Back When I was “Inspirational”

In Weight-Loss Maintenance on April 19, 2011 at 1:36 pm

Yesterday, Barbara Berkeley posted an essay on the value of embracing exercise.  In it she encourages all of us (and inspires those of willing spirit) to keep trying to fall in love with physical exertion.  Good advice.  Her drug of choice is tennis.  Once upon a time, mine was running. 

Barbara’s essay prompted me to do a word search for “running” in some pages I’d written.  I was hoping for something inspirational that I could update for this blog.  Instead, I happened upon a discomfiting draft of an essay that dated to 2006 or thereabouts.   The context tells me it was a time when Oprah was trim and bragging about doing 300 sit-ups a day.  I was gloriously in love with running, and never suspected my joints would put an end to that affair.  I didn’t know whether I actually qualified as “high” when I ran, but I knew that I loved to run (or, more accurately based on speed, “jog”), I craved it, and often while running I lost track of time and place.  I ended up back at home at a time that would indicate I’d trod my usual course, but not remembering specifics.  Here’s what I wrote about the process: 

When I jog, I find myself writing essays or creating fiction plots that I will later take down, mumbling long passages of dialog and playing multiple characters.  Sometimes I mentally stage and win arguments with PTA moms who disagree with my fundraising ideas, or I refurbish my house.  Some days I engage in conversations, musical duets or more intimate liaisons with movie stars or musicians. (On rare occasions I think about liaisons with my husband.)  I discuss the future of the planet with scientists, politicians or other newsmakers.  I negotiate peace accords in troubled countries where I don’t speak the language, but I charm my fellow delegates by feeding them their favorite native desserts prepared by my expert chef.  I talk through my interpreter of a peaceful co-existence, and we all strategize about reducing the world’s horrible stockpile of weapons one by one.  Then I exchange my bulletproof brassiere for a standard Maidenform and go talk to Oprah about it on her show.  (I know Jim Lehrer would be more appropriate, but this is my fantasy.)

I think most of the time I managed to do all this without moving my lips or gesticulating too much, but I don’t know for sure.  My neighbors never complained or turned me in to authorities, but neither did they ask me to watch their kids while they were away.  I do miss running, whether or not it made me “high.”

I’m not completely out of the game now.  Once or twice a month I have a course I run to make sure I’m keeping my cardiovascular conditioning at a “running” level.  My speeds have slowed considerably, but I make it without having to break stride and walk.  In the days I’m not doing my running check, I do low-impact aerobics using a weighted vest plus hand and ankle weights amounting to roughly 30 pounds in all, or I do high-intensity interval aerobics, without weights, on heavily padded carpeting.  It’s not the same as running, but it seems to mostly maintain my weight and I don’t awake the next morning unable to set my left foot on the floor for the pain, or having to pull myself with my hands and arms along the wall to the bathroom, forcing my stiff, sore hips to move my legs to follow.

I have become stoic.  While I really wish that the honeymoon could last forever, and mine (blessedly) lasted roughly five years, the kind of exercise that I require to continue my weight maintenance experiment is not effortless, nor is being in love with it.  It is not, as I’d imagined, a romantic till-death-do-you-part proposition (unless, perchance, I’m fatally blind-sided by a MAC truck while performing my part in a fictional PTA argument involving fisticuffs). 

Yes, yes, yes, I’m always on the lookout for the next exercise love affair that I may have.  I take a tap dancing class once a week that is pure joy (though twinges warn me that doing more would surely inflame the pain monsters in my joints and left foot).  I’ve tried swimming, but it’s not the same as running, and requires more time to exert the same amount of energy.  I’ll keep trying.  And I’ll consider my own advice from once-upon-a-time.

I don’t know, exactly, what to make of it, and I don’t know who I thought my audience was.  Obviously, I thought I was “inspirational,” since I switched from the confessional (egotistical) first person to a cringe-worthy, condescending second person.  It makes me ill-at-ease to read it now, perhaps because being out-of-love with exercise makes me a very different person from when I was in love and wrote it.

