My Trip to the Bod Pod and the Sports Nutritionist

Yesterday was my birthday, so I thought it would be a good idea to really begin this two-year commitment to being my fittest ever by the time I’m fifty with some hard data. I agree with Samantha that weight alone is not a good measure of where things stand with a person health-wise. Neither is BMI, for reasons Samantha has also explained really well. Body composition is a more important thing to know about. That’s the amount of lean body mass and the amount of fat the body is composed of. So with that in mind, I decided to go get the straight goods at the bod pod. It works by air displacement, so you need to change into a speedo-type of swimsuit or a some similarly tight spandex clothing.  Then, after having the science explained in lay terms (quite clearly, but I still can’t convey it to you here. You can check it on the link), you climb into this pod-like thing and sit down.  Then they close the door (there is a window, so that might help you if you are claustrophobic like I am — I had to close my eyes and practice deep breathing) and the test takes about 45 seconds. Partway through there is a knocking sound that you are told about in advance and asked to ignore.  Then they open the door for a few seconds so you can get some fresh air.By this time, I really did need the door to open. There is a panic button, but I honestly feel that if you need the button you will not remember that it’s there. They then close the door and repeat the test. In total, I sat through it three times. Then the results were in. I am officially in the “excess fat” category, meaning that my body fat percentage is between 31-40% (okay, it’s 34.5), with a margin of error of 1% possible.

This was kind of demoralizing, especially on my birthday. But they are not judgmental about it at all. And I am trying not to be. It’s just that I really do a lot of training type things. I weight train, run, cycle, do yoga, tai chi, even the elliptical machine. Every day I include anywhere from 60-120 minutes of activity. I’ve been active like this for at least 6 months and though I do not know whether I started out with an even higher body composition reading, but I would have thought that by now it would at least be in the “moderately lean” category (that’s the next one down from mine, 23-30%). So I have a new goal, which is to get down into the moderately lean category, to 25% body fat.  Having just established this goal today, it’s not clear to me whether this type of goal is just weight loss in disguise (disguised as “fat loss”) and so therefore comes with all the trappings and pitfalls and oppressive features of the regular old weight loss game. I hope not but will monitor that as I go along.

I followed my body composition test with an appointment today with sports nutritionist, Jennifer Broxterman (same one Samantha has mentioned a few times). To prepare for this visit, I tracked my food for three days (two weekdays and a weekend day).  As some of you may know, I am not a big fan of tracking.  What I learned is that I do not in fact eat too much.  I eat the right amount over a day but I just need to spread it out a bit more with shorter periods of not eating.  We also had a bit of a chat about protein, which is always helpful for me as a vegan. I’m going to work with Jennifer’s suggestions over the next three weeks and see I do. They’re quite reasonable even though they involve less chocolate cake and fewer clif bars. If you have not seen a sports nutritionist and have concerns about eating enough of the right kinds of foods to support your training needs, I recommend it. If you’re local (London, Ontario), Jennifer is very good.

I figure it’s realistic to think that by my next birthday I can get down to 25% body fat without losing any lean mass.

Another perspective on tracking

My co-blogger Tracy explained why she despises tracking food and doesn’t do it these days. When we first talked about this blog we agreed that it might be fun to share some of our differences in approach to fitness. I offer up my different perspective on tracking not to counter Tracy’s experiences of finding it oppressive but rather to share my own experiences with food/exercise tracking. This isn’t a for/against kind of thing. Rather it’s different experiences of the same phenomena. Unlike my co-blogger, I do track what I eat.  Most days anyway. But I don’t do it because I’m concerned with writing down every morsel I consume with an eye  focused only on eating less and getting smaller. I try to do from the viewpoint of ‘sports nutrition’ not ‘dieting’ though like Tracy I recognize that’s a fine line. I’m much more concerned with seeing that I get enough to eat and that I eat the right foods to support my very active lifestyle.  At different times in my life I’ve tracked different things, usually for my own purposes though I’ve sought feedback from some excellent sports nutritionists over the years. (Right now it’s Jennifer Broxterman but in the past I’ve worked with Tim and Deb at Synergy Wellness and Precision Nutrition’s Krista Scott Dixon .) These days I mostly track with an eye on protein, healthy fats, and veggie intake. I also care about calories and sometimes even count them. But again my focus is usually both on making sure I’m eating enough on my active days and on scaling back when I’m not so active. Hunger has never been a very reliable guide for me.

Here’s another take on why calories matter and why we should track food from one of my favourite fitness blogs Go Kaleo: “Calories DO matter, but most of us can eat a lot more than we think we can if we’re making good food choices and getting regular exercise. Tracking calories is NOT about restriction, and reaching/maintaining a healthy weight is NOT about being hungry and denying ourselves proper nutrition. Quite the contrary, it is about feeding ourselves adequate amounts of nutritious foods that support health, energy and vitality. Here is a tool that will help you determine how many calories your body needs to function properly (I’ve found that the calorie tracking websites, while good for tracking, tend to give a calorie target that is too low for most active people I’ve worked with). Many of you will be surprised at how high the number is. Mine is 3500 a day. Hardly restrictive.”

While I like the idea of listening to my body and eating what I feel like eating but I’m afraid  our natural impulses get it wrong in both directions. Mine do anyway. Our urges to eat were developed in times of feast or famine, when stocking up on high calorie foods was a requirement of survival, so often what we want to eat isn’t good for us and the portions we want to eat are too large. But also I often don’t feel like eating as much as I need to do when I’m training hard.  Without calories you can’t win races, build muscles. or recover  well. So I plan meals, I count grams of protein, and I track. Mostly it feels liberating. Sometimes it feels like a chore.  But in a hectic busy family with lots of meals, snacks, and groceries on the go my food log often serves as a way to remind me that what I eat matters. For me, it’s much more about making sure I take care of myself.

Fat or big: What’s in a name?

Confession: I’ve got an ambivalent relationship with the label “fat.” I do often claim to be “fit and fat” but I’m never quite sure if “fat” is the word I want. This isn’t because the word makes me ashamed. I’m all about reclaiming labels and I’m a huge fan of some of the blogs that make up the “fatosphere.”

My favourite was Kate Harding’s now defunct Shapely Prose. (If you haven’t read it, it’s worth browsing the archive.) I’m also a tremendous fan of the Healthy at Every Size movement. A terrific recent defense of using the word “fat” is in an essay by Lesley at xojane called, “Fat: Using the Other F Word.” If you want to know why anyone would call themselves “fat,” read Lesley.

Or another favourite, Ragen Chastain, the blogger behind Dances with Fat.

I also recognize that by numbers on the scale/BMI I’m significantly overweight. And I know that some people see me as fat. Others don’t though. I’m most likely to claim the label when some well meaning person within ear shot starts equating being fat with being out of shape, thinking, what exactly, that I’ll agree with them? Sometimes they say “Oh, we don’t mean you. You’re not fat really.” Then I want to remind people that I’m part of the story too.  When we start talking about the statistics, I want in.

So why the ambivalence? Well, I wear size 12 clothes–well within the range of easily available sizes–and I don’t feel particularly fat. The bits of me that have clothes issues relate to muscles and women’s clothing styles: biceps, shoulders, and calves. So I sometimes use the label “fat” but I often feel squeamish about it, as if I don’t really belong in the club.

What’s the alternative? At Aikido the other day I started to notice the vocabulary we have to describe male bodies. We often joke about how much fun it is to throw the “big” guys. Someone commented that I should pay attention to how they roll because they have to do it with more finesse to avoid crashing into the mats. (A mistake I make from time to time. Ouch, sore shoulder.) And the big men are big in different ways. Some are overweight, others are tall, some are extremely muscular such as the power lifter in the club. One of the guys is a Clydesdale weight adventure runner. But there’s no angst in referring to them as “big.”

We have other positive words too. My favourite is “brawny.”  No need for further explanation or apology. They are fun to throw. I’d much rather play Aikido with one of them than with a frail person I’d worry about hurting. Their large bodies feel resilient and strong. Why can’t we feel the same way about big women?

And please don’t get me started on all the cutesy labels women use to avoid the word “fat”: fluffy, chunky, chubby…

So “fat,” I guess. But big suits me better.

By the way, I like “big” in the title of an academic essay on women, sport, and size, for which I was an interview subject. It’s a great article, by Krista Scott Dixon, well worth reading: “Big Girls Don’t Cry: Fitness, Fatness, and the Production of Feminist Knowledge”. Sociology of Sport Journal 25 (2007): 22-47.

Here’s the abstract:  Feminists have produced a number of important critiques of the way in which fat and fit are understood. While fitness provides opportunities for women’s personal and political empowerment, in practice, because fitness is so frequently viewed as a cosmetic project and connected to achieving thinness, such opportunities have generally failed to materialize despite rapid increases in women’s sports and exercise participation. I examine the experiences of larger female athletes in strength and power-based sports to examine how they negotiate their identities as athletes and women, and how they navigate “fitness” and “fatness.”

Photo by Chih Eric Li
(C) CANBERRA PICTORIAL

Reading some fun books about fitness

When academics consider doing something–whether that something is to have children, to become vegans, or whatever–one of the first things we do is READ. As a result I’ve been reading a lot of popular books about fitness and I thought I’d share some of my reading adventures on the blog.

  • This summer I read Drop Dead Healthy. In Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection, AJ Jacobs sets his sights a bit higher than us. He’s aiming not just to be “fittest at fifty” instead his goal is both to make over his body and to become the healthiest person in the world. He’s also starting from a worse starting point than us, I think. He describes himself as “mushy, easily-winded, moderately sickly blob.” It’s fun reading as each month Jacobs takes on a different challege, seeks advice, tries to follow it, and reports on his success.
  • I’m currently reading–about two-third done–Gretchen Reynolds’ The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can: Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer. Reynolds is the Phys Ed columnist for the New York Times. She’d approve of our ‘fittest at fifty project.’ A recent column is on the benefits of middle age fitness! Lots of neat findings there–yes, sitting is bad and high intensity interval training is good–but also some gloomy news about the body’s ability to preserve its size. I was struck by the studies that show that we often burn the same number of calories whether we exercise or not because or body regulates itself to rest more after physical activity. I think I’ll post a longer review of this book when I’m done.
  • Both books are terrific for browsing and have each chapter’s conclusions repeated at the end, for the lazy readers among us. Jacobs gives a list of the end of the book of the advice he thinks is worth continuing with and why. Reynolds gives the scientific conclusions about exercise research at the end of each chapter.

Injuries, exercise, and thank God for dogs

On Saturday I hurt my shoulder at Aikido. I was thrown and I should have rolled out of it. Instead, I went crash/thunk into the mats and even one of tough guys sympathetically grimaced and went “Ouch!” It hurt. I have a pretty good tolerance for pain and I finished the class with just the occasional wincing and shoulder rubbing. I didn’t do any more rolling. Instead, I walked out of the throws and hoped the pain would go away fast. But after a weekend of ice and ibuprofen, it’s still bothering me and I’ve booked an appointment at the sports medicine clinic. It’s odd to go from two workouts a day (often Crossfit and Aikido, sometimes with cycling thrown in) to lounging about the house.

I have a pretty good attitude to sports injuries, I think. Accidents happen. And I wouldn’t choose a life without risk. It would mean giving up too many things I like to do. I think, on balance, I’m better off for all the physical activity that’s part of my life. With Aikido my skill at rolling has helped me a few times now when I’ve fallen on ice. I recommend Aikido to all my women friends who are worried about falling. Aikido is much more useful than just self defense against other people. Learning to fall well is important and if I slip up occasionally and hurt myself, the mats are a lot softer than the pavement. Practice makes perfect. Rolling is, for me, the hardest part of Aikido. Forward rolls don’t come naturally, for me, the way backward rolls do. But I’m trying to be patient and hoping they will, as our teachers say, “come along with time.”

In the meantime, I’m taking a few days off. Just down to walking the dog. I’m no great fan of walking as exercise. I’m a bit of a speed junkie and walking feels slow. I do love walking through big cities and hiking in nature but most of London is too middle of the road for my walking tastes. The weather has also been wet. Luckily, I have a dog. And when you own an energetic dog, you walk. Regularly. Tonight we had a lovely stroll through the neighbourhood with bits of running thrown in since I get antsy when I’m without exercise.  If you need motivation to get out of the house and go for walks,  no matter what the weather, I recommend a dog.

Good Days and Not-as-Good Days

Just days ago I posted about a euphoric running experience! That day, my feet felt light, like they were hardly touching the ground. Despite running for more than twice as long, timewise, as I’d ever run before, I broke into a sprint during the last minute. When I made my time, I felt energized, like I could keep going forever. When it started to pour cool rain about midway through my run, it was a welcome, refreshing gift from the sky! I jumped to the ridiculous conclusion that from now on, every run would feel this wonderful. Heck, though I posted about aiming next for 5K, my “more” brain was thinking more along the lines of 10K, half marathons, maybe even…no, I won’t even say it.

In the very few days since then I have learned a humbling lesson: it won’t happen like that every time. I set out again this morning after two days of rest during which I did other things. It was a delightful morning, fall is definitely in the air. Perfect temperature — cool but not cold. My mood and enthusiasm could have been better, but nevermind. An energizing run was just the thing. Today’s goal: 5 minutes of walking, 15 minutes of running, 3 minutes of walking, 10 minutes of running. I didn’t make it for 15 continuous minutes–I needed not one but TWO short breaks (about 30-60 seconds each) to get there. I huffed and puffed. Gone was that skipping-across-air sensation I had on Friday. Instead, my feet felt like lead. Everytime I looked at my watch, hoping to be rewarded with the news that more time had passed than I thought, my estimate of how much time had gone by (and how much still to go) was way off. Where on Friday time flew, this morning, it dragged along with my feet. Part way through, I gave up on the “plan” but continued to walk-run for a good 35 minutes in total, shortening the walk times and lengthening the run times as I went. When I got home and pushed “stop” on Endomondo, I experienced a couple of welcome surprises. First, despite feeling like I was slacking, I covered more ground today than I have before. And second, my fastest time was faster than my fastest time most other days.

Samantha likened exercise to writing and I agree with that. As a writer, I know that some days the words just flow through me and onto the screen, other days, it’s tedious and agonizing. I don’t regard this as a problem to be solved. It’s just the way things are. And so I show up at the keyboard and write anyway, committing to a specific length of time (usually I follow the Pomodoro Technique and write in 25 minute chunks of uninterrupted time). Sometimes the time flies and I feel like I could write forever, occasionally, it’s almost unbearable but I do it anyway. And as I’ve committed to it as a practice, to be done regardless of my mood, those unbearable times have become fewer and fewer. It’s not that I’m always inspired and on fire, but I can usually count in at least a neutral experience. I’m going to start approaching running like that. Just log the time and the distance, and some days I’ll feel like I could run a marathon (well, maybe not a marathon) and other days I’ll feel like I just started out, but most days will be somewhere in between. And, just as in writing, it always feels better to have moved forward, no matter how little (or much), than to have done nothing.

I ran 20 minutes in a row and it felt fabulous!

I hit my short term running goal this morning and I have to say, this is the first time in a really long time that I have felt myself amazed at my own ability! Back in the early summer when I started running in 2 minute intervals (very easy pace), I could hardly make it the 2 minutes. I kept looking at my watch, wishing it was over, and the 1 minute of walking I did between each 2 minutes of running never seemed long enough. But last week in her comment on the “Fitness ‘Goals’” post, Kimberley recommended the Blue Fin “ease into 5K” app.  I didn’t download the app but I went to the blue fin page and printed off the plan. Since I’ve been building slowly through the summer, I jumped in at week 5.  So when I got to week 6 this week, it seemed like a huge jump to the 9 minutes running-3 minutes walking-9 minutes running (with 5 minutes of brisk walking at either end) that I was supposed to do on Wednesday. But I did it.  Then today, it seemed even more outrageous that the assignment was to do a 5-minute warm-up walk, TWENTY minutes of running, and a 5-minute cool-down walk.  But I figured that the designers of the program knew what they were doing and that if they said so, then I could do it.  And so I set out.  About ten minutes into the running, it started to rain, and then it started to pour. And you know what? It didn’t matter. My steps felt light. My breathing felt even.  It was a cool morning, but by no means cold, and the rain refreshed me at the halfway point. When I have longer times to put in (okay, for me, 20 minutes is super-long), I try not to look at my stopwatch timer too much. It amazed me that by the time I looked at it the first time I was already 9 minutes and 30 seconds into it.  Anyway, long story short, I finished the run, even sprinted for about 30 seconds in the last minute.  I love this feeling of being amazed by my own ability. It may sound like a platitude to say that achieving fitness goals is empowering, and I do believe on the other side of it that it’s easy to tip the balance over to goal-setting as oppressive, but today I experienced that sense of “I CAN DO THIS” and I felt strong and capable.  Next goal will be a distance goal: 5K. Wish me luck! And thanks, Kimberley. Great recommendation.