If someone had told me I was going to marry a jock, I wouldn’t even have bothered to roll my eyes. The only thing less plausible would be if they told me I was going to start walking around wearing a bikini with high heels. The fact that the latter doesn’t sound all that far-fetched anymore has a lot to do with the truth of the former. I fell in love with an athlete, and then he turned me into one. Sort of like being made into a zombie, except that you gradually get better posture and start moving faster.
I gained a lot of weight in my first marriage. Most people do. Marriage is usually an unspoken agreement that “I take thee and all thy flaws as long as you promise to ignore mine.” Let’s eat nachos and chill. My first marriage was so bad that always doing the exact opposite in my second marriage seemed like it might be a solid plan. What if, instead of just steadily gaining weight together, we made a pact to try to be a little more fit every year? Like, one percent?
I always hated anything even remotely resembling P.E. If there are roughly thirty kids in every grade school classroom, and one of them is the proverbial last kid picked for every team, then there are quite a few of us out there. I’ve been smacked in the head by nearly every type of ball, and once served a volleyball directly at our gym teacher’s butt, where it bounced off and flew across the room. That was my shining moment on the sports reel. If there was an all-American Olympic team for reading while snaffling sleeves of Oreos, I’d medal.
The first it ever occurred to me to maybe lose a couple of pounds, money was involved. My husband, a mere work acquaintance at the time, had set up an annual weight loss competition that the company wound up sponsoring. When I found out that I could win cash through any means whatsoever, I was game. All I needed to know was whether I could safely lose weight, and if so, how much. I had no understanding that I was clinically obese at the time. I didn’t care, either. All I wanted was that sweet, sweet munnah. The contest lasted for three months, and I listened carefully as my new work buddy taught me everything he knew about weight loss. I wound up winning over $200 in two years. Using cash prizes as a weight loss incentive was sheer genius, and it helped me trust this guy who formerly weighed 305 pounds.
We started working out together at the gym across the street. I’m not always very gracious about patiently listening while other people teach me things, but my new friend showed me how to set up all the weight equipment at the gym without mansplaining. We became workout buddies, which was great, because we were also lunch buddies and we tended to put away a lot of chimichangas.
At some point along the way, we realized that maybe there could be something more between us. This may or may not have had something to do with the fact that we’d both lost thirty pounds since we’d met.
We both gained back some of the weight while we were planning our wedding. On our honeymoon, we were sprawled out on the hotel bed after a decadent meal (with appetizers, drinks, and dessert, of course) when we saw Biggest Loser for the first time. That was our moment. Our honeymoon was the last eating-based vacation we took. Since then, we’ve planned our trips around backpacking and physical exploits.
I was the one who got us into running. I chose it as a sacrifice, the literal worst thing I could think of, because I knew if I asked for help then my honey would deny me nothing. I’d trick him into running with me! I had three angles: one, I knew nothing about running; two, I was terrible with maps; and three, I didn’t feel safe running alone at night. He came out with me for my first quarter-mile and he was still there when I got to six. It wasn’t until I started doing eight miles at a stretch that he dropped back. I had to do my marathon alone. This was the point at which I understood that I was no longer the student.
Marriage has been good to us. We’re both better people together than we used to be. From my husband, I learned everything I know about physical culture, about comfortably merging the identities of jock and nerd, about feeling at home in a gym. These things gave me a confidence and strength I never could have imagined. I returned the favor, introducing him to new cuisines, teaching him about health food and how to cook mystery vegetables. Our meals and our workouts are just backdrops to the endless conversation that is our marriage. I think sometimes we actually get through a workout while barely realizing we’ve done it, like running an errand, while chattering away about something.
The willingness to venture forth and meet someone in their world is so important to a relationship. My liking for this guy in spite of his off-putting interest in sports led me to become curious. What would it be like to feel like an athlete? What would it be like to actually enjoy this stuff? As he recognized my curiosity and openness to the unfamiliar, he stepped up and became more willing to explore my world, too. We were each other’s trainers. May we always be.
I decided when I was nine years old that I was going to be an old lady one day. I just knew it. I was reading a book of fantasy short stories, and one of them had a character who got to choose whether he wanted to know how he would die. I thought about that a lot. I didn’t really want to know how I would die, exactly, although I understood by that point that there was no opting out of mortality. I did sort of want to know whether I would die young, old, or medium. OLD! It turns out that the very elderly among us do tend to operate on the assumption that they will/would live to be old. This is good because it helps us plan.
What will Old Me do with her time?
There are a bunch of things on my bucket list that I have no interest in doing, not quite yet. In a full lifetime, there were simply things that were less appropriate for a young woman in her twenties and thirties than for an older version of the same person. Put it this way. If I assumed at twenty that I would live to be 100, there would be, count them, eight decades to spend. The dancing, dating, staying up late partying decades ought to be at the front. If Future Me were going to study calculus, write her memoirs, or learn to paint, those could go toward the back.
This train of thought continued down the track. What if I planned my later decades in advance? Past Me is absolutely notorious for trying to schedule all my time. She likes to leave me dirty dishes and laundry, because she thinks I like doing that stuff for her, and she likes to leave receipts and unsorted papers for the same reason. Past Me! Knock it off! I do NOT enjoy washing your socks! She also wants to tell me what movies to watch, what books to read, and even what magazine articles - you wouldn’t believe the bookmarks. They’re like passive-aggressive little notes. Knowing this, I don’t want to do the same thing to Future Me. I don’t want to leave her bogus chores and I don’t want to micromanage her leisure time. I do, though, want to send her gifts and good ideas.
I used to talk to Future Me all the time on the Future Phone. I would call her up to see what she was doing. Immediately she would start shouting down the line at me. I can hear you just fine, Future Me, you know full well that phone reception is much better in your time than it is now! The first time I called her, when I was about 19, she knew it was me all right. She told me that if I didn’t start saving money she was going to have to eat cat food. She started telling me off about my spending habits, and darned if she didn’t know exactly where our money was going, to the penny. That was the most urgent thing on her mind. Not forgiving people or traveling more or going for promotions - all she could talk about was savings, savings, savings.
