Lessons in confidence from the gym

By MarthaFitat55

Last week the Internet was agog at the sight of a little girl walking into her father’s live TV interview. Her insouciance was astonishing; her swagger delightful.

Her stance was all ”hey dad, what’s happening?” and she was totally chill even when her brother rolled in followed by her mother scrambling to get the little ones out of sight.

I got to thinking about the little girl’s supreme confidence, and just how wonderful it was to see. This new gif has been making the rounds on Facebook, and for good reason.

Little girl with yellow sweater and eye glasses walks proudly while baby rolls in walker

It also got me thinking about what we do in our cultures to crush the spirits of little girls in different ways and through the different ‘isms.

A place where this happens big time is in the gym. There’s a lot of emphasis on how female bodies should look and what must happen if yours doesn’t measure up.

Of course, there are also prescriptions re: the ways women can get fit and the ways some people think we shouldn’t. For example, I see lots online, of what people call concern-trolling, if you start working with weights. Watch out, you will get too bulky or big, and other comments of that ilk, are frequent.

It isn’t anything I have heard within the walls of the gym where I train, but I know it does happen. Regardless, I’m already a woman who takes up space, so that isn’t a concern of mine.

One thing I don’t see the concern trolls recognizing is how weight training, and finding your fit in whatever way you choose to move overall, provides you with new ways of managing new challenges. Not just in the gym with the various pieces of equipment and weights, but in life too.

Recently, I heard a writing friend speak about how she has come to see where the principles underpinning her particular martial art appear in her daily life. Her commentary made me think about what weight training and developing strength has given me.

And I have to say, it’s confidence. None of my friends and colleagues would describe me as a shrinking violet because I do my best to be prepared and be ready to take on whatever comes my way. But I have to admit, I haven’t always liked dealing with some of the challenges I’ve faced, partly because a little piece of me wasn’t always 100% sure I could do it, even though I have prepared for everything.

However, the confidence I get from my progress with training has given me the edge I need when I absolutely have to persuade a client or a colleague to get on board with what I am recommending.

I have started to carry the “I got this” feeling I get when I see the plates my trainer is loading on the bar, or when she shows me a new exercise or technique, into other places. It’s not that I am overconfident, but I know I have everything I need mentally to get the job done.

While I may not be four years old anymore like Marion Kelly, thanks to the gym, I feel like I am well able to meet any new challenge and own it with the confidence four-year-old girls have the world over.

— Martha is a writer who delights in the new discoveries training offers her. She is a regular contributor to Fit is a Feminist Issue.

Embracing my growing strength

Red and white printed blanket covering a personBy MarthaFitat55

I’m not a big fan of our winter season. The weather is often horrible, spring seems like it will never arrive, and the multiple layers required to survive the cold make going to the gym a chore.

When the sky is blue, and the snow is soft and fluffy, I can work up the enthusiasm to enjoy a walk or a snowshoe. When it is wet and miserable with sleety snow, I want to curl up under my quilt and not surface until May.

Part of my resistance to winter exercise comes from my fear of falling. I have actually fallen several times, with my first reliable memory being a fall at 14 that resulted in a wicked headache.

I have tumbled over icy stairs (that one within earshot of my mother who heard me use language suitable for blistering paint) and I have skidded across parking lots.

I have also fallen indoors, and while I have been fortunate enough not to experience lasting ill effects, as I grow older, my fear of falling has grown exponentially.

I often ask people if they remember the rubber boots many of us wore as kids, and if they specifically recall how stiff and unyielding the rubber would get as we walked to and from school in January and February. Over time the rubber would crack and the wet would seep in.

That’s how I feel my muscles go in the winter cold: hard, inflexible, and yet ready to shatter at the slightest pressure.

Last year, three of my friends and one of my relatives were laid up with broken bones, all women. Two experienced the breaks as a result of slips and falls on icy sidewalks, thus adding to my fear and resistance.

