Exercise and Staying in my Body

A broad stairwell, like the kind you find at major metropolitan train or subway stations, is filled with people walking up and down the stairs. The people are blurry, imperfectly captured in motion.

Life can get a bit blurry for me sometimes

I am standing in the stairwell trying to go down to my Tuesday afternoon exercise class. The world shifts to the right as I drift just left of my body. It’s disorienting and dizzying. My feet can’t seem to move and, from my slightly off to the side view, it’s very hard to tell how far down to step. 

I step back on the landing, cross my arms and rub my triceps and biceps.  I am back in my body. I am tired and stressed after a very difficult 7 days. I’m emotionally tapped out and the numbness of leaving my body doesn’t feel terribly bad. 

I realize I’m dissociating, for brief moments, and it is coming on more frequently. I never knew it had a name, this mental holiday that is fraught with a peril therapists understand but I don’t. I’ve always felt numb during or after bad times. I thought everyone did. 

So I am at the top of the stairs, dizzy, knowing this pause is making me late. I keep rubbing my arms and squeezing the muscles. I am here. I want to be here. The numbness passes and I shakily make it down, one step at a time. 

By the time I walk through the gym studio door I’m at full brave face, laughing, hip thrusting and joking the core muscle class is secretly designed to up my power-bottoming game. 

I know most of the folks in the class. Lovely, sparkly humans who are kind and encouraging  to me always. The music starts and the worries fall away as I listen to the rapid-fire-flirty-funny instructor lead my body through a sweaty thirty minutes. I am in my body and it feels good. I feel strong. I feel capable. 

The next day I run with Anthony. Neither of us is feeling 100% but we are there, exercising to keep our minds and bodies ok. 

On Thursday I am stiff and sore. The discomfort keeps me in the moment and I am ok. I am present. I’m choosing to stay here and deal with my life. 

I’m so thankful for movement keeping me in my body. I feel the hugs, fist bumps and pats on the back as my support network ramps up the love. 

I used to think exercise was about running away from my problems. Now I’m exercising to deal with my life, to be present as healthily as I can be. 

My new cardio companion 

Back in December my work teammate Anthony asked me about my exercise schedule. I had been doing a 30 min class twice a week since November. We sit near each other and he and I often talked about our soccer experiences last season and fitness in general. 

I had shared that I wanted to get some high intensity cardio in but never seemed to make it happen. 

“I’m hitting the treadmill Monday, Wednesday, Friday want to join me?”

I agreed that Monday and Wednesday would work for me. We’ve been going regularly and I’m loving it. 

The gym was pretty busy in January so we shifted to 2pm to avoid the crowd. It has been humbling getting back into running. Plus there is a definite technique specific to treadmill running and not getting motion sick. 

Running is the most efficient way for me to get to a target heartrate. In a few minutes I’m in the zone and I’ve been alternating walking and running for a total of 30 minutes. 

A close up of Natalie's face making an unsure expression. She is sweaty with her hair pulled back. The backdrop is a gymnasium.
We can’t always score machines beside each other but it’s really not about running next to each other. The biggest benefit has been that we take turns nudging each other to keep working out. A quick “you hitting the gym today?” has kept me on track. 

The mid-afternoon timing helps me over the lull I usually feel that time of day. I get back to my desk feeling energized and optimistic. 

Anthony and Natalie smile, ruddy faced and slightly sweaty. They are wearing casual clothes and sitting in an office cubicle.
Last week I was feeling harsh with cramping feet and I just could not hit my stride. Seeing I was frustrated Anthony gave me a pep talk and offered that walking on an incline could keep my heart rate up. 

I’m enjoying the little bits of support we offer each other. and it has helped me reclaim running with, and around, other people. 

This week I ran 9 minutes continuously, the longest I’ve done in a while. It felt good to have a new milestone so early on. 

Thanks for being my cardio companion Anthony!

Why I hate (yes, hate) going to the doctor and why I go anyway 

As a white, cys-gendered anglophone in Canada I have many privileges. This post is about how, despite those privileges, I truly hate going to the doctor. 