It took ten or twelve years before I quit being sullen about this and started seeing it as little gift envelopes I could send to Future Me. Like burying a jar of gold coins in the back yard. Come to think of it, Future Me would adore a gift like that. I started feeling very tender toward her, she of the creaky old bones. I wanted her to be a crazy rich lady, known for tipping extravagantly and having loads of young friends who loved her jaunty cackle. Auntie Me.
Sometimes I’m jealous of Future Me. She gets to watch the best movies and read the best books, some by authors who haven’t even been born yet. She knows every word to songs that haven’t been written. Her phone, O her phone… She knows the mysteries behind world events, major archaeological finds that are still in the ground, medical innovations and inventions that Present Me can scarcely imagine. If only she could ship me some of that stuff, or at least email me some drawings…
She can’t send me anything other than querulous phone calls, but I can send Future Me anything I want. I can send her boxes of stuff. I can send her a house. I could send her a tattoo or a pair of earrings or a long heartfelt letter. I can send her a million photographs. I could send her a Twinkie and she would get to find out whether it was still edible. There are four things she wants, though:
I’m doing what I can, Future Me. I’m trying.
Sixty is the birthday I’m looking forward to the most, followed by eighty. I feel like my life will really begin at sixty. That’s when I feel like I’ll finally have some gravitas. I’m hoping my hair will be completely silver by then, although it depends on which grandmother I take after. I’ll have a certain freedom through the social invisibility that is granted to old crones. (I’m 42; can I be a crone yet?). I’ll travel and I’ll be a great public speaker and my posture will speak for itself. I’ve never been an impressive athlete, especially since I didn’t start until age 35, but beginning at sixty I’ll start to close in on the front of the pack. Senior Olympics, here I come!
In my twenties, I used to think I had missed my chance to go to Europe, live overseas, or become fluent in a foreign language. I had a fantasy that I should have been a translator of books, and that I had somehow blown my opportunity. Now I realize that once I turn sixty, I’ll have FORTY YEARS before I turn 100. I could spend ten years becoming fluent in a language and then have vast leisure to translate to my heart’s content.
Future Me could learn to identify bird calls, do a hundred yoga poses, travel to every country in the world, photobomb so many people, crash weddings, read an encyclopedia, finally learn to draw, and perhaps even walk down the street wearing nothing but purple rain boots and a tutu.
When I’m 100, I’ll look back at all the amazing things that have happened as long ago as 2049, when I was a sprightly 74. I’ll mull over the thousands of books I’ve read. I’ll spend a few months looking through the hundreds of thousands of photos I’ve taken, plus all the others of my old friends and loved ones who have gone before. I’m sure I’ll have regrets over all the apologies I never made and the friendships I let lapse, the people I never held quite close enough. Hopefully I will have done some good in the world and made a difference in someone’s life. Most of all, I hope I will still be able to sit on the floor and get back up again.
Where the heck did this year go? How did it get to be Fourth Quarter already? That means we only have three months left to knock off our resolutions from last year! As usual, I did some of mine at the very beginning of the year, while others have been languishing, still somehow incomplete. This is the time of year when I attempt to kick myself into gear, while also spending all of October celebrating an extended Halloween.
I just completed the work in Toastmasters to be a Competent Leader, three months ahead of schedule. In my second year of public speaking, I’m improving but still feeling physiologically hijacked and shaky a lot of the time.
My major personal goal for the year was to follow a set schedule. Not kidding, not even a week after committing publicly to this goal, our domestic life was turned upside down. For boring reasons related to commuting, I’m on a different schedule depending on what day of the week it is, and even what week of the month. The goal seems to be working, though. Because my time is stretched so thin, I’m finding that I really have to make the most of it. I’m usually up by 7:30 AM and I even get up at 6 to work out once or twice a week. I’m busier but I’m exercising more than I have in years. Having a schedule makes me feel busier, while weirdly making everything I do seem more important and interesting.
My physical goals of doing P90X and running five miles still remain incomplete. These will be my focus for Fourth Quarter, which should hopefully work out well because the temperature will be cooler at this time of year. It will also be nice to be fitter at the New Year than I was last January.
My home goal of “digitize, downsize, minimize” is now in bonus rounds. I decided not to keep physical books anymore, and I’ve been reading through my collection with the goal of downsizing my bookcase. There are only three shelves left out of six, and it looks like I’ll be able to pull this off. Getting rid of the bookcase would free up space in our tiny apartment so that I could have a desk again, if I so choose.
We had a couples goal of going to World Domination Summit this year, which we did, and it was great. We’ve already paid for our tickets for next year. We also had a goal to make homemade pickles, a commitment we made before moving into a new apartment with a microwave above the stove, which means our pressure canner won’t fit on a stove burner. We just ran out of our supply of homemade pickles, and we haven’t been satisfied with anything we’ve found at the grocery store. This is serious! Next step, refrigerator pickles.
I had a ‘stop goal’ of not being the last person to pack up my tent. I’ve only been camping once this year, but I made it! I wasn’t last! I dealt with my problem of feeling too cold to get out of the sleeping bag by buying and wearing a second base layer. I also got some ridiculous fleece pants and a fleece sleeping bag insert. Weird how having more stuff has actually made it easier for me to get up and pack.
For lifestyle upgrades, I planned to upgrade my phone and my work bag, and to repair our tent, which was torn up by a raccoon last year. I did upgrade my work bag, a decision that had a lot of unanticipated positive side effects. I also finally replaced the shredded mesh panel on the tent, and we were able to use it when we went to Wyoming. The new phone for which I have been waiting for three years has not yet been released.
