I was on the Future Phone just now, talking to Future Me. We want to get some clarity on how we should be allocating our time. Future Self informs me that it’s solid common sense to assume we’re going to live a long life, and plan accordingly.
Let’s spend a minute going over the gamble here. Where are the risks? Future Self’s Wager is like Pascal’s Wager, except not religious. There are two bets.
One, you assume you’ll die at X age and you actually die sooner. Two, you assume you’ll die at X age and you live longer.
If you die sooner than you expected, you potentially miss out on opportunities and leave things unsaid.
If you live longer than you expected, on the other hand, things get complicated. You run out of money. You don’t carry the appropriate long-term disability insurance or long-term care insurance. Your house, appliances, and vehicle start to depreciate, and you can’t afford to repair or replace them. Inflation comes for your assets. The last sixty years of your exercise and nutrition habits catch up with you. You live out the effects of all your strained and broken relationships. You feel the pangs of regret for all the opportunities you never pursued, all the things you never learned, all the places you never went, all the apologies you never made, and the legacy you never created. You realize that you always had plenty of time for everything you ever wanted to do, yet you squandered it.
To me, it’s quite obvious that assuming you’ll die sooner is a much worse gamble than assuming you’ll live longer. If you’re wrong and you DO live much longer, you won’t have the relationships, the mindset, the physical stamina, the skills, or the material assets that you’ll need.
Also, we might be talking a very, very long amount of time. Say you assume you’re going to be gone by, um, sixty-seven? But you actually live to be eighty-six. That’s NINETEEN YEARS of “Oops, I never thought this would happen.” What if you then live even longer than that? What if you live past the point when YOUR KIDS are eighty-six?
Most people will instinctively reject this idea. Seriously, though! The average lifespan has roughly DOUBLED in the last century. Advances in sanitation, epidemiology, nutrition, surgery, pharmaceuticals, gerontology, and just general medical knowledge are going to continue to accelerate. Financial planners are telling people to plan to live to be ninety-six right now, just to be on the safe side.
Again, the risk of planning to be ninety-six and then dying sooner is that you have enough resources, and you wind up not needing them after all. You can then leave it all to your kids, your mate, your capybara, and/or your favorite charity.
You think it’s pessimistic to assume you’ll die young. Think again. It’s much more pessimistic to assume you’ll outlive your money, your health, and your relationships by thirty years or more.
It’s basically fortune cookie wisdom to ask, “What would you do if you found out you’d die tomorrow?” Or six months from now, or a year from now? I’ve found it much more interesting to ask, “What would you do if you knew you’d live past one hundred?”
The other day, I was taking a class in situational combatives, part of my martial arts training. It occurred to me that if fortune favors me, I could train hard for another twenty-five years. That would put me at age sixty-eight. My partner in that class happened to be seventy-eight and he’s still going strong, so it’s not an unreasonable gamble. What could I do in twenty-five years? I could be a sixth-degree black belt, that’s what!
That gave me pause. I could probably attain a black belt in a shorter span than that, maybe even less than half that time. Wait. Waiiiit a minute. What ELSE could I do in twenty-five active years besides getting a black belt in a martial art?
Get several black belts?
Suddenly it felt as though I had such a long time to fill, so many long decades that could instead be filled with boredom and dissatisfaction. I’d look back on my young, dumb forty-three-year-old self and wonder why I hadn’t made better use of my time.
Past Me! Why u so lazy??
Not only physical pursuits, but other kinds of disciplines caught my attention. What could I study in twenty-five years? Music? Painting? Small engine repair? Esperanto?
One of the benefits of middle age is that you start to understand how to shape longer-term goals and projects. Another is that you have the time and resources to pursue them. Among the best is that you have the patience and self-discipline you never could find as a teenager or young adult. You have to start to wonder how much your focus and dedication could improve, given decades of additional practice.
Already I’ve done something. I’ve put this thought out there in the world. What if we have more time than we think? Much, much more time? What scale of project would you consider if you knew you had thirty years to work on it? Now, if I’ve gambled poorly and I’m wrong about Future Self’s wager, I’ll still have done something worthwhile. If I’ve gambled well, only time will tell what sort of amazing things I might still have in me.
It took me until late in my marathon training before I realized that not all workout clothes are created equal. Due to our cultural acceptance of specialized fitness clothing for almost every occasion, we associate this style with comfort, ease, and relaxation. It isn’t until we try to use them for, you know, actual exercise that we discover it can be complicated. Workout clothes are not obvious.
First off, work clothes are not suitable for a real workout. The fabrics tend to be too delicate, and they start to tear or pill. Tops won’t stay in place, sleeves totally get in the way, trouser legs aren’t flexible enough for any movement, skirts start twisting sideways. Generally there’s too much coverage and the fabrics are much too heavy and hot. Jewelry bounces everywhere and almost no hair clips or ties will stay in place. Don’t even get me started on shoes, or, worse, pantyhose.
Jeans are the worst workout garment of all time. I learned this during Street Clothes Week at my Krav Maga class. I wore a Lycra cocktail dress with bike shorts underneath, which was fun and even empowering. A couple of people wore jeans, and it didn’t take more than a brief glance to see what a fresh hell that must have been. The legs are too tight to do any kind of kick properly, while everyone had to keep tugging their waistbands back into place as they slid off waists and hips. Imagine holding your waistband with one hand while frantically trying to execute a roundhouse kick with the opposite leg. Yikes.
I’ve settled on five particular styles of workout clothing, depending on the weather and what I’m doing. This is what I wear and why.
Martial arts, hot weather:
Ponytail holder and yoga headband: Everything I’ve tried eventually falls off at least once, but when my sweaty hair gets plastered to my face I can’t see.
Sports bra, because jump rope
School t-shirt for full chest coverage and uniformity
Black shorts, because I sweat through light colors in a mortifying way. I’m finding that bike shorts are good and running shorts are... kinda bad.
