only two at our apartment gym and they’re often full of married couples. My husband will shrug and lift weights while listening to all the music I don’t let him play aloud in the house. I’ll usually hop on a treadmill and use it as a walking desk with my tablet keyboard. Sometimes I buy dog food online or make appointments. Sometimes I just write out a bunch of lists. If I bring a cable then my device will be fully charged, too. It’s not really all that naughty, but when I’ve caught up on email with a full battery, I feel like I just summoned an extra hour out of the ether.
That’s one of the main secrets behind getting your money’s worth out of a commodity gym. You have to be equally as willing to do one workout as another, because often your favorite equipment will already be in use. When I was in college, there was a strict 20-minute time limit on all the cardio equipment, and each machine had a sign-up sheet. A bouncer would come over and make you climb down if you tried to stay on longer. I’d take three slots and move between different machines and read my homework. Not having a hundred pages of assigned reading makes anything else feel like playtime.
There are all sorts of treats and indulgences and cute habits that fit people associate with their workouts, even their most boring workouts.
Cardio and entertainment! The elliptical and TV. The recumbent bike and cooking shows or video games. The treadmill and a podcast. Any fitness class that plays your type of music (although beware: I had to quit one gym that kept playing the same Top 40 pop hit every time I was there. That was before AirPods).
Mega calories and endurance sports! Do it indoors long enough when the weather is bad, and suddenly you’ll find yourself doing the same routine outdoors when it’s gorgeous out. You’ll find yourself doing it with a bagel in your hand. Everyone I know who bikes or runs does it for the beer. Every race day I have willing buddies who will hang around for me, even when I’m half their speed, because I hate beer and I’ll give them the voucher off my race bib. A friend of mine used to measure his weight loss against a little poster he had made of all his favorite See’s Candies, and now he’s a century rider.
Shopping and physical transformation! It wasn’t until I finally reached my goal weight that I realized how much less uncomfortable high heels are at 120 than at 160. It has to do with the laws of physics and pounds per square inch, which is why stilettos hurt more to wear than a stacked heel or a platform shoe. I also discovered that almost all clothes in my size will fit and look attractive on me, which definitely was not true when I wore a size fourteen. One night I tried on thirty-eight pairs of pants and not a single one fit right. That just doesn’t happen anymore. If fashion or revenge are strong interests of yours, why not? Make your shopping life easier.
It is absolutely fair game to base your transformation goals around your boyfriend’s ex or an online photo of the queen bee who tormented you in sixth grade. One of my clients made her goal with days to spare because she knew her ex would be at the same party with his new girlfriend on New Year’s Eve. Chances are, there’s an innocent bystander at your commodity gym who resembles this rival, at least a little. When you see her, you can use her silhouette to rev you up. It’s also fun to outdo the young bro at the next station. Especially if you lift.
A commodity gym can be a fantastic source of material for an artist. Caricatures, cartoons, comedy, sculpture, music, whatever it is that you do, if you go to the gym you’ll expand your net for capturing new ideas and fresh inspiration. Same with entrepreneurs and trend analysis. It’s a part of the world that is worthy of exploration.
A new gym can be a weird and uncomfortable place for someone who feels self-conscious and insecure. It can be a smelly and boring and loud place, too. Isn’t that also true of anywhere, but especially any shopping mall, hair salon, grocery store, workplace, restaurant, gas station, or anywhere else in public? Just think of your new commodity gym as a place to get your money’s worth, a place to catch up on your to-do list and your must-watch list and the games in your queue. Soon it will be just as familiar as your car, only it will take you farther.
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.
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