As we all look towards next week and what so many of us hope will be the end of an extraordinary chapter in American history, I find myself reflecting upon the last four years and how my life has been shaped in the face of such tumultuous times. I’ve always considered my work as an educator serving disadvantaged communities to be a form of activism and empowerment, but after the election of Trump, I found myself needing to do more. I got involved in my union, started going to rallies and protests far more frequently, wrote more letters, signed more petitions, spoke out more often, and attended conferences to build my skills, network with other activists, and improve my effectiveness. During this time, I also became a better runner and a more consistent, and stronger, lifter. These two parts of my world, my activism and my fitness, reinforce each other, give me strength, and feed my soul in complementary ways. In no particular order, here are some parallel truths I’ve noted between activism, living an active life and the perseverance, tenacity, and ups and downs of doing the work over the long term.
Everything counts. Do something.
Embrace practices that play to your strengths.
Embrace opportunities to bring up your weaknesses.
It’s never too late, and we’re never too old, to get started.
Focus on what can be done, not on what limits us.
There will be “seasons” to our efforts, which is absolutely ok. In fact, it’s necessary to acknowledge so that we have the energy to keep doing the work over the long haul.
Progress is rarely linear.
Having the time is about priorities and setting boundaries.
Most of our efforts would benefit from getting more high quality sleep.
It’s ok, and maybe even advisable, to specialize for a while and develop “your thing.”
Recovery is just as important as pushing hard.
“Balance” looks like different levels of effort and commitment at different points in time.
Don’t rely on motivation, which can be fickle; instead build routines and habits to keep doing the work when passions recede.
Nothing is more inspiring than finally getting started.
Accountability and community in the form of friends with shared values and shared efforts goes a long way.
A certain amount of discomfort is required in order for there to be growth and change.
Consistency trumps perfection.
Remember this work is a privilege.
Celebrate every victory, regardless of how small. (And then go out and do the next thing.)
And finally–avoid confusing the goal for the work. Even if I lift the weight, run the miles, and hold government officials accountable, the work is not over. Next week, whatever happens on Election Day, the work of my activism will continue. The skills I’ve learned in fitness to push through the hard times, to reprioritize my time as my needs change, and to focus on the process over the outcome have served me well as I’ve shifted my energies and gotten more involved in politics and advocacy. I really want to be on the winning team next week. I’m tired of feeling so angry, and hopeless, frustrated, and scared. My life in fitness has shown me that I can weather whatever challenges face me next, but I’m really ready to take a break from what feels like endless new hurdles and celebrate some victories for a little while! Whatever comes, I raise a glass to all of my fellow activists and the efforts you’ve made alongside me these past four years. It is an honor to do this work with you!
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found organizing fellow educators, picking up heavy things and putting them back down again, in Portland, Oregon.
CW: This piece reflects upon my personal experiences with food and food choices, with discussion of body size, diet culture, and challenges with body image. My goals may not be your goals. It is not intended as advice.
I had a moment of personal revelation this summer. I noticed something important about my self-talk. I wonder, can you pick it out?
When I went for a run and it wasn’t feeling good, I told myself, “It’s ok. I can do a walk-jog today. In fact, maybe I need to adjust my plans so that my Saturday run is always a walk-jog. I’m often just not feeling it on Saturday mornings.”
Sometimes, when I was lifting weights, I wasn’t having fun. I was tired and wanted to do something else. So I told myself, “Do these two exercises, give them all you’ve got, and then go ahead and move on with your day. At least you did something.”
I noticed that oftentimes I would get a little shaky in the morning between breakfast and lunch. It felt like low blood sugar, like I’d run out of steam and my body wasn’t managing it well. Each time it happened, I told myself, “It’s only been 90 minutes since breakfast. There’s no way I’m hungry already! Just ignore it. I will have lunch in a few hours.”
Did you notice it?
When I was struggling with my running or lifting, I accommodated my changing needs. Taking care of my fitness continued, but it was modified to help me manage stress, fatigue, and other limitations of the moment.
But when it came to my meals, I wasn’t being as flexible. I didn’t believe that my plan wasn’t right for the moment. I tried to force my habitual meals to be alright instead of trusting my experiences and the data my body was giving me that it wasn’t meeting my needs anymore. This was clearly diet culture seeping into my thoughts, motivating me to limit my food instead of trusting the signals my body gave.
And maybe it’s not a big surprise that I found some increased diet mindset creeping in these days. My body has been slowly getting larger over the last few years. Nothing dramatic, but at several life changes in the last handful of years (marriage, hysterectomy, worldwide pandemic), I’ve gotten just a little bit bigger. I’m now a full clothing size larger than I was before my wedding. And while intellectually I fully recognize that it “shouldn’t” matter, there are moments when this unintentional, slow increase in size bugs me.