Colored belt appropriate to promotion level, currently orange
Barefoot, because socks are slippery and shoes aren’t allowed on the mat
Martial arts, cooler weather:
Same as above, except substitute tights for shorts, again black for sweat camouflage. Tights are great for knee coverage if you’re down on the mat, whether martial arts, wrestling, yoga, Pilates, or boot camp.
Running, hot weather:
Sports bra and cotton underwear. 1. Don’t wreck your nicer stuff on the trail, 2. There are few things more annoying than uncooperative undergarments when you’re trying to train.
Socks paired carefully with running or trail shoes, half a size larger than street shoes. There is no “right” sock, although toe seams are always under suspicion. I wound up with two distinct sets of running socks, depending on whether I was running on mud in trail shoes or on concrete in ordinary running shoes. Too thin and the sock will slide down and bunch up under the arch of your foot; too thick and they will cause blisters.
Wicking t-shirt. Three reasons: sun protection, prevents underarm chafing, low-maintenance fabric.
Shorts, chosen for fit and waistband. Natural waist stays put, legs need to be long enough not to ride up, waistband can’t have exposed elastic. Drawstrings are high-maintenance and don’t tend to hold up to distance events.
Washcloth, carried in left hand because I am over-the-top fussy about trickling sweat. Note to self: do not anthropomorphize or name your washcloth or attribute special luck-generating powers to it, because you will lose it during your first marathon.
Fanny pack for phone, back-up battery, and snacks.
Running, cold weather:
All of the above plus:
Running tights, ankle length, with shorts over the top for booty coverage. Mud protection and warmth, but not too much.
Zippy jacket with zippered pockets to carry a handkerchief and possibly my phone.
Fingerless Lycra gloves, which usually come off after 15 minutes.
Ball cap if it’s raining.
Bandanna tied over top of head, with hair pulled back, for maximum dust protection
All the old cotton t-shirts I earned from foot races, because they’re useless for actual running
Same zippy jacket from winter running gear
“Adventure pants” for performance and pack weight
Special padded and shaped socks my mom got me
Old cotton underwear I don’t care about
Two sets of underlayers, top and bottom, one in XS and one in S for layering
Fleece jacket and puffy jacket designed for backpacking
Stocking cap that has gone on every camping trip with me for the past ten years
This probably sounds like a lot, but I still have stuff I work out in that I bought a dozen years ago. My entire “collection” fits in a small dresser drawer plus my expedition backpack. You can do the whole kit and caboodle with two pairs of tights, two pairs of shorts, four bras, and half a dozen shirts. Once you figure out a specific garment you can trust, you wind up wearing it a couple times a week, until it literally starts to fall apart on you. Most people with a regular fitness routine get significantly more wear and value out of their workout clothes than their casual or work outfits.
Pitfalls of athletic clothing:
Cotton starts to permanently carry the scent of exercise.
Sleeveless tops are a problem for several reasons: underarm chafing, difficulty of applying sunblock to exposed shoulder blades, skin exposure to Camelbak has led to blisters.
Exposed elastic is a definite problem, although I don’t know yet whether this synthetic fabric called elastane counts. I’ve gotten giant two-inch welts from elastic bra straps and my skin has also reacted to the waistband of my shorts.
Light colors are lovely, except when the first place you sweat is around the groin and five minutes later it looks like you wet yourself.
Strappy leggings, adorable but hazardous for a martial art like Krav Maga, kickboxing, or jiu jitsu. Someone would get their foot caught and then goodbye straps, hello foot injury.
Tank tops: too tight, breathing problem. Too loose, inverted posture or wrestling problem. I have one that I can only wear for yoga, which is what it was designed for.
Souvenir t-shirt collection is always larger than needed, and without backpacking as a hobby I’d have a lot of trouble justifying why I keep them.
I utterly, utterly do not understand sweatpants or what workout someone could possibly do in them, except for running in the snow.
The moral of the story is that some of the cutest, trendiest pieces are only really useful for a specific type of exercise, if any, while some of the tried and true, faithful legacy pieces quit working when you escalate your workout. Shorts I could happily wear for a half marathon suddenly quit on me around the 17-mile mark.
There’s something about the right garment in the right fit and fabric that suddenly makes you feel READY, ready for adventure in an exciting new way. I’ve found that the better I’ve gotten at finding appropriate gear, the more often I wear it, meaning the cost per use is lower each time. And besides, it’s cheaper than the medical alternatives that accompany the sedentary life.
Something happened. I stopped by the pharmacy to pick up a prescription, and a nurse asked me if I’d like to get my flu shot. HECK NO, I thought, because I find injections and blood draws to be terrifying and I like to have a few days to scrape together some courage. I thought October was the earliest that flu shots were available, and no way was this sneak attack on my mind in summer! What I actually said was, Sure, let’s just get it done. I know when I’m being a coward and I’m actively trying to suppress that part of myself. That’s why I started training in martial arts for the first time back in January. I didn’t realize that these two unrelated things would turn out to be connected.
First off, for the skeptics, let me share why I get the flu shot in the first place. I used to avoid it, just like, once upon a time, I believed that homeopathy must be valid because they sell homeopathic products at the natural foods store. (*facepalm*) Then one year my husband got a flu shot at work. I considered getting one, but I “never got around to it” because of course I would do anything to avoid having a needle anywhere near my body. I got really sick that year and my husband didn’t. I was down for eight days while he continued to go to work, whistling a happy tune and obviously feeling fine. That does it, I thought. I’m getting the flu shot every year from here on out.
I’ve gotten the flu shot every year for the past, I think, five years now? I don’t know what terrifying things people think will happen to them if they get a flu shot, but none of them have happened to me. I’ve been immunized against everything I can be, including tetanus and hepatitis, two common infections that I really, really don’t want. Intellectually, I’m convinced of the benefits of herd immunity, and my contribution to protecting little infants, cancer patients, and other immune-compromised people who can’t get vaccinated even if they want to.
Emotionally, it’s still been very tough for me to march myself in there and ask for an injection. Even the smell of rubbing alcohol would make me woozy. The sight of rubber tubing or any of the other apparatus, and even the mint-green color so common on scrubs would set me off. I would have to put my head between my knees afterward, even if I had the chance to lie down during the procedure.
