On coping with setbacks in the gym (Guest post)

IMG_1575By MarthaFitat55

The past couple of weeks at the gym have been quieter than usual. If all was well, I’d be getting ready to shift into a new level of training.

But all is not well. About four years ago I tripped in my kitchen and hit my knee. Hard. Though my recovery then went smoothly – I was lucky and did not break my knee cap – my doctor warned me that I might have trouble with it in the future.

In mid-January, trouble finally came knocking. Tenderness, swelling, and pain were relieved by rest, ice, and elevation. But I noticed that my knee was stiff and resistant, and my physio recommended a shift in training. Fewer squats and splits, if any, and more rows and pulls, to help aid recovery.

The new routine is helping, and I should be thrilled. To be honest, though, I was peeved and disgruntled. I was past the one-year mark with my hip injury, I had recovered from a pinched nerve in my shoulder, and I was coping well with work arounds for my arthritic fingers. Dealing with my knee was the last thing I wanted.

We don’t always get what we want, as Mick Jagger wailed all those years ago, and this month was no exception. But as the song goes, if you try, sometimes you get what you need.

What I needed was to shake up my routine and refocus. Sometimes we set goals and go after them to the exclusion of all else. We stop noticing the clues and keep on our path without adjusting for new information or needs.

I rely on my trainer to keep me on track, because one of my primary goals is to get fit without causing injury to myself. What I had forgotten was there are many ways to be active and there are many ways to train. Just because I couldn’t do squats didn’t mean I couldn’t do anything.

So I have been doing something, and that is better than doing nothing. I was only modifying my training, not ditching it completely. I was reminded again how much I enjoy my time in the gym with weights, but I also became reacquainted with smaller, gentler, more frequent moves that focused on increasing flexibility, not just strength.

It is a lesson in patience, and it’s not one I am ever eager to learn, or re-learn as the case may be. I lead a busy life, with work, family, and community commitments. Who has time to spend on recovery?

The reality is we all need to take time to recover, to re-evaluate our goals, to refocus our attention on specific objectives; in short, to spend some quality time on ourselves, so we can keep going with our fitness plans.

When I look at what I was doing in the gym, I am still pleased with the plan I have. What I needed though, was to invest some time in focusing on muscle and joint care. It’s like getting that winter tune up your car needs in the fall to make coping with the hazards and challenges of winter a little easier.

So I am engaging in some preventative maintenance. I’ve been taking time to focus on form in training, to work on shifting some sloppy work habits, and to go back to yoga to stretch and relax in between sessions at the gym.

It’s too early to tell what will come next, but I like the variety. Most importantly, I like the fact that I’m not giving up.

— Martha is a writer and consultant who accepts she may never be a pretzel on the yoga mat, but is delighting in rocking the warrior pose nonetheless.

Are People Really Happy for People Who Lose Weight?

smiley faceThis topic of weight loss has come up quite a bit lately, even though we are a blog that professes (rightly) not to be about weight loss and definitely not about dieting.

I can’t even count the number of posts we’ve written over the years that say fitness is not measured by weight loss (recent case in point: Sam’s musing yesterday).

And anyone who knows me knows well that I do not compliment people on weight loss. Pretty much never, since that time Sam and I both remember all too well when we complimented someone who, in fact, had indeed lost lots of weight — because she had cancer! Yes, that ranks up there with the times in my life I wanted to crawl into a hole and hide.  And of course, Sam’s recent weight loss has a lot to do with having her thyroid removed because she had surgery for thyroid cancer in the summer.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: “you’ve lost weight! you look great!” is not a compliment. Granted, lots of people are trying to lose weight. And, granted, those people probably like it when people notice (maybe?) because heck, they’re trying. Why isn’t it a compliment? Because it implicitly says, “and you used to look like shit, and guess what? I noticed that too!” And it implicitly assumes that everyone wants to lose weight, that losing weight is a good thing in and of itself, that being fat is not good (and looks awful), and that people are entitled to monitor the size of others’ bodies. And all of that is crap that we shouldn’t be assuming and doing.

But here’s something: I wonder whether people are actually happy when someone they know loses weight (not because of cancer, but because of effort)?  The reason I wonder is that at any given time, I would say a good 50% of the people I know are trying to lose weight or thinking about it, and more than 50% of those aren’t successful (not surprisingly, given this and this and this and this and oh so much more!).

