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.
I did it! I got my orange belt in Muay Thai! The most impressive thing about this is that in January, not only did I have no idea this would be happening, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as an “orange belt,” or Muay Thai for that matter. All I knew was that it felt like a smart idea to start studying a martial art.
What does an orange belt mean? It’s the second of six levels. It means I’m not a total novice anymore, but I am at the newest, least experienced intermediate level.
The basic deal with belts is that they’re a modern (post-Industrial, 1890s) innovation to represent different levels of training. Belt colors vary depending on the martial art, with some overlap. For instance, a mom was just telling me that her kids got their purple belts, something that exists in Tae Kwan Do but not Muay Thai or Krav Maga, my other discipline.
Personally, I’d prefer to have a rainbow belt? Because it would include all the previous colors?
In practice, colored belts are really handy. In every class, we divide up and choose partners, and often we do drills that involve rotating through several people. It helps to know who you’re dealing with. Along with colors, there are also stripes to show how long someone has been wearing that belt. One stripe represents ten classes, and the intermediate belts have up to five stripes.
I never understood any of this until I earned the first stripe on my white belt.
This system with belts and stripes makes a lot of sense to me, and it feels comforting. I really like the logical progression and the satisfaction of incremental progress. The first time I actually saw a “sixth-degree black belt” being worn, the penny finally dropped. OH! Anyone can earn one of these! It’s a reflection of dedication and focus, yes, but it’s also a measure of time served.
Is there something like this in dance or gymnastics? Not that I’ve seen. Those arts also depend on many years of training, but they look like PURE MAGIC. Just like the apparent sorcery involved when the owner of our school suddenly drops a student on the floor.
Many of the students at my school are lifetime athletes, and many have reached high levels in other martial arts before taking up Krav or Muay Thai. It’s a world of jocks, one that was unfamiliar to me. I’m used to hitting the books, my studies being text-based. Almost everything I’ve learned about martial arts came from asking questions and/or having things explained by other students. Sometimes I’ll make an observation that will surprise the instructors, such as that our warmups are “high-intensity interval training.” The expectation is: line up, do this, do that, accept correction, and in time you’ll be a master.
This is challenging for me. I like a big-picture view, a lot of historical context, and constant explanations of WHY I am doing something. Part of why martial arts are such a good source of humility and self-discipline for me is that I’m having to accept pure physical instruction and trust the system. I can see that more experienced students are better at this than I am, but still, I tend to want MORE INFORMATION. What, go into my body and feel it physiologically? Are you kidding with this?
Belt promotions are ceremonial. They last three or four hours. Groups of students at different levels are paired off to demonstrate their skills with an instructor. Most of the time, though, is built around extreme physical exertion for its own sake. We start with a grueling half hour warmup, its contents varying for extra stress, and we finish with another twenty minutes. This day included over 200 pushups, for example. I couldn’t do them all - it’s a lot to expect a beginner to do the same workout as a blue belt who has been training for three years - but I’m proud to say I could do forty, no problem.
I couldn’t do one standard pushup in January - or February or March, for that matter - and I couldn’t do a proper sit-up at all. I had to grab my thigh and pull myself up. When I look back and see the progress I’ve made in six months, I can look forward at the other students around me and project forward. In time, I’ll be able to do a hundred pushups before I start getting tired.
My husband doesn’t like to watch these punishing warmups. They remind him of the “hazing” from high school football. He shared how much he hated doing pointless pushups. This surprised me! “But that’s where the muscle comes from!” The part I don’t like is having to COUNT in unison, and if someone makes the dreadful mistake of shouting “ELEVEN” instead of repeating “ONE” then all fifty people have to start the count over. That’s dumb. Well, it isn’t dumb... the point is to make us focus, developing our concentration, because disappointing and annoying our fellow students is a powerful psychological consequence for distraction. We counted weirdly in marching band, too: ONE two three four TWO two three four THREE two three four, and it didn’t bother me then, because music needs order and structure. So does the body if the body is to be a tool that works toward a purpose.
I’ll continue on in both my martial arts, even though being a beginner in the advanced classes feels much harder and scarier than my first day as a total novice. The warmups are twice as hard, but I’m not twice as strong yet! I continue to remind myself that my personal goals were “humility and self-discipline,” not comfort or pride. I’ll get better and better at losing myself in these physical skills, briefly quieting my chattering mind, transforming myself into something new and different.