Last year, when I got my flu shot, my husband and I walked from the hospital to the movie theater about a half mile down the street. I was sitting in the lobby with my head between my knees for twenty minutes, but if we stayed longer, we would miss our show. I was so wobbly that just a block from the hospital, I had to sit down in the grass and wait while he went to a convenience store and got me something to raise my blood sugar.
When I say that I have a needle phobia, I’m really not exaggerating.
That’s why it surprised me so much when I got my flu shot this year. As we walked into the ordinary conference room where this operation seemed to be proceeding, I informed the nurse that I get needle reaction and that I’d have to cover my face. She said that happened all the time and not to worry about it. She swiped my arm with rubbing alcohol, I braced myself, the needle went in... and maybe one second later, it was over. That’s it? I asked. I couldn’t believe it. The bandage went on and I was released.
I kept waiting for something to happen. I thought I’d feel the usual nauseating rush of dizziness that I’ve had since childhood. I was sure I’d have to sit there with my head between my knees and possibly risk missing my bus. I thought I’d embarrass myself, like I do every year, by collapsing and making a spectacle of myself. But... it was... totally fine. I can’t even really say it hurt.
My husband and I texted about it. “I think martial arts is doing things to me,” I said. “I know it is,” he replied.
What’s going on with this? What is happening to me after eight months of martial arts training in Muay Thai and Krav Maga?
Stress inoculation is one factor. This is the simple idea that repeated stressors gradually become less stressful through exposure. It’s the principle behind why Toastmasters helps people like me who are afraid of public speaking. It’s also quite true for physical pain, as I’ve learned in the mat room. I have been accidentally socked in the nose, mouth, and eye multiple times, and found that it either barely bothers me or actively seems funny. This never would have been true in the past.
Body composition may come into play. I have more muscle than I ever have before. There may be other components, too, like bone density, vascularity (more and stronger blood vessels), glycogen storage, or hormone balance. No idea, but it’s objectively testable.
Another possible factor is my resting heart rate. My resting heart rate has apparently been abnormally high since middle school. I didn’t really make the connection until I started wearing an Apple Watch. Every prior time that a health professional expressed concern about my heart rate, we would decide together that my fast walking to the facility was responsible. I couldn’t buy that rationale anymore, not with three years of tracking data. At 43 years of age, I felt like I needed to take my heart health as seriously as possible, and I researched how to improve my resting heart rate. HIIT, or high intensity interval training, came up as a viable method. That’s what we do in martial arts, especially during warmups. I’ve been training long enough now to notice a discernible downward trend in my numbers, and it’s possible that this adjustment has impacted my anxiety level around my needle phobia.
Maybe I’ve just been psyching myself out all this time. Maybe spending days or weeks dreading an impending injection would just put me in a stress state. I’m not sure about that. One year in college, I was in the health center, and records indicated that I was due for a tetanus shot. They had my ID and wouldn’t let me leave until I got it done! (Maybe I could have signed some form releasing them from liability or insisting that I refused a tetanus shot, I don’t know. But I did understand that I needed one and intended to comply... laaaaterrrrr...). I didn’t have any time to slink away and mentally compose myself, and I have to say that my panic and pain were just as intense as any other time, maybe more so, because tetanus shots hurt.
What I think is one of the biggest factors here is that my pain threshold is significantly higher. Some stuff I’ve been reading recently suggests that pain is controlled more by the central nervous system than it is by any specific body part, injury, or illness. This makes a lot of sense and feels consistent with my experience recovering from fibromyalgia. It also seems to fit with my impression that athletes in general have a higher pain threshold. I assumed they started with some kind of genetic tendency to feel less pain, allowing them to crash into each other in team sports. Now I believe the opposite, that sports training increases the pain threshold, and that this transformation may be available to anyone at any age.
Further, I have a suspicion that this is some kind of long-lasting neurological change. The reason I think this is that after a year or so of distance running, I quit having a problem with depression. It’s never come back, even though I basically quit running a few years ago. There seems to be something really interesting going on with a certain level of very strenuous physical activity over an extended time period. If running can change what felt like a personality-level issue with something as serious as depression, then it feels consistent that martial arts can change what also felt like a character-deep, yet minor, issue with a needle phobia.
At this point, I’m training out of fascination and curiosity, because there’s so much to learn, because I have friends at my gym, and because it’s starting to be fun. There are enough interesting physical and possibly neurological changes that I’m also following those trends with keen attention and interest.
I’m going to write about body weight, because this year it’s relevant to my interests. If this is triggering for you, I apologize, and hopefully you already know to protect yourself by closing tabs and stopping yourself from reading further, because this isn’t directed at you. I’m writing about my body, which belongs to me, and my body image, which is A+ and also belongs to me. I can’t write about other people, their bodies, or their body image because those are all outside of my expertise. Probably what I write will not reflect the experience of most people who ever lived. I say that because I rarely read anything written by other people about their bodies that fits my feelings or my life. If you’re still reading, then maybe you’re curious what it would feel like to be someone else?
Someone who likes being a person in a body? Someone who experiences this thing called “my body” as cooperative, convenient, and useful?
Okay, so the main way I relate to having a body is that it is the vehicle I use to carry my consciousness from place to place. Another way I use my body is as a test lab for the performing of interesting experiments. There is a huge amount of divergent “health” “information” out there. The way I make sense out of it is by trying it out on myself and seeing how it goes.
The first thing I discovered is that sleep is my main health priority, without which nothing in my life works. Being sleep-deprived makes me moody, lowers my energy, and apparently interferes with my immune system. I sleep as much as I can and I feel totally entitled to it.
The second thing I discovered is that my own personal body weight is strongly correlated with what used to seem like random, unconnected issues. The heavier I am, the more migraines I get. The heavier I am, the more often I get colds and flu, and the longer it takes to recover. There is a certain specific body weight, above which I get headaches and night terrors, and below which I do not. Above that weight, I’m prone to dizzy spells, and below that weight, I’m not. I have lurking suspicions that all of these things are somehow connected to thyroid function, to the endocrine system, or to hormones in general.