So I’m going to go out on a limb here, and it may be a lonely limb that reveals me to be petty and small-minded: a lot of the time, people aren’t actually happy for you when you lose weight. First, there are the killjoy feminists like me who don’t really notice anymore when the people around them lose weight.  I consider the not noticing to be a personal accomplishment of mine.

But even more than that, there are those people who are battling the odds when the odds are heavily not in their favour. That would be the majority of people on a diet or weight loss program, actively trying to lose weight. I’m going to venture that a good portion of those people actually feel a little screw turn in their gut whenever someone they knows beats the odds and actually “succeeds” at that elusive goal: weight loss.

Seeing people who, for whatever reason (sometimes cancer, sometimes dieting, sometimes grief, sometimes — though not nearly as often as we’d like — exercise) drop pounds can start an internal monologue that, far from being thrilled for the person, quickly turns inward to self-flagellation and a sense of failure: If she can do it, why can’t I? What am I doing wrong? What’s wrong with me? I’m such a failure.

I’m happy for you if that’s never you. But if that’s sometimes you, join the club. Because I do go there, still today–my non-weight loss noticing-self can go there.

So I’m just going to put this out there and be totally frank. I really can’t stand it when people talk about their weight loss. I don’t care what the reasons. I don’t care if you’re trying or not trying. I don’t care if it’s for performance or for looks or just because that’s what friends, family, and strangers like to talk about.

You know, you can dress it up any way you like. But to me it’s such a personal thing that our social world has made into a public thing. And I’m always stumped about what we’re supposed to say. “Good for you!” even when someone is trying just goes against everything that feels right to me. It’s like encouraging something that I see ruin the lives of perfectly excellent people who think that weight loss will afford them something they need in order to feel good about themselves (or better about themselves). I just can’t have the conversation anymore, with anyone. [I like Carly’s suggestion of saying, “how does that feel for you?” but those don’t feel like my words]

So this brings me back to the question of whether people are really happy for people who lose weight. If you’re like me, you’ve read lots of stuff on dieting and weight loss in your time. And they always talk about the saboteurs. Those are the people who want you to eat another helping because they cooked it, or a piece of cake because it’s a special occasion, or chocolate because it’s Valentine’s Day, and therefore thwart your efforts at weight loss. Are they happy when their loved ones lose weight? Sometimes, the literature says, they feel threatened.

And then there are those people who are trying and getting nowhere. Are they happy for you? I’m not so sure. But I think it’s complicated. And that’s because successful weight loss is hard to square with the reality of how difficult it is to lose and maintain weight loss. And so when someone achieves it, we may be a little happy for them (maybe some people are super happy for them), but lots more people just use it as another reason to get down on themselves. And that’s the painful truth for many.

I don’t mean to be saying that that’s the only reason, or even the main reason, I don’t like to talk about weight loss (yours or mine). But it’s not a neutral subject, and it’s loaded with all sorts of cultural meaning that hooks into horrible attitudes that I don’t like to encourage. And even when someone’s reasons aren’t about that stuff, it’s still highly personal and that makes it at the very least an odd thing to advertise and go on about.

I can’t control what others want to talk about, but over the last little while, after a few conversations (with a few different people) that made me squirm and feel uncomfortable, I know for certain that I’m not taking part anymore. And for all of these complicated reasons, I’m going to be totally honest and say I’m happy for people about all sorts of things, but not super happy for someone simply because they’ve lost weight. I realize that makes me sound grumpy and petty, but there it is.

Model of metabolic health tiara and weight loss magic wand?


I recently had a complete and thorough doctor’s visit, a very detailed check up that ended up with me fretting a bit about my weight. That path led me to referral to a specialist at the metabolic health unit at a local hospital. I wanted to know if there were good medical reasons for me to lose weight or a good medical explanation for why I found losing weight so hard.

I knew already that I have a healthy living rock star profile when it comes to blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. (The last time I had this tested the nurses joked that they wanted to meet the person with such good cholesterol results and they spent awhile chatting with me about my diet.) You don’t have to care about health or make it a priority. No judgement here. See Healthism, fitness, and the politics of respectability.

But I do worry about health and I wanted to make sure that I was really okay.

After all, the media constantly bombards us with stories about the health implications and costs of obesity epidemic. We hear a lot about rising rates of overweight and obesity and what that means. I wanted to know, personally, what it meant for me.

The answer it turns out is nothing. Nada. Zilch. Zip.

I met with a specialist who assured me that I’m a model of metabolic health. I’m very fit and my commitment to physical activity matters far more than the number on the scale, she said. She told me that people come in lots of very different shapes and sizes and as far as she could tell there was no medical reason for me to lose weight.