My quality of life is not at all hampered by my increased size. It doesn’t impact me day to day in the slightest. I can still run, my joints don’t ache any more than they did a size smaller, and it may even help me with my lifting to be a bit bigger. However, I wonder if I’ve unconsciously “tightened up” my eating in response to increasing numbers? Have I stopped trusting in my hunger signals due to my discomfort over slowly getting larger?
So, I’ve made a new commitment to myself this last month to nutritional self-care. I have been running experiments to find out what balance of foods to eat that help me to feel really good, even when it means eating more than I’ve previously been accustomed to eating. I’ve noticed when I’m hungry and trusted that it meant I needed to eat more. I’ve checked in with myself at the end of meals to make sure I’ve genuinely eaten enough and to stop when I’m satisfied. I’ve been more flexible with my meal timing, eating more frequently some days when it seems like I needed it, instead of forcing myself to wait until the next designated eating time. And I’ve been making sure to eat dessert when I decide I want it instead of first trying to deny my appetite.
So far, these experiments have succeeded in making food and hunger less of a stressor in my life. I’m realizing that it had become a low-level, persistent focus, and now I’m thinking about food far less often. That shaky feeling between meals is gone. I’m also finding that I’m more at peace with my reflection when I feel better taken care of in general. My size very likely may continue to change. I’m still working on being neutral about that. But in these extraordinary times, I welcome any moment of peace I can find. Honoring my hunger, feeling really satisfied with my meals and between them, sounds like a wonderful kind of peace to give myself.
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found eating salted caramel chocolate cake, picking up heavy things and putting them down again in Portland, Oregon.
I know some of you are already heating up the tar and plucking the feathers. I’m bracing for the hate-filled comments as I type this, but out of an abundance of optimism, I’m hoping you will continue reading and hear me out.
I am not going to debate the merits of mask-wearing. I would hope that by now I’ve established myself as a solid supporter of science and anti-pseudoscience (see evidence A, B). I agree with anyone who says all the evidence supports that wearing masks reduces the risk of infection for both the wearer and the people with which they come into contact.
However, when we say “everyone must wear a mask,” we are excluding people who cannot wear a mask due to various disabilities and personal challenges. Perhaps it would be “better” for them to wear a mask, but for whatever reason, they find it difficult or impossible to do so.
Unfortunately, this issue has been muddled by politics. For some reason, the man occupying the White House has decided that he’s anti-mask, and the 35% of the US that blindly follows his lead has taken up the cause. I understand that when we create wiggle room in mask wearing policies, we are creating space for people to decry their losses of personal autonomy in the face of interdependence. I appreciate that making a blanket statement that everyone must wear a mask, we are trying to make it clear to these people that if they want to do business, they need to do what’s right for the common good despite their personal attitudes on the subject.
And still, I remind you that truly not everyone can wear a mask, and I’m asking, what about them?
What about me?
I’m not sure why I find wearing a mask a challenge, but I can confirm with many repeated data points that it’s a problem for me. I nearly passed out at the grocery store on a couple different occasions before I realized that I was hyperventilating in my mask. On a recent outing, I put my mask up while I was running past a group of pedestrians, and according to my watch, my heart rate went from the mid 130’s up to a dangerous 189 bpm in about 10 seconds. It’s possible that this is due to my having a reduced lung capacity. The middle lobe of my right lung was removed many years ago, and on a good day, I get about 75% of the air of a 2-lunged person. It’s also possible that it is a manifestation of my PTSD. Wearing a mask may be triggering some element of my hysterectomy-related trauma (maybe it’s too much like wearing an oxygen mask during surgery?). Repeated attempts at wearing a mask have not made these responses easier over time. And when I talk about them, I’ve noticed some commonalities in how others deflect and deny the problem.
They downplay the seriousness and discredit my experience. “I know, they get really hot,” or “It takes me a few minutes to get used to it, too.”
They decide they know which choices are best for me. “Well, then you should just order groceries online.” “You’re obviously not returning to work then, right?”
They decide that they know which medical conditions are valid reasons and which ones aren’t. “Well, it’s actually not true that you’re getting less air.” “Maybe you just need to get used to it.”
And if I haven’t been given an opportunity to explain myself, most people apparently assume that they can tell by looking at someone if they have a valid reason for not wearing a mask. In these encounters, people just murmur under their breath, and a few times have yelled at me, “Wear a mask!” If I wouldn’t be risking a face-to-face argument with a stranger in a time when the air they breathe puts me at risk for yet another lifelong disability, I’d be more tempted to stop and debate the matter with them.
Equality and equity for folks with disabilities must include giving them the same opportunities and choices as everyone else. Not all disabilities are visible. You can’t tell by looking at someone if their experiences are valid. Trust us when we tell you there’s a problem. Don’t expect to be able to front-manage all the solutions–don’t ask for a list of “reasonable” challenges (defined by whom?) and then preload all your acceptable solutions. For example, don’t decide for me that I have to work from home, give me reasonable choices between certain accommodations at work versus the flexibility to work from home–trust that I can make the best decision for myself. Know that life gets messy and that challenges can be multifaceted and complex.