My Do the Obvious goal for the year was to transform my appearance. I made this transformation back in February, and it doesn’t even feel weird anymore. I’ve made peace with the very difficult truism that other people’s opinions are strongly influenced by the way we choose to present ourselves. Clothing and grooming, who cares, right? But by that logic, if I really and truly don’t care, then I might as well put in the extra effort to look consistent with my desired results. In my case, that’s learning to look like I belong behind a podium or on stage when the occasion demands. I still feel disappointed and annoyed that this stuff actually works on people, like a crude magic trick. I don’t speak the same way when I’m on stage as I do in ordinary conversation, though, so it makes sense that I also wouldn’t dress the same.
My quest for the year was to BE RIDICULOUS. I want to go back ten months and shake Past Me until our teeth rattle. What a freaking stupid way to put that. So many ridiculous things have happened this year: I got bit on the butt by an earwig, we’ve been stranded in airports and on the runway to the point that we lost a day of our anniversary trip, I left our apartment for 90 minutes and our neighbors called Animal Control, I cut my eyeball on a plant... I swear, I meant ‘ridiculous’ in a good way!
I have a wish to pay off my student loan. This isn’t complete yet, but I have started making extra payments.
In July, I set up a charity: water campaign with the goal of providing clean water to 42 people. Despite having two months and offering a free gift to anyone who donated, we didn’t quite reach 1/3 of my goal. My disappointment about this is extreme. If everyone who reads my blog had put in one dollar, we would have easily surpassed that goal. I’ll blame myself for not writing good enough copy, not making a strong enough case for abundance mentality. If I can’t even motivate people who believe in personal growth to spend five minutes of their time and one dollar of their cash on a pure humanitarian charity, then I have a long way to go. I’m holding to my promise to delay the release of my new podcast until I can shake off this sadness.
Personal growth isn’t for us, it’s for us and the rest of the world!
This is the short version of my 2017 goals, resolutions, quests, wishes, etc.:
Personal: Follow a set schedule
Physical: P90X, run five miles
Home: Digitize, downsize, minimize
Couples: WDS, homemade pickles
Stop goal: Stop being the last person to pack up my tent
Lifestyle upgrades: Phone and work bag, tent
Do the Obvious: Transform my appearance
Quest: BE RIDICULOUS
Wish: Pay off my student loan.
How much water should a person drink every day? According to my picky eater friends, the answer is zero, because water tastes bad. Everyone knows that if I don’t like the flavor of something, then it’s unhealthy and I shouldn’t put it in my mouth. The standard answer to the question of how much water to drink is: eight 8-ounce glasses, or 64 fluid ounces per day. Then the standard rebuttal to that is that we don’t actually have to drink that much, because we consume fluids in our food. I’m going to say that all of these answers are wrong.
It’s not nearly enough.
How much we need to drink depends on our size, our base exertion level, the humidity, the altitude, whether we’re traveling via airplane, what we eat, and what workout we may be doing. There are probably other factors, but these are the most noticeable.
I got an app to track my water consumption, because I was having a problem with getting cotton mouth right before bed. This intense thirst would make it impossible not to power-slam a big glass of water, which would then make it impossible for me to sleep through the night. It became my goal to pace myself, hydrating more in the morning so I could stop drinking water after 8 PM. Everything I do for my body is based around whether it improves my quality and quantity of sleep, because I have a very tiresome parasomnia disorder.
Now that I have a few months recorded, I see that I drink an average of 80 fluid ounces per day. The app set me a goal of 60 ounces based on my height, weight, and activity level. For the record, I am 5’4” with a small build and I live in a hot, humid climate.
Anyone who is taller than me, weighs more than 120 pounds, or exercises more than I do should probably be drinking more than that 80 ounces. Even more if they’re on any kind of medication.
It’s important to be skeptical, especially about outrageous health claims. There’s at least a million times more misinformation out there than there is quality information. Skepticism is an inner compass that can be used to experiment and test hypotheses. We can use this power of the mind to find ways to live a better, easier life. I was always very skeptical about claims that drinking lots of water is healthy, and I might go days at a time without actually drinking plain water. I was a big soda drinker instead. That’s what low-level skepticism can do for us. It can convince us that our terrible habits are good for us, because we like them and they come naturally to us, while at the same time convincing us that healthy habits are bad for us, because they’re annoying and they go against our proclivities. A skepticism that drives us further in the direction of our biases is not skepticism at all. It’s nothing more than a self-serving emotional validation tool.
What we want to do is to look at our results and try to amplify everything that is working well, while mitigating anything that is working less well. More of the good and helpful, less of the bad and painful.
The first thing that convinced me that maybe what I was doing wasn’t working so well was the idea that I could compare my results to the results of an elite. In this case, I’d be looking at elite athletes and at people with elite longevity, i.e. centenarians. What did these people do differently than I did? I noticed that athletic people universally all drank lots of water. I didn’t drink lots of water, and I was far from being an athlete. Correlation or causation?
What I learned when I started distance running was that hydration wasn’t actually a choice anymore. Intense exercise activates a thirst you’ve never known. It’s physically impossible to run for several miles and not feel thirsty afterward. You also start to learn that you have to drink before you feel the thirst. I felt vindicated with my hydration habits when I ran my marathon without bonking.
A Kaiser doctor told me once that dizziness comes from dehydration. I had called in to the advice line when I had the flu. In the past, I had had a problem with occasional random dizzy spells, and I’d even fainted a few times. That was back when I was working a full-time job while also attending school full time. It clicked for me that if dehydration causes dizziness, and I used to feel dizzy a lot, and I basically never drank water... maybe that was the answer? Maybe it was really as simple as that?