These are the reasons why I monitor my body weight. Apparently other people do it because they care what other people think of their appearance? Or they tie it to some kind of performance metric so that they have a stronger sense of autonomy and control? Perfectionism? Self-loathing? I dunno. I don’t even clean my house for those reasons, although I do run a tight ship. I pay attention to how much I weigh because when I don’t, my life sucks and I feel like crud all the time. When I do, it’s straightforward and fades into the background. It’s just the simplest way I’ve found to keep tabs on the most obvious, easily tracked trend line on my physical dashboard.
(I can step on the scale every morning, and I don’t have to use a measuring tape on various parts of my body, draw my own blood, or take other kinds of samples which I lack the laboratory equipment or knowledge to analyze).
I like numbers. They feel like a neutral feature of the world, like... sand. Or pebbles. They’re just there and they only have the meaning that we ascribe to them.
All right, so here’s what happened. I’ve been training hard at martial arts all year, and along the way, I gained a bunch of weight really quickly. Some of it was muscle, and most of it was adipose tissue, also known as excess body fat.
This became a problem because, for the first time in 3-4 years, I started having headaches and scary sleep episodes again. I kept thinking, Oh, that’s just a fluke, until one morning when my husband remembered me doing stuff in my sleep and I did not remember. I HATE THAT. There’s basically nothing more humiliating and dreadful to me than when I... sleepwalk, flail and hit my husband, scream, have conversations... DO THINGS in my sleep and my conscious mind has exited the building. I’d genuinely rather have incontinence than this. It makes me feel like I’m developing dementia. That was the trigger. I absolutely cannot allow myself to continue up that road. My sleep gets shattered, and when that happens I can’t focus during the day, it destroys my productivity, I feel weepy all the time, and I just start getting sick a lot. None of these things are what a fork is for.
Time to slow my roll.
I knew exactly how I’d gained the weight, because I’ve done it so many times and also because it was somewhat intentional. I had this idea that if I added more muscle, everything would be fine. Apparently not. I think what goes on in my body is that whatever blood sugar conversion process is happening when I up my calorie intake and add body weight, whatever it’s composed of, that’s the thing that triggers all my other health issues. I was doing it too quickly.
My goal was to gain 15 pounds of muscle in a year. I put on 4 pounds the first month, maintained for three months, and then put on an additional 5 pounds the fourth month. May 1 I weighed ten pounds more than I did on January 1. By my birthday I’d gained a full-on fifteen pounds. Okay, that would be AMAZING if it all came from muscle! Muscle on a female frame of my size happens at a rate of about a quarter-pound per week. Let’s say I had 8 pounds of muscle which I dearly loved, and 7 pounds of (additional) extra body fat which I did not want or need.
What to do?
Handle it in a competent, businesslike manner, the same way I would pay off a debt or clean out a closet, of course. The same way I tackle most problems.
It was surprisingly simple, again because I know what I’m doing. I had gained the extra weight by adding about a thousand calories a day to my diet, often in the form of French fries and cake. This was on the advice of my husband, who noticed how exhausted I was when I would come home from class, and suggested that I eat more. Once I built my endurance, stamina, and strength from training hard for 8 months, I was ready to switch gears.
This is what I did. I set a deadline: my wedding anniversary trip. I set a goal: two pounds per week. I made guidelines, which I followed: keep a food log every day; avoid desserts, fries, appetizers, and sweet drinks for the duration; add cardio. I was very, very pleased to find that I could handle an hour-long martial arts class and an hour on the elliptical on the same day!
My arms and legs have been getting really strong, and I’ve been seeing muscle definition I never had in my life before. I also had this tubby belly. As far as I can tell, almost all of the 8 pounds I lost over four weeks was sitting right there, right in the stroke-risk, heart-disease sector of my midriff.
During the process of cutting weight, I felt more energetic. I’d really missed my cardio workouts, and it seems like it has helped my overall mood and energy level. I also use that time to read the news and catch up on my email, which is helping me to feel more organized and productive. The result was that not only did I make my goal, I came out on the other side feeling like I had my life more together.
My hubby bought me a new bikini for our anniversary, which, let’s just say they come in every size for a reason. If you want to wear one, wear one. For us, it symbolizes a commitment to spend more time relaxing in the hot tub.
For my next trick, I’m going to work on learning more core exercises. This is the one obvious area of my body where extra muscle and attention would be interesting and useful. I’ve never known what it was like to have a strong core, and I’m determined to find out.
Pick Three is the answer for anyone who feels constantly busy, burned out, and utterly confounded by the concept of “work-life balance.” When I first saw the cover of this book, with its cheery sticky note implying that Sleep is something optional, I scoffed at it. Ha, if other people think they can have a happy life by just sacrificing sleep, then good for them, but not me! I gave Randi Zuckerberg a chance to make her case anyway. Now I agree with the book’s subtitle: You Can Have It All (Just Not Every Day).
There is great good sense behind the suggestion to Pick Three. The “three” are: Work, Sleep, Family, Fitness, Friends. (Or, you can choose your own, such as: Netflix, School, Tacos, Dating, Yoga). Trying to make equal time for all five every single day will lead to doing poorly at all of them. Zuckerberg offers ways that different people have structured their lives and made decisions about their big three. We’ll recognize ourselves here, as different people are profiled who have had to work around disability, addiction, major illness, losing their parents, relocating, having a disabled child, and other serious challenges. This is real life we’re talking about here.
For instance, I’m a Sleep person because I have to be. I feel lucky that this is my biggest health issue, but it still is one! I have a parasomnia disorder, and when my sleep starts getting messed up, I quit functioning. Not only that, but anyone who sleeps under the same roof as me is impacted, because with pavor nocturnus I flail in bed, sleepwalk, scream in my sleep, and even run through the house opening doors. I feel irresponsible and unfair when these symptoms resurface. I see others with garden-variety sleep procrastination who are irritable and snappy due to their VOLUNTARY sleep deprivation, and I shake my head. This is manageable. Leave sleep out of your Big Three only for brief periods when you know you usually get plenty of rest. If you usually don’t, then why?