She said she wished she had a weight loss magic wand to wave and help me lose weight if that’s what I wanted but she didn’t. She granted that especially with menopause approaching it’s very tough.

However, in the absence of the magic wand, I should just keep moving and enjoy my life.

The same unit of the hospital also has a scale that spits out BMI numbers and accompanying advice. Mine said, and I’m paraphrasing: Lose weight or die soon.

I showed the doctor the slip of paper and she said it was false. But why give them out then? Why scare people if it’s not true? What’s up with that? Argh. Grrr. Just stop.

I still want to lose weight and make it up hills faster. But it’s good to know there’s no health reasons at stake if I can’t.

Health Reform


Feel the burn?: Sam mulls calories, exercise, and energy conservation

Many people ask me the same questions over and over again… What should I eat and what should I exercise like in order to look like the guys in the fitness:

So this morning, after two hours and fifteen minutes on my bike trainer in a super hard class, I looked at the information in a new light. Mostly I pay attention to average cadence and to max and avg heart rate, but today I also looked at calories–956 calories burned, it claimed–in a new light, given a study that was making the health and fitness rounds this week.

See More exercise doesn’t mean more calories burned

“Gym-goers might think that if they huff it on a treadmill for two hours every day, they will burn more calories overall than if they sneak in just 30 minutes.

But according to a study published Thursday in the journal Current Biology, as long as people are doing at least some baseline level of activity, they will expend about the same amount of energy each day no matter how much exercise they do — suggesting that exercise alone cannot be relied upon as a way to control weight at a time when the majority of American adults are overweight or obese.

For the study, a team led by Herman Pontzer sought to test whether energy expenditures increased as physical activity did, or if those expenditures plateaued no matter how much activity people were doing.

Researchers looked at 332 people in five different populations around the world: a mostly agrarian group in Ghana; people living in a township in South Africa; urban residents in Jamaica; island dwellers in the Seychelles; and suburbanites in the United States.

For about a week, they tracked physical activity using wearable devices akin to Fitbits, and measured energy expenditures through a specialized urine test.

They found that the amount of spent energy does increase with physical activity levels, but only in the low ranges of exercise overall.”

Here’s the study they’re talking about: Constrained Total Energy Expenditure and Metabolic Adaptation to Physical Activity in Adult Humans.


What do I make of the study?

First, I hate the reporting about it which mostly takes the form of “diet not exercise the key to weight loss.” See Why Diet Matters More than Exercise For Weight Loss, In One Video Why? Because the assumption is that the reason we exercise is weight loss. If that were my motive I would have quit long ago! See Why don’t plus sized athletes lose weight? for some discussion of this. I worry that it discourages people from getting active. Suppose they’re right, and there’s no reason to support the claim that they’re not, and diet matters more than exercise when it comes to weight loss. It’s still not clear to me that there is good evidence that diet works either.

Also, it’s not new news. See Science, exercise, and weight loss: when our bodies scheme against us.

Second, there are lots of good reasons to exercise that have nothing to do with weight loss. There are performance reasons, for example. I’m staying in bike shape over the winter to be able to do fun things next summer, like the Kincardine Duathlon and the Friends for Life Bike Rally. My reasons have nothing to do with weight loss. Indeed, I want to lose weight to be faster on my bike going up hill. There are also health reasons. Weight lifting/strength training, for example, is great for bone health even if it won’t help you lose weight.

Third, the research helps make sense of a puzzle we’ve blogged about here before, the athletes who work out hard but then flop the rest of the time. See Sedentary athletes, not a contradiction in terms and Children can be sedentary athletes too.

Fourth, and practically, it means that if we’re tracking exercise and calories the maximum we ought to count is 300 calories. That’s the actual difference researchers found between those who exercised and those who didn’t, regardless of what our instruments tell us. In light of that, let’s ignore the chart above. Let’s ignore the numbers on our Garmin. Bye bye calorie counters! But that doesn’t mean working out is not worth doing. Fitness matters more from almost every perspective. See Fitness and exercise are what matters, not weight loss.


Three Cheers for Minimalism! It’s Good for Your Health

minimalist stairsOne of my favourite topics is “doing less.”  I think it’s a totally underrated “solution” to many of life’s problems, including fitness.  Who isn’t attracted the possibility that less actually is more?

That’s why the pomodoro technique is so great.

That’s why teeny tiny habits are cool.