Another snippet:

. . .”I don’t have time to exercise,” for example, is a copout.  No one is so busy or important as to be obligated, legally or morally, to shorten his or her life by refusing to exercise.  While work, family and other stressful daily situations may present enormous obstacles, none is insurmountable and all should be re-ordered or otherwise tamed.  Even US presidents, of both political parties and with complicated families, exercise.  They are not being selfish.  They are not doing something frivolous.

Exercise shouldn’t be something you try to get around to, after you have taken care of every other family member, your work, your friends, your house of worship and other volunteer obligations (and I’m assuming you’ve already minimized the time you give non-human obligations, like your housekeeping and yard work).  You do none of these groups or individuals any favors if you shortchange your mental or physical health or shorten your life.  If you are the most prized volunteer in your house of worship or at another charity, but you’re ready to choke a fellow volunteer because you have had enough, then it’s time to tell the organizers to rotate in a new prized volunteer.  You don’t need to tell them you’ve lost your joy in that position; just tell them your tenure is up.   Don’t concern yourself with who could replace you.  It’s not your problem and even God is indifferent.  You go exercise. 

If you suspect that your family won’t accept this seemingly strange behavior, then have your doctor write a prescription.  There isn’t a doctor alive who wouldn’t cheerfully pull out the pad and sign off on the following: “Walk briskly 45 minutes every day.  Sundays optional.”  If you tell your doctor to specify a particular time of day, then he or she will add that in too.  Tape your exercise prescription to the inside of the medicine cabinet, so you may point at it when someone pressures you to do something in your exercise time other than exercise.  Your family wouldn’t dare suggest you skip a pill your doctor prescribed.  That might endanger your health or shorten your life!  Guess what: they won’t (or shouldn’t) argue with this either, and for the same reasons.  Trust that they will recognize their reward for supporting you when they see how happy and mellow you become, and when this new mellow you lives long enough to celebrate dozens of additional family milestones.

On every airplane flight we are instructed to put the oxygen mask on ourselves first, then take care of the small children or others with us.  This is because we cannot serve these people if we cannot breathe.  Exercise ranks with oxygen as a life necessity.  It is essential for mental and physical health – both of which you are allowed to claim if you dare – but, along with eating healthfully, people won’t always make it easy for you.

Who the Hell wrote that?  Would Family Circle have published this?  Should I trust this woman and take her advice, which would mean cutting back to 45 minutes of brisk walking per day?   I think I had a couple of good ideas, but were they merely the ravings of an exercise manic in love?

  1. Life goes on.

    You can still have the same feeling with another exercise that you love. My drug of choice is cycling, and I expect I can do it until they put me in the nursing home (like my father before me). I also used to be a runner, and I found I could not run any more, and I quit, and got bitter, and got fat for 15 years.

    I should have just switched up to biking immediately. Oh, well, we can’t change the past.

    But we can change the future. My belief is that it’s all in the attitude, and between the ears.

    BTW, doing aerobics with hand and ankle weights. You checked that out with a PT or trainer? I was always taught this is a no-no. Injury city.

    And I can sure tell you I would HATE doing aerobics all weighted down. 🙂 I do actual weightlifting instead, with free weights in a gym, and free my body for the cardio I do (cycling, spinning, the very occasional 1 mile run, and elliptical).

    Sounds to me like you are weighting down not just your body, but your spirit.

  2. Oh, Debbie. I also imagined I’d be running long after my son had put me in a home — running around the home, running into the cemetary and just diving into the most comfortable spot when my time came. Ahhh.

    Suffice it, and please trust my judgement about me, cycling likely won’t be it for me. At least not in any serious way. A nasty childhood fall. . . I’ll try to keep an open mind, however. Thanks for the suggestion. I have friends who could usher me in that direction.

    Regarding my exercise: both my General Practitioner and my ob/gyn know about it. My GP pounds my knees and elbows with a rubber hammer and manipulates and massages my various joints each year. He talks to me about exercise and diet specifically. He says I have osteoarthritis, but I’m doing fine and to “keep up the good work.” Nevertheless, perhaps I should see a PT too. I have also considered going to see a sports medicine practitioner. These are expensive decisions, and I may move on them. Or not. Or I may see an endocrinologist. Or not. I am aware of my choices. Thanks.