There are ways to combine some of these elements. In my personal life, I’ve chosen Sleep, Work, and Fitness because I keep having to relocate, and my oldest friends all live hundreds of miles away. When my Family needs me, I drop everything to travel to them, and my main three get put aside until the crisis has passed. This is part of why I work three weeks in advance and mostly outside the time dimension. My projects can keep going even if I lose a week to something urgent. Most of my social life happens at my gym, because that’s where I’ve made most of my local friends.
Pick Three is a book about self-forgiveness and self-compassion. It’s also a book about being good to the people around you. When you feel a sense of purpose and that you’re making strong choices, it helps you to be fully present with your loved ones and give your utmost to your most important contribution. Feeling overextended and under-appreciated leads directly to resentment, hostility, and low quality of life. A book like Pick Three can help to reevaluate and check in with yourself to see if you really are living your values.
“There are plenty of good things to look forward to as you grow older. So accept the aging process, and don’t waste years in the gym.” - Barbara Ehrenreich
“Who says going to the gym is a waste?” - Me
Buckle up, because I’ve got a rant coming out of me and it’s going to move pretty fast.
There’s this sick myth out there that the only reason a woman goes to the gym is vanity, that she cares about her external physical appearance, and that this is wrong and should be stopped. Personally, I think that if vain people want to make changes to their appearance, that’s their right, but it’s a moot point! We don’t begrudge people wearing the clothes they prefer, teetering in impractical shoes, dyeing their hair literally every color of the rainbow, getting professional mani/pedis, bleaching their teeth, spending thousands on orthodontia, removing moles, having full-body tattoos or piercings or henna treatments. Why, then, would bodybuilding be excluded from this catalog of personal expression?
Back to what I said about it being a moot point.
I don’t know anyone who works out for appearance reasons, and that includes men. Which, are we judging men and women by the same standards here? Because we should be, or at least we should if we believe that all humans have full bodily autonomy.
Why do people work out?
I work out because I want to avoid or delay getting Alzheimer’s disease, and also because a cancer scare and a fibromyalgia diagnosis at age 23 were, shall we say, inspirational. I work out because I’m physically frail and I see it as my only option to stay mobile. If that isn’t true for you, I’m so, so happy for you, but do not DARE to come at me for prioritizing my health and independence.
Why do other people besides me work out?
My friend is training to be an FBI special agent fighting human trafficking. She wants to pass the physical.
My friend is training to get into the Air Force because she wants to become a pilot.
My friend is training to get into the Navy, like the previous four generations of her family.
My friend is training because he’s 78 and he wants to keep active. He can still get on the floor and do pushups.
My friend is training because he was choked against a wall and he wants to be able to defend himself.
My friend is training to set an example for her little daughter. So is her best friend, who has a daughter about the same age.
My friends are training because they’re married and it’s something they enjoy doing as a couple.
My friend is training because she’s been fascinated with martial arts all her life, and she eventually wants to master every form.
My friend is training because she was a college athlete, and she craved something else when she could no longer play soccer.
My friend is training because she and her sister run marathons together.
My friend is training because he wants to apply to the police academy.
My friend is training because it helps manage her depression.
My friend is training because she lost 100 pounds, and now she can.
My friend is training because she does roller derby with her daughter.
My brother is training because he fractured his spine in three places in a construction accident, and being able to run is a celebration of life.
Can someone explain to me why “accepting the aging process” somehow implies being completely sedentary? Why sitting elegantly in a chair is somehow proof of deep wisdom, and anyone who has the temerity to join a gym is foolish?
I have a gym membership BECAUSE I accept the aging process. I believe I am very likely to live to be ninety, and I have a significant chance of living past one hundred, because I stay current in gerontology and because my relatives tend to be very long-lived. This is not an optimistic viewpoint. On the contrary! Outliving my meager savings by decades is scary, deeply scary. I’ve watched several of the women in my extended family retire into poverty, frailty, and economic catastrophe. Being forced to quit working due to health issues and then running out of money well before I die is a near certainty, unless I plan carefully to avoid it. Being poor, ill, and dependent on others is pretty much the opposite of aging gracefully. Agreed?
I wasn’t able to have children. There won’t be anyone who is somehow obligated to care for me. That means financially and also physically. What will happen if I let my health decline to the point that I can’t get out of a chair on my own? Who will come over if I fall or if I’m bedridden, too weak to phone for help? I’m forty-three and it’s by no means too early to make contingency plans. High on that list is the physical training to fall properly.
I love working out with my senior friend, and I hope I’ll celebrate his eightieth birthday with him at our gym. He’s a lovely person, and he’s also an excellent reminder of what I want for myself, just thirty-five years into my own future. We do “sprawls” (falling forward) and “breakfalls” (falling backward) several times per class, and each and every time, I think, “I’m doing this for Future Me.” Today is my last opportunity to build muscle and bone density for Old Me, and I’ll tell myself the same thing tomorrow morning.
Yes, aging is a natural process of accruing wisdom, valuing friends and family, and celebrating one’s legacy. All of that is ever so much easier to do with vitality, high energy, and physical stamina. I didn’t have those assets in my teens or twenties, but I do now, and that’s because I’ve “wasted” so many years in the gym. Not only do I intend to waste many more, but I also plan to open my own gym when I’m sixty. I’d like to set the example for younger people that it’s never too late, and also demonstrate that there are forms of wisdom that can only be accessed through action and physicality.
“My body” is not one single unchanging entity. If it were, the day I was born would have been a lot tougher for my mom, considering I’m taller than she is. It continually astonishes me how deeply rooted our beliefs about the body can be. Our bodies change every day, every minute! All our cells are continually in a process of renewal, down to and including our bone tissue and our brain cells. This is why I’ve been thinking lately of this thing I call “body polymorphia,” or the perception that the body has the potential to shift between many possible forms.