Mask-wearing is an act of both personal responsibility and a sign of our interdependence. We are being asked to wear masks for our own safety, and even moreso, for the safety of others. Just like getting our vaccinations, our communities benefit from as many of us as possible complying with public health recommendations. You are wearing a mask to keep yourself safe. You are also wearing a mask to keep me safe. Thank you for wearing one whenever you can; thank you for advocating that others wear them. But please, consider saying that “everyone who can, should wear a mask,” and grant me the autonomy to make the best decision for myself that I am able.
(Along those lines, if you are finding yourself about to post some mask-wearing advice to me in the comments, please take a moment to pause and consider if you are the right person to be offering it.)
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found doing her best to wear a mask as much as she can, picking up heavy things and putting them back down again, in Portland, Oregon.
I have a confession to make–I had a crush on Susan Powter in the early 2000’s. Do you remember her and Stop the Insanity!? I was a little late to the party, I admit, but I became a real believer for a while there. If you missed out on the fun, Powter was big in the low fat craze during the nineties, but don’t worry, that’s not what I’m here to write about today. She also made a whole series of exercise videos in classic nineties style–including yards of Spandex, step aerobics, interval training, simple weightlifting routines, and the like, and refreshingly, with people of all sorts of body types. And the real magic was that in all of her videos she offered modifications for movements, constantly encouraging people to “work within their fitness level.” “Only by working within your fitness level will you be able to advance to the next one.” And she was right.
A friend recently asked if it was ok she was doing her weightlifting with “just 8 pound dumbbells,” because that’s all she could do. My answer? Yes of course it was ok, and in fact, it’s necessary in order for her to build strength. I could hear Susan Powter in my head, telling us that my friend needs to work at her current strength level in order to build to the next one.
What Powter was pushing against, and what I’m going to push back on today, is this myth in fitness that we have to “go hard” for it to count. Or maybe more accurately, it’s to acknowledge that “hard” is a relative term. It just needs to be hard enough FOR YOU.
Here’s an analogy. My therapy sessions frequently focus on managing my trauma. Trauma can narrow your “emotional window of tolerance.” In other words, the range of emotional experiences you can handle before you are either hyperaroused (go into fight/flight/freeze) or hypoaroused (numb, emotionally disconnected) narrows. The goal of trauma therapy is to slowly increase the range of emotional experiences I can tolerate without going into either a heightened or collapsed state. My therapist and I work just inside my window of tolerance, we attempt to get close but not go over what I can handle. Becoming triggered is counter-productive; no one can learn when their nervous system is trying to flee. And by working within this window over time, the range of experiences I can tolerate gets broader.
That’s what I’m doing when I lift weights successfully, too. I need to find the level of strength that is challenging enough to push myself, without “traumatizing” my muscles. And just like emotional experiences, muscles will have a range of experiences that will promote growth–it’s not a single, set weight or number of reps but a moving target. It will vary depending on how much sleep I’ve had, how well fed I am, what exercises I did yesterday, how strong I currently am, and so much more. Therefore, each of us has to learn to feel our way into the right weights each day. And the right weight is almost never a weight we can’t control. It’s not a cop-out to reduce the weight to the level at which you can control it; it’s actually necessary in order to keep getting stronger.
Each of us must continually work to find the right level of challenge for where we’re at today. There is both freedom and responsibility in acknowledging this. You don’t have to lift what someone else is lifting; you’re free to find your own way. However, you also have to stay present enough to listen to your body, both to make sure you’re continuing to challenge yourself but also to ensure that you’re being responsive to your limits. Susan Powter was right. You’ve got to work within your fitness level to get to the next one. It isn’t a race; there’s no finish line. Give yourself permission to work at the right level for yourself, and you’ll be rewarded with increased strength over time, Spandex optional.
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found working within her fitness level, picking up heavy things and putting them down again, in Portland, Oregon.
Not loving your lifting workout and just want to get it over with? Myo reps. Have less time, but want to feel like you’re not cheating your progress when shortening your workout? Myo reps. Only have a 10lb dumbbell but you need 25 lbs to fatigue a lift in 10 reps? Myo reps.
During the pandemic, myo reps have become my favorite way to get it done. If you aren’t familiar with them, they’re pretty easy to perform. Take a lift and do it to near failure. Count about 4 breaths and then immediately do your next set, this time all the way to failure. Count 4 breaths, and repeat. Do this until you’ve done 3-5 sets, when your muscles will likely be telling you they can’t take it anymore.
I’ve been lifting at home since March. I have dumbbells–1, 3, 5, 7, and 20 pound pairs. I have some sturdy exercise bands, including a set that can be anchored into a door. I have some adjustable ankle weights that can give me 0.5-9 pounds of resistance per leg (or arm, if I’m desperate). And of course, I have my body and whatever I can jerryrig from the dining room table, the bench in the entrance, off the futon and on the floor.