That’s why work-life balance is a thing.

And that’s why everyone is talking about the KonMari method of getting rid of stuff. If you missed the memo, check it out in The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up .by Maria Kondo. Quirky but absorbing.

So when Sam sent me “The Magic of Minimum Exercise” from Reboot with Joe, I liked what I read. He breaks it down to a simple choice that busy folks have to make on a regular basis:

If we break it down, there are really three choices here: Do nothing. Do something minimal. Do a lot. And my answer is: Do something minimal.

Yes. Yes. Yes. Do something minimal. Because, the thinking goes, most of us can find a few minutes in a day to do a little something. And the research supports the idea that we get a lot of benefit from a minimal effort:

You may be surprised to know that the difference between doing something minimal and doing a lot is much smaller than the difference between doing nothing and doing just a little something. Or, to put it another way, doing just a little bit is vastly more important than doing nothing at all.

This was made abundantly clear in a landmark report in the American Medical Association’s journal Internal Medicine that recently landed on my desk. What the authors wanted to check out was whether the government’s 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans was still accurate. Those guidelines, which I talk about in my book Fully Charged, recommend a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week. In other words, about 20 minutes of moderate exercise per day, or about 10 minutes of intense exercise per day.

In the new report, researchers looked at data on more than 660,000 American and European men and women gathered in previous studies. Those who did the minimum recommended amount of exercise cut their chances of dying prematurely by one third. Not bad for 20 minutes a day of walking.

But here’s the more interesting discovery: If you went past the minimums—two or three times the least you should do—you were only slightly better off.

I also think it’s not just about the physical pay-off. A good friend called me today to say she was feeling crappy about herself. At first, for about 10 seconds, she attributed it to weight gain. But in no time she got to the heart of the issue: too much time for others, not enough for herself. That’s enough to make anyone feel lousy. Even an unbelievably awesome and self-aware woman like my friend.

We chatted a bit and we both started to state the obvious: sometimes, just getting out for a walk or a few laps in the pool or a yoga class can make the difference between feeling awful about ourselves and feeling good about ourselves. Self-care in the form of exercise offers an all-around boost. Good for the body, good for the soul.

Along with this, so many of us are far too rigid in what we “count” as exercise. I’ve come along way in this area since I first starting thinking about it. Granted, I’m still sometimes a bit of a taskmaster and my schedule of activities is overfull.

But some days, I’ll count the walk from the parking lot to my office. And if it doesn’t feel like enough, I’ll go to the library (which is quite a few buildings away from my office) or, I’ll leave my desk to go wash my lunch dishes upstairs instead of in the kitchen right next door. It gets me up and moving around. I feel as if I’m doing something for myself. And taking a break from work can’t be a bad thing.

If you’re going to go minimalist, you need to be willing to count generously. And if you’re generous (but honest–probably for me going to do the dishes upstairs doesn’t count for a whole lot, but I like to think of it as a healthy habit) and committed to the minimum, your risk of premature death drops significantly. Really.

Three cheers for minimalism! Hip, hip, hooray!


The weirdness of weight loss



Note: If you use MyFitnessPal, feel free to add me or follow me or whatever it is one does there! I don’t consistently track all my food and exercise there though I am a fan of tracking. Most often I use the app to track protein which is the one macro-nutrient I struggle with as a vegetarian.

I’m not sure how to talk about weight loss in a personal sense, when it comes to my story. And for a long time I haven’t had to talk about it. I’ve lost weight slowly enough that it’s not been an issue. Twenty five pounds lost, yes, but over three and a half years. I’ve joked about being a weight loss alpaca, rather than a unicorn. No dramatic transformations here. Lately I’ve been thinking that my weight loss spirit animal might be the slow moving sloth instead.

(An aside: I was happy this morning to read James Fell’s case for slow.)

So this time around is different for me. It’s a change from the big weight losses when I was twenty four (eighty pounds in one year) and forty (sixty pounds in a year).

This time I’m in it for performance reasons, wanting to make it up hills faster, and I’m focused not so much on the number in the scale but instead on eating well and moving lots. That’s stuff I can control.

Unfortunately the rest of the world makes its own assumptions about fatness and fitness, about health and BMI, and about thinness and beauty, and I’m not sure how to avoid them. I could just recommend they go read Tracy’s excellent blog post  about what to say to someone who has lost weight but I think I need a shorter, snappier answer.