We believe this when we contemplate hairstyles or piercings or tattoos, sure. Tanning, yeah, why not. Corrective eye surgery. In fact, I cut my eyeball on a bird-of-paradise plant last year, temporarily damaging my vision, and it healed perfectly. The idea that a cut can heal without leaving a scar is really stunning, yet somehow we’re able to make it through the day without giving it much thought. We believe that broken bones can knit, that people can wake up from comas, that it’s possible to survive a stroke or a heart attack or a broken neck.
In spite of all this, somehow, some of us believe that there’s nothing within our power or control that we can do about body composition.
Why would we cling to the demonstrably false superstition that Nothing Can Be Done about adipose tissue?
It’s a simple fixed-mindset belief. Even though I grew almost visibly from infancy through adolescence, my body stalled out and I became like unto a tree, adding rings around my trunk each year. That’s what happened, right?
They say having kids causes weight gain, but I never had kids, so why did I gain weight?
They say aging causes weight gain, but I weigh less at forty-three than I did at twenty-two, so why was I overweight then but not now?
What we really want is to be let off the hook when we feel judged by external forces. Personally, I feel more judged by gravity! Why would I care what other people think about my physical appearance when they can’t park straight or drive in their own lane? What should be most important is whether we feel like we have enough energy to do everything we want to do.
This is what I’ve taken upon myself.
First, I decided that I wanted to be fitter each year than I was the year before. I want to take good care of Old Me. I want to open my own gym when I’m sixty, and impress younger people with all the stuff that a progressively aging person can do. This is already starting to happen. I enjoy wowing kids in their teens and twenties when I tell them my age.
I thought about it and realized that what I really want to give to Old Me is a set of tangible, physically measurable gifts. She’s getting more muscle, more bone density, healthy blood pressure, and a lower resting heart rate. She’s going to have better posture, more visible muscle definition, greater agility, and better balance.
There are seventeen years between now and my sixtieth birthday. With seventeen years of daily practice, how many yoga poses can I master? Could I work to do the splits, a handstand, a cartwheel, a muscle-up? The only way to find out is to find out.
Right now I’m working on my headstand. It took two weeks of trying every night, and I finally got it the night before my birthday. I couldn’t do it as an eight-year-old or a fifteen-year-old. Why quit, though? Why buy into this madness that the body thickens up, stiffens, solidifies, and quits working quite right? IT IS B.S.! A year ago it hadn’t occurred to me to find out, “Am I too old for this?” Now I ritually stand on my head in front of the bathroom door every night while I get ready for bed. I’m getting faster and I’m able to hold the pose longer.
I can feel it activating my midriff.
This is what I’m feeling these days. I’m feeling that the long, sleek, supple muscles of my torso are desiring to be flexed and stretched. Temporarily I’m also feeling that I have a bit of a muffin top, but hey. Underneath the variable, ever-morphing top coat that is my external layer, there is this sinewy level. I know it’s there because 1. I can feel it and 2. I believe in an empirical reality that can be observed, tested, and verified by SCIENCE. Scientifically I know that I can build muscle tissue, grow thicker, denser bones, change my blood sugar and blood pressure, and even *drumroll* burn off excess reserves of adipose tissue, commonly referred to as body fat.
My body composition has changed over the years, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. My ring size has changed, my bra size has changed, and weirdly, even my shoe size has changed! My feet got a half-size bigger after my marathon, which I thought was permanent, until I went in for a new pair of Birkenstocks after six months of kickboxing. Now my feet are a full European size smaller than they were *before* the marathon. If my feet can change size, what else can? I’ve worn eight different clothing sizes in my adult life. Now I’m calling forth the fascinating, mysterious, even adorable specialty muscles that lay hidden in my arms, shoulders, and back. What are you like, my dears? Where ya been? Do you have friends over there in the abdominal area?
I believe that every part of my body is capable of change and growth. I know it to be true. I believe that I have the power and the emotional strength to learn more, to do more, and to ask myself why I struggle when I struggle. Why shouldn’t I go through each day in a body that can turn cartwheels? The joy in my heart is a transmogrification ray. As I play and experiment, I change my body, this amazingly polymorphic body that I have the pleasure to call my own.
I call it “the gauntlet.” Every time I set out to do something athletic, there’s a voice inside me that pipes up, insistently telling me to quit. It’s gotten smarter over the years. This voice that says QUIT has tried science, philosophy, common sense, attention to minor physical twinges, and every manner of rhetorical technique to get me to turn around, go home, and get back in bed. The voice that says QUIT lasts at least ten minutes, sometimes closer to twenty.
Beating this voice is a good enough reason to keep going, all by itself, because I can count on this voice to try to ruin every interesting thing I ever set out to do.
The voice that says QUIT was after me when I started running, when I only set out to do a half-mile because that was all I had. The same voice was still coming for me the day I ran my first marathon.
The voice that says QUIT was after me on our first serious backpacking trip. This voice asked for a helicopter evacuation. Fortunately my frugality voice was also in attendance, and this voice carries a strong veto.
The voice that says QUIT seems to have a speaker installed in my martial arts bag. I hear from it on my way to class all the time. Oh, no, not today. You can skip class today, it’s okay. Nobody wants you there anyway.
These are the sorts of things the voice says when it wants me to quit:
You’ll hurt yourself
You didn’t hydrate enough
You deserve a rest day
You should eat another snack and try again in an hour
It doesn’t matter
You’ve done so much already, treat yourself!
Eh, you’ll be better next year, so today is just a drop in the bucket
Isn’t that a pain in your knee?
You’re going to get a headache
You’re just going to have to pee in a few minutes, might as well wait
What are you thinking? You’re too old for this anyway.
The voice that says QUIT was definitely up to its old tricks in the mat room during my Muay Thai belt promotion. We were only about 45 minutes in to what promised to be 3-4 hours of physical and psychological stress. I had a gauntlet moment. Imagine this:
It’s a hot, humid afternoon in mid-July. There are fifty people crammed into a room that’s about 20 by 30 feet. You’ve just spent half an hour doing 150 pushups, 50 squats, and a bunch of mountain climbers. There is grit, floor dirt, and anonymous hair stuck to your skin. Now you’re trying to execute a series of roundhouse kicks while your feet are slipping in a pool of someone else’s sweat that is nearly two feet across. Other people keep accidentally kicking and stepping on you.