Today I set a new record for most consecutive days that I have been alive. That’s an old joke, but one that still feels funny. More interesting to me is that I can count how many days I’ve lived, but nobody knows how many days are still ahead of me. What’ll happen in the world? In my life? What kind of phone will Future Me have? Which of my favorite authors and musicians and filmmakers will put out new work? Will George R. R. Martin ever write that next Game of Thrones book? Future Me knows. Meanwhile, every day I’m Present Me. Present Self, living out whatever Past Self stuck me with, trying to make a better day for Future Self.
Since last year, I’ve done a bunch of stuff. I like to take the day to look at where my life is going, and whether it feels better or more fun or more interesting or more fulfilling. Have I made good use of my time on Earth?
I also do this process at the New Year, on my wedding anniversary, and on a smaller scale every quarter. Birthdays feel like a pretty significant milestone, at least to me. One day, maybe I’ll have my one-hundredth birthday, and if I do, I’d like to feel some sense of ceremony around it.
Since last year, I’ve moved to a smaller apartment, taken up martial arts and earned two orange belts, gained 15 pounds, promoted into a volunteer leadership position, and started riding my bicycle again. My husband filed his first patent, leading to some big stuff at work. My parents got a puppy for the first time in about forty years. These are all major changes.
Incremental changes have happened, too. We’ve made a bunch of new friends and acquaintances, and so has our dog. Due to our downsizing move, we’re financially better off. Our phones have better battery life. The addition of the extra muscle has happened gradually enough that new physical abilities seem to have magically appeared. I can open jars! My daily walking average has gone from 3.1 miles in 2015 to 5.2 miles in 2018.
A lot of stuff is the same as it ever was. Noelle just had her 20th hatch day and she still loves to shred paper everywhere and make a lot of beeping sounds. I still need more sleep. The blog continues to chug along.
Some stuff in our daily life is harder. Since we moved, we no longer have a washer or dryer, and all our meal prep has to happen in a single square foot. We’re continually unplugging and plugging things because of a shortage of power outlets. Our upstairs neighbors [*]. Someone down at the marina keeps setting off a propane cannon in the middle of the night. Life feels much busier.
From where we are right now, it’s hard to imagine where I will be on my next birthday. We’re planning to move when our lease is up, but where? Right now we’re living a combination of Best Location Ever and Worst Apartment Also. I intend to continue with martial arts, and that means moving into a physical reality I’ve never experienced. Looking around at the other women in my classes, women in higher belt levels, I see some astonishing speed, power, agility, and muscle definition. It’s somewhat alarming to think that this could be me one day, and all it takes is the schedule and the persistence. Continuing on my current plan, I ought to have nailed all the requirements for Distinguished Toastmaster. I should also have my student loan paid off, and all I can do is imagine what it will feel like to be debt-free and financially stable for the first time in my adult life.
So, what? This time next year: buff, debt-free, and living in a nicer place? Possible?
Looking forward three years, five years, and ten years, gosh. No idea. Talk about plot twists.
I celebrated turning 43 by finally getting my headstand, after working on it for two weeks. I plan to spend part of my day messing around and focusing on circus tricks. Depending on what kind of videos I find, I’ll either be trying to juggle, riding my unicycle, doing hula hoop tricks, or trying to turn a cartwheel. Then I’ll spend some time imagining what I want to learn to do before I turn 44.
How about you? What would you like to be doing before your next birthday?
It’s happening again! I went to a party and another woman showed me how to do something I couldn’t do when I was a little girl. Last time, it was spinning a hula hoop, which led to my immediate purchase of my own hoop(s), months of obsession, and a non-obvious segue into running. In a way, my first tentative spin of a hula hoop at age 35 led directly to running a marathon.
This time, it’s the headstand.
My inability as a child to do a cartwheel, spin a hula hoop, jump through two jump ropes, or do a headstand had nothing to do with lack of trying. If I’m anything, it’s persistent. I just couldn’t figure out how to model what other kids were demonstrating. This might be because, due to my late-July birthday, I was younger than other kids in my grade, and thus smaller and less developed. It might be because I’m still not great on proprioception, knowing where my body is in relation to the external world. I defined myself as bad at sports. I hated P.E. I was last picked for teams. All these childhood antics left me feeling excluded, clumsy, slow, weak, and sorry for myself.
