Doctor’s orders: Menopause and fitness

Not everyone shares this sentiment, I realize, but for me, menopause is great news. My menstruation was as rough at 44 as it was at 13. But for over half a year I’ve had no excruciating cramps, no backache that feels like it’s splitting me in two, no radiating pain down my thighs. It’s fantastic. Some late-night hot flashes and a little weight-gain seem a light price to pay for freedom from monthly decommissioning.

Today was my doctor’s appointment to confirm that menopause is, in fact, happening, and not something more mysterious. When my mother was my age, she developed large, benign fibroid tumors in her uterus, and I wanted official word that the same was not happening to me. The doctor agreed that an ultra-sound could be done but assured me that usually, the sorts of tumors my mother had were accompanied by more bleeding, not less.

Instead, he said, it is a greater concern that I’m a bit young for menopause, and at higher risk for osteoporosis. “Okay,” I said cheerfully, “tell me something I can do to prevent osteo.”

“Exercise,” he said promptly.

Pause. “Tell me something else I can do.”

The thing is, I have been lucky in the body lottery, getting by on regular walking and not much more, despite a sedentary job. So exercise has always seemed optional to me. I know I lack fitness, but until now fitness seemed like it would be an improvement on my current privileged situation, and not like it was required.

This doctor’s visit was taking all the joy out of menopause.

He sent me to another room for blood-work, where I had time to stare at the long list of tests the lab was to conduct. My options seem to be dwindling. I know, I know, the future should not be presumed to resemble the past. None of ours should. But it wasn’t just that my body was changing. It’s that my concept of fitness was changing. Was fitness an optional state of well-being, or had I always been wrong about what was up to me? Had it always been required from above, an edict that I’d ignored? If I didn’t have the higher risk of osteoporosis, would I reconceive fitness, do what I’m told, obey?

I teach my students about autonomy often. I tell them that autonomy is complex, that it isn’t just equivalent to getting to do whatever you want to do. I have very high-minded lectures in which I emphasize that freedom of choice requires preconditions, and so autonomy also refers to the conditions that make choosing possible. When we refer to children as developing autonomy, we’re not referring to the numbers of new choices they can imagine, but to the physical, mental, and moral powers they are gaining, the capacities to choose. So I know I could see fitness as a capacity, a source of further choices. If I want it, if I choose fitness, maybe exercise won’t seem like a punishment, like I am being told what to do.

I was drawn to feminism because it spoke to my desire for autonomy, freedom, choice. Most of the bloggers here see fitness the same way. Only today did I realize that I don’t. At least, not yet. Before I start an exercise regimen, I’m going to need a little more of a mental workout.

This Time I Mean It: New Year’s Resolutions, Self-Forgiveness, and Fitness (Guest Post)

Image description: pretty wild flowers in a field

Image description: pretty wild flowers in a field

On a recent walk in the (long overdue) spring weather, a friend impatiently reproached himself for failing to live up to his New Year’s resolution to get more fit.  “I don’t know why I bothered making one,” he concluded. “I’ll just make it all over again next January and break it before spring.”  Although I sympathized with his self-reproach, I urged him to keep remaking the resolutions, whether the same or different.

“Because we’re never done,” I explained eagerly.

This did not seem very motivating to him.  “Great,” he ground out.

I’ve got an exercise machine that hasn’t been used in a few months, myself.  But I’m not getting rid of it, or giving up on my New Year’s ambitions.  I think we’ve heard the wrong messages about resolutions, and it explains why exercise equipment stores see a lot of returns in the spring.  Resolutions to exercise are not on-off switches, and neither are our identities.  Our bodies change, and our day-to-day lives change.   Of course we have to commit, and then re-commit, and then do it again.  No one exercises just once and wakes up for the rest of life with a hard body.  Everybody who does it has to renew their commitment on occasion.  It may be easier for some.  But for the rest of us, I want to urge more self-forgiveness.

My research focuses on forgiveness, and most of my work concerns the things we beat ourselves up about. We’re only capable of resolutions because we’re capable of memory, and unfortunately, memory is also what makes us good at focusing on our failures. Self-reproach is a function of memory, and self-inflicted harms – like sacrifice of our plans and hopes, and taking on unworthy images of ourselves – linger and reinforce negative beliefs we already have about ourselves.