An instructor comes over and corrects your form in such a way that you wonder, what on earth have I been doing for the last six months that nobody ever noticed this before?
You’re supposed to throw fifty punches, but because the instructor came over, you’ve started late. Every single other person in the room is already done. They start clapping and calling your name in what is meant to be encouragement - you’ve done it yourself for others - but which comes across as burning humiliation. I’m not slow! I’m not!
This is when the voice pipes up. Hey, it says. I noticed you aren’t enjoying yourself right now. Remember how you’ve only trained about one week out of the past month? Your stomach is bothering you, I can tell. You, you’re really just not up to this. Aww, poor dear. Why don’t you just tap out? You could just pack it in and try again in two months. Let them keep the $50. It’s not a big deal. Think how much easier it would be if you just quit now and train more for a few weeks? Don’t embarrass yourself. It’s fine. You can
I pulled myself together. Everything the voice says when it wants me to QUIT is technically true. Every time. It’s simply the voice of anxiety and it keeps careful records. It sometimes gets reinforcement from external sources, other people who heed that voice and who have the uncanny ability to echo its message.
Sometimes I appease the voice. I tell it that if I still feel this way an hour from now, maybe I’ll quit then.
It’s funny how this voice that says QUIT has never spoken up when I felt trapped in a dead-end job. This voice has never once told me to QUIT eating junk food. It’s never told me to QUIT when I was dating someone who mistreated me or broke my heart. It doesn’t tell me to QUIT when I’m staying up too late or procrastinating. On the contrary. It seems like I have a very persuasive inner signal to KEEP GOING whenever it’s something bad for me or something that will lead to even near-term problems.
I ignored the voice. I kept going. Moments later, it was time to trade places, and all I had to do was hold the pads for my partner. Then I had a long break while the people doing higher belt levels sparred with the instructors. Then my husband showed up - I told him to go ahead and skip the boring first half. That stupid voice that stupidly says to QUIT could have cost me this opportunity, all because of a few stressful minutes out of three hours.
I got that orange belt. It’s not about the belt, not really. The belt is just the key to advanced classes. Doing this ceremonial workout enabled me to get my schedule back on track, after a month where I was only eligible for classes on two specific weekdays. Quitting would have led to some serious annoyances and extended that weird month to three. I would have missed two months’ worth of opportunities to train in the advanced classes, hindering my physical conditioning and certainly not making it any easier “next time.”
The voice that says QUIT is persistent and persuasive. It says stuff like, “NOPE, nope nope nope. This isn’t for me. This just isn’t how I roll. I don’t need this. Screw this. I’m outta here. No, really, I mean it this time.” The way I ignore it is by reminding myself that I’ve made an informed, conscious choice based on my personal values. I’ve set goals along a timeline, and I’ve planned ahead to make sure I’ll be prepared. In most cases, I’ve already survived near-identical physical tests, and I can trust that I truly am ready. Since the voice that says QUIT never quits, I never do either.
This is bad. THIS is the kind of thing that makes me feel old. Here I am trying to do the splits, and I can barely get my legs in a V. How am I ever supposed to turn a cartwheel at this rate? I’m looking at this book with a bunch of granny ladies grinning while they stretch, elbows on the floor, and feeling like I have barely half their agility. Darn it! I’m reading Even the Stiffest People Can Do the Splits, and right now it feels like I’m going to need a lot more than four weeks.
I’m a pretty bendy person. Other people may have trouble touching their toes, but I can fold over and put my palms on the floor. I can sit down, stretch my legs in front of me, and grab the arches of my feet. No problem! I can reach one hand over my shoulder and the other up my back and clasp my fingers. I can do a headstand and I can spin two hula hoops at once. I like to think of myself as more agile than most.
So why is it so hard to do the splits?
This is a non-trivial problem, dumb as it may sound. My tight hips are likely behind some chronic problems. My current working hypothesis is that spending a month (or six) stretching and improving my mobility in this area will help to resolve these other issues. If I’m wrong, well, I probably won’t be any worse off, and I’ll be able to do the splits, which is rad.
What are these tight hip problems?
For one, my glutes on one side or the other will sometimes seize up so much that I start limping. This is bad for someone in her forties, and I imagine it would only get worse with each decade that goes by. I do NOT want to find out what it’s like to have a permanent limp.
Next, I sometimes have some pretty fierce plantar fasciitis pain in my heel or the arch of my foot. This is weirdly worse when I’ve been sedentary; it didn’t bother me at all during my months of marathon training, and it’s more likely to flare up after my second rest day in a row. It was worst the first year after I quit my day job, when I basically slept all day. It disappeared after I became obsessed with the hula hoop. Right now it seems to have been reactivated by my martial arts training. A couple of times it’s woken me up in the middle of the night.
I was sidelined from running by persistent ankle pain. Two MRIs and six months of physical therapy didn’t really resolve it. Talking to a personal trainer at the gym revealed some insights, and two months of weekly shiatsu massage focusing on my shins finally eliminated the ankle pain. The trainer said it originated in hip instability, and that endurance running tends to lead to weak hip flexors, glutes, quads, and core. True, that feels true.
Martial arts training is definitely, visibly building these areas. Hundreds of snap kicks and jump squats will do a lot for your hip flexors, if nothing else! I’m finding, though, that I have a lot of trouble with roundhouse kicks, and that I feel a pinch when I do it at the correct angle that my classmates don’t seem to be experiencing. Even if I get nothing else from working on the splits, it seems obvious that it will help improve my roundhouse kick.
I gotta tell you, though, it hurts. I was able to train into the headstand in only two weeks, and that just felt like fun. (Except for the one night when I toppled over, smacked my caboose on the floor, and woke up in the morning with a limp that lasted about three hours). Doing the recommended stretches to work into the splits? Is NOT fun. It’s so sore.