    Also, you may be right on the spirit thing, but I don’t think that you’ll be able to do much for me through mere blog exchanges. You and I are very different. I appreciate your concern. But, also, I am finding my own voice that is VERY different and free in its own rite, and I am discovering nuances about me, about life, about weight maintenance, culture, science, spirituality even (though you and others may not detect it), connectedness, and other areas, that I didn’t know in “happier” but less aware times. And I think these are things worth exploring further and sharing. I am willing to live through this journey and discover what I may in my own way. And if the cost to my spirit becomes too great, please know that I will seek professional help. A blog is merely a blog. And this one is my blog.

    There are many people who take great pleasure and derive a certain strength from those inspirational posters with a majestic image (a mountain, the ocean, or some such) and a single word: Achievement or Dream. I am not one of those people. I appreciate mountains. I appreciate oceans. I even appreciate ambitious people. But I appreciate poets more. The world is big enough for me and for busloads, seminarloads of positive thinkers. And for you.

    Please, understand.

    • I understand, to a point.

      But I probably have been, for better or worse, where you are now. I hope you come out the other end happier.

      Just don’t mistake where you are now, for where you’ll always be.

      And for my own self (taking my own history into account, which of course you don’t know), I shall try to do the same. 🙂

  3. Boy, most of this post makes me smile in a sad and wistful way. The last, long quote from your former self made me want to throttle that smug “little miss perfect holier than thou”. Fortunately (psychologically), you are no longer that person. Unfortunately (physically), you are no longer that person.

    As the class nerd who always ran the slowest, couldn’t jump hurdles or pummel horses and was always picked last for the team, I grew up hating physical exercise. For me, it was simply an exercise (pardon the pun) in humiliation that even having the best marks in the school (academic excellence award in Gr. 9!) could not make up for.

    When I was a child and adolescent, I didn’t yet know that heredity was preparing me to be handicapped by the time I hit my late thirties. I do believe that I could possibly have staved off the ravages of arthritis to a certain extent or at least somewhat longer if I had made yoga a regular part of my life starting when I was 15. It’s a blessing, in a sense, that I was never a good runner or my joints would have broken down even earlier.

    I do blame the school system for making physical education a contest that most of us will never win. No one wants to be humiliated, and as far as I can see, nothing has changed in the schools. Only physically gifted students continue to make exercise a part of their lives both in and out of school while most kids drop phys ed the moment they can. I have seen this phenomenon with both my children.

    My older son (who reminds us of Flubber with his ability to live entirely in the clouds) has terribly flat feet and dropped gym as soon as he could. Fortunately, I introduced him to yoga, which he seems to enjoy. Better yet, he is now taking gym again since he moved to a very small, private school full of nerds like himself. In the new school, his efforts are praised and recognized and he actually likes to move.

    My other son, who is still in the public system also dropped gym like a hot potato. I have to encourage him to get back into swimming since he’s a pretty good swimmer and enjoys it. It’s something I probably should do next school year–if he accepts. He has expressed no interest in yoga. I tried.

    When I was in the honeymoon phase with intuitive eating (it’s not that I don’t believe in it–it’s just a lot harder than I ever thought), I finally realized that I could be physically active on my terms. I have been doing yoga 3-4 times a week (with my teacher and on my own) now for over four years and am pretty much joined at the hip to my pedometer–I try to get out for a nice long walk as often as possible (I’ll come back to that with a suggestion for you, Debra, at the end of this long confessional). Sadly, my conversion to the joys of physical activity arrived just as my arthritis kicked in big time. While I would dearly love to partake, I can no longer use my exercise bike or my elliptical trainer, nor can I swim without pain in my back, my knee and my hip. In the past month, my back has been markedly worse, limiting me even more.

    Sorry if I’m rambling, but the whole issue of physical activity has been something that I’ve been pondering more and more as my ability to engage in it slips slowly and often painfully away.