In my forties, I’m finding those missing pieces. When I meet other women my age in a physical setting, we gravitate toward each other immediately. Just the other night in kickboxing, I had someone ask to be my training partner after someone else had already asked! These days, I’m first picked instead of last picked. (We had an odd number in the class so the three of us partnered up together. I would NEVER leave another girl hanging). Suddenly there’s this playfulness and fun in my life that once eluded me.
Now, about that headstand. What’s the secret?
It turns out that when people do something like acro-yoga or juggling, something that looks like magic, they’re doing extremely specific things. These movements can be broken down into micro-steps that can be learned and mastered one by one. Not everyone who is good at something is a good teacher, and it’s possible to do something without understanding how you’re doing it. It’s also true that lifelong athletes tend to underestimate how much baseline strength and cardiovascular fitness is required for certain things. In spite of all that, it’s always possible to find a good teacher or a video that demonstrates the steps.
It was no accident that I met my new friend. We were at the WDS opening party, a field day, and I spotted a group of people doing headstands at the other end of the field. After I learned a new hula hoop trick and taught another woman to spin two hoops at once, I wandered over there to see if anyone could teach me. I asked!
This is the magic part, really. My new friend showed me the initial stages, and I found that I was strong enough to easily do them. All of my work in boxing gloves over six months gave me a totally unrelated, non-adjacent ability. How crazy is that?? I went out and got myself bigger biceps, deltoids, trapezius, and lats, thickened up my neck a bit, and opened the door to acrobatics.
Step one: Kneel on the ground.
Step two: Put the top of your head on the ground.
Step three: Put your hands down about shoulder-width apart, halfway between your head and your knees.
Step four: Put your knees up on your elbows.
With me so far? While I was watching and listening carefully, I wasn’t really thinking about how much of my body was inverted and vertical. Put your knees on your elbows? Okay! Like this?
I had tried this in yoga class several times, even against a wall or with a partner, and it was definitely not happening. As a boxer, yeah, not only was it possible, it wasn’t even hard.
The next step is to raise your legs and straighten them out. I’m still working on this part. It’s given me a solid understanding of how much more core strength can do for my life. Comically, it’s become my major motivator. My arms, legs, and back are quite strong now, and I have some real muscle definition, but my belly is soft and slack. External appearances don’t matter much to me, but the ability to do not just the headstand, but other circus tricks actually does matter. If I can build up my abs and obliques, I can use that new muscle base to do other things, too. That’s probably the secret behind walking on my hands, riding a unicycle, and doing a cartwheel at last. Maybe I could also learn to do a backflip or other gymnastic moves.
What I’ve been doing is practicing my headstand for a few minutes every night before bed. I haven’t been this excited about anything since that first day with the hula hoop. I feel genuine anticipation when I get down on the floor, wondering if this is the night. The picture accompanying this post is from the one-week mark. As I post this, I’ve had an additional four days of practice, and I’m able to extend my right leg straight up. I estimate that it will take me 3-4 weeks to go from zero to sustaining a full headstand without immediately tipping over. Another way to put it is that, at five minutes a day, it has taken less than an hour to get one leg up and I’m guessing about another hour to get them both.
There was a rough moment. I was trying to impress my husband (while he was trying to brush his teeth) and I called him out to see how I finally had my leg up straight. Then I toppled over and landed on my back. Embarrassing! Apparently the impact caused my gluteus muscle to clamp up on one side overnight. I was limping and it was scary-sore. I took some anti-inflammatories and did my normal amount of walking, and within an hour or two it was fine. It’s only fair to say that falling over is a little more dangerous for someone with a fully developed skeleton; I weighed half this much in grade school. I just remind myself that one of my main reasons for choosing an impact sport like kickboxing is to build bone density while I still can, and that falling on the ground is literally the type of impact that helps with this. It’s also highly relevant that I’ve learned how to fall properly. A few hundred sprawls and breakfalls trained me, so that I fell in a straight line and didn’t twist or strain or sprain anything.
Be careful! They tell me to be careful when they wouldn’t tell a man. I AM being careful! I’m being careful to protect Old Me from falls, from osteoporosis, from sarcopenia, from heart disease and cognitive decline. I’m also protecting myself from regret and isolation. The moral of the story is, find something that truly excites you and strive for it in tiny increments, day after day. The thrill of finally getting that prize is something you can’t get any other way.
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.