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.
Glory days, they'll pass you by. My husband and I are middle-aged empty nesters now. He used to play football. Like the majority of former football players, he is not in the physical condition of a professional athlete, and neither are any of the other guys from his team. Even though my husband hasn't played football in many years, he still identifies as A Football Player in some ways, and A Hockey Player as well. I haven't ridden a bicycle so much as one wheel length in several years, yet I still identify as A Bicycle Commuter. It gets into you. The only trouble is when the image no longer matches the reality. The biggest pitfall of the athletic identity is when it masks the truth, convincing us that we still have something even as it is slipping away.
I ran a marathon. I ran a marathon in October 2014, which you probably already know, because I talk about it all the time. It was a defining moment in my life. Since then, I have barely run a cumulative four miles, although you'd never know it to hear me talk. I still plan to run "fifty for fifty," completing a fifty-mile ultra-marathon for my fiftieth birthday. That birthday is getting closer every day. I don't have a training plan. Right now, my plan looks like it will work out about as well as my 1997 plan to fit in my grandmother's wedding dress for my first wedding. I decided I would fit in the dress and made no further plans. Result: hire tailor to add five inches of panels to expand waistline of gown. I could very well have a waistline five inches wider by my fiftieth birthday. Perhaps much wider still. These things "happen" when there is no plan to avoid them.
Attempts at athletic prowess are worth it, if for no other reason than their ability to humble us and put our fragile egos in place. Learning the limitations of the body and enduring pain to expand those limits is an excellent spiritual battleground. Lo, we are but mortal. Almost any athletic discipline can burn the arrogance out of a person if it is strenuous enough. (An exception might be posing strenuously in front of a mirror). If you have ever worked a muscle to the point of failure, you know what I mean. You say, "Leg, I command thee, move forward." Leg replies, "Nuh-uh." You say, "Attend me now, lowly limb, move ye thence!" Leg says, "I ain't doing it." You realize that if you are going to step over this shower threshold, you are physically going to have to grasp your own thigh and lift your foot the extra inch needed. Experiencing muscle mutiny is a little taste of how things could be if we just start to slack off and quit trying. Use it or lose it.
What I've learned is that I'm only as good as the workout I've done within the last 24 hours. Not tomorrow's workout or last week's workout, and certainly not the workout I did three years ago. I'm guaranteed to think of myself as weighing my lowest weight (before breakfast, stark naked), eating my healthiest day of food choices ever, and having the most strength, speed, and visible muscle definition I ever had. I'm also likely to think of myself as having the best grasp of punctuation and the best potato salad recipe, although that last thought is simply objective fact. It's testable. It's testable in the same exact way that my strength, speed, agility, and body composition are testable. What I'm probably going to find when I test them will be hard for my conscious mind and my poor little ego to accept.
I tried to do a pull-up the other day in the gym. I compromised by doing lat pulls, because guess what? I couldn't pull up an inch, much less clear the bar. Any more. This is something I was good at when I was training for my first (and so far, only) adventure race. I'll probably also find that I can only run a mile without getting a stitch in my side and that I'm about 30% slower now. Of course, if I continue to do what I've been doing, and avoid testing my abilities, I can retain my athletic identity and continue to believe that I am in peak training condition.
Why do I even care? Can't I just continue to think of myself as intellectually superior and have total contempt and disdain for the athletes of the world, as I used to do? Well, no, not really, not any more. Now that I know how much discipline and sacrifice are involved, now that I know a little about everything that Spartan rigor has to offer, I can't help but respect the effort. Also, I have a firm personal conviction that my food intake, body composition, and physical conditioning are directly related to my past issues with thyroid disease, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, migraine, and night terrors. Why on EARTH would I want any of that back? Better the pain that I can control, better the pain that benefits me in greater strength, than the unpredictable pain that lays me flat and breaks my spirit.
I prefer my life when I can do functional things with less effort. Strength training makes it easier for me to carry laundry and groceries, to open jars and windows, to put my own luggage in the overhead bin. Running makes me mellow and cheerful. Overall physical fitness makes it easier to do the things I love to do, like travel to places with tons of stairs or high-elevation viewpoints. Fit Me is Fun Me.
My identity now is aligned more with self-honesty. Nobody cares but me. Not even my doctor cares all that much whether I suffer or overcome. Nobody else wakes up in my body or lives my life but me myself. Present Me and Future Me. I try to see myself less as "Athletic Person" than as "Person who recognizes weakness, strategizes, and works hard to make tomorrow better than today." Also, Person Who Eats Hills for Breakfast.
If there's a report card, I want to get an A on it. My ego needs this. The teacher's pet inside me can't accept anything less. I really want the approval of my dental hygienist, for example. Maybe I'm not good at anything else, but "my home care is excellent!" Yay! I feel the same way about getting lab work done. When my blood work results come in, I rush to compare them to the normal range and congratulate myself when everything is on target. This is what it's like to open those results and feel relieved and proud.
