I Am That Girl Now

Thursday, April 14, 2005

And now, about exercise

Most of the projects that I've got on the front burners, so to speak, are related to my self-esteem and how I relate to other human beings-- not so much learning to put myself first as learning to put myself on an equal basis, at least. I firmly believe that the only way I'm gonna make this change in weight, diet, activity, and health permanent is to go the rest of the way and re-make myself into the kind of girl who does that.

More to the point, I am a binge eater. Historically, I have used binges as a way to deal with everything from boredom to anger to misery. I have used it as a sort of twisted vengeance and as a way to take out my frustrations with other people upon myself. I have used it for comfort when I am sick, tired, or feeling upset. But binge eating is not the root of the problem; it's something I use for a purpose. Figuring out other things to use for those same purposes is important, but there came a time when I realized that in order to really deal with this, I was going to have to suit up and fix the mental stuff behind it.

That said, in case there's anyone who actually reads this blog (oh, you poor things), it's about time to talk about exercise again.

Let me preface this by saying four magic words: Your Milage May Vary. By that I mean that since every human is unique and living a unique life in combination with other unique people with unique lives, this advice may not work for you. Then again, it might. I'm fully aware that there are a million ways to reach fitness, and the only one that will ever mean anything to you is the one that works for you, whether you've made it up from scratch, stolen it whole from a pre-designed program, or patched it together from a thousand different sources. Find what works for you and do it, I say, and don't let the fact that one thing didn't work deter you. If we can have different taste in cars and music and clothes, why should fitness be any different?

That said, here's how it works for me-- and, if asked, it's what I tell people to try.

Getting the Habit Going

I firmly believe that the hardest part about exercise is not the exercise, but the prep work-- making the time and going through the process of travel, dressing, and getting your butt onto the track or the equipment or the treadmill or the mat. I mean, think about it; once you start, you will exercise. After a certain point, it's almost as hard to duck out of exercise as it is to break off an engagement: Yes, it's technically possible, but you have to really, really, really want to call things off in order to do it at that penultimate moment.

When you start an exercise program, what nobody tells you is that this isn't just one habit you're starting-- it's two. One is the prep work, and the other is the actual exercise. There's a lot of focus placed on what exercise to choose, how much time to do it, what stretches to do, what level to start at, blah blah blah. Thing is, everyone figures that if you have sufficient motivation, you'll figure out the prep work habit yourself. If you're motivated enough. If you're not lazy.

Folks, I am here to tell you that this sort of motivation is a myth, and if you're looking to depend upon it to haul you through the prep work and into the gym, you will soon discover that motivation is a flaky bitch and cannot be counted upon to show up in the mornings. You don't look for motivation to get into the shower, or brush your teeth, or get dressed for work, or brush your hair, or (for that matter) go to work, right? But think back to when you were a kid-- your motivation for those tasks was that your parents told you to do them and would kick your butt if you didn't. You got into the habit of doing this stuff and eventually you came to take pride in it, or at least acknowledge that it had a necessary place in your life and was worth your time. But even now, "motivation" isn't a word you associate with the little things you do for upkeep as the owner and operator of your personal body. This is no different.

What you need is a habit. And you do not get into a habit by doing something occasionally. You get into a habit by doing it day after day

I believe that for your first month of exercise, you should aim to do five minutes' worth every day-- if possible, hooked to something else that you do every day so that you just have to add this one more thing to the routine. Five minutes is nothing to fear. It doesn't overtax your system. It doesn't overstress your schedule-- I mean, if you can't put something off for that amount of time, you have bigger problems than not having time to exercise. It's five minutes.

I know, it doesn't seem like much, but think of it this way-- there are a lot of people who, when they work on starting an exercise program, do half an hour one day and then find reasons not to do it again until they're guilted into it the next week. Some people get ambitious and do an hour three times in a week, and then find reasons to avoid it for another month. In one month, you will have done two and a half hours worth of exercise, which is more than you were doing before, right?

More importantly, in one month you will have spent 100% as much prep time as you would have if you'd done a full month of hour-long workouts. You will have built that habit, and done it in a non-threatening way-- building that prep-time habit is hard enough, doing it when you're sore and achy and dreading a full workout is ten times harder.

Once that first month is over, start expanding your work-out time. Add another five minutes, ten minutes, whatever you feel up to-- just remember that the most important thing here is the habit, and if you feel yourself starting to slip out of the habit, back up on that day and say "I don't have to do X minutes, I can just do five." It's like you're goofing off-- only not exactly.