It is the 1980s, I am a child at the pediatrician my mother asks why there are folds of skin in my armpits. “Babyfat, it will go away.” assures the pediatrician. In fact it is breast tissue. I find out when nursing my first son in 1999 as milk leaked from my underarms that I have breasts under there. 

It is 2009, I am sitting in a public health clinic room to have my pap. I’ve answered the medical history questions and the nurse practitioner stares at me. 

“How many sexual partners have you had?”

“My whole lifetime? I don’t know. I didn’t keep a list.”

“Well, if you had to guess.”

“I guess about 30. ”

“30!?! Who is the father of your children?”

“My partner.”

“What? How?”

“I’m sorry you are confused. I’m married to a man, who has a penis, that I have sex with that I refer to as my partner. We are the parents.”

It is 2004, I am sitting in the military hospital getting medically released after 12 years of service. My doctor talks to me about my mental health, my asthma and my bloodwork. He scribbled a fourth thing on the list but does not discuss it with me. I read it at home. 

Image of a medical firm listing illnesses and injuries. The list states major depressive disorder, mild exercise induced asthma, borderline cholesterol and obesity.

It is 2012 and I am at a colposcopy clinic for an abnormal pap follow-up. The nurse asks when my last period was. I didn’t know. She asked what birth control I was using. I said none. She chastised me for taking risks with being pregnant. I knew I wasn’t pregnant as my partner had a vasectomy and I had a tubal ligation in 2001. It never occurred to me that this was “using birth control”.  I explain my misunderstanding to the nurse from my feet in the stirrup position. She further castigated me as pregnancy could still occur and how would I know if I didn’t track my period? I explain I didn’t think my uterus required constant supervision. 

There are so many more moments that are flooding back to me as I write this but you get the idea. 

When I go to the doctor I feel on the defense right away. My body is deemed too heavy. My blood somehow lacking or having too much of the wrong things. There is something wrong and more often that feels on my part like the something wrong is my whole self. It’s terrible. 

In the military I was regularly categorized, measured and tested to ensure I was fit for flying duties. Many years later I feel the complicated things about not fitting expectations or having medical issues. 

I go anyway because not accessing care is why queer women have worse health outcomes than other women. 

I go because my health is worth the effort and I’ve honed and prepared my responses for when medical professionals cross a line. 

I go ready for a fight. I hate that too.

My 2017 Stop Doing List

Natalie and her partner, wearing a silver cardboard hat with Happy New Year written on it, smile at the camera

Marking the new year with my sweetie

I was sitting at Sam’s table one night chatting with Amanda (who has guest blogged here too!) when she asked if I was interested in joining a choir with her. I burst out laughing. In my mind’s eye a giant plinko chip ricocheted off all the things that are happening in my life, there was no time to take on a new thing. 

Some years I make resolutions for the new year. Often I make fitness changes around my birthday in October as the weather changes. And sometimes, like this year, I make a stop doing list. 

I have an overachiever A-type personality which can be a superpower and a giant, toxic liability. So, in the spirit of me doing me and you doing you, I thought I’d share (in no particular order) my 2017 Stop Doing List. 

1. Stop glorifying being busy

I get a buzz off being mildly overcommitted on my calendar but that is quickly followed with feeling tired, overwhelmed and exhausted. This is my tried and true path to being depressed as fuck. Fuck that shit. Busy can be good or bad but being busy doesn’t have to be tied to my self worth. 

2. Stop beating myself up over missed workouts

I’m committed to a Tuesday and Friday workout class at lunch. My workmate Anthony has invited me to do cardio with him on Mondays and Wednesdays. I’m spinning at home Thursdays and Saturdays. 

My work schedule is flexible but I don’t book my meetings so sometimes I can’t make a class. 

My kids are 15 & 17. It’s an oddly intense parenting time and things come up last minute. I’ve decided being there for them this year is especially important as my partner will frequently be on the road for work. 

Also I don’t have to hit every workout to be fit or to be taking care of myself  or to be a good person. Perfectionism is my path to procrastination and self sabotage. Fuck that shit. I’m not aiming for perfection, I’m aiming for a good quality of life physically and mentally. 