Where do tight hips come from? Sitting, I imagine. I spent almost all my time sitting from my teenage years through my early thirties, partly due to my secretarial job. Or driving. I think driving causes more tightness on one side because we’re pressing on the gas pedal and leaning to one side to shift gears. Also we’re wearing seatbelts that cross over one side, and we tend to wear our bags on the same shoulder all the time, weighing one side down more than the other. These are extremely common issues, and they suggest that a lot of people are having some of the same issues that I am.
I can also claim years of running and cycling as contributors. As much as I love racking up the miles in my endurance sports, they cause repetitive movement along only one axis. Forward forward forward. I want to do a fifty-mile ultramarathon for my fiftieth birthday, and it makes sense to work on my hip tightness before setting out on that type of training. I’ll be super annoyed if I have to cancel my plans due to a recurrence of the same ankle problem I had before. This is what I think about while I’m sitting on the floor, trying to coax my unwilling muscles to loosen up. Legs, I need more from you!
This is where I remind myself that twenty years ago, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I had trouble just getting through the day, and sometimes I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning without help. I’ve come a long way! I can’t help but wonder if doing this type of stretching back then would have helped. I sure wish I had, because with twenty years of daily practice anybody could probably do pretty much anything. Isn’t that what physical therapy is, after all?
Daily practice, daily practice. My fitness role models are all over sixty years of age, and many are over eighty. This is because I’m very concerned that Old Me should be able to get around, climb stairs, sit on the floor and get up again, and carry things. She deserves to keep her independence. I remind myself that if I live to my eighties, I’ll have fifteen thousand days to get down and stretch. If that isn’t enough time for my muscles and tendons to adapt, maybe by then I can just download my consciousness into a robotic avatar and sign off on the whole project.
Overpacking isn’t just something to do with a suitcase. It’s also something metaphorical that we do with our schedules. Every time I get ready to go on a trip, I tell myself all sorts of fantasies, from “You’ll definitely finish reading that, you should really pack at least two extra books just in case” to “What email backlog? You’ll just breeze through it at the airport on the way home.” HAhahahaha! One of the many myths I hypnotize myself into believing is that I’m totally going to work out on vacation. Yeah! In fact, maybe I’ll upgrade! Yeah! I’ll try out all these Olympian core workouts and go home with side abs!
In reality, what happens is that I forget to apply sunblock to key areas, I don’t get enough sleep, I barely read a page a day, I eat dessert once or twice a day, I bring five pounds of extra stuff I never use, and, of course, I don’t work out at all.
Well, that last part isn’t completely true. We walk a lot.
It never ceases to amaze me, the beautiful and sweet optimism of people who think they can erase ten years of recreational eating habits by walking half an hour a few days a week. Wouldn’t that be nice? What I know is that we typically walk 8-10 miles a day on vacation, and I can gain anywhere from two to eight pounds anyway.
Being able to walk long distances is great. Travel is a good enough reason to stay fit all by itself. Walking ten miles, including about twenty flights of stairs, while carrying a backpack all day is no joke. There are also those special moments of horking your suitcase up into the overhead rack.
Sadly, though, even ten miles a day is no match for vacation food. Someone of my size only burns about 70 calories per mile. If a slice of cake is about 500, sure, maybe I’ve managed to burn off an extra dessert every day. The cake, but not the sweet drinks, the appetizers, the snacks, or any of the restaurant portions. My husband and I can easily gain enough extra weight from our vacation eating habits that it takes the rest of the year to burn it off again. If we do.
Of course, it isn’t just the food. It’s the break from routine. Daily reality is suspended. When we get home, it’s like we’ve gone through a wormhole, and everything looks similar, yet weirdly different. The apartment smells like paint. The dog has forgotten some of our hand signals and a couple of his new tricks. There’s an empty place in the schedule where “go to the gym” used to be.
This summer, we left town for a week, and got back just in time for my gym to close for five days for Independence Day. It just so happened that I had been down for a week with a stomach bug, trained for a week, left town, and then missed classes during the closure. Suddenly I was back at it, having only trained three days over the previous month. I had only two opportunities to prepare for belt promotion, and here I was still in vacation mode.
It’s not completely true to say that I didn’t train. I kinda did. It just wasn’t anywhere remotely approaching what I do on an ordinary weekday. Instead of an hour of high-intensity interval training, kicking, punching, and grappling, plus five miles of bicycling and 3-6 miles of walking, I did... I did less. I worked on my headstand for about five minutes a day, I walked, and a few days I did ten burpees.
I packed my jump rope. I had the best of intentions and it was small and lightweight. Did I use it? Not once. Course not. Anyone who does a serious workout on vacation has more discipline and strategic mindset than I do, and that’s actually saying quite a lot.
My first day in class, I actually crushed it. I did two back-to-back classes. I surprised myself by being able to get down and crank out thirty standard pushups, no problem. Thank the burpees for that. I had walked six miles earlier in the day and I rode my bike to class, too. If it weren’t for the belt promotion and my need to go to enough classes to earn my third stripe on my white belt, I never would have done it. I walked in sleepy and nervous, and walked out with my head held high, feeling much better about my prospects for the upcoming three-hour workout.
Exercise without a schedule, without deadlines, without specific performance goals has an annoying tendency to fade away into nothing. The best-made intentions are vapor. There’s no such thing as willpower or motivation anyway, and weight is definitely not lost at the gym, so it’s best to let those fantasies go. The work is still worth it, though, and it pays off. Being fit and strong makes daily life easier. Every hour of suffering and sweat is a force multiplier, leading to better posture, more energy, sounder sleep, clearer skin, better balance, more muscle and bone density, mood repair, confidence, mental focus, pride, and, if you do it right, friendships. Keep going, definitely keep going.
Vacation ate my workout. Two weeks away led to feeling slow, floppy, tired, unfocused, and out of form. Paradoxically, this reminded me of how far I had come, and that I used to feel that way (or worse) all the time. Why would I let my gains drift away into nothing? Class is back in session, so let’s get back to work.
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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.