Middle Age Horsing Around

snowbound

This picture features a white woman in a pink sweatshirt that says, A ride a day keeps the therapist away. She is holding onto the bridle of a large white horse with a pink and grey nose. is name is Snowbound. He is not the horse that she is referring to in the rest of this piece. He is a bit of a Jerk.

I ride horses once a week for the sheer pleasure of it. It is a lesson but that’s because it is the easiest way to get on a horse and I might as well learn something while I am doing it. What is odd about my lessons and my horsing as compared to most of the other people I encounter at the barn (the tween and teen crowd) is I don’t take these lessons for any purpose. I don’t show and I’m not in any hurry to do that. I am utterly not feeling competitive about this sport. I love the animal and the activity.

However, it’s still a lesson and my new-this-year coach is excellent. She occasionally switches me to a horse that is more “challenging”. In the last few months, I’ve asked her to stop doing that. There is a horse I ride who I am really in tune with. She goes well for me and I can get her to behave in ways most other riders can’t. She doesn’t jump high because of her construction. But she likes to have fun and she is game for any number of skills improving exercises in the lesson. The more interesting the lesson is, the better she goes. It’s really great.

The shift that happened for me was my acceptance that I don’t need to “progress” for progression sake. I don’t need to jump higher. I don’t need a more forward (fast) horse. I don’t even need to learn to do flying lead changes (a hop and a skip in the middle of a canter/lope) if it’s going to freak her out. We just need to have fun and stay moving.

I’m a pretty confident rider with a solid skill set at this level. I am game for occasionally schooling (teaching) a horse to pay attention to a rider and stop shenanigans so that younger riders can benefit from that. But I have no desire any more to be the rider that conquers the wild horse or risks all sorts of injury while riding an animal that is too much for me.

I’m so chill with my new-ish settled attitude and honestly, it just makes riding more fun.

Go go ahead, do the fun thing and don’t worry about improving. It’s okay!

Uninspired: Some Tales of Outright Failure (Guest Post)

Months ago, Sam asked readers to give us an idea of what they’d like to read more about. Lots of you responded but I was struck in particular by the response of a woman around 50 who wanted to know more about our failures. In the comments to Catherine’s post about the Challenging Challenge of Challenges, I confessed to my non completion of the 39 day Runner’s World Mile a Day challenge. We may all do a group post about that at some point but I want this one to be an exploration of all the ways I am not what I may seem to be (fit, motivated, accomplished, persistent, responsible blah blah blah) and how I have made peace with that. The truth is, I often fail.

In order to more fully explain and understand these failures, it’s important to understand in what context they happen. In this space, I am often writing about interesting adventures that I have had and what they mean to me. Sometimes, I write about the things that impede me (my Rheumatoid Arthritis or Falling off Things). What I hardly ever write about is my day to day reality or the struggles I have to keep fitness going in my life. I have realized that I may come across as a person works out somehow every day without issue, diligently works toward their goals and then gallivants around the country on bike, horse or in a canoe. Well, no, I don’t.

The only thing I do nearly every day is walk my dog. That means I’m guaranteed to walk about 2 kilometers a day.However, on days where my children or partner have walked the dog enough and I’m tired and it’s late and cold. . .I do not do anything.

I am lucky if I do more than two significant fitness activities a week. I have my surge weeks where timing and weather or perhaps just obligations to friends mean I do more. But if I’m honest, I usually do one aerobic thing, one strength thing and maybe ride a horse for 40 minutes. There are weeks I do not do any running. There are weeks, like this week, where I choose sleep over Pilates.

Regarding my running, I started when I was 36. It took me until I was 42 to run 5k. That is not your expected “Couch to 5K” timeline. Immediately after achieving 5k, I wanted to get to 10k. I just did that for the first time yesterday so that was another 6 years. In the 6 years that I spent working my way up to whatever distance I would run, stop running, run again, get injured, recover and eventually try again. None of this was according to a plan. There is a half-marathon running schedule on my fridge right now, but I am not following it.