Change Is Faster Than You Think

Another thing they never tell you is that while yes, it takes a while to lose weight, your fitness level is not tied to your weight on a pound-by-pound basis. When I started doing half an hour of cardio every day, I thought I would die-- I was at a fitness level where I'd feel my heart beating in my throat as I wheezed for breath going up two flights of stairs. Three weeks after that, I was climbing the stairs with no problem and feeling perky enough to try joggingfor one minute out of every five on the treadmill. THREE WEEKS, people. Only a few pounds' difference, but a world of difference fitness-wise.

Just because it is gonna take a while for the fat to go away, it doesn't mean you're doomed to wheeze your way through workouts that whole time. Improvement comes a lot faster than you'd ever dream. And when weight-loss comes slowly (and it should, if it's gonna last), you need all the good news you can get.

Baby Steps Add Up

I exercised every morning for a year (except for sickness, travel days, etc.) and felt like this had changed me into a much less sedentary person. Then I got a pedometer and logged 3,000 steps the first day-- and I walk to and from the El every day. For the record, the step level of an active adult is supposedly 10,000 steps. Granted, I wasn't including my morning exercise, but that was still one hell of a wake-up call-- it never occurred to me that I was still basically sedentary even though I got exercise every morning.

That pedometer changed some things for me.

The Hub and I started getting off the El across the Loop from our usual stop, and walking across; it takes about the same amount of time (and sometimes less, considering the way the CTA works some days) and it gives us about an extra 2,000 steps each way. We'd been doing that occasionally before, but not habitually; after I got the pedometer, though, it became an everyday occurance.

Any time we're given a choice between the stairs and the escalator, we take the stairs. Yeah, it's just another 25 steps or so, but every little bit counts-- and besides, it's good exercise for toning your ass.

I get up from my desk more. I drop by other people's desks rather than phone or e-mail them; I get my water from the kitchenette on the other side of the office instead of the nearby kitchen (besides, avoiding the kitchen means that I don't have to find the willpower to avoid the inevitable snacks that someone has brought in); I do a full lap of the office when I've gone to the bathroom.

I pace. Never used to do that, but I find it actually clears my mind.

I take a dance break around noon-- close the office door, put on old pair of sneakers that I keep in my desk, put on some music that makes me bouncy and happy, and I dance around the way I used to when I was a kid. I have no particular grace or technique, but it elevates my mood (holy shit, those mythical endorphins actually exist!), wakes me up for the afternoon, relieves stress, and-- bonus!-- really racks up the steps on the ol' pedometer.

Every little bit, man. Every little bit.

Cardio and Toning and Stretching, Oh My!

Cardio is all about getting your heart rate up. It burns calories, and gets your metabolism boosted for hours afterward. For some reason people think this means grim work on a treadmill or elliptical machine-- and, granted, that's a pretty basic, decent way to go about it. I've got a set-up at home in which I watch DVD sets of television shows, one episode per workout, while I hit the treadmill for forty minutes; it gives me something to distract myself while I jog, and since I use new-to-me shows and only watch them on the treadmill, it gives me something to look forward to. But that's far from the only way to go about it. Again, you find something you like to do, and you do it. Whatever works.

There's a ragingly common misperception in dieting circles regarding strength training/toning/weightwork-- women think that it will make them bulkier and make them weigh more. Look, this is crazy talk. First of all, women don't bulk up, we tone up-- things smooth out, firm up, get these neat contours to them. Second of all, yes, muscle is more dense than fat, but if you'd rather see a number on a scale go down than make your body shrink, you need to sit yourself down and think that one through for a while. If you want to worry about a number, get out a tape measure and start tracking the size of your waist and thighs and arms and whatnot.

Also, muscles are like a weight-loss insurance policy-- if you have a lot of muscle, you're burning more calories just sitting still than if you weighed the same with a piddly amount of muscle. I do a lot of screwing up in my life where my food intake is concerned; I want to have something in place that will minimize the damage. Muscle does that. As far as I'm concerned, the only problem with muscle is that I don't have enough of it yet. That's another project to work on.

Flexibility is the third thing on my personal tripod o' exercise goodness, because I have traditionally been the least flexible person I know. I have to say that yoga has suddenly become my favorite of all my exercise routines, not because the changes have come fast-- really, the cardio went faster-- but because I have learned so much about how my body hangs together and operates. When you contract this muscle it makes it easier to stretch that tendon. My wide feet are good for something (nothing to make you feel prouder of wide feet than yoga). I've learned which places in my body hold stress, and how to relieve that stress. I've changed the way I walk and the way I stand and the way I sit. My balance is better.

And besides all of that, I get injured a lot less since I started yoga. The better balance and looser tendons will do that-- and my joints are stronger and less susceptible to stress.

Yoga truly rules.

In Other News...

More to come, but I really have to go to bed.


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