People are noticing now because I’m replacing old, too big clothes with some smaller stuff. They notice when I’m dressed in form fitting sports attire. It’s the kind of attention that makes me want to track down a mumu to wear. I start thinking about the joys of baggy sweatpants and hoodies. Warm, comfortable, enveloping, and away from eyes that scrutinize size and shape. The thing is when I’m big and challenging peoples’ ideas of what women ought to look like, I can get my politics on my side. I am much more capable of being out there and proud of how I look as a larger woman. As a larger women loving my body and showing it off is a political act.

When I’m not large I’m less comfortable with the attention and I’m skeptical of the places it comes from. I don’t want your praise for looking for looking more like society’s ideas about what I ought to look like. It’s messy and it’s complicated.

I guess it’s still striking that I like how I look given that I’ll never be a supermodel and I’m not 18 or even 38 years old. But the truth is, I’ve always liked my body. It does fun things (like fat biking) and hard things (like childbirth) and it’s a source of pride and pleasure. I like the stories it tells. That’s not about size, weight, or shape.

I know Nat understands the complicated feelings I have about losing weight, the ambivalence it brings. See her post Losing 20 lbs: A complicated gift.

So there are at least three challenges I’m facing now that people are noticing that I’ve lost weight.

  1. Maintaining body positivity now it’s no longer about being larger. I’m less comfortable being proud of how I look now that it’s closer to society’s idea of what I ought to look like.
  2. Weirdly also losing a bit of body positive community. We have a wonderful plus size boutique in London with great politics and I love their clothes and their events. But yikes, there’s no longer anything there that fit me. That’s a bit sad and frustrating.
  3. Dealing with other peoples’ assumptions and compliments and congratulations.

The other day someone, a friend but not a close friend, asked how I was doing since my father’s death. I’m okay, I said. Not sleeping so well. I’m sad and not quite myself.  I’ve gone from being the Queen of Patience to being a bit snappy and irritable. The friend continued, well you look great. You’ve lost weight.

Really. Really.

Weight loss as a perk of grief? Sigh.

I’ll write more about this later.

Now you might be wondering how I lost the weight. What was my plan?

I did Precision Nutrition for a year and that helped me acquire some better habits. I’ve also worked a bit with local sports nutritionist Jennifer Broxterman. But lately the thing that’s helped me lately isn’t anything I can recommend to anyone else.

Get thyroid cancer, have your thyroid removed, take thyroid replacement hormones and all of a sudden stop feeling hungry? It’s a mixed blessing this not being hungry thing.

Sometimes I need to eat and find myself browsing the cafeteria looking for anything that looks good. It’s weird when you don’t feel like eating but have to. My world has changed.

I’m not sure where my weight will settle. I don’t have as a goal getting down to my smallest size ever but I’d like to be below the recommended max weight for my racing wheels. That’s 175.

(Oddly since BMI is a totally messed up thing, I’m still very much overweight, almost obese. I want to write “technically obese” but I’m not even sure what that means. I’m muscular and so I guess it’s not a useful measure. I think we need to do away with BMI and Catherine thinks it’s time to get rid of “obesity” as a medical term too.)

Have you lost weight and had to deal with scrutiny and comments? What’s your advice for coping? I mean besides shopping for mumus together!

Not this:

But maybe this?

Let’s stop the “crazy” talk


There’s a lot of “crazy” talk in the fitness world. See above.

We all tend to call the person who does more than us “crazy.” My friend who does Devil’s Week, I’ve called him that. But when I mention the Bike Rally, 600 km from Toronto to Montreal, friends call me “crazy.” Your marathon is “crazy” for a friend but you think it’s the ultra marathoners who are are really “crazy.”

It’s not helpful. It’s hurtful. And it’s not what we mean.

It’s time to end the “crazy” talk. Why? It’s ableist. See the following, social justice and ableism.

Disability metaphors abound in our culture, and they exist almost entirely as pejoratives. You see something wrong? Compare it to a disabled body or mind:Paralyzed. Lame. Crippled. Schizophrenic. Diseased. Sick. Want to launch an insult? The words are seemingly endless: Deaf. Dumb. Blind. Idiot. Moron. Imbecile. Crazy. Insane. Retard. Lunatic. Psycho. Spaz.

I see these terms everywhere: in comment threads on major news stories, on social justice sites, in everyday speech. These words seem so “natural” to people that they go uncorrected a great deal of the time. I tend to remark on this kind of speech wherever I see it. In some very rare places, my critique is welcome. In most places, it is not.”

There’s an excellent discussion of alternatives here.