I realize fully and well that having good health is a luxury and a privilege. My mom couldn't bring me home from the hospital for three days after I was born because I had infant jaundice. I had a thyroid nodule at age 23 that was so big, I couldn't speak while lying on my back. They thought it was cancer. I had a respiratory infection for my college graduation, age 28, and it took my lung capacity down to 52%. Have you ever coughed up blood? I have. This is by no means a complete list of every scary or mysterious health problem I have ever had. My laundry list of health issues is the primary reason why I am so obsessed with being as healthy as possible.
Also, for the majority of my life between 18 and 30, I had no health insurance. That includes the coughing up blood, and the time I had to go to the emergency room and wound up being sent to collections for an amount under forty dollars. Health is cheaper.
Everyone thinks everything is genetic these days. By 'genetic,' we mean that "it was my fate to be born into a cursed family and nothing I ever do will ever affect anything in any way." We decide that we have no power or control. Thus, anything that goes wrong with our health is the will of the gods. Saying otherwise is a deep and dire insult, judging and criticizing others for things they can't help. Okay. Who comes from a pure and perfect genetic heritage in which nobody has any health issues thought to be hereditary? Not me!
Diabetes. Heart disease. Alzheimer's. Arthritis. Glaucoma. Cancer. Good times, yay. Let's throw in 'died of brain aneurysm' just to keep things interesting. I can wave the family banner of genetic tendencies just as hard and just as high as anyone else. This is the second reason why I pay so much attention to my health.
The third reason is that it pays off. Being healthy is its own reward. It is seriously awesome in every way.
Why not gloat a bit about it? I'm doing what very few people of my age (42 in July) have managed to do. I'm maintaining satisfactory health metrics without the use of pharmaceuticals. This is the result of tons of research on my part. This includes reading hundreds of articles and dozens of books on health, nutrition, and fitness; wearing health devices like a pedometer or a sports watch; tracking my health metrics with a food log, exercise log, and sleep log; learning to identify, cook, and eat dozens of vegetables I never tasted as a child; and pushing my physical abilities to the limit for years on end. I WORKED for this. My nice lovely lab results come from figuring out how to do it, and then doing it, meal after meal after meal and day after day.
I have had bone fractures and severe muscle strain and sprains and a dislocated hip and a dislocated rib and impacted wisdom teeth and nerve damage and chronic pain and fatigue and migraine and some wacky medical mysteries, including pavor nocturnus. Sometimes unfortunate stuff really does happen, and much of the time, doctors have no real idea of what went wrong or how to fix it. The bulk of my positive health results have come from my own persistent experimentation on myself, refusing to accept "just deal with it" as a valid medical response. I've learned that physical therapy, sleep, and nutritional inputs can do more than most people realize.
I haven't met my new doctor yet; I chose her out of a directory based on location, availability, and her photo and credentials. I don't know anything about her personal style or academic focus in medical school. What I do know is that the kind of health advice I get from a doctor depends a great deal on how I present myself at my visits. I want to walk in demonstrating that I am that teacher's pet, A+ student who will take vigorous notes and follow advice scrupulously. I want my doctor, whoever she may be, to feel that I am committed to taking care of myself and learning as much as I can. When I'm a "good patient" and "cooperative" it makes me seem more worth the time to give a doctor's full focus and attention. I say, "I really try to take care of myself, and whenever I learn about something positive I can do for my health, I add it in to my routine."
The last physician I had for a long period of time started taking health advice from me. She took up triathlon and made a point of telling me that I had inspired her to do it.
I have, in the past, felt helpless and confused and deeply sad about my health. I have had incredible frustration with dismissive doctors, and white-knuckled rage when I later learned something that helped me when a doctor said it wouldn't. (For instance, saying there was nothing I could do about my thyroid disease, which cost me years of ill health. Thanks for nothing, Dr. C). I have cried tears into my ears from the grief and powerlessness of having no idea what to do about a health problem. I feel younger and more energetic in my forties than I did in my twenties, almost entirely because of health issues I didn't understand at the time. I can say with certitude that my fixation with my physical health has paid off over the years. To me, if I had to choose between feeling healthy and fit or being a millionaire, well, naturally I'd choose all three, but having a strong body feels like a million dollars. Maybe ten million.
I don't let my A+ lab work get too much to my head. I look forward and ask my Future Self what I will want for myself ten years from now. The answer is more muscle and more bone density. I'd like to be a little stronger in ten years than I am today. That will come from giving myself the gift of more physical activity and more nutritional support. I do these things so that I can feel better today and tomorrow, and also so that Old Me will maintain mobility and independence as long as possible. We're in this for the long haul and until they make a full body transplant, I'm stuck doing it in the body I have.
Now that we've been in our new apartment for a month, we decided it was time to wander over and figure out how to get into the fitness center. The amenities were what sold us on this place; there's little other reason why a middle-aged married couple with other options would move into a tiny apartment with shag carpet, a popcorn ceiling, and only one closet. (I'm belaboring this point just in case I need to ward off the Evil Eye). Both of us are fairly experienced gym rats. We have our preferred equipment and our preferred default workouts. We also know that no two gyms are alike, even in the same chain. Taking fitness seriously means accepting that no gym is perfect.