I shouldn’t be surprised: after all, women are four times more likely to have osteoporosis, and one in five is likely to experience a fracture after age 40. The fact is my fear of falling need not be limited to the winter season, given the data.

Since hiding under a quilt is not really an option I can indulge in, I have looked for ways to reduce my risk of falls. I make sure I have good shoes, grippy sneakers, and sturdy boots. I have learned to walk like a penguin, with my feet pointed out, when going up or down hills and across icy surfaces.

I found some really useful tips here on the BC’s government’s health website. One tip which really stood out for me was eating foods high in calcium and Vitamin D. I had found increasing my fish intake was helping with my arthritis, so I wasn’t too surprised that nutrition could help. I had also long known about the calcium connection for bone health, but was not aware of the importance Vitamin D brings to muscle strength.

Last month, I had reason to be grateful for working on my fitness and nutrition. I had noticed increasing tightness and soreness around the hip joint post training and my trainer had noticed some oddities in my form during a subsequent squat session.

I decided to get checked as I was worried that something new was about to be added to the injury roster. I was somewhat startled to learn that it was the same hip problem. When I asked why the symptoms were different, my physiotherapist said my muscle strength had improved significantly over the past year to compensate for my hip moving out of alignment.

When I thought about the other times my hip joint has shifted, I realized several things. First, the time between injury and the onset of discomfort and pain was usually quite short. This time, it was a little over three weeks before things got really sore. Second, the recovery time post alignment was often quite long, with the pain and stiffness taking as much as three to five weeks to disappear. This time, I was really only uncomfortable for about 48 to 72 hours.

So what has this got to do with my fear of falling? I’m still cautious, but now I have developed my core strength so I am strong enough to reduce the impact. I also know my improved nutrition has helped my muscles recover faster from training, and this is also helpful in dealing with stress and injury.

What this means long term, I am not sure yet. For now, I am happy to continue with the work I am doing with the knowledge that I have made a difference in reducing the effects of injury and speeding up recovery.

— Martha is a writer living in St. John’s documenting a continuing journey of making fitness and work-life balance part of her everyday lifestyle.

The mental health benefits of fitness

One of the things I’m learning in embracing fitness is that it is always a process of learning and that this learning isn’t always about fitness.

I’ve always known about the mood lifting benefits of physical activity. I often liken it to Dorothy Parker’s bon mot about writing: “I don’t like to write; I like to have written.”

For me, it’s more a case of “I don’t like to exercise; I like to have exercised.”

It‘s the after effects of physical effort, the sense of well being, and the knowledge I have accomplished something that brings me the most joy. When I am in the midst of the workout, my main goals are to perform well, execute the program as directed, and finish. I might not always be upright and smiling as running guru John Stanton recommends, but I am usually one or the other.

And I am always happy because there is always something in the workout that pleases me. Maybe it’s feeling the growing strength in my weak knee or unstable hip; maybe it’s the thrill of trying a new exercise (hello there pull-up!).

The fact is, I start most of my workouts in a happy frame of mind. I’m glad to be in the gym, even if I am feeling slow, especially in the winter when it is cold and my joints feel sticky.

Last fall though, I went through a period of significant stress. I wasn’t sleeping well, I wasn’t keeping to my usual meal plans, and quite frankly, I wasn’t as chill as I would have liked. After a spectacularly challenging week, I wrote my trainer and asked her to give me a hard workout, nothing held back.

And she did. Looking back, I can’t remember what was in the program; I only remember my determination to work as hard as I could, and as strongly as I could.

By the end of it, I wasimg_3176 spent, totally wrung out and I felt hollow, like a husk. Yet I also felt calm, light, and balanced, as if the effort of pushing myself unbelievably hard, had released me from the anchor of stress that was weighing me down mentally.

In an earlier post, I wrote about my discovery of anger as a means to fuel the power in a challenging lift or squat. And while I wouldn’t recommend intentionally subjecting yourself to a stressful situation to see how you perform in a hard workout, I think it is worth evaluating how you can use a workout to alleviate stress.