I began my workouts as an extension of the work I’d been doing with a trainer. I substituted in moves and lowered weights when necessitated by my limited equipment and just did as many reps as necessary to fatigue my muscles. However, 5 sets of 30-40 reps became commonplace, and my mental stamina was beginning to give out sooner than my muscular stamina! I needed to find a way to do the work without feeling so exhausted from it; life during the pandemic was exhausting enough.
Enter myo reps.
In the months since I began using them, myo reps have become a flexible tool in my lifting toolbox. I’m pretty good at remaining consistent doing the work, but as the months have dragged on, no question I’m loving my home lifting less and less. Sometimes I just want to check off the box and move on with my day. With myo reps, I can perform my workout in far less time and still feel like I’ve given my muscles a meaningful stimulus.
For example, if I’m doing dumbbell bicep curls, I currently have a choice between using 7 lbs or 20 lbs. Twenty pounds borders on too much for me for a bicep curl. (I can do 6 reps without cheating; I just ran upstairs to check!) With seven pounds, I can go on and on. However, with myo reps, I start with that really long set at 7 lbs–maybe 40? I don’t really count–but the second set is a more reasonable 12, then 8, then 8 again. There’s some research out there that suggests these reps can be as effective as straight sets, and I’m done in about 2 minutes.
I don’t recommend you try these with heavy, complex movements. You don’t want to get too fatigued squatting with a lot of weight on your back or pressed overhead. But for lighter and simpler movements, I have found them to be a welcome source of variation. It’s important to me to continue to be consistent with my workouts. Finding flexible solutions to the challenges of this time allows me to keep doing the work, to get it done and to move on with my day.
How about you, dear reader? Have you tried myo reps? Is there another strategy you’ve found to remain flexible and consistent with your lifts?
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found pre-fatiguing her muscles, picking up heavy things (like her own body), and putting them down again in Portland, Oregon.
Greetings from Portland, Oregon, where everything is peaceful and the living is easy.
Ok, maybe not.
For over a week, federal agents have incited violence by attacking peaceful protestors, detaining them, scooping people off the streets in unmarked vehicles and so obviously escalating the situation that the only explanation for their behavior is that it is intentional. Our local police, instead of standing up to protect the citizens of our city, who pay their wages and to whom they are sworn to protect, are collaborating with this invading force. The productive and justifiable outrage of my fellow citizens is palpable.
In addition to being ground zero for Trump’s latest version of fascist cosplay, Oregon is in the midst of grappling with when, if and how we all return to school in the fall. As a middle school teacher, I am working hard to advocate for the health of my students, their families, and my fellow educators. I’ve come to accept, in fact, that this summer is absolutely not a vacation; it’s two months of unpaid work.
Some of that work is also devoted to collaborating with other educators in this moment of racial reckoning to reexamine our own understandings of race, and to begin addressing racial bias implicit in the educational system. I’m reading, discussing and exploring resources to help me better understand what my privilege has allowed me to remain ignorant to. It’s important work, but it requires focus and extended attention, both of which are hard to come by these days.
Oh, and of course there is still a potentially life-threatening virus circulating in our community that holds very real dangers for folks, especially those with complicated health histories like me. As cases have been on the rise again, I am having to hole up more tightly once more. My husband has taken over grocery shopping completely, and I’m limiting my interactions with the outside world almost exclusively to my daily walks and bimonthly visits with my father. The isolation, lack of community, and ever-present anxiety is a constant stressor.
In light of all of this, I’m struggling to keep up energy up for workouts. I am not sleeping well; I’m exhausted even when I do. My daily and weekly routines are a mess, and I rely upon routine to prime myself mentally to push hard. And, honestly, lifting from home is simply getting boring. I like pushing my strength, and there’s only so much I can do without a bench and adjustable weights.
After trying all sorts of things to reinvigorate my lifting, I’ve recently settled into a new mindset around it. What is working best for me right now is to be very permissive and flexible. Like autoregulating my runs, I’m letting how I feel each session dictate how much I do and how I do it. Do I feel good? I push hard, do more sets, make them more challenging. Do I feel shitty? I do the bare minimum I need to in order to feel like I’ve done it. I find it less stressful to have done SOMETHING than to skip it entirely, so on those days, and they’re often right now, I do exactly how much I need to and no more.
It’s hard to feel passionate about my strength when I’m directing so much of my mental energies elsewhere. I know that self-care is necessary for me to maintain my stamina for all the important work that needs to be done, but there’s a continuum of what self-care can look like. I don’t have to push hard on my workouts to be taking care of myself. And for me, skipping them entirely wouldn’t be self-care, either. I’m trying to be ok with this new, lower standard for my lifting. I’m trying to believe that my energy will return in time, and I will have benefited from this relative break from hard physical exertion.