What I’ve noticed from drinking more water:
I used to always have dark circles under my eyes, and now they’re gone, even though I’m twenty years older
I sleep better, when I’ve had insomnia problems since I was seven years old
My skin is clearer
I have at least 10x more energy
I don’t crave sweets as much
I haven’t had a migraine in nearly four years, when I used to get them several times a week
I weigh 35 pounds less than I did when I drank soda instead of water
I’m stronger and fitter than I’ve ever been in my life
All of this could be a coincidence. Maybe it’s not my water consumption at all. Maybe I’m enjoying these benefits due to an astrological influence or a fairy’s blessing. Maybe it’s osmosis from living in a humid climate near the beach. Water is free to me, though. I can pour it straight out of the tap on demand. Drinking more water makes me feel better and helps me not get dry mouth at night. Why not do it? Why not test it out for a little while, at least?
I was never an athlete until I turned 35, but The Champion's Mind is one of the most incredible books I have ever read. In a way, it almost makes me a little sad, because I feel like only people who are interested in team sports would be drawn to read it, and the majority of us will continue to have no idea how much we are missing. Think of it as a thinly veiled philosophy book or entrepreneurial motivational firehose. Jim Afremow writes keenly precise prose, and I think I bookmarked nearly every page.
I'm a distance runner. Although all of my experiences with team sports were uniformly awful, I found that 98% of the motivational material in The Champion's Mind felt deeply relevant to solo endurance sports as well. Those of us who are late to the game of physical culture can try out a bit of this collected wisdom. Would I think this way all the time if I had recognized my inner athlete decades earlier? Would I have been more receptive to coaching in my youth? (Probably not...)
One of the most useful concepts I took from The Champion's Mind was the idea of countering a Mental Error (ME) with a Mental Correction (MC). In my professional work with hoarding, squalor, and chronic disorganization, almost all of the work is in identifying and grappling with the extreme negative stories my clients tell about themselves. This made me think of my work as existing on the farthest possible end of the philosophical spectrum from athletic excellence. Sad to say, my people probably spend as much time accumulating and churning their physical possessions as Olympians do training and winning medals. Same twenty-four hours every single day.
Afremow recommends that athletes spend 30 minutes a day organizing and cleaning their personal space. Indeed. That's really about all it takes if you do it every single day. He also discusses social loafing, the phenomenon in which people on a team slack off because they believe their teammates will work hard enough to cover them. If this isn't relevant to family housekeeping, I don't know what is.
I'm going to keep coming back to this book again and again. Some of the mantras are going on the lock screen of my phone. Think It, Then Ink It! Own Your Zone! Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Gold In, Gold Out. Sustained Obsession. If these sorts of thinking tools have helped professional athletes to overcome major injuries, surgeries, and personal trauma, they can certainly help an ordinary person like me to get through the day.
Favorite quote: "The present is always the present, and it's all that ever is; the past and future exist only in your imagination."
I’m writing this on the treadmill at our apartment gym. This gym was one of the top three reasons we were willing to downsize from a house with a garage. I figure, if I don’t use it as much as possible, then we’re not getting full value from our rent. It has a much nicer view with its floor-to-ceiling windows than our apartment, which looks onto the parking garage of the neighboring building. It has no fewer than three big-screen TVs, one of which is hanging directly in front of me. I’m ignoring it, though, because it’s always tuned to a news channel. I’m here for entertainment.
Let the truth be known: I hate working out. It’s boring as all get out. If I had to run on a treadmill with nothing to stimulate my brain, I’d quit in about four minutes. In fact, I did quit. I quit the gym we had four years ago because I hated running on the treadmill and they kept playing “Teenage Dream” every single time I was there. What gets me through my workouts is that I anchor exercise to entertainment. There are certain fun things I do that I only allow myself to do when I’m doing cardio.
It started before the days of smartphones and tablets. I joined the gym across the street from my work, and I would do my workout while I waited for traffic to die down. This meant I had the delayed reward of a breezy freeway commute, often as the only car visible on the road. Ah, but that was dessert. The immediate reward was the pot-boiler. I would have a book I couldn’t stop thinking about, and I only allowed myself to touch it if I was actually on the treadmill. It just lived in my gym bag. Not only did this work, but the suspense tended to make me move faster. I graduated from 2 mph on the treadmill to 4.5 mph on an incline. Then I upgraded to the bike, then the elliptical. I lost 15 pounds at that gym.
When I took up running outdoors, the treat was audio. Either podcasts or audio books. It got to where I had to pick out the longest books I could find, because on Fridays I would run for four hours and I didn’t want to have to mess with the app. I remember that I listened to all of Cloud Atlas while training for my marathon. My must-listen podcasts were for training days only.
This gym I’m in has seven cardio machines. Most of the time when I show up, I have the entire room to myself. I’ve been here at all hours between 6 AM and 8 PM. It’s predictably busier in the early morning, but even at its most crowded, at least three or four of these machines are available. To be considerate, I have fallback plans. I do different types of things depending on which machine I’m on. I’ve set my expectations so that I don’t have a “favorite” or a sense that “that’s MY” machine.
On the elliptical, I can only really use my three-year-old tablet, an obsolete yet indestructible beast that I got for free the last time I upgraded my phone. That’s where I try to catch up with my news queue. I have a couple of e-books downloaded on it. The elliptical is also where I read paper magazines.
On the recumbent bike, there’s nowhere to prop reading material. This is a tough machine for me right now, because I haven’t trained on a bike in many years, but it’s good for my hip flexors and quads and I need it for cross training. I’m trying to build up my tolerance gradually. This is where I read through email newsletters and articles with a lot of illustrations on my iPad.
On the treadmill, where I am now, I can actually prop up my iPad keyboard and type! I’m only going 2.4 mph. There’s a fan in the machine that blows on my face, which is quite nice. What I’ve done in this session has been to watch a 20-minute video, read a silly article about the Mayweather-McGregor match, and write this piece. I realized only today that this is a place where I can actually watch my endless queue of “Watch Later” YouTube videos. I can’t stop myself from saving them but I get too restless to watch them while sitting still. Anyone who was into that sort of thing could also watch TV episodes with a setup like this.