The Saskatoon Regional Health Authority has produced a dandy leaflet looking at how you can manage grief and loss with physical activity.

The brochure looks at how exercise affects your emotions and the benefits it brings to your body and mind. For example, it says “when we are physically active, our bodies release endorphins which help to reduce symptoms of grief, depression, anxiety and stress.”

Those endorphins help us get to our happy place by stabilizing our moods as I mentioned earlier. But exercise also helps us regulate the release of neurotransmitters, those nifty brain chemicals that can calm us or motivate us, depending on what we are experiencing.

So while stress can make us swing like a pendulum, exercise can bring us to a place where we can find emotional and physical balance. Some people find workouts useful in how they help them figure out solutions to life or work problems. Others like how they help wipe away fear, anxiety, grief, and stress.

For me, I like not having to worry about anything except the completion of the exercise. It actually gives me some control, in a time when stress is making me feel as if I have none. While I will continue to focus on building strength and developing my functional fitness levels with training, I now know that my workouts are also contributing to my emotional and mental well being by reducing the negative effects of stress on my physical self.

— Martha is a writer in St. John’s who has found happiness in lifting things up and putting them down again.

It sees you when you’re sleeping …

By MarthaFitat55

Last winter, I acquired a FitBit. I’m not the world’s best tracker of anything, but I was intrigued after I bought one for my husband and saw how easy it was to monitor different things.

I had originally seen the FitBit as a supersize pedometer, but in the almost eleven months that I have had, I have learned a lot.

The first thing I found out was how little I actually moved during my work day. I work from home, so I am always going up and downstairs. I assumed this was making me less of a sedentary person, but I was wrong.

It’s been a real process to reach my 10,000 steps a day as recommended. When I first started tracking, I averaged between 2500 and 3000 steps a day. When I went on my trail walks though, hitting 10K was no problem at all.

I’ve been making a conscious effort to move more, by taking more frequent breaks. The Pomodoro technique helps, and I use a nifty online program called mytomatoes.com to help me.

On a recent holiday to London, England, I averaged 15K a day, and I earned a couple of cool awards when I reached 20K and 25K in steps. Sadly I am not one of those people who can walk and work (unless it is a walking meeting). A treadmill or stand up desk is not for me, but the good news is that the Fitbit made me aware of how little I was moving, so now I do more (especially when on holiday!).

Now I lay me down to sleep

The second thing that intrigued me was the sleep tracker. Now I have always been a reasonably good sleeper. In fact, when my son was small, he said my superpower was that I could sleep anywhere, anytime.

And it is true. Need a catnap to reenergize? I can curl up with the best kitties and get 40 winks. On a long haul flight with either a hideously early start or a horrible arrival? I plug in my earbuds and off I go to noddyland.

So you can imagine what a horrible shock it was to learn from FitBit that I was a restless sleeper. The Fitbit registers when you turn over, and I do that a lot. I flip almost every 20 minutes, but I rarely wake up as a result. The panic set in when I accidentally set the sleep mode to sensitive. It was a sea of red lines.

img_5271

After I realized that flipping was a normal part of my sleep habit, I turned my attention to how much I actually slept. Over the last few months, I have reset my bed time so I am hitting the pillow an hour earlier than usual.

I notice the quality of sleep has shifted too. When I recently had a hard week ,which resulted in extremely late bedtimes, I noticed the difference within 48 hours. My productivity was low, my attention span was shorter, my mood was crankier, and my desire for long, long naps overwhelmed me in the afternoons.

I could also clearly see the change in quality as monitored by my FitBit. Not only was I not sleeping as much, but the kind of sleep I was getting mimicked my earlier stint on the sensitive mode. Except this time I was in average monitoring mode.

Measure what matters

 

The fact is the FitBit allows me to measure better. While I support intuitive knowledge, if you really want to make lasting changes, you need evidence, and the FitBit offers it in spades.

Some people feel it is a little creepy, but since I only send the information to myself and don’t participate in challenges with anyone else, I am not too inclined to worry.