Weightlifting can be a powerful stress reliever for me, but right now, being rigid and pushing hard just isn’t in the cards. My world is going through some serious growing pains. I’ve got other projects that I need to prioritize. It’s all important work, and I’m not going to stop strength training; I just need to change my approach so that I can do the other work that needs to be done.
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things, sometimes, when she feels like it, and putting them down again, in Portland, Oregon.
When you go out for a run or ride, how do you decide how long you will go, how hard, or how fast? Less time lifting weights these days has meant more time running for me, and I’m approaching it a new way–I’m using autoregulation to determine my goals for each outing. For any activity, autoregulation is allowing data from the experience in the moment to determine your outcomes for that event.
Choose your datapoint. Autoregulation does not mean “go for as long as you feel like.” I’m not just running until it doesn’t seem fun anymore. Honestly, for me, the first mile has always been rough, with my body telling me all about how I’m making it do something it isn’t well-designed to do. It can take even longer for my breathing to even out. If I were to use these cues to tell me when I’m done, I’d never run more than half a mile.
What I have learned, though, is that while I may sound like a freight train as I puff down the middle of the road, my pace can remain pretty steady. I start my runs these days around an 11-12 min/mile pace. If I get feeling really loose, maybe if there’s some downhill bits or someone annoys me and I get a surge of adrenaline, I can speed up for a while to perhaps 9:30-10 min/miles.
So, that’s the datapoint I use to autoregulate my runs; I check my pace. As long as I’m running faster than a 13 minute/mile, I keep running. And when I see my pace drop below 13 minutes/mile for a couple checks, I’m done. Usually, my pace drops off really fast. Sometimes that happens after a shorter run, maybe 1.5 miles, sometimes it takes longer. However long I go, I know I’ve gone a distance that challenges me without overdoing it and without cutting myself short.
Choose your route. Obviously, a potential downside to this method is ending up some distance from home and needing to walk quite a ways back. Until my distances become consistently longer, I’m keeping pretty close to home. I started my runs as loops around the perimeter of a beautiful, historic cemetery a few blocks from our house. I can run one loop, about three quarters of a mile, or any distance longer than that without ever being more than a few blocks from home. As I’ve gotten stronger, to mix it up, I also run through the neighborhood along a 3-mile loop. If I can only run one side of the loop, I’m still only a little over a mile from home, which is a nice walk to cool down with.
Celebrate each run. I think the best part of this strategy for me is that it’s reduced the stress of feeling like I need to accomplish something specific on my runs. When I first got back into it at the start of Stay Home Save Lives in March, I gave myself the “add 10% to the distance” rule and tried to adhere to it week to week. It was fine at first, but then, maybe 5 or 6 weeks into it, I hit a wall. I couldn’t run further. I’d try to push through it, and my stomach would start to roil, my legs would ache, my heart rate would spike, and my pace would slow down to slower than if I’d been walking. It felt bad, and I didn’t feel successful.
When I started to give myself permission to just run until my body said stop, the distances run to run varied more, but each run felt better. I didn’t push myself to having a sour stomach all day. My hip didn’t ache for the next week. I had energy for my lifting the following day. It was better. And after a while, the distances started to tick upwards again. It isn’t linear. Every run isn’t further than the run before it. But the trend is slowly becoming longer and longer, and there are moments when it really feels good again to be running. That is why I’m out there in the first place–I want it to feel good, I want to feel good.
This week, I ran just over three miles for the first time in years. There were periods during that run that it actually felt easy. I’ve always laughed at the advice to keep it at a “conversational” pace. Running and conversation have never been in the cards for me. However, for a block here and there, I think I COULD have had a conversation! When I checked my pace, I was surprised to note that I hadn’t slowed down, I was still trucking along around 11 min/mile. So I kept running.
Autoregulation has been a welcome tool for me to enhance my running endurance during these challenging times. It allows me to listen to my body; it gives me a goal that I can pursue without judgement. It has taken away a stressor (externally derived goals) while still allowing me to challenge myself and improve over time. I am so grateful that I can run, and now I am really enjoying it again.
Your turn, dear reader: How do you decide when you’ve gone far enough? Do you predetermine distances or use autoregulation to decide how far to go? I’d love to hear from you.
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found ignoring her ragged breathing, picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon.
CW: This post addresses trauma, flashbacks and PTSD, although it does not directly describe traumatic events. Sex and personal anatomy are referenced.
Six weeks after my hysterectomy, my gynecologist gave me the OK to return to all physical activities–including sex. And a few weeks after that, my husband and I found an opportunity to explore what that meant. I was eager to enjoy a regular sex life again. Before the surgery, while I hadn’t had any pain associated with intercourse specifically, I was afraid of potentially magnifying the pain I was already experiencing. I also felt increasingly alienated from my reproductive system as the months dragged on before the surgery–like my uterus and the surrounding architecture were fighting against me, forcing this mutant litter of fibroids upon me, despite my lifelong disinclination to ever becoming pregnant.