A friend of mine used to play video games on the recumbent bike. In those days, it was a game console. Now anyone could do this with a smartphone.
Do I worry about breaking my gadgets? Yes, very much so. That’s why I use the devices I do on the machines that I do. There’s no way I’d ever consider bringing my iPad onto the elliptical machine. It wouldn’t be possible for me to type on the recumbent bike due to its layout. I also wouldn’t do everything with the iPad on the treadmill, because it’s not nearly a hard enough workout. What I do is to dither around clearing tabs in my browser, doing a brain dump, and maybe scanning some email in a desultory fashion. Then I stop the treadmill and move over to another machine. Honestly, I haven’t broken a sweat.
I don’t think my treadmill entertainment “counts” as a workout. I might burn 100 calories, about equivalent to an apple. The thing is that I’m associating the habit of passive entertainment with physical activity. I’m also associating this habit with this location. Over time, my mind will expect that I “do this sort of thing” at the gym. I look forward to walking over here, because it’s when I can read police procedurals or mindless celebrity gossip or BuzzFeed articles. Before I know it, it’s time to hop on the elliptical and really get to work.
Oh crud! I’ve already been on here for 74 minutes! Bye!
I do it to myself just often enough to remind myself why I walk the line the majority of the time. What do I do? I relax, I push my limits, I convince myself that I’m just a regular robust person who can do everything without boundaries. There’s a grace period. Then it catches up with me. Maybe I notice when I slip into Yellow. Usually I ignore the warning signs until I’m back in Orange. Then I go into panic mode, because I still do remember what it’s like to spend every day in Red.
What am I talking about? I'm talking about chronic pain and the various oddball symptoms that I experience along with it. What is true for me probably is not true for most people. What is true for me probably also is not true for other sufferers of chronic pain and fatigue, because not all of us have the same conditions or the same symptoms. My recommendation is always to track metrics, to keep careful records, so that you can find patterns and change your inputs to attempt to mitigate your results. I think that if even .0001% of my experience can be influenced by my behavior, then it’s worth the attempt.
Yellow: I get a headache, or I stay up a few hours late, or I overeat past a 7 out of 10 on the hunger scale, or my weight goes up more than 2 pounds, or I catch a cold
Orange: I get headaches more than one day in a week, or I get a migraine, or I have shooting pains, or I experience fragrance sensitivity, or my weight goes up more than 4 pounds, or I feel full-body aches consistent with my fibromyalgia days, or I start feeling chilly all the time and I can’t warm up, or I have a night terror
Red: Symptomatic nearly every day, migraines on a regular basis, night terrors on a regular basis, lethargic, dizzy spells, get sick and seem to get sick with something else days after I thought I was better, often simply bedridden with pain and exhaustion, too tired or ill to read, lose a patch of hair on my scalp an inch across
Right now, I’m back in Orange and I’m really angry with myself. Sure, I have plenty of reasons. We went on two vacations in a row, we went camping and slept on the ground in the cold, I carried 40 pounds of luggage around for a few days, we changed time zones, I got bitten by insects. These are problems that I can ordinarily correct by sleeping an extra hour or two per night for a few days after a trip.
Ah, but this time, it seems that I pushed a little too far for a little too long.
Whether it’s a cause, a symptom, or both, my body weight is perfectly correlated with my various other symptoms. It’s something I have to watch. Again, whether this is or is not true for other people is up to them to discover for themselves through meticulously tracking their own health metrics. It’s not a body image thing, it’s not a self-esteem thing. For me, for me personally, it’s a functionality thing.
We came back from Wyoming, the camping part of our vacation, and I was right at the weigh-in I had before the trip, within two-tenths of a pound. Despite all the sleeping on the ground in the cold and all the carrying of the forty-pound backpack and the fifteen-mile hike, I felt fine.
Then we went to Las Vegas for three nights. I came back four pounds heavier, and I was a mess.
How’d I do it? I Ate All the Things. In Wyoming, we were eating a lot of starchy backpacking food, but the portions were controlled and we had crucifers every day. In Las Vegas? Vegas, well. I think I had a half-cup of broccoli. Other than that, it was all stuff I almost never eat: Airport food! Potato chips! Salty mixed nuts! French fries! Hot chocolate! Cookies! Juice with HFCS! Appetizers! Huge portions! Desserts every day! We even had “chicken and waffles” with syrup at VegeNation. No schedule whatsoever. You can start to see where those four pounds came from.
Four pounds doesn’t sound like much, does it?
If you can gain four pounds and not notice, good for you. If you can gain four pounds and not feel immediate adverse health effects, good for you. That’s awesome. If that is true in your life, by all means, celebrate in a way that is meaningful to you. But please don’t tell me about it. I’ve had more than my fill of conversations where other people brag to me about their resilience in these matters. I’m a fragile person and I have to walk a fine line.
I gained four pounds, and what happened?
Shooting pains from my heel to my thigh, triggering my restless leg syndrome to the point that my husband noticed from across the room
Low-grade headache every day for four days straight
Weirdly sensitive to fragrance - I smelled someone’s nail polish outdoors and it seemed like I was “still smelling it” an hour later. Then it was someone’s body spray. This hasn’t been a problem for me for about a decade.
Waking up twice a night
Constant feeling of irritability
One full day of “brain fog” in which I struggled to stay awake, much less do any work
Welcome to Orange.
I’m handling this state of affairs aggressively. First, I’m tracking what I eat and making sure my meals are consistent in schedule and portion size each day. So far I’ve dropped 1.8 pounds in a week, which means I have at least another week of Orange to go. Second, I’m eating four cups of cruciferous vegetables a day. Third, I’m taking melatonin on a schedule. I’m still waking up a couple of times a night, and waking up too early, but at least I’m falling asleep on a reasonable schedule. Fourth, I’m exercising an hour a day. In Orange, I can still get a couple of hours of blessed analgesic effect after my workout.
No naps. No anti-inflammatories.
I have strong suspicions that all of my weird symptoms are tied to thyroid function. I had a thyroid nodule when I was 23 that was thought to be cancerous. All the symptoms of disrupted sleep, parasomnia problems, migraine, weight gain, lethargy, brain fog, pain, fatigue, low body temperature, and fragrance sensitivity were fully in place at that time. They’re my flags, indicating that something is off in my world. This is why I make exercise my major priority when I start to slip through Yellow. It’s the one thing that reliably seems to reverse the trend.
When I work out, I don’t feel as cold all the time, the headaches and night terrors disappear, I can sleep through the night and wake up feeling rested, and my energy level goes from a 6 to a 9. I feel like every hour I work out buys me two pain-free hours and an extra hour of solid sleep. That’s why I do it, even when I feel physically horrible and it’s the last thing “my body wants.” I push through and do it because I know I’ll get worse if I don’t.
I’m back in Orange, but I feel like I’m inching back toward Yellow every day. Here’s hoping that if I stay on track, I’ll be back out of crisis mode by the end of the month. It’s my wish that sharing my experiences might be of help to someone else in my situation who is desperately searching for answers. Track everything, be consistent, and keep holding on in the belief that a 1% improvement is always possible.
Flattering as it is to think that body image must be my main reason for working out, that isn’t even on my top ten list. However I look is nothing more than an inescapable side effect of the other things I do. The main reason I work out is that when I stop, even for a day, I feel gimpy and crooked.
Top Ten List of Reasons to Work Out:
10. Getting charged rent for apartment gym and too cheap not to use it
9. Compare myself to fit people 10-50 years older than me
8. Maintain ability to sit on the floor and get back up again
7. Can run up and down stairs during power failures
6. Opportunity to catch up on magazine reading
5. Almost all clothes sold in my size actually fit me
4. Maintain necessary fitness level to go backpacking
3. Save money by owning only one size of clothing
2. Chance to burn off occasional pancakes, cookies, etc.
1. Skip a day and get a kink in my neck.
Being fit is really convenient. It’s worth it just for the annoying problems it eliminates. I took a “rest day” on Saturday and spent the whole day feeling like someone rolled me down a flight of stairs. After my workout the next day, I felt so much better, especially in my neck and shoulder, that my “rest day” was more like a “pest day.”
I’ve had problems with my neck since I was 9 years old. I woke up one morning and couldn’t move my head, and my mom took me to the doctor. A stiff neck could have been a sign of serious problems, and I feel fortunate that I didn’t have any of them. I just slept crooked. This has been a perpetual problem in my life, exacerbated by carrying heavy school bags, commuter bags, and luggage. When I took up running, I was extremely surprised and elated to discover that the thousands of micro-movements from swinging my arms had somehow finally loosened up this stiff neck of mine. Walking helps, too, although it seems to take more miles to reach the necessary amount.
I hurt my ankle in 2014, and I had to quit running for long enough that my neck has started to seize up again. Now I’m back on the elliptical trainer. I’m getting ready to get back on the road again. It’s only been a couple of weeks, but already I’m feeling the difference between workout days and sedentary days.
Loosening tight muscles and extending range of motion are reliable ways I’ve found to make my neck feel better. Another thing that I get from working out is the analgesic, or pain-killing, effect. The first time I felt a runner’s high was the first time I had felt completely pain-free in a dozen years. A radiant, glowing sort of euphoria spread through my entire body. Nothing hurt. Nothing! Nothing hurt anywhere! If it had only happened once I would have thought it was a miracle. It turned out, though, that I could get this beautiful feeling on demand.
It hits me at about the 45-minute mark of very strenuous exercise. I don’t get it from walking. It comes from running at a particular pace, including steep hill climbs and stairs. The analgesic effect tends to last for 2-3 hours after the end of my workout.
I found that running longer distances, starting at the four- to six-mile mark, would give me three or four hours a day of being completely pain-free. It wasn’t just that, though. Swinging my arms thousands of times was loosening my tight neck and shoulders. Running for at least 45 minutes was giving me a few pain-free hours. Running was also improving my posture. The importance of this can hardly be overstated. My weak upper body had my shoulders rolled forward from years of typing and doing data entry all day. New muscle strength helped me to become more upright in my posture even when I was sitting around. The difference shows up clearly in photos.
Running changed my body in other ways, too. I had better posture and more muscle. I had these 3-4 pain-free hours. My neck and shoulders were loosening up. I started to sleep better. I got more restful sleep and I started sleeping longer without waking up. I learned also that I never had an episode of night terrors on a day that I went for a run. As long as I ran at least once every three days, I was protected.
Other things in my life changed. Being pain-free makes every single thing in life look different. I generally started having more energy and being more fun to be around. Sometimes I would run up in the hills and start bellowing random songs or making up song lyrics. Everything seemed funnier. At the worst of my chronic pain problems, my daily mood was probably about a 3 out of 10. As a runner, my daily mood was more like a 9! Everything seemed awesome. I would already be planning my next run while I was still running my current route.
Then it caught up with me. My stupid refusal to spend even five minutes a day stretching, after four years, had resulted in some tight muscles and an overuse injury. I continued to train on it, because I’m stubborn, and because if you keep your exercise-induced analgesia going long enough, you don’t feel the pain you should be feeling when you push your body too hard. It wasn’t until sharp pains started waking me up in the middle of the night that I knew I had to recuperate. The realization of how dumb and self-destructive I had been added to the overall mopey feeling of not being able to run.
Even though my only real exercise in the past two years has been walking 3-8 miles a day, and the occasional yoga session, I’ve kept many of the physical changes that I earned through those years of hard endurance workouts. My posture is still better. My pain threshold feels like a thousand times higher. I haven’t had a migraine in over three years. I’ve only had night terrors twice in that time period. I can still fall asleep a few minutes after going to bed and sleep a full night without melatonin. My body composition still includes more muscle, less fat, and a lower body weight. I still wear the same clothing size I wore when I ran my marathon. I haven’t managed to keep the looser muscles in my neck and shoulders, though. The message for me is still the same: work out or be crooked.
I decided to start running again. What 'again' means is that I had to quit 2.5 years ago due to an ankle injury. It took approximately a million years longer than I thought it would to wear an ankle brace, rest it, go to physical therapy, ice it for 20 minutes at a time, eat buckets of anti-inflammatories, work with a personal trainer, and finally discover the magic of shiatsu massage. Other stupid things happened, from ripping my knee open to losing a toenail on a hiking trip. Now I'm about to turn 42 and thinking more and more about how long I can refer to myself as a "marathon runner" if I'm not actively running. Sort of like whether I can think of myself as "young" anymore, or whether I could think of myself as "employed" if I don't have a job. What am I, really? What is the nature of the universe?? How old is the ocean???
Having left a bunch of skin in the sand, and probably a bunch of sand in my skin, I am now a part of the ocean and the ocean is a part of me. Think of that the next time you accidentally ingest seawater.
I had it all planned out. I bought an app called Tides that is sort of like Dark Sky's cousin who lives in Hawaii. It has all the stuff I've learned to obsess about as a distance runner: the projected high and low temperature, chance of rain, cloud cover, wind speed... and also the phase of the moon and tide charts. I never knew until I started playing with this app that the tides are different every single day. Not in a predictable manner like sunrise and sunset, either. WHAT SORCERY IS THIS? I cannot for the life of me understand how someone could predict the tides in advance. It is seriously messing with my mind. I asked my husband to explain it to me, which he could, since he is an aerospace engineer and he has a master's degree in this kind of thing. I still don't get it. The more I think about the moon hanging out there in space and moving water next to my apartment, the more it wigs me out. I try to ignore all of that and just treat it like a cool wristwatch I got in Diagon Alley. Low tide: 10:24 AM. All righty, then, sandy beach, I'm coming atcha.
I read about a dozen articles on running in sand while I was planning this whole escapade. That's how I roll. I was reading marathon books before I could finish a 5k. It turns out that the main trick is to run at low tide, because otherwise you wind up running on a slant, with one leg uphill and the other leg downhill. This is exhausting and not all that great on your knees or ankles. The books all say to run on the nice hard-packed wet sand, because the dry sand slides out from under your feet. Got it. Run on the wet sand where it's flat near the waterline. I can do this!
I knew to expect that running on sand is more tiring. That was sort of the point. My mission in life is to develop more grit, which, what could be more perfect for being gritty than something that is literally gritty? I set out to do demoralizing, dirty, and exhausting things now and then so that I'm better able to handle terrible things like putting my laundry away. I have an affinity for sand; when I was working on losing my weight, I would go on extended rants about how I would do WHATEVER IT TAKES! IT'S COMING OFF!!! I'LL WRAP MYSELF IN BARBED WIRE! I'LL EAT SAND IF I HAVE TO! Then I would go on the elliptical for 90 minutes and think about curly fries. I lost the last 25 pounds, and I didn't have to eat sand after all.
Given a choice, though, eating a little sand is probably easier than trying to slog through it while the tide is coming in.
The thing about tide charts is that they are probably intuitive to people who are familiar with the beach, but maybe not so much to people who are not. If there's one thing I'm good at, it's ignoring the obvious. I had this idea that low tide would mean the ocean went out for a lunch break, and I could have my run and be back home before it flipped the 'OPEN' sign over and unlocked the door. What I didn't realize, because I grew up 90 miles from the ocean and only visited for a few hours once a year, was that low tide is the minute the tide starts rushing back in.
I actually made it a few yards before the waves started lapping over my feet.
A few minutes later, it was coming in up to my knees. I started angling up toward the dry sand.
Running in sand with the ocean on top of it is nothing like hard-packed sand, which I figured would be a lot like pavement. It's not even like running on mud, which is quite nice until you start to skate sideways on it. Running underwater in sand is more like running in... pudding. Like, pudding with minced pistachios in it.
I started doing high-knees, which is great for the hip flexors, but quite tiring for a brief intro run. The sand kept slipping and sliding under me, and my feet would plunge in ankle-deep. I could feel the abrasive pull of the sand roughing up my skin. Then I came to the section where all the pebbles and shells wash up.
By the time I made it to the jetty, I was trashed. My heart was pounding and I had a stitch in my side. I checked my Watch.
POINT FOUR SEVEN? THAT'S NOT EVEN HALF A MILE!
I stood there and collected myself, by which I mean that I waited until my chest quit heaving and I was no longer thinking about flopping over like a sea lion. I watched a young woman on a surfboard, wearing nothing but a bikini and a long-sleeved t-shirt, and I thought, "If my butt looked like that for one single day, I could take over the world." I thought about how fit I would have to be to stand up on a surfboard. Then I watched a grinning man of my own age blunder out of the water in a swimming cap and a tiny Speedo patterned with the California flag, the sort of swimsuit a woman of his size would never dream of wearing in public. I thought randomly of body image and self-acceptance and strength and aging and bucket lists and fitness goals. I recalled that I had already run farther than I did on my very first day, aged 35, and how proud I would have been to have made it nearly half a mile without stopping.
I turned around and "ran" back to where I started. According to my stats, I ran about a 15-minute mile pace, which is a tiny bit faster than my walking pace. Ahem. I also burned... 89 calories. So much for that protein bar I ate to fuel my run, coming in at 270 calories. Another way to put this is that my energy needs were completely covered by my morning oatmeal, and that if I were making an attempt at weight loss, I would have been better off skipping both the run and the glorified candy bar. Fortunately, my goals are simply to rebuild my fitness level and to avoid gaining back the 35 pounds it took me so much effort to lose. These are things I know how to do.
I'll just wear socks and shoes and stay on the pavement. Running on the beach is a beautiful fantasy I can use to threaten myself if I ever have a lazy day. Better hit that sidewalk or you're running on sand tomorrow!
Most days I don't work out. It's true. I don't work out AT ALL. This is the exact kind of thing a thin woman isn't allowed to say. Like I'm going to sit in a restaurant, throwing a giant chimichanga down my gullet and talking very loudly about how I can eat whatever I want, and then they find my body in a back alley because someone in ketosis couldn't bear to listen to another word. Anyway. The entire reason I would talk about something like this is that it touches on so many major fallacies about fitness and weight loss.
First among these is that there are "naturally thin" people. I've even been told that I am one of these fabled creatures, and I laugh because I know differently. The difference between "naturally" thin people and the rest of us is that they acquired habits early in life that the rest of us have to learn as adults. Often, they aren't even fully aware that they do anything different. They eat and move a certain way, as do most or all of their relatives, and they think what is habitual to them is genetic, or a part of their personality. Why should we think differently when even they themselves don't realize the truth?
The answer I most did not want to hear about weight loss is that it's absolutely 100% about what I eat. I had thyroid disease, and I was still able to lose weight by changing my diet, whereas I gained 8 pounds while training for my marathon. Work out because you love it and you want to be strong, not because you have any illusions about weight loss happening at the gym.
Weight loss doesn't happen at the gym! We go to the gym to LIFT weight, not to lose weight.
Or, of course, we don't go to the gym at all.
Don't get me wrong; I love going to the gym. I have several different workouts that I enjoy, and I'll cheerfully choose one based on whether someone is in my way or hogging equipment that I like. I'm always game for learning a new exercise or training with someone else who can teach me something. It keeps things fun. I go through phases of being at the gym for up to 90 minutes at a time, most nights of the week.
And then, of course, I get into long ruts of not going. Like everyone.
What do I do to continue fitting in the same clothing size then? I claim that it's not genetics, so what's the secret?
The secret is, like I said, that weight maintenance is 100% about food, not exercise. I can eat an extra 500 calories in five minutes - it's called 'cake' - and it would take me at least 90 minutes on the elliptical to burn it off. This is partly unfair, because I am a short person with a small frame, so the standard slice of cake is meaner to me than it is to most people. The inverse way to look at this is that, since distance running is my preferred workout, the more I run, the more cake I can burn off. OR, the more cake I eat, the farther I can run!
What if you didn't have a sweet tooth, so much as that you have a previously undiscovered mutant power of endurance sports? Worked for me. *shrug*
The other thing about not working out is that we don't think of our background activity level as "a workout," although IT IS. It most definitely is. For instance, I spent most of the day I wrote this nursing an eye injury and sitting in a waiting room in urgent care. According to my activity tracker, I walked 4.5 miles and climbed five floors' worth of stairs. I was like, "What stairs? Did I climb stairs?" We got rid of our car, so we just walk everywhere, and I don't think of it as working out. Why? Because it's not hard anymore. I get sweaty pretty easily, so if I don't break a sweat, I don't feel like it counts. It's only "a workout" if I feel like I'm pushing myself.
My background activity level is far, far different than it was when I was fat. How so?
I walk about 50% faster
I walk 4-10x farther every day than I did 10 years ago
Six miles in a day is fairly common for me now
I climb stairs faster and far more often
I "bustle" around the house
My range of motion is much broader: reaching up, crouching down, climbing on stuff
I carry heavier weights more often
I do strenuous tasks myself that I used to ask A Man to do for me
I make a point of avoiding sitting down
I sleep about 50% more
I don't use my activity level as an excuse to "earn" "treats" (if I want to eat something, I just put it in my pie hole and eat it)
I eat basically the same stuff every day, so my intake is predictable while my activities are variable
What I learned the year I ran my marathon was that it takes me 38 miles of running to burn off one pound of fat. It "should" only take 35 miles, which means either I run too slow, or I burn fewer than 100 calories per mile because I'm both slow and small. Either way, it's a moot point. I'm more interested in doing things efficiently because I have a short attention span. Also, once I get curious about what someone else is doing differently than me, I can't let it go; I have to find out.
What is it like to feel strong, fast, and athletic? I wanted to know before I die. I figured I could always change back.
Pushing my physical limits to do an adventure race, go on a multi-day backpacking trek, and run a marathon changed everything I felt about being inside my body. I now know things about my capabilities that I can't un-know. I can eyeball something and know I'm strong enough to pick it up. I look at a map and think of walking somewhere (or running) and I know from experience that I'm quite capable of getting there and back without getting tired. I do things routinely that in the past I wouldn't do under any circumstances.
I used to spend quite a bit of my time nursing a migraine or otherwise experiencing too much fatigue or background pain to do much besides lie in bed trying not to move my forehead. After losing the 35 pounds and learning to eat sufficient micronutrients, suddenly my sleep problems and the migraines just... went away. A certain amount of my background activity level is just reclaimed from former "out of spoons" days. Again, that was 100% dietary.
As a newly athletic person, I now feel that most of my chronic pain and fatigue problems came from chronic sleep deprivation, micronutrient deficiency, and general lack of physical fitness. My body composition included very little muscle. My cardiovascular fitness was very poor. Of course I felt tired and cruddy even on my best days! I get tired just picturing my own posture from that time. I try to send little love messages to Past Me from time to time, but it just annoys her and hurts her feelings. She isn't ready to listen to me yet. I try to tune in more to Future Me, the Elderly Me, and hear what advice she has. It always seems to include getting stronger, building bone density and muscle, and retaining my ability to sit on the floor. Hopefully that won't feel like a workout.
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.