I like the reminders I can set, especially on drinking water. I haven’t ventured too far into the food tracker because I am pretty hopeless on that front. (What has been working has been taking pictures of my meals. After a week of that activity, I could see where I needed to change (eat more greens!) and where I needed to cut back (eat less white food!).

Incidentally I have the Flex, which is about as basic as you can get. Right now it is enough for me. I think if you are just starting into tracking lifestyle habits with a view to a change, this might be the way to go.

— Martha is a writer living in St. John’s documenting a continuing journey of making fitness and work-life balance part of her everyday lifestyle.

 

Slow and steady wins the race

by MarthaFitAt55

Over the past three years, I have focused on making changes in my lifestyle. The key one has been incorporating training sessions with a trainer. While I was a regular trail walker, aiming for a fairly strenuous outing two to three times a week, it wasn’t enough.

I knew from my reading that trying to change a whole bunch of stuff all at once to become a healthier person was not the best way to go. You either became resentful, frustrated, demoralized, or all of the foregoing, and I concluded that any attempt to change my lifestyle in this way was going to be doomed to failure.

I was also tired of the multi-tasking woman stereotype, and in the same way I had decided to make fitness a priority, I decided to be strategic in how I became healthier, and how I was going to invest in that process.

So when I made the decision to start working with a trainer, I signed up for only 12 sessions. If I could fit those in around my work and teaching, then I was going to be on the right road to success, I reasoned.

After the first 12 blocks, I signed up for another eight. This time I chose to have a standard Monday and Wednesday morning slot and the time was booked out indefinitely in my calendar.

I had heard it can take 28 days to form a habit, so signing up for four weeks of twice weekly sessions was a good way to cement the habit of learning how to train effectively.

As it turns out, the average is about 66 days to form a habit, and in some cases it can be as long as 254 days. Regardless, the key takeaway is that for most of us more time helps cement that new practice, so we should not be discouraged if it takes a little more time. That was good news for me, as after two years, I see the difference if I miss one, or even two of my twice weekly sessions for holidays or work commitments.

Now that I am quite comfortable with the training routine, I decided to look at my other habits that could be interfering with my health. I started with sleep, as my Fitbit told me daily how many hours of sleep I got each night, and whether it was good sleep or poor sleep.

I used to be a morning person. Then I had a child, and I turned into a night owl, because I was able to get so much more work done between 8 pm (his bed time) and midnight. But the data collected by Fitbit told me I was now a night owl and an early bird.

How does this affect health? Well the interval between bedtime and wake up was shrinking, and the resulting deficit was demanding an afternoon nap.

Now I have nothing against naps; they are marvelous and rejuvenating. In fact my child says my super power is that I can sleep anywhere and at anytime. But my work life doesn’t accommodate naps all that often, so I started getting ready for bed a half hour earlier to see what effect that would have. Once of the first things to emerge was my restlessness. When I had a solid seven hours of sleep that started earlier, I was less restless than if I got seven hours from a later bedtime.

Over three months I reset my sleep schedule and pushed my turn-in time from after midnight to between 10:30 and 11 p.m. There’s not a big difference if I go to bed later just once a week or once every two weeks, but too many late nights now throw my day off course. Better sleep means more stamina, fewer naps, and overall improvements in mood and perspective. Less sleep means decreased focus, more naps, and a definite downturn in my level of cheerfulness.

Now that I have fitness and sleep schedules I can maintain, I have turned to nutrition. A lot of lifestyle changes marketed for health reasons focus almost exclusively on weight loss and this is an area that is fraught for women. Right now I’m having fun exploring food as fuel rather than as a process of deprivation.

The driver here is learning to adapt my food intake to support my greater lifting goals. For example, allergies in the family mean fish is not a daily supper menu item. However since I’ve learned a few tricks on making and freezing cooked fish for my lunches, I have noticed a huge improvement in my arthritis affected hands. My grip strength and endurance have increased overall.

When I look back at my notes, I can see how making tiny changes add up to big results. It was one of the first lessons my original trainer gave me. Becoming too focused on big results meant I missed the many small gains I was making, and that included the new habits I wanted to build for the future. The best part is that I now have some indicators I can work with based on habits and practices that are sustainable for me.

— Martha Muzychka is a writer and communicator who is exploring new adventures in fitness, lifestyle, and personal health.

Pain free and loving it (Guest post)

by MarthaFitat55

Last month, with a week to go before departing on a long planned holiday, I felt my left knee bail on me. When I went in to the gym for my regular Monday training, the knee was still cranky. Some moves were great, and others were not.

My trainer and I tried different exercises, and at the end of the session, I limped to my car seething with frustration, worried about my upcoming mini break which would require a lot of walking, and feeling less than impressed with myself and my knee.

When the alarm sounded its wakeup call the next morning, I was tentative, fearful, and to be frank, img_4031scared. I stood up and took that first step, and then another.

Readers, I felt no pain. The knee worked perfectly. I did a couple of practice squats, and I stood up each time with wonder. The marvelous feeling continued through the day.

I could walk steadily, without feeling a hitch in my hip or my knee. I could lace up my shoes, be it sitting, bent over, or leaning. I got up from chairs — straight ones, soft and sinky ones, short ones, armless ones – and I didn’t need to hold onto anything. I even sat on my steps and got up from those without pain and without help.

Not only was my knee functioning, everything else was too. I was full of questions: Would this marvelous sense of wellbeing and functionality disappear? Should I stop doing all the things I had been doing in case I put a foot wrong and shifted everything out of whack? So what if I was fine now, what about when I was in a foreign country away from all my supports, and the pain returned?

I wrote my trainer, both elated and panicked. We reviewed the session, and also debated the possibilities arising from my ditching the old sneakers and wearing new ones with proper support, the addition of three to four servings of fish to my meals each week, to my getting more sleep.

In the end, we had no idea of what was the one thing that changed all for the better, but we had lots of thoughts on all the pieces that could have helped. The days passed pain free and I was mobile in ways I had not been for more than a year. I went on holiday and clocked almost 85 kilometres on my Fitbit, surpassing my 10K step goal each day to reach 15K to 25K. I negotiated stairs and sidewalks of all types. My body rescue pack, containing Voltaren, Aleve, lacrosse ball, and stretch band, lay unused in the suitcase.

When I started training back in the late fall of 2013, I expected stiffness and muscle soreness as part of the deal. When my hip joint, my shoulder, and my knee went rogue though, I did not expect to deal with pain long term.

As the joke goes, “what’s best about beating your head against a brick wall is how good you feel when you stop.” Though I had been mobile in recovery and after, I did not realize how pain had become a new constant in my life, low grade as it was, until it stopped.

Women often suck it up when it comes to pain and illness. Those of us who have borne children learn techniques to deal with pain. We soldier on through illness to cook, clean, parent, manage the appointments, meet that deadline, finish that project, etc. Even in positive gym environments, there can be messages about pushing through the pain being a sign of your growing strength.

I think we have to stop that message train in its tracks. Pain is your body’s signal saying something is wrong, and if you get used to it, you may not pay attention in time to prevent further or greater injury. You may over rely on medications to deal with the pain, and unknowingly cause other issues. For example, I had no idea taking certain pain relievers like ibuprofen and naproxen caused spikes in blood pressure.  And if you are incubating an ulcer due to a high stress lifestyle, those same meds can also be a problem.

This new knowledge about what recovery means for my body has fueled my desire to keep going on my fitness path. Yes, I still get tired, and I still get muscle soreness after learning a new exercise or moving to a new volume level, but not having any pain is the best feeling. But I believe the work I have put in on strengthening my core and on relearning how to sleep and rest effectively has made a difference, not just physically but mentally too.

Martha is a writer and columnist in St. John’s. Her body rescue pack is enjoying a well-earned retirement.