But instead of easing our way back into a regular sex life, I found myself heading into becoming frozen–stuck in place, nearly nonverbal, unresponsive as a possum hoping you won’t drive over it in the middle of the road. I managed to softly say, “no, no, no, no, no,” and everything stopped.
This was the first sign I had that something about the hysterectomy had been emotionally traumatic for me.
I recognized the feeling. My therapist and I had identified that I had many of the markers of PTSD long before the hysterectomy. I can be jumpy for no reason, startled by everyday noises. I can experience emotions disconnected from the present moment–overwhelming dread being the most common. I get heightened into fight or flight at the grocery store, or walking down the street, or driving, and have to work my way back down into my emotional window of tolerance. In these moments of panic or dread or rage, I know that they don’t make sense. I’m aware that they aren’t a true response to something in the present, but a ghost of terrible moments in the past.
But while I knew this about myself, I was not prepared for it to get worse with surgery. Nowhere did I read that this can be a risk, and it seems especially surprising given my past traumas are not sexual. Many of the resources I found as I prepared for the surgery mentioned that many women mourn the loss of their womb, that connection to motherhood in their bodies. I get that, but I wasn’t concerned about it for me. I have never wanted to be a mother, and I’ve always viewed my reproductive system as a sort of vestigial set of organs, that maybe protects my heart and definitely inconveniences me one week out of every month.
My surgeon knew of my PTSD symptoms as well–she got a firsthand look at them on our very first appointment. Her office is unfortunately located in a hospital associated with some of my past trauma, and from about two blocks away, through the entire hour-plus visit, and until I was able to leave, I was in a full-on panic attack flashback. I hyperventilated, found myself crying, and felt totally overwhelmed by the emotions flooding over me. Honestly, I felt completely ridiculous trying to explain to the nurses why I was so clearly struggling with self-control. For the next visit, they prescribed me some Xanax to take before I arrived.
Past traumas increase our risk of future trauma. Our nervous system remembers the feelings of threat, hopelessness, dread and loss of control. It is not a surprise that I was at increased risk of new trauma, but I am surprised that a procedure performed completely under anesthesia can result in trauma. According to my therapist, our bodies can remember what our conscious minds cannot. She equated it to the feelings you have when a tooth is extracted at the dentist–thanks to the novocaine, you don’t feel pain, but your body registers the pressure and physical trauma of the loss of a tooth. And so, apparently, my body registered the hysterectomy as a threat, and now I am finding myself urgently needing to protect myself from future perceived threats.
Now I am startled by simple, intimate experiences. I’ve had to ask my husband to ask permission before he reaches out to stroke my back or leans in for a kiss. Without the “warning,” I can’t breathe through my startle response and reorient to the present moment. Sex scares me. Even the thought of a nonsexual item like a tampon entering my vagina makes me feel anxious–my breathing becomes shallow, my heart starts to race. I am increasingly on edge, so much closer to fight-or-flight than I was before.
You might be asking yourself how common this is. In an admittedly cursory search, I didn’t find a lot of information, but this very recent study found 16.4% of participants experienced multiple symptoms of PTSD 2-3 months after hysterectomy. This older study from the Mayo clinic found a smaller, but robust, increase in the number of people showing signs of anxiety and depression after hysterectomy than compared to a similar population who had not had a hysterectomy. Now, neither of these studies can show us causation–does getting a hysterectomy make people more likely to develop these mental health concerns? Or is it that certain mental health conditions or predispositions make it more likely that someone gets a hysterectomy? Since we can’t do placebo hysterectomies on half of a cohort and then see if there’s a difference in prevalence of PTSD symptoms, I’m not sure how we can suss that out.
Regardless, I can’t help but believe that people would benefit from knowing about these risks in advance. At a minimum, people like me with a history of trauma could potentially work with their mental health professionals in advance to develop a treatment plan, should it be necessary. That is why I’ve decided to write about it, even though it feels very personal. It would be my hope that more patients and doctors can be aware of these risks and be encouraged to talk about them.
It has been a year since I first wrote about my hysterectomy here. At that time, all I was concerned about was my physical health and fitness afterwards–I wanted to stay as strong and physically resilient as I could as I healed. Those physical concerns are in the past now. I can lift however I want. I can run without pain. But I’m still dealing with the consequences of my hysterectomy, and I can’t help but wonder how long these new ghosts will haunt me.
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found reorienting to the present, picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon.
“Let’s say someone wants to squat 500 pounds. It’s a big goal, but not unachievable. Lots of people get to 500 pounds these days.” (1)
“If you keep your bodyfat percentage too low, you’re not going to build as much muscle. If someone is trying to stay around 8% bodyfat, your body is going to want to partition more of that energy towards fat storage.” (2)
I love lifting weights. I enjoy the exertion, the challenge, and the self-confidence that it brings. I’m not alone–women are a growing number of the competitive lifters around the world. Women participate in competitive physique, strong”man”, weightlifting and powerlifting. And this reflects a boom in interest amongst us non-competitive folks, too, likely at least in part fueled by the popularity and accessibility of crossfit in the last decade.