Last year, I had my bike on a trainer in my basement because I was scared about doing the Bike Rally again. I’m taking a break from the Rally this year and my bike is resting in a corner. The trainer tire is not on it.I’m waiting until spring.

Then there was the running challenge, 1 mile per day from American Thanksgiving until New Years Day. I lasted 2 weeks, sort of. My body and mind utterly rebelled. The obligation to find time in whatever weather and no matter what else was going on in my life to run a mile proved impossible to meet. At first I was ashamed of myself. It’s only a 20 minute overall thing from getting dressed to getting undressed. However, working full time and being the point person on everything else in my life means that a solid commitment of 20 mins per day when it may be in rain and wind and snow and dark and cold and blech is impossible.

What does this all mean? The truth is, I do the minimum necessary for some sort of result (result defined loosely as strength, endurance, health, the dog’s comfort). I often fall out of schedules. Sometimes it’s because there is a legit interruption and often because I like sleeping better than exercise. I have streaks of success that are amazing. Finally running 10k yesterday was a heady achievement. But I am not under an illusion that I will be ready for a half-marathon next month. I will be lucky if I run 10k again any time in the next month. I will be grateful if nothing wonks out in my body as I continue to try to push speed and distance. However, even though I am inconsistent and haphazard, I get somewhere. I am more fit and stronger now than I have ever been. The thing I have changed since my first struggles with fitness in my early 30’s, is my attitude toward restarting a thing I’ve stopped. I don’t spend much time caring that I haven’t run in 3 weeks. I just go run a few kilometers, slowly. If nothing hurts too much, the next time I may run more faster. Then that’s it, I’m running again (or on my bike, or core work, whatever it is). There is no shame in stopping. You stopped. Then you start. Except dog walks, they are never ending and that’s a darn good thing.

shelby-in-car

This image is a delightful yellow Labrador Retriever dog sitting on the blanketed back seat of my car. She is waiting for a walk, or perhaps a Timbit.

 

A white woman with a black hat, blond hair, grey jacket and black snow pants stands on a snow covered trail on cross country skis. Behind her is a grove of snow covered trees.

Me skiing after a rather long hiatus of any activity at all over the winter break.

Running From My Despair

Okay I’m not messing around here, this is not going to be a fun post. I’ve written it in my head fifteen times and can’t get to a conclusion that seems worth making my way to. So I decided to just let my fingers do some work and see what comes out.

I know there are themes that seem important to put out there. One theme is in regards to meaning. What does it mean to participate in and write about fitness, especially fitness from a feminist perspective in an time of profound crisis and dis-empowerment regarding vital other feminist oriented issues?

I’ll tell you how I picked up on that theme. I was working with my trainer. You know, my private Pilates trainer that I pay $50 CAD every week to make me do 10-15 more roll-ups or scissor kicks than I might do on my own in my basement for free. Two white women in a suburban gym doing squat reps and talking idly about how horrible everything is. I mean, WHAT EVEN IS THAT? I left that session and I felt terrible about myself. I should have donated that money to BLM or Doctors Without Borders or the ACLU.

There is another element to this theme of meaning. I am a middle aged woman who isn’t bad looking, but Trump would probably put me at a 5-6. I’m not worth considering. I am not hot enough to count in that world he represents and as much as it pains me to admit this, I feel less worthy somewhere because of the ascendance of that attitude toward women.

The next theme is about safety. For the first time in my life I have serious doubts about the actual safety of my life, and when I say my life, I mean the style of my life and the choices I have made in my life. Unlike young men of colour or transwomen or aboriginal women, I do not mean my actual flesh, not yet.

The toxic nationalism and angry xenophobic turn of my southward neighbour and shaken me to the core. I know it lives here too. First we had Rob Ford, now we are looking Kelly Leitch smack in the face. People say she can’t win on that platform, but why not? And then there is the shooting in a mosque in Quebec by yet another angry white dude, the ugly terminus of years of fear mongering and islamaphobia in the public discourse of our media and politics. 

I am Jewish. My upbringing included vivid descriptions of the Holocaust (you know, that thing Hitler did to Jews, Gays, Catholics, Communists, Poles and Roma). I grew up with the phrase “never again” echoing always. And now, I wonder about whether I have the courage and fortitude to stand up to a police state. I’m queer and non-monogamous and sex positive. I support a woman’s right to choose. I’m cool with affirmative action. I don’t mind paying my taxes if it means we have better public transit and a social safety net. I think black/indigenous/POC lives matter. I think Islam is a religion of peace and we should take in refugees. There, I said it and the internet remembers.When they come to my door, will I shame myself and deny these things?

The next theme is despair. My struggle to feel meaningful and my fear for my future safety have had the expected effect of pushing a good portion of me over the edge into hopeless despair. I just can’t believe we are here. It’s not what I thought people would move toward. I was wrong. I failed to see they were already in fear and despair. I failed to see that the paucity of culture and the ascendance of materialism was breeding angry despairing people with a lack of meaning who will turn on the other in a heartbeat. I missed it because I’m established, educated, white and liberal.

So what does this have to do with fitness? I’ve done a lot of running. Mostly, it’s small distances although I’m committed to two half-marathons this year so I’d better get in gear. I find myself longing to run a lot, even when I can’t fit it in. In fact, I gave up a run to write this blog, but the blog seemed more important. I don’t solve anything when I run. I do feel marginally better and more able to function in spite of the reality of the world. I know that if I give up and roll over, that’s one less melted liberal snowflake who will not show up for any necessary blizzards. I have no blessed idea what to actually do about any of it. I have, in fact, donated to BLM and Doctors Without Borders. I am staying vigilant about the politics of the country I can participate in. I’m tweeting at Justin to stand up to the bully as best he can. I’m writing letters to my Conservative MP asking her to stand up to the forces of xenophobia in her own party. I’m being an angry peri-menopausal mess of a woman and still letting people love me. So that’s something. I need new shoes though, there is a storm coming and many miles to run before it’s done.

storm

A storm named Alex. Who knows what damage he will cause.

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/01/unique-event-tropical-storm-history-160114082215319.html

PS: My daughter just sent me this Beyonce meme.. .so clearly, all is not lost.

beyonce

If you don’t get this Buffy reference, we can’t be friends. . 

Why is Shopping for Pants Dangerous? (Guest Post)

I have a 15 year old daughter. Ever since she was born, I have been vigilant about the messages she gets from me and other members of the family. It’s really hard to know how to raise a daughter in a world that is doing it’s very best to squeeze her into a size 0 frame of reference.

Mostly, I’ve been lucky. She never developed a Princess obsession. I don’t for one second believe it was solely because I said things like “Princess isn’t a job” at every opportunity. It just wasn’t her thing. Cute animals have been her thing ever since she could string together a sentence. She used to look out the back window of our Toronto home and say “I want something what’s furry and lives in a cage”. Basically, she wanted a pet squirrel. Over the years, we have gone through 8 pet rats (they die every 2.5 years or so). We have Shelby the wonder dog and she rides horses with me at a lovely school barn near our house. We have spent many many hours discussing cute animals of various types and I have encouraged every second of this focus. Why? Well, mostly because it’s where she was at and children need to be met and acknowledged in that way to stay connected. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that part of my enthusiastic participation in the constant cute animal discussion of her pre-teen years was to keep her focus on the things that made her happy and to avoid or ignore all the gross media about girls and young women.

cute animal pictures

Adorable pet rat in a teacup. Who wouldn’t talk about this all day?

She is by no means an isolated teen. She has Snap Chat and texts and Kick. She has no interest in Instagram or Facebook (Yay) and I attribute this to her general good attitude about herself and this really cool self protection she has developed regarding all the things I worry and worry and worry about.

She eats what she wants and she is relatively physically active. When you ask her why she is active, she will say it’s because it’s fun. What she doesn’t reference is anything to do with what she looks like and nothing about taking up any less space in the world.

I’m telling you all this as background to a moment today that epitomizes the kind of moments women endure over and over again. If you aren’t thinking about it, it’s meaningless background noise. But I think about it all the time and it made me sad.

We were buying a new pair of snow pants because the ones we bought last year were too small. The women asked her size and brought her a few pairs. She came by after a few minutes and asked if the size was correct. My daughter said in her casual way “Not this pair that’s for sure” and flung them over the door. The sales woman went into crisis control mode. “Don’t worry hun, they fit small. Just don’t you worry. “ She then prattled on about how we all get “a little bigger over the holidays” but that she shouldn’t be worried at all. She also told a story about a girl who was “crying in the change room” last week but she assured her these pants “fit small”. It was a panic, for the sales woman anyway.

Later, I asked my daughter if she noticed the woman’s freak out when the pants she brought didn’t fit. She had noticed but she laughed and said it was bizarre. I wanted to know if the small pair of pants had, in fact, bugged my daughter at all. I wanted to give her the opportunity to talk about that and to check in if she was still as intact as I perceive her in this realm. I think she still is. We compared it to shoes. If the sales person brings you a 9.5 and they are too small, they bring you a 10. They don’t apologize and tell you not to cry over your size 10 feet.

So I just keep hoping and worrying and talking. I keep making myself an example of a person who tries to enjoy movement, eat what they want and normalize the variety of human bodies we inhabit. So far, it’s working. . .I think.

shelby-snow-action

Shelby in action on our show shoe hike today. She sets a good example too.

 

I Joined a Gym! (What was I thinking?) Guest Post

One particularly dark November evening when it was raining and gloomy and my plans got cancelled, I was moping about my house, thinking about how horrible it was going to be to have to run for 36 days in a row outside in Canada in the winter. Suddenly,I had an idea.

“I will go join the gym”, says me. For some people this is an unremarkable statement but the gym and I, we have not been friends in any consistent way. I have wasted many months of membership, incentive bonuses, packaged sessions and just. . .$$money$$ on gyms in the past and I thought I quit them.I have had success with personal training because it’s a one to one commitment and I promised I’d be there. That works for me. It’s the same reason I’m never late for work now. Clients are waiting and it doesn’t matter if really I’d like to call in. No calling in sick when you are a therapist.

But a thing possessed me and I went over to the new discount place by the mall. I was so determined not to get taken in and over sold (again). I failed (again) and got the package that, while lacking a “joining fee”, included the use of the massage chairs and other nice things. It cost about $70 more for the year. I did not sign up for the bi-weekly deduction from my bank account (yay me). That is the thing that means when your year is up and you fail to give notice, you are signed up for another year.

My goodness I hate gyms and their money sucking ways. No matter how hard they try to be positive and good for you and on your side, what they are really about is taking your dollars and hoping you don’t show up much. This gym doesn’t have any water fountains. Why? because they want to sell you bottled water. UGH!

On the bright side, the equipment is brand spanking new and there is lots of it. There are no irritating trainers trying to tell me I’m fat and should hire them to help with that. The people at the gym represent the diversity of my town and the middle aged/old/regular people seem to out populate the “look at me” pretty folk. I love looking at them, don’t get me wrong, but I really like appreciating the 70 year old dude on the chest press more. He reminds me what I’m aiming for which is mobility and vitality as time marches on.

Another bright side is I joined in Miserable November as opposed to Guilt Ridden January. Somehow that feels more authentic and less like travelling with lemmings.

As may be apparent, I am cynical about this action and yet, it is mine. Perhaps this latest wiser version of me-at-the-gym will make better use of the membership. I sure hope so.

I’ll keep you posted.

brain-joining-gym

 

Mental Health and Exercise: It’s Science (Guest Post)

I attended a workshop this past week headlined by Dr. John Arden, a Psychologist and author. His regular folk friendly book is called Rewire Your Brain (Arden, J. B. (2010). Rewire your brain: Think your way to a better life. John Wiley & Sons.). In it you will find all sorts of interesting things about brain anatomy, neurochemistry and the oft referred to “brain plasticity” that is all the rage in much of the literature on changing behaviours or understanding why behaviours may be hard to change.

There was a lot about the workshop I liked and a little chunk I hated. I will get that chunk out of the way first because it’s relevant to the blog and then move on to the things I liked that are also relevant to everyone.

Brain health, mental health and physical health are all related (no surprise here). He spent a lot of the time explaining the importance of “neurogenesis” which is essentially the production of new connections in the brain. Making new connections, especially in the front part of the brain and the parts of the brain important in regulating stress, contributes hugely to resiliency in mental health. His position is that without a functioning capacity to create these connections, people have a very much harder time recovering from stress and trauma, leading to various anxiety mediated and mood disorders.

So what inhibits neurogenesis? Aging, Chronically high cortisol, Pot and Obesity. 

What promotes it? Excercise, Fasting, Fewer calories consumed, Food Quality (especially the presence of high quality Omega 3) and Weight loss.

Sigh. What is wrong with this list? He didn’t highlight the studies that he based this stuff on but I did pay very close attention to how he talked about these things. The thing that made me very miffed was his constant and consistent conflation of “Obesity” with lack of exercise and poor food choices. He went on for a while about the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines by fat cells and talked about metabolic syndrome. It is believed that these chemicals are a big part of why our moods go to hell when we are chronically stressed and not doing enough good things for the body. The articles you see about depression really being about inflammation are based on this science. These are medical facts. But he basically said “tell your clients they have to lose weight to get better”. Great, a prescription with a 95% failure rate. Set ’em up for failure, I’m in. He didn’t acknowledge that BMI measurements of obesity often don’t mean squat. He didn’t acknowledge that fat people can be fit and lacking any other markers of metabolic syndrome. He even said (astoundingly) that if you are going to put on weight, you should put it on as a pear shape instead of apple, as if this is a conscious choice. I was so angry at this point I couldn’t speak. And what made me angrier was the fact that he was clearly  utterly well meaning and a victim of the blank spots in his particular silo of knowledge. ON TOP OF THAT, he was talking to an audience of mostly women.*FEMINIST HULK SMASH*

Okay, enough of that. The good news here, however, was the reiteration of the connection of exercise with improved mental health outcomes. Exercise has been shown to have epigenetic effects on the brain, which means it promotes turning on gene expressions related to nuero-plasticity. It promotes the production of various growth factors in the brain which means more connections are formed. It promotes activity between those connections and, in a fairly dumbed down nutshell, the activity (especially in the left frontal cortex) allows for better mood, learning and adaptivity to adversity. Basically, it’s magic.

However, it is important to note that, like all magic, initiating it requires a clear intent. Lots of my clients tell me they exercise and nothing happens. They do not magically feel less depressed or anxious. That is because exercise is really good at creating optimal conditions for changes but if you just go brood about all the stuff you usually brood about or, more realistically, go back to your dysfunctional life and relationships without questioning them, it’s still hard to change. The role of therapy is to help people change both their physical condition (by encouraging more self care through movement, better quality food and sleep) and to help people reframe their understanding of what is happening relationally in their lives. Sometimes that reframing can be a challenge to a singular poor relationship. Sometimes it can be a more daunting challenge to a systemic adversity that blocks them in the form of racism, class inequality or sexism to name merely a sliver. I understand better than ever how these things work together now.

I wrote a sternly worded evaluation that took up the whole back page regarding my critique of the way he flung the word “obesity” around like we all knew what we were talking about. I hope he takes it to heart.

brain-clip-art-2-image-3

Food, Sleep, and Exercise. Keep your brain happy!

Identity, Capacity, Disability (Or: Who the Heck Am I Anyway)Guest Post

It’s been a tough three weeks or so for me and until I thought about what to write for this post, I hadn’t realized what was going on.

Ever since I started exercising deliberately at the age of 35 or so, I have mostly experienced it as a journey toward good things. A journey toward strength, toward endurance, toward better health, toward confidence, toward community etc. I have come to view myself as fit, capable, powerful and more importantly, as a person who can continue to attain even more of the same as long as I’m trying. These assumptions I have made about my capacity to do more (and implicitly, to be more) have at least a few blind spots, however. One big one is my ability to hide from the reality that lurks inside, which is Rheumatoid Arthritis.

I was diagnosed with juvenile RA when I was around 13. At the time, treatment was limited to Aspirin, big doses. I remember, as a child who was clumsy and not used to much physical exercise anyway, that it was a relief to me that I now had a good excuse to get out of gym. That’s mostly what it was. Since I didn’t have much that I liked to do that required a lot of movement, the mild swelling in my knee and hands didn’t really mean much to me.

In my 20’s, I went completely without treatment. I can’t say exactly why. I was used to what my limits were and they weren’t huge. I was so freaking lucky that the progression wasn’t fast. My hands deformed slowly over time but that was about all. Sometimes my knee would swell or my wrist would hurt. Sometimes it was hard to hold a pen for a long time, but other than that, I just lived with it. All the while, I did not see myself as a fit or physical person.

Things all changed when I got pregnant. Pregnancy often puts RA into remission and I was amazed at the increased functionality of my hands. After I had my son, the disease came back with a vengeance and I decided to go back to see what could be done. Long story short, I got on some good drugs, got into remission and have stayed there for the most part ever since. I can see now that this remission has, in fact, enabled me to start my journey toward this new identity as a fit, strong person with perceived unlimited capacity to improve.

But three weeks ago, in the course of 24 hours, I went from fine to unable to shake hands with some people I was having dinner with. I couldn’t cut my food or carry the plate. My wrist and knee followed shortly after and I knew I was in trouble. This wasn’t the first time something like this happened and I knew what I had to do. I had been lowering the dose of my meds hoping the remission might be permanent. It wasn’t. I upped the dose again and within days things started to improve. But I’ll tell ya, it scared the heck out of me.

On top of that episode, last week while running 5 k at my top speed, I apparently did something to that same right knee and it swelled like a balloon. While I think that was an injury and not the RA, it fed my fear. What if I just can’t do these things any more? What if all that strength and capacity is taken from me by this disease? What if it kills me (it can, see here)?

One of the things I’m really asking here is “Who am I?” My fear breaks this into an either or scenario. Either I’m healthy, fit and have capacity or I’m sick and I’ll lose myself. So I spend a lot of time ignoring the mechanism under my surface that likes to eat at my connective tissue for fun. To top it all off, the thing I’m dealing with isn’t even a disease from the outside. It’s my own damn self hurting me. But unlike the first time it happened when I was 13, it isn’t a relief. Getting my body out of gym class is the last thing I want right now. I’m in rebellion with my self.

I know the answer. Take care of me and keep moving. I’ll adapt if I have to. That’s another benefit of capacity. But I don’t like feeling fragile and out of control, even if those qualities are actually fundamental truths of all our lives. We are fragile. We have such limited control of so many things that matter.

Now that I have said these things I am aware of something new. I’m glad my body reminded me of my fragility. I’m glad it reminded me to take care. I’m glad it reminded me to be grateful for what it can do. I’m glad it focused me back to the fact that I feel love for it and I’m frankly amazed at how far it has come. I’ll try to walk away from my fear and back to acceptance of all the things. My health and my illness, my capacity and my disability, foreground and background. . .all of them me.