The funny thing is, I don’t hear much about self-forgiveness in fitness circles.  People vary, individuals differ in what motivates them, and it is entirely possible that people prone to stick to exercise resolutions are also people who find a little self-reproach motivating.  “I didn’t meet my personal best yesterday,” a very fit friend informed me.  “I’m going to push myself harder!  My legs are not giving out – my head is giving up! It’s all about will-power!  Rraahhhr!”  Okay, maybe she didn’t say rraahhhr.  But she said the other stuff, about how much she punches herself into more effort. Good for her. But I notice that most of us are not diligent about fitness the way she is, and most of us are really much more likely to feel discouraged by self-reproach.  I do not recommend flagellation for most of us.  I recommend self-forgiveness for fitness, and there’s a trick to it. If you suspect that self-reproach does not make you want to jog, read on.

We’re often kinder to others we’ve let down than we are to ourselves. The evidence suggests that others are much more likely to forgive us if we apologize and make some effort at “forward-looking” restitution, a combination of acceptance and a plan.  Note that this is not accomplished by feeling bad, or telling the other you feel bad.  In fact, feeling bad can be completely absent from saying you acknowledge you messed up (acceptance) and offering restitution.

Look at the contrast with this and the way we think about self-reproach for falling off our New Year’s Resolutions to exercise!  That crummy baggage is all about feeling bad at the sight of the treadmill.  So here’s the trick: Apologize and offer restitution to yourself.  It’s way better than feeling bad.  Feeling bad looks backward, but we don’t move backward through time.  We only move forward.  Put on some walking shoes and offer yourself an apology: you let yourself down but you have a plan to make the future different.  That’s self-forgiveness.  Do that again tomorrow. Do it again the next day.

I love New Year’s Resolutions. I have come to think of them as the thing which marks another year on the earth in which I get to recommit to myself over and over.  And we know too that it’s almost never the case that it’s too late, that one can usually regain some muscle or some health.

My advisor in graduate school, Claudia Card, referred to self-forgiveness as an achievement. But achievement connotes something you’re finished with and got a medal for.  Because of the way memory uncontrollably recurs, and self-reproach hangs out until you tell it to settle into the back seat, I prefer to describe self-forgiveness as an ongoing commitment, like the commitments involved in long-term relationships.  The thing is, we’re often a lot more disposed to recommit to our long-term relationships with others, but when it comes to our long-term relationships with ourselves, we are actually more likely to dredge up every failure and beat ourselves over the head with it.  Most of us would never treat others the way we treat ourselves about bailing on a resolution to exercise more.  So I’m telling everyone that I see self-forgiveness as a continual re-commitment to the ultimate long-term relationship, that is, the set of relationships between one’s past, current, and future selves.

Most philosophers of forgiveness conclude that forgiveness is not the end of the story, accomplishing, instead, a change in how the story might continue. For some of us, regret may be inevitable, but self- forgiveness is an act of hope that affirms the possibility that we will continue even in the presence of regret. It is difficult to recommend that we look forward in the full knowledge that the future contains more bad news, more failures, yet acceptance of oneself includes acceptance of one’s uncontrollable parts. The commitment to persist includes the commitment to continue the work of self-forgiveness despite oneself.

Self-forgiveness is optimistic, hoping and trusting that one’s future selves will continue the commitment to be kind. I made a New Year’s Resolution.  I didn’t “keep it,” but it wasn’t an object to keep.  It’s a relationship.  It’s my relationship with myself.  And I’m in this for the long haul.

 

Beginner’s Love (Guest Post)

kateI’m over forty.  I’m not fit.  I don’t really like exercise.  And I have a tendency to imposter syndrome.  So you can imagine my hesitation as I stood in a store looking doubtfully at the bicycle that the clerk (looking bored, half my age, and of course, fit) had removed from the bewildering variety available.

So why was I there?  Partly because of this blog, to be honest.  I know Sam and Tracy, and I follow and enjoy their work.  Every entry that I read here makes me feel more capable, more connected to women like me.  I regularly figure that I may just be fooling myself, like sharing something on FaceBook and thinking it’s activism.  Maybe I feel good reading about fitness, but don’t follow up once I step away from the computer, I worry.  Of course, like a lot of people who are self-aware about imposter syndrome, I can easily tell an opposing narrative that is also true: When I step away from my computer, I take pleasure in walking endlessly, easily, for miles.  I don’t miss having a television and I’m not a couch potato. I eat fresh fruits and vegetables, and I haunt my farmers’ market.

Still, imposter or not, the fact is that I’m not fit.  I am a middle-aged woman with a sedentary job in higher education and most of my day is spent at a computer.  So I was also in the store in order to live differently.  My husband and I had, just a week or two before, moved to a new neighborhood with a long and lovely bike trail running all the way to my workplace.  We have opportunities that many people can only imagine, to live a healthy and thriving life in a community that really values its parks and trails.  We are well aware that we are lucky to have the problem of a life perfect for biking, and no bikes.  So there I was, straddling my first bicycle in twenty years.

“How does it feel?” my husband asked.

“It feels just right.” It really did.  I felt like it was exactly the right height, the seat was even set to the right level for me.  Maybe another woman my height had looked at it and backed out of purchasing or opted for something better.  Fitter.  Something appropriate to a person who cared and knew more, with a name like the Urban Hybrid or the Commuter Cross-Fit.  The model I was drawn to was the “Women’s Comfort Bike.”  That figures.  It goes with my comfort-cut jeans and my loose cotton shirt.

It also felt fantastic.  The handlebars were at a perfect level, as if they rose up to meet my arms.  The clerk pumped up the tires and their new treads bounced happily on the store floor.  My doubts weren’t about the bike.  They were all about me.  I’ll never use it.  I’m going to fail at this.  All these negative thoughts, and I hadn’t even left the sporting-goods aisle.

I said I’d take it.  I tried on a few helmets and picked one that fit snugly.  My husband enthusiastically suggested we buy a bell, both because he was really very supportive of my adventure in bicycle purchasing, and because he must have inwardly worried I could come to harm from sheer inexperience.  We grabbed a tire pump, and headed for the check-out.  I swallowed hard at the cost.  I paid it with outward calm and inward fears that I had thrown away the money.  We wheeled to the car.

There was no way it was fitting in the car.

“Okay, I know we didn’t plan this, but I can ride it home.” As soon as I said it, I started grinning.  I hope I didn’t look nervous. My husband did.  He was well aware it had been twenty years.  And we were about as far on the other side of our little town as we could be, at the height of evening traffic, on the wrong side of an intersection recently named one of the deadliest in the county.

Novice observation #1: Just the thought of hopping on and riding away can really get the adrenaline pumping!  I was trying not to act overexcited, in case I seemed completely delusional about the risks.

“Are you sure?  Do you know what you’re doing?”

“I’m sure.  I can do this.” I wasn’t sure.  But I couldn’t take my eyes off the bicycle.  I was already tightening the strap on my helmet.  He promptly grabbed the tools from the car and fixed the bell to the handle.  I strapped on the backpack I’d brought just in case.  (Novice observation #2: So that’s what all those straps on backpacks are for.  Hey, the waist-belt-buckle actually has a use!)

“Be careful at the intersections.” We kissed a bit more intently than necessary for two people who’d only be apart for 30 minutes.  But there was Death Intersection to think about.  Observation #3: Before I was on the bike, I was thinking about my route, my town, the drivers in it and the qualities of the roads with more attention to detail than I’d experienced since moving here three years ago.  As I wobbled across the parking lot, I thought of philosopher Virginia Held’s work, arguing that a caring politics would arrange shared public goods so that we could look after each others’ thriving as members of a community.  The speeding private cars, the commercial parking lot, and the weedy sidewalks at this end of town did not promote within me a sense of being cared for.  (Observation #4: Bicycling can heighten one’s political commitments within about five seconds of beginning a ride.)

I picked up speed.  I wobbled less.  The roads in this area are hillier than I ever noticed (#5) was following quickly by the realization, I have thigh muscles (#6).  And they work!  Some of them work better than others, but the point remains: I am discovering that I’m capable of moving a bicycle up a not-insignificant hill.  I worked my way to the newsworthy intersection of death.  I renewed my acquaintance with lots of brake squeezing, and I looked into the windshields of approaching cars.  #7: I am making a lot more eye-contact with drivers.  People stop and meet my eyes, wave me across.  I’m glad I live in a small town.

Then, the downhill.

#8: I am flying.  I know this is called an endorphin rush and I’m trying to reflect rationally upon it, but I’m feeling too euphoric to be very chatty with myself.  The uplifting feelings continue long after I’m back to pedaling and gradually working my way through the downtown.  “That was fantastic,” I say with a big smile when I get home.  I’m tired.  My butt is a wee bit sore.  I’m thirsty.  And it’s clear to me (#9) that loose clothing isn’t right for bicycling. I’ll have to think more about what I’m wearing, what feels best and is safest for me to do.  I feel happy.

He looks happily back at me.  “What struck you most?”

“I noticed there were more people bicycling in this town than I have ever noticed before.”

He nods.  “I noticed them more, too.”  #10: I’ve taken one ride, and both of us are already more attentive drivers.  We care more about keeping an eye out for the safety of others on bikes.  That was unexpected.  That stuck.

Kate Norlock lives and eats very well in Peterborough, Ontario with her husband, Daniel, where they take long walks and marvel at the number of parks it is possible to fit into one town.  She works at Trent University.