And yet, the mostly male-dominated media space has not caught up. When lifters are discussed, there is an overwhelming tendency to treat “lifters” as synonymous with “men.”
And to be perfectly frank, it’s starting to piss me off. Every time a guy says “someone” and what they really mean is “men,” I want to yell, “HEY, I’m SOMEONE, too!”
I want to see myself in the programs put out there. I want trainers to give me potential solutions to the challenges I face in reaching my goals. I want to know that my needs and concerns have answers. I want realistic metrics to which I can compare myself and help with goal setting. In short, I want representation.
Instead, there’s an endless parade of articles and other media around men’s insecurities and challenges–how to get 6-pack abs! Build your squat to 3x bodyweight! How to get to 12% body fat and stay there!
The physiology of someone born with female parts is different than the physiologies of people born with male parts. We have more essential levels of fat–requiring higher body fat levels in order to function healthfully. Our hormone profile changes how we respond to lifting, with only 5-10% of the testosterone of a typical adult man making building muscle a potentially slower process. Our smaller joints and bone structures change the size of our muscular potentials. Estrogen is protective in many ways, making women and other people who produce more of it, more resilient to higher-rep lifting, possibly meaning we require shorter rest periods. Some research on Olympic level athletes suggests that our abilities to recover even changes throughout our menstrual cycles. And none of this gets into the nuances of lifting around pregnancy, childbirth, menopause, hysterectomies, mastectomies and so many other experiences shared by so many people with a uterus.
But I’m not asking that every article, interview, podcast and blog post dig into all of these caveats every time they want to offer me 5 new ways to do push-ups. No, I just want the language used to be inclusive. I want pictures of strong people of all genders doing the work. I want it to be clear that I am a potential member of the target audience. So many trainers complain about how women are afraid of lifting weights, that we’re afraid of the barbell, that we’re afraid of the results we might get. But if 90% of the images we see are men on gear working on showing off that 6-pack, why should we expect a majority of women would be drawn to that? (To be clear, I have no problem with lean, muscular women with six-pack abs, I just recognize that they are a subset of the population.) We need to be represented in order to imagine it as a real possibility.
So in absence of another solution, I propose a simple test to determine if women are being acknowledged as people who do serious strength training. Blog post, podcast, article or interview, let’s call it the Hundtoft-Bechdel Test (3) which asks that fitness experts:
one. Directly mention women and/or include them in images. two. And ensure that any goals and/or metrics referenced include those appropriate for women and other people born with a uterus.
So, back to the quotes at the top: “Let’s say someone wants to squat 500 pounds. It’s a big goal, but not unachievable. Lots of people get to 500 pounds these days.”
This may be true for men who lift seriously over time. It is not ever true for women. I just checked the current raw powerlifting records for women, and the drug-tested, open world record for squat for women is 502 pounds. So women are excluded by the speaker and he fails the Hundtoft-Bechdel Test.
“If you keep your bodyfat percentage too low, you’re not going to build as much muscle. If someone is trying to stay around 8% bodyfat, your body is going to want to partition more of that energy towards fat storage.”
The second speaker also fails the test, since an 8% bodyfat is nearly unattainable even by the most competitive female bodybuilders. It is certainly not a “walking around” level of leanness for most women, when it might be for an especially disciplined, genetically gifted, and/or possibly just highly neurotic man.
In comparison, a recent article on Nerd Fitness (on the Star Wars workout) passed the test easily. Images of women. No metrics of success that are gendered at all. Steve Kamb did a great job of using entirely neutral language so that any reader can see themselves in the article.
Another win goes out to a great podcast, Stronger by Science. In their recent discussion on gut health and training nutrition, they interviewed a female expert and used gender-neutral language throughout. When it was appropriate to specify male vs. female metrics, both were included.
A quick search of recent Bodybuilding.com training articles finds some sort-of wins and some straight up losses. For example, this article on shoulder exercises does a good job of using gender-neutral language, but fails due to exclusively using men in the images.
T-Nation fairs not even as well as that. There are many examples to pull from, but here’s a training article that even the title (“The V-Taper Workout and Diet Plan”) excludes women as a target. The “V-Taper” is a shape of shoulders and waist that is specifically identified as a desirable male attribute (think comic book Superman with his wide shoulders and impossibly narrow waist). Notably, the author never acknowledges that he’s writing for a male audience. Major fail.
Not surprisingly, women lifters and authors consistently do a better job including women. Some female trainers are directing their business at other women as their primary market, and so they explicitly include women in their media. However, there are also female trainers and bloggers who do a good job of inclusive, but not female-centric language. A standout example is Meghan Callaway.
Women lift weights. We like to track our progress and gauge our success against other lifters. We want to know reasonable goals for goal setting and to see ourselves represented in media aimed at folks who strength train. Representation matters, and it’s well-past time for fitness authors, podcast hosts, and trainers to make a more consistent effort to represent women equally in their spaces.