3. Stop apologizing for being a hot mess

My brain is not wired for schedules or knowing what day it is. I’ve this weird mental myopia where the next 24 hours are really clear to me and I can totally see where I need to be in 6 months. Between those two time brackets I seriously have no idea what’s going on. 

I use my calendar at work and at home to get the important appointments and kind of herd my family to things like haircuts. That’s all I have in me though, so I’m often a hot mess. 

My friends have chosen to love this about me. I often miss things because I thought it was next week or I forgot to put that Facebook event in my calendar. I’m trying but now I’m also accepting this is how I move through the world. 

To those who love me, thank you for accepting my quirky, uneven, mostly there for you self. My name is Natalie and I’m a hot mess. I will explain myself but I’m done apologizing for this. 
That’s it!

So I’m focusing on my physical and mental health and making time for naps and snuggles. 

I hope your fitness stuff is going well. Have you done a Stop Doing List? I’d love to hear of you have what was on the list. 

Also any thoughts this post has provoked as I get a big hit of happy when folks interact with what I write. 

I can’t believe I’m saying this, I found an instructor led group exercise class I actually like. 

You need to understand, after 12 years in the military, I have a lot of complicated feelings about instructor led group exercise classes. Maybe it was all the yelling or being at the back of the pack but I learned I was much better off exercising on my own. 

Of course there are other components to the typical class that simply irritate me. The uptempo dance music, the overly perky instructor who clearly maintains their fitness doing something other than jazzercise (or whatever aerobics fad is in). There’s a language and culture to each class, a dress code and the message that the goal is weight loss. 

So last month I finally caved and joined the gym at work. A couple of my teammates raved about cxworx, a 30 min cardio class. I was super skeptical but decided I’d give it a try, actually 6 tries, before writing it off. 

My colleagues made sure I had the weights, tension band and mats I needed before class (thanks Jess!). The instructor gave clear direction about the moves. They were a series of exercises paced to 90 second long song clips. The songs serve as a mnemonic for each set of exercises. They are based on yoga and Pilates moves with resistance elements and a hi-tempo rep. 

I spent the first class making my WTF face while trying to follow along and didn’t get much of a workout. 

The second class I was starting to get the postures and transitions. By the fourth class I was staring to sweat and figuring out how to modify or scale back the intensity. (Thank you for the tips & tricks Carrie!)

The 30 minute series seems to be designed to help compensate for sedentary deskwork most of us do. There are leg lifts, crunches, planks and squats as well as some upper body resistance sequences. 

My favourite exercise is a one legged squat that seems to be based on the yoga posture Warrior III. It uses balance, strength, flexibility and endurance and engages nearly every muscle. 

In short, I’m a fan. I was looking for a core muscle workout but I found a lot of great things in this unusual class. The instructor focuses on the functional fitness of each move and enhancing strength and flexibility, I’ve not heard weight loss mentioned once. I love the scurry from my desk just before noon to change and get downstairs to the gym. I love the nudge emails from my colleagues (thanks Amanda!). I feel refreshed after the class and my head is clear for the afternoon. It has helped me integrate into my new team at work by providing a concrete common thing that is not just work. 

It’s twice a week and a hard enough workout that for two days after stairs and getting up from my desk hurts. 

The only downside is those dang 90 second music clips give me ear worms and I’m more of a rock and metal music type. 

This is how I travel now

My partner was awarded a trip to Punta Cana! Wahoo! So Saturday morning I’m airborne and heading south to a week at a resort. 

I’ve never chosen a trip to the Caribbean before. I have complicated feelings about flying for leisure, the environmental impact of all inclusive resorts and wealthy people’s entitlement about seeing/consuming the world. I didn’t let these complicated feelings keep me from joining my partner on the trip.

The last time I flew for personal reasons was before my now fifteen year old son was born. The last time I flew in the military was a year or two after that. It’s been a long time. I do love flying. It’s the sounds and smells of jet engines, the crackle of radios and the magic of escaping the earth through sheer thrust. Even if you know the math jet planes just don’t look like they should fly and yet they do. It’s marvelous. 

During my time in the military I discovered I’m delightfully prone to GI distress. I once had a crippling bout in Florida. Sad really. So this is how I travel now:

A collection of over the counter medicines detailed in the text that follows
Let’s start at the top left with a Diva cup because, thanks to middle age, any day can be a menstruating day. Next is antacids and antidiarrhea to manage my increasingly sensitive guts. 

Next row blood pressure meds, these are simply not optional. Solid sunscreen for my face and a big tube of sunscreen. Preventing sunburns is just smart. Heat stroke, blisters and pain are just not necessary for my fun in the sun week. Note that the sunscreen is followed by after sun gel for the inevitable sunburn. Ibuprofen for menstrual cramps, sore back from a strange bed and, hopefully, to relieve any strains and sprains I might sustain from vigorous activities. I’m really hoping for a sex injury on this trip. It would make a great story. 

Finally, antihistamines round out my travel pack. I’ve hay fever and am scent sensitive as well as allergic to most animals. I’m allergic to cats so much that when I hug my cat loving friends my eyes swell up. Yup. I’ve become this person who packs for every possible health concern. 

There was a time I would pack a couple changes of underwear and two shirts for a week. I didn’t appreciate the ease of traveling when young without prescriptions or unpredictable periods and I think I just didn’t have a big enough bank of bad experiences to know all the ways things go wrong for me. 

I’m so very fortunate to go on this awesome trip. I’m ready for fun in the sun with a wide brim hat and sunglasses. 

My partner wants an active trip and I love swimming, snorkeling and kayaking but I’m also looking forward to sleeping, eating and drinking without caregiving or being in charge of meals. 

It’s a once in twenty years kind of experience. Very different from my usual vacations to New Brunswick and I can’t wait to tell you how it goes. 

Big arms and making bread

The weather is turning and my hands and feet are starting to ache. I had gone tree planting in the rain with my family a couple weeks ago and the cold settled into my joints. 

a teenage boy and  a woman  smiling   with grass in the background

out planting trees, before the rain smiles

When I got home I started kneading some sourdough bread I had percolating on the counter. The kneading motion is the perfect stretch to typical office work hand positions or the gripping and digging of tree planting. 

hands kneading dough in a ceramic bowl

I’m short so kneading is easier on a table for me.

The flexing, turning and stretching of my hands and the dough has this wonderful rhythmic quality. I feel the muscles across my back, chest and arms work as the dough gets to that perfectly plastic, stretchy state. 

Bread making always takes me back to sitting with my mom as she made bread. I had tiny metal pans as I’d try to emulate her moves. It always smelled so good but was also a lot of work so homemade bread was a special treat. 

If we were really lucky Mom would save some dough to pan fry into a puffy pastry we called doughboys. In Ontario there are similar things called elephant ears or beaver tails. 

an onlong pastry topped with butter, cinnamon and powdered sugar.

Bread making also reminds me of my aunts on my mom’s side, all great bread makers. I think about my cousins who are making bread back on the East Coast. They all make bread in a similar style and giant rolls perfect for butter and jam. 

I especially love how if you make a lot of bread you get great big arms. My sister and I joke about it all the time. We love visiting our Aunt Jean who would treat us to her rolls, bread and doughboys at Palfrey Lake Lodge. Her strong arms moving large batches of dough as though they weighed nothing at all. 

Bread has gotten a bad rap these days as a harbinger of ill health and too caloricly dense. Dollar for dollar it is a very effective way to get nourishment and many cultures have a yeast or sourdough based bread. This ted talk about bread and addressing global hunger is pretty amazing. 

We need to feed the whole world

And here’s another on bread making and trying to make whole grain bread that tastes yummy. 

The art and craft of bread

I’ve been playing around with making sourdough bread. The results are not perfect but they are always tasty. I get a little zing of pride when I see the dusty loaves. The texture is satisfying and perfect with soups and cheeses. 

teo sourdough rounds  cool on a wire rack  on a wood counter

The house smells great, it feels physically good, it’s a cheap way to get great food. 

If you have the privilege of time, one of those days when you are home off and on, maybe writing or exercising, making bread adds punctuation to the day. 

If you’ve never tried making bread it can be a great way to connect with a friend, revel in how your body and time can transform flour and water into this delectable thing.