    One of the worst things that has happened since fat became an EPIDEMIC!!!!!!!!!!! (run for your lives!!!! lol) is that people are trying (and usually failing) to exercise for one single reason: to lose weight. The extraordinary health benefits of a walk (or other types of gentle exercise) are brushed away as useless because these types of exercise usually doesn’t result in the scale moving downwards. People give up on the one thing that they can do for themselves that will yield real, positive, significant health benefits because it doesn’t make a difference in the number on the scale. They would rather starve themselves (and then binge), than take that walk when they can, or take the bus rather than the car, or take the stairs rather than the elevator because it’s not enough to make the scale move, even though it might actually be enough to improve their health.

    In a nutshell, I believe that linking physical activity with weight loss has probably been one of the worst things that’s happened to people’s health in recent times.

    Of course, what we haven’t discussed here (though I think you allude to it) is the whole economic aspect of exercise. That fat lady working two or three minimum wage jobs, bringing home McDonald’s to her family and collapsing in a heap for a few hours rest before starting the cycle all over again should not be chided for not exercising! Exercise requires time and if you’re barely keeping your financial head above water, that’s the last thing you have.

    I hope you haven’t given up on finishing this extremely long response, because I have a practical suggestion for you Debra that you might enjoy. It ain’t running, but it’s closer than strolling: urban poling. It’s sort of like cross country skiing on the sidewalk. I have only just started using my poles (and gingerly at that due to all the physical crap I live with) but I did go out one day with a heart monitor strapped to my chest and by golly, it really gets the old heart going. It also makes you sweat like the dickens, but since you’re walking rather than running and you’ve got the support of the poles it’s very gentle on the joints.

    A quick internet search brought up a wealth of sites to look at. You can try googling “urban poling”, “nordic walking”, “pole walking”–there’s a ton of information and of course, you can order your poles over the internet. I myself took the subway to the store and then poled home.

    And this said, now that I’ve spent several hours working on my taxes (they’re due on April 30th here in Canada), I’m actually going to take my poles for a walk.

    • Yeah, NewMe, I wanted to smack me too.

      Urban Poling? Hmmmm. This must be the cutting edge of hip. I just hollered at my 13-year-old to ask him about it, and he’s never heard of it. I will definitely have to look into it, because my doing it sounds like a spectacular way for me to humiliate him!

  4. The first quoted passage made me laugh my a** off. Yep, I can relate to the inner dialog (where on earth do our thoughts arise from?), yet I walk (when I am able) rather than run.

    I haven’t been able to do much of any exercise for months, between working, surgery, and a recent extended visit from Mr. Influenza. Today was my first walk in a couple weeks.

    The second passage you quoted made me question whether that was really written by you! I know you’re not making it up (your authorship), but take it as a supreme compliment when I tell you: you sound nothing like that person nowadays! Transformation DOES happen.

    I see so much growth in you from then to now–and THAT is truly inspirational. 🙂

    • Thanks, Hopeful. I am in a more authentic place now, I think. Is it better to be authentic and a bit out-of-sorts or blissfully out-of-touch? Perhaps we waffle betwixt the two throughout life, as a way of surviving the curveballs that hit us and avoiding others.

  5. I was never good at any sport growing up. Combined with being larger than my friends, it made me feel like sports just weren’t for me. Not running, not swimming, not basketball, not volleyball, not softball, not soccer, not… anything.

    In college I discovered fencing. And became internationally-ranked, went to World Cups. Most people who do that start when they’re 6 or so, so I feel pretty good about that.

    Can’t imagine what my high school class would have thought.

    So I am biased, but I do think fencing is fun and would suggest you give it a try. It is one of the few sports where older people can do quite well, too. The top fencers tend to be in their late 20s, but every so often you see someone at a national tournament in their 60s and nobody knows who they are and they beat the hell out of the young’uns, having been off practicing on their own for years. Many tales of that.

    Fencing won’t do much for weight loss, but you do stay active and most importantly it is fun.

    • I’m keeping my eye on fencing. It is the sport my 13-year-old has selected (he’s going to his first away tournament next weekend). And it may become his “identity,” along with cello. While he hasn’t said “Mo-om, don’t EVEN think about it,” I think I’m wise to let him, for now, have this for himself. But his studio does have a robust adult group.

  6. I’ve been thinking about maintenance, having lost 90-ish pounds over the last 16 months. Lately I have become focused on different dimensions of fitness: strength, agility, flexibility, power, etc. Not in a P90X way! Just in general.

    It is an entirely new and wildly interesting experience.

    I have never been a runner or an athlete of any kind – I’m like the anti-athlete – so it’s a “science experiment” (to borrow your term) to see how my muscles and fat-to-muscle ratio and so forth have changed over these last few months.

    And to be surprised by what and how much I get from different types of exercise. I’m mixing up four basic things these days, depending on the time and where I am geographically (I travel a lot for work)*.

    I would not call this “falling in love” as it has just nothing to do with those types of feelings for me. It’s more like I’ve made a surprising new friend and she wants to go places I never thought of going before – and those places turn out to be fun when I thought they would be dreary so I avoided them.

    The term “exercise regime” with all its authoritarian resonance is pretty hilarious so that is what I call mine. Although it isn’t structured enough to be a REGIME – maybe mine is more of an “exercise autonomous collective” – but based around these activities:

    – Long, relatively slow (4 MPH) walking outside while listening to audiobooks burns a few calories, but the real benefits are stress reduction and the enjoyment of the book. I don’t usually do that on the road – strange neighborhoods, caution, etc.

    – When traveling, I find that almost all hotel gyms have an okay elliptical so sometimes I do sprints, sometimes I crank the resistance up so high that it’s more like strength training than cardio, and sometimes I just noodle along slowly at a low resistance. I have bad bad very bad knees and running has never been an option, but the elliptical doesn’t give me a single twinge or creak in those knees so yay. And if I’m not staying in a hotel with easy access to the elliptical, then I have somewhat less easy access to a YMCA.

    – Strength exercises, especially those that don’t involve the gym.

    – Yoga

    So this is what I’m doing, and it’s making me feel happy and strong, and leading me to think about capabilities that I never considered.

    Maybe it’s being middle-aged and seeing people struggle in life, but my weight loss has IN NO WAY given me that “If I can do it, anyone can!” thinking that usually freights up weight-loss inspiration narrative.

    Including your older chunk of essay with the part about “WELL THE PRESIDENT EXERCISES SO I THINK YOU CAN, TOO, MISSY!” – am I the only one who finds it kind of funny? And endearing? I hear it in the Church Lady voice.

    • Well, Isn’t THAT special!

      You know, Viola, that’s a really good description of “discovering” exercise. “a surprising new friend and she wants to go places I never thought of going before – and those places turn out to be fun when I thought they would be dreary so I avoided them.” That is exactly how I felt in 2003-2005, AND I WANT IT BACK.

      What it’s going to get down to is accepting that some weight may come back. Or all?

      I think that essay was the result of a “special” stick-in-my-butt kind of day. I don’t think I was that way all the time. I was, afterall, hanging out at BFB a lot. There is some evidence of it in the essay. I don’t mention weight, for instance, but the issue is present, isn’t it. Hmmmm.

  7. Does exercise make you live longer, or make you feel as though you’ve lived longer? I’m not convinced that it increases life expectancy to such a degree making it worthwhile.

    That said, some exercises are more enjoyable than others. Swimming would be my least unenjoyable choice, so I’m thinking I’d like to be in a state of fitness where I can go for a 30 minute swim in the pool and not be knackered. I’ll try to continue that for as long as possible into old age. That probably requires a swim every two weeks or so.

    I don’t believe that on average exercise makes a person feel better mentally. It never did when I did it regularly, it just made me feel like I’d accomplished something hard, with the thought I’d have to do it all over again tomorrow.

    Quality of life, rather than quantity is my motto. This is one of the reasons I chose not to have children. Do less of the things you don’t like to do, and do more of the things you do.

    • Thanks for the commisery, John.

      It’s hard to describe the feeling of really connecting to exercise, though Viola does it well with the “surprising new friend” analogy. I don’t want a “least unenjoyable” friend, but that kind of describes the path I’m on now.

  8. I’m a great believer in exercise, too, and since I’m not using it to try to maintain weight loss and have allowed myself to become less active when it’s been painful to keep it up at its former intensity, I haven’t become disillusioned. I wouldn’t, however, be quite as judgmental about not exercising regularly as you were in that old essay. Nobody has a moral obligation to maximize their life expectancy.

    • So true. And on my least attractive days there are people I cheer on in their life-shortening habits. Won’t go there today, though.

  9. I seem to be the anomaly here: the fat & decrepit former high-school jock (who never had to worry about Teh Obesity overtaking her until she lost her thyroid but that’s another story) who still dreams of faded glory, nevertheless humbled by cold hard reality these days when I try to continue my “slogging” habit (I was never a fast runner, but I was strong & consistent) on my fallen arches & creaky knees… Or heaven forbid, finding a few extra hours each week to pick up a tennis racket again!
    Exercise IS a matter of mental health for me; I find it keeps my mood more consistently elevated than any of the AD’s I’ve been prescribed.

    • Val, my uncle had exactly the same problem. He was a former jock who put on weight in middle age and didn’t feel comfortable running anymore, and he felt terrible about it. But, there are things you can do instead that will keep you just as fit but will be easier on your joints. Swimming and biking come immediately to mind. Have you tried taking up something that’s lower impact?

      I know exactly what you mean about the mood issue, BTW.

  10. I tend to be very introspective on my solitary walks and often feel even angrier and more upset at life after I’ve spent 45 minutes out walking.

    My work involves wearing headphones and I can’t afford to damage my hearing, so I’ve always shied away from recreational headphone use (i-pod, MP3). However, I’m considering giving in and using a device loaded with music that I love (or maybe even books??) in order to counteract negative musings that do nothing to lighten my mood.

    • I have the same problem. I also find that my body (mind?) seems to reject running/jogging – I get this awful feeling of ennui, like my life has suddenly lost all meaning, every time I’ve tried. Frankly, I think it’s a sign.

      I love swimming. I find it hard to think depressing thoughts when I’m concentrating on my technique and on lapping the middle aged men who thrash about. (And who *all* leave the pool once the short, fat, baby faced woman starts showing one of them up.)

      I also find that doing things in the gym that don’t remind me of running – cross trainer, the climbing stairs – cheers me up, as do the weight lifting. It’s almost impossible to think anything in a gym.

      I don’t want to be one of those people who gives unsolicited and patronizing advice on the basis of a short comment. (Yeah, yeah, I know: too late.) It’s just that, when I read your comment about your excercise making you feel worse, I wanted to swoop in and rescue you.

  11. My current favorite exercise is brisk walking, but in chest-deep water. Brisk is a relative term when you’re walking in a pool; if I get above a milean hour, Impress myself.

    I stopped going regularly about a year and a half ago, though, when my dad was diagnosed with cancer. All of a sudden, being alone with my thoughts in the pool was the last thing I needed. Six months into life without him and being alone with my thoughts is much less scary. So i’m trying to get back to it again.

    As someone with unreliable ankles, the water is great– I’m less likely to turn my ankle and if I do go down, it’s fun splashing in the water!

  12. Interesting, Bobbini. Back when my kid was younger the family belonged to the Y, but we quit after he outgrew the kiddie programs, and the monthly cost was unjustifiable for the little use we were getting. I may call and ask about a limited membership of some sort. They have an indoor pool with a “lazy river” feature and during weekdays there are times when adults walk backwards in it. It wouldn’t be worth a $90-per-month membership, because I think I’d probably only do it three times a week, but maybe I can talk them into something less onerous.

  13. Is there something particularly good about walking backwards in the pool?

    • I should have been clearer. They walk forward but against the current. During normal hours people kind of go with the flow, get carried along with the current.

  14. This “lazy river” commentary reminded me of something I used to LOVE, but have not done for several years…and now I wonder why I haven’t made more of an effort to treat myself to the activity at least a few times each summer, since I often performed it even at my very heaviest. There are places in the river, and also in a nearby creek, where the current is swift, but only neck deep, and I often enjoyed swim-sprints, swimming upstream, until too spent, taking a break, then going again. Wonderful fun! Maybe I forget that having fun can be very GOOD!

  15. My walking pool also has a current and I walk against it regardless of how everybody else is going. They’re holding a 5K in it Saturday, but I missed the signup deadline.

    They probably have a single person membership cheaper than $90–our gym, which doubles as a rehab center, charges that much for the whole family to join.

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