Regard the photo above. That is my view from one of the two elliptical trainers in our gym. Regard the sea. Regard the swimming pool. Regard the palm trees. What is missing from this picture is the persistent squeaking of the flywheel behind me. It's loud, yo. Every other step produces this screech that would not be amiss in a recording of a traffic collision. Meanwhile my husband is jouncing away to my left, no doubt listening to Five Finger Death Punch on his headphones. There are half a dozen other people trying to work out, and everyone knows that I am the source of this irritating squeal. It's kind of like farting in an elevator, except you're trapped with it for half an hour.
Oh, do you think I quit using the thing just because it made a horrifying sound? Ha.
We began our workout by casing the joint. I wanted to see if there was a pull-up bar, because we don't really have a good spot to store the one I built for my office door frame - you know, the office doorframe I no longer have because neither of us has an office anymore. There is indeed a pull-up bar. Unfortunately, it appears to have been designed by Dutch people or something, because I literally have to jump a foot in the air with my arms over my head to grab it. Freaking tall designers, I tell you. My husband offered to do an assist.
"You mean like when you push my weight up and down from my knees and I pretend I'm doing real pull-ups?"
"I'm not holding that much of your weight."
"I'm not here to do fake pull-ups."
Needless to say, the home pull-up bar is staying, at least for now.
The second piece of equipment we were hoping to find was a squat rack. If you only have time in your schedule to do one exercise, five minutes of squats is the exercise for you.
"I know you like squats."
"It's not that I like squats, it's more that squats like me."
No squat rack. We went over to the free weights instead. My husband picked up a pair of twenty-pound dumbbells. I figured I'd use the same ones when he was done. Then he reminded me that this is a body weight exercise, and reminded me again of how sad I would be if I overdid it and then tried to walk down stairs the next day. Or the day after that, as DOMS often doesn't hit in its full glory until the second day. DOMS stands for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, and I delayed explaining that to mimic the effect, which clearly can't be done with text because we don't have enough vowels OR enough consonants for HEEAUUGHHHHkfff. Five pound dumbbells it is!
The third piece of equipment I hoped to find was an incline board for doing crunches. No such luck. For some strange reason, I have been feeling this physical craving to activate my core lately. I'm a physically restless person, which is why it's fortunate for everyone that we live on the ground floor, so nobody has to listen to me pacing around all the time, which I do. Yet the urge to fold myself in half over and over again has never made itself known inside my body before. My abs are speaking to me and saying 'HEY LADY.' I always pay attention to these inner messages because who knows? Maybe if I ever find a genie in a bottle that's how it will want to communicate. My first wish will be for a strong core, my second wish will be to be able to do muscle-ups, and my third wish will be to be a billionaire so nobody kicks the back of my seat in the movie theater anymore.
Anyway, back to the lack of incline board, there was an abdominal cruncher, so we both used that instead. I kinda hate it when my husband goes first, because he very ostentatiously moves the pin back to a lighter weight. He does it deliberately to provoke me, I know it. Well he'd better be careful because before he knows it, I'll be shifting more weight than he can even though he's twice as big as me. Watch it, mister, that's all I'm saying.
We don't do all the same machines because I have some chronic tension issues in my neck and shoulders. I worked with a trainer and I have a laundry list of specific exercises I'm supposed to do to balance myself out. When we start from a zero fitness level, it results in tightness in certain areas and weakness in others. That pulls the body out of alignment. That's when we start to get the chronic tension and the snapping, crackling, popping sounds. "Pain comes last," says my trainer, and I'll tell you, that spooked me to my weak little core. I already have pain! You mean to tell me I don't have all the pain yet? All I have to do is look at any given person who is older than me, and my commitment to avoiding more pain is redoubled.
I used to think that people only worked out if they had nothing better to do. What, you can't read a book? Then I found out that I could read on the elliptical, and I could listen to audio books while I run. I would read while doing squats if I could convince someone else to hold my book for me. Also, I started to learn that working out is how non-young people such as myself avoid the slow slide into grinding pain, worsening posture, and unbalanced gait that eventually lead to walkers, wheelchairs, and hospice. I remember how nervous my Nana was about stepping onto an escalator at age 75, and I take the stairs, and I recommit to retaining my mobility as long as I can.
No gym is perfect. No body is perfect, either. Nor should there be such a thought. Every body is just the vehicle for the person inside. What we find in an imperfect gym is a place to rectify the crookedness that time wreaks upon us. We're here to stand up straight and tall while we can, and sometimes to try to jump up and grab things that are barely within reach. We're here to get sweaty and make annoying noises, accepting that nothing in this room will be pleasant or easy. We do it because life isn't perfect, either, but it's both easier and more pleasant with more muscle power.
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.