(1) Maybe not an exact quote, but definitely the gist from a recent interview with Dr. Mike Zourdos on the Iron Culture podcast, which incidentally, is an awesome podcast! But I know they can do better with representation.
(2) Not going to link to this one, as the podcast I was trying out became so fat-phobic in a rant that I don’t want to encourage others to listen to it.
(3) Named in homage of and to give credit to the Bechdel Test which gives a simple way of identifying if women are present in film.
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found reading about strength training, picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon.
It is Saturday night as I write this, and two of my favorite communities in all the world are on fire. Sparked by yet another police killing of a black man, George Floyd, fueled in no doubt by frustrations at the dangerously inept federal response to the Covid-19 pandemic, protesters in my former adopted hometown of Minneapolis have been venting their rage at racial injustice. This wildfire has rapidly spread across the country, and we are under curfew here in Portland, as the city braces for a second night of violence. A lack of trust in science and experts has allowed this to happen. It’s fed the flames of division.
Lack of trust in experts has provided the permission structure necessary for white people to disregard the overwhelming research that supports the fact that we are dealing with generations of intentional policies and decisions designed to select who gets to pull on the levers of power. Generations of politicians, religious leaders, and other folks with power have created alternative interpretations of “the facts” to support their preconceptions that they are in power because they’ve earned it and because they are better suited to the work. Whole branches of pseudoscience were developed to justify the white, Euroamerican position of privilege, dehumanizing people of other backgrounds, identifying them as more dangerous, more violent, and less trustworthy. The entire field of statistics was developed to create mathematical models that justified placing white people as more civilized than other races.(1)
More recently, during the Covid-19 pandemic, we are debating the science of wearing a mask and how to safely reopen businesses. This is not separate from the issues of racial injustice above; rather, it is a direct example of the systemic practices that intentionally disproportionately harm people of color in the United States. Covid-19 is more dangerous for Americans of color–they are more likely to get sick, more likely to die, and more likely to face the economic hardships brought on by this new depression. When Trump and his followers insist on going about their business without wearing masks, they are endangering the health and livelihoods of their fellow Americans of color to a higher degree than for white Americans. They frame it as an argument about the science and about economic policy, but it is really about power and deciding whose lives and livelihoods are going to be prioritized.
And many of us people of privilege are asking ourselves what we can do. In the long run, of course, I will be voting for Biden for president. Although he wasn’t the person I was most excited to support, there’s no question that his administration would be the compassionate and science-based organization we need.
But we need to do more than show up in November; we need to use our positions of privilege to challenge the thinking of those around us when we witness a lack of science-based thinking. And this is when I connect all of this to our world of fitness. Regular readers will know that I’m pretty concerned about the preponderance of pseudoscience in the health and fitness sphere. It is literally harming people every day. But even bigger than that, I believe that our support of pseudoscience, distrust of experts, and tribalism in these non-political spheres of our lives supports these same tendencies in politics and society as a whole. And I believe that this is a very dangerous mindset to allow to go unchallenged.
If we allow ourselves to be siloed to only vegan, only palio, and only organic camps, we are preparing our minds for other types of tribalism as well. If we distrust medical experts when they disagree with our rationales to avoid certain foods, we are making it more acceptable to distrust experts when they explain why we should wear masks. If we believe we are superior because we eschew all grains in our diet while we insist that this is why we are enjoying better health than those around us, then we are more apt to believe that other positions of privilege are due to our own good choices rather than the result of societal supports, generational wealth and uneven distribution of resources. We must challenge our own thinking and the thinking of those close to us, if we are going to change the world for the better for everyone.
Being scientific doesn’t mean we can’t make room for anecdotes. Indeed, the best science is informed by careful observation of anecdotes in search for patterns and plausible explanations. However, we must temper our own enthusiasm for our own perspectives with information and data from the larger picture–this is what science can be very good at that our own minds may not be. It can help us suss out larger patterns than we may be able to discern through our own experiences alone. The data are clear–wearing masks reduces the transmission of disease, people of color are perceived as more of a threat than white people under similar circumstances, there are many ways to eat healthfully, and privilege has life-or-death consequences every day.
We must push back on this unscientific thinking in our own communities, if we are going to help create a more equal world. I will continue to use my position of privilege to attend protests, where I will be perceived as less threatening than my peers of color. I will continue to give money to causes that lift up voices of color in education, politics and business. And I will push back on unscientific thinking and reflexive distrust of experts in fitness, nutrition and health amongst my friends and family. Only through agreement on the scientific truths in our world can we know justice and know peace.
(1) I recommend you read the Mismeasure of Man, by Stephen Jay Gould, if you are interested in learning more of this fascinating and frustrating piece of pseudoscience history.
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found discussing uncomfortable realities, picking up heavy things, and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon.