I’m here to tell you that you can be both fat and fit. read it again. fat and fit. not fat to fit. not fat but fit. fat AND fit. that’s right. and yes, i have read the articles (including the most recent one from across the pond – it wasn’t peer-reviewed if that’s something that matters to you) that argue that fatness and fitness cannot co-exist. i’ve read them, internalized them and spent years unlearning the things they claimed to know about my body.
i also spent years avoiding the gym (and fitness in general) not taking care of my body because the measures of success too often involved scales and shame (so much shame) and a focus on weight loss. well i’m calling bullshit. and i’m asking that we start focusing on measures that make sense for our lives, whether that be having an easier time getting out of bed in the morning or struggling less with our groceries or lifting twice our body weight at the gym. we need to focus less on the numbers on the scale and more on what healthy means to us.
fitness (to me) is about taking care of myself which happens to include my mental health. it’s about listening to my body and loving myself at every size despite what the world tells me. fitness to me is about self-love, whether that be lifting heavier and sweating more at the gym or staying home with a pint of ice cream because the world feels like too much that day. gym culture can make all of this hard because fitness so often seems to equate to thinness in workout spaces but i’ve been figuring out how to take up space at the gym with my fabulous fat (and fit) body, exaggerating moves and turning the whole experience into some kind of performance. but i still totally get why some people avoid it. i did for a long time too. it can be such a toxic place which seems to care about everything but health.
the gym can really suck (especially for those of us who do not fit fatphobic and racist beauty standards) but i’m going to spend my time there trying to make it a space that can not only be fun but also shame free while also totally getting that you can be fit (and fabulously fat) without spending time or money on a place that can still make so many feel like utter shit.
now i’m spending time unlearning fat shame and learning to listen to my body and what feels good for it. and now i can say that my fat body gives me strength and i love it. so much.
Weronika is a white queer working class libra who wakes up way too early, way too happy. They are ambivalently working on their doctorate while distracting themselves with other projects like developing a trauma-informed therapy practice. They are into reading books, lifting heavy things, and making food for and with people. They are also a body positive personal trainer working with those who hate the gym. You can find out more by emailing them at firstname.lastname@example.org
On Saturday, I ran my third half-marathon, the Potomac River Run. Both of the other times I trained for a half-marathon, I was incredibly disciplined about training, driven largely by a fear of collapsing half-way through the course. I had all sorts of rituals: not only an elaborate weekly schedule of four to five runs, but much fussing over the details of my playlist, purchasing new shoes, collecting up the perfect set of snacks, planning out my water breaks, and so forth.
This time was different. Partly it was because for the first time I was not going to be running with my wonderful friends, FFI bloggers Tracy and Anita, so I didn’t have our shared enthusiasm and peer pressure keeping me on track. Two of the four in the group of us who planned to run this race together dropped out. My remaining racing buddy, Joseph, while a dear friend, was a man in his 20s who can run twice as fast as me while drunk and with a giant sea turtle strapped to his back. Partly it was because this year I am commuting between New York and Washington, DC every single week and taking a full graduate course load on top of my full-time academic job, and still training in two other sports, which in New York involves commuting to my boxing gym an hour and fifteen minutes in each direction almost every day. Something had to give. I was overwhelmed.
I ended up doing something like two thirds of my planned runs, and many of those I cut short or did at a slower pace than I planned because I was just exhausted or out of time or both. A couple of weeks I skipped altogether, because of travel, family illnesses and who knows what.
Long story short, by the time race day came, I had given up on any hope of a PR. I felt totally unprepared, and my trial 21K two weeks earlier had been my worst time ever. All was chaos. I forgot my running belt in New York. I woke up the morning of the race and realized I had no snacks to bring, and had done nothing to update my tired playlist since my last race. I had no idea where the course was. Indeed, we got lost three separate times on our way to the race. I wrongly thought that the race ended in the middle of DC, so I left all my things in my boyfriend’s car and planned to take the metro home at the end, but once we arrived we found out the course was actually an out-and-back. We were stranded in the chilly forest with no coats, and we had no way of getting home from the wilds of Maryland where we had been dropped off.
When I looked at the course, my heart sunk further. The promotional materials had promised a totally flat, fast course. I had assumed it would be a smooth running path along the river. One glance showed me that the course was actually a rough, uneven trail, and that the organizers’ conception of ‘completely flat’ was significantly different from mine. Mentally, I adjusted my finishing time up yet farther. We found out there were no bathrooms and no mile markers on the course. We had no water and no snacks. We started to joke about leaving and getting brunch instead. The colder we got, the less joke-y our jokes became.
Finally the race began, and I took off at what I thought was a light slow jog, trying to warm up slowly, as is my practice. After half a mile, my app informed me that I was pacing slightly faster than what was supposed to be my target pace – the pace I had long since given up hope of achieving anyhow. I was surprised and assumed GPS error. But no, after a mile I was still at that same pace. I considered slowing down on purpose so as not to burn out, but really it felt like I was just jogging comfortably. I couldn’t see any benefit to slowing down. I decided that I’d just keep up that pace as long as it was comfortable. I wouldn’t speed up, and I’d slow down or take a walk break if I needed to. I assumed I would need to, since I was pacing just around 9 minutes a mile, which is quite fast, for me. (I have very very little legs!)
I kept running, and I never felt the need to slow down. Water stations came and went, and I felt no need for them. There were some small hills, but they didn’t make me want to break stride. I made it to the halfway mark in just moments under an hour, and decided it was time to re-up my expectations. I had long wanted to finish a half-marathon in under two hours, and I was on track to do it! So I decided to just stay on pace and not slow down or walk unless I really needed to. And I didn’t. My pace was weirdly consistent, mile after mile. I made it through the whole race without a water or a walk break of any kind, and cruised through the finish line just seconds under 2:00, giving me a PR and meeting a goal that had felt totally unreachable a week before.
As I sat with my friend at the finish line, the overly enthusiastic guy with the microphone whose job it is to keep everyone ‘amped’ called out, “And Rebecca Kukla wins a prize!” I was baffled. I went up and asked, “Why, what did I win?” “YOU WIN A HAT!” he bellowed into the mic. “Um, that’s great, but why did I win a hat? What for?” “BECAUSE YOU’RE AWESOME,” he roared back. “Thanks!” I said. “But seriously, I don’t understand what I did that’s awesome. What did I win?” “YOU WIN A HAT!” he yelled back happily. I gave up and took the hat, which I dearly needed, since as I noted we were cold. The next day I found out that I had won second in my age group! I still don’t quite understand how that’s possible, but I did! It was a good day to be a woman in my 40s! I never expected to win any kind of prize for running, especially not yesterday.
What’s the moral of the story? I think just that bodies can surprise you. Who knows why they do what they do. All our neurotic efforts to discipline them and make them predictable are built on an underlying morass of chaos and contingency. I woke up the next morning, post-race, and felt great. I was in the gym boxing by 10 am. I have no idea why that all went so well. But goodness, there’s no better feeling than your body suddenly becoming dramatically more powerful and able than you had any right to expect!
Rebecca Kukla is Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, and also a graduate student in urban geography at CUNY-Hunter College. She is a competitive boxer and powerlifter, a dedicated bike commuter, and a runner of wildly varying enthusiasm. She lives in Washington, DC with a passel of excellent human and non-human animals.
Here’s a guest post by Michele M (posted by Catherine W)
Content note: This post contains some talk about eating disorders.
Last week, I swam 10.3 miles in the Tennessee River in 5 hours and 8 minutes. I used the race to raise money for a family with two small boys who just lost their mom, at 34, to breast cancer. She was one of my closest friends. This race was not my first long distance swim and it is certainly not going to be my last. But this one was special insofar as it marked a transition in the way I think about my body, what it is capable of, and how I have been treating it. I also came to realize more than ever that women are badass (duh). More on that later.
I have always had a hard time declaring “I’m an athlete” without simultaneously assuming everyone must know I am an impostor. Despite growing up doing ballet and swimming competitively, apprenticing with the Atlanta ballet during college, and today, staring at a shelf full of trophies from numerous races I’ve completed, even ones where I was first or second female overall, I feel like a fraud when I even try to think privately to myself ‘yeah, I’m an athlete.’ I think this is because deep, deep down inside I am still battling the demons of anorexia and bulimia and over the years, I have added long-distance swimming and triathlons to my repertoire to beat those demons down even further. And all those eating disordered voices have been pushed down and out pretty far, so far in fact that they are almost mute and unrecognizable. But I would be a liar if I denied that a huge part of what drives me to swim farther than most humans care to run is a fear of uncontrollably gaining weight. Swimming absurd distances, ironically, lets me obsess over eating for very different reasons. Turns out, that if you are going to swim 5, 6, 10, 13 miles in open water, you need to EAT. Like, a lot. Who knew?
I’ve loved reading the posts on this blog and one written by Megan Dean recently really hit home with me. Responding to Google’s new fat-phobic feature that lets you know how many cupcakes you will walk off on a particular journey, she said she has actively tried to keep calories out of her life, instead focusing on fitness and food for the pleasure they bring her. I couldn’t agree more, and I wish it were an easy thing to do – to simply ignore all that data. But it’s shoved in our faces more and more each day. My Apple watch constantly reminds me I have ‘x’ number of calories left to burn for the day, and I get praised by the myriad of apps I have whenever I complete a workout, with something along the lines of “you burned soooo many calories today! Way to go champ!” Thus, rather than try to ignore it all, I have learned to use this information to remind, convince, and re-convince myself that 1. I am totally burning enough calories and will not uncontrollably gain weight and that 2. Yes, I am, in fact, an athlete.
Data also help me to train appropriately. With endurance racing, the problem often is not getting enough fuel or not getting the right kind. For this 10 mile swim, I really had to focus on my diet, but not in the obsessive calorie-restrictive ways I have been accustomed to as a ballerina. And it just naturally seems to happen that when I train for long distances swims, I pack on a few extra pounds. Training for the first major swim I did – Swim Around Key West, a 12.5 mile ocean swim – I was miserable because the scale just kept creeping up. Same thing happened with the 10k swim I did last year in Tampa. But finally, this year, I decided to just embrace it and see it as a sign that I was training correctly. Besides, the weight always levels back out when I return to a more running-heavy routine.
Moreover, when you gaze out at the array of bodies participating in these absurdly long swims, the variety of shapes and sizes is astounding. I recall thinking to myself as I prepared to hit the water the other day that half the people here look like they eat cheeseburgers and chug beer as a professional job (I think nervous, not-entirely-appropriate thoughts before races). And you know what? Every single one of them kicked my ass. Well, nearly all of them. I came in 85th out of 105 swimmers, even though I averaged 30 minute miles for over 10 miles. I got beaten by a 14-year-old boy, a 65-year-old man, many, many folks who appeared to be in way less shape than I, and, wait for it…a woman who was 31 weeks pregnant (she beat me by about 2 minutes). It is always a strange mix of humility and pride that I feel after one of these races – knowing that I got creamed by so many amazing swimmers, while also knowing I am capable of doing something very few people in the world will ever be able to add to their résumé.
The winner of this race, Sandra Frimerman-Bergquist, swam it in 3 hours 17 minutes, nearly 2 hours faster than I did. Of course, I was in awe of her time, but what struck me the most was that it was a WOMAN who won this race, hands down, by over 15 full minutes! And the next TWO swimmers were also women, who tied with a man at 3 hours 30 minutes.
Audrey Yap and I, along with Caren Diehl and Cassie Comley (a Sports Psychologist and Sociologist, respectively), recently co-authored a chapter in the forthcoming MIT Handbook of Embodied Cognition and Sports Psychology about stereotype threat and female athletes. We focused on martial arts, swimming and surfing, in order to show the ways stereotypes are maintained or disrupted in these sports. It was striking to find that in marathon swimming, the supposed gap between male and female performance is not as drastic as it is in sports like running, and when you start looking at major distances like the English Channel or the Manhattan Marathon, women often outperform men. So, going into this race, I knew all that, but still, to see it happen in real life (not that I saw these fast-as-hell women finish – they were the ones waiting for me, drinking beer, looking like they didn’t even swim ten 19 minute miles) was nothing short of exhilarating. Women of marathon swimming are some of the most badass people I’ve ever met.
So yes, this race was super inspiring in so many ways. It was the first long distance swim I completed after having my son 16 months ago that I genuinely felt proud of (I completed a 6.5 mile swim 5 months postpartum, but it was too soon after birth and I was just not in shape for it). It was also an important stepping stone toward the next race I’ve challenged myself to do: a Half Ironman in April. (I think I can safely say I have the swimming part down).
But I was reminded, as I began to really hit the wall around mile 6, why nutrition and cross-training are so important. I could probably stand to do better at fueling my body, especially for Ironman-distance triathlons. And I could definitely stand to do more strength training. Old habits die hard and the phobia of turning into a ‘big woman who lifts weights’ keeps me out of the gym more than I’m proud of. But it would have been nice to have slightly stronger muscles to power me through that horrible 6-7 mile spot where I wanted to quit.
To this end, I’ve hired a coach to really help push me to my full potential in all three sports, but also in nutrition. And that means counting not calories so much as nutrients, electrolytes, and weird things like base salts. Most of all, it means letting go of what my body might start to look like the more I train. Thanks to the women who kicked this race’s ass, and to all the feelings I had getting out of that water after 5 hours of swimming, I was encouraged to keep working toward the most difficult goal I’ve ever set forth for myself: to love my body for what it can do, not so much for what it looks like. I’m never going to be able to beat the ‘skinny demons’ entirely, but becoming the strong and resilient marathon swimmer and triathlete I am today sure has made it easier to land a solid punch in their skinny-obsessed faces.
Michele is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Arkansas State, mom to a 17 month old who is the size of a 3 year old, partner to an Engineer/poet, and guardian of 2 dogs and 2 cats: Darwin, Tesla, Cixous, and Nom Chompsky. She is currently working on a book with University of Georgia Press, “Minding Dogs: Co-Evolving Cognition in the Human-Canine Dyad”.
Sometimes I think I’m not really a runner. I took it up as part of a new year’s resolution — my friends and I decided to sign up for a 5k race and give it a shot. Two years later, I’m reading my cadence data and learning about zones, and my Strava segments are looking good.
Two years ago, the thought of running a 5k felt like a bit deal. This past year, I’ve been running our local 10k races, and the goal was to try run my first half marathon.
“Without barfing or crying!”
Melissa’s Road Race is a tradition in Banff — it takes place in late September, and offers a 5k and 10k race that wind through the town of Banff, and up towards Tunnel Mountain Drive. The half marathon — my race — goes out towards Cascade Falls, and then behind the historic Banff Springs Hotel and out to the golf course. Two laps of the golf course road takes you around Mount Rundle, and along the Bow River, and all in a very quiet, secluded area.
My girlfriends and I drove out from Calgary the night before and stayed in a b&b. After an obligatory walk to Banff Avenue for a late night snack, we turned in. There’d been a heavy snowfall warning for Banff two days before the race, but the morning was cold and clear…about 2 degrees Celsius, with fresh snow above the treeline. I had laid out my gear the night before, and I was prepared for the cooler weather: long tights with funky knee socks, a long sleeve shift, arm warmers, a wind vest, hat, buff, globes, and skull cap. A lot of clothing, but as it turned out, I was layering up and down all through the run.
We walked down for the 5k start and I saw my friends off, and then got ready for the half marathon start ten minutes later.
One of the greatest things about Melissa’s is the spirit of the race. Registration is capped at 4,500 participants by Parks Canada and the Town of Banff. The half marathon runners received a wildlife briefing — we had a short elk delay. I polished off a Clif bar while I waited, and then had the first Gu gel while I chatted with the runners around me. I was feeling pretty darn nervous, and had a good case of the ‘I don’t belong here’ frets.
I tried to start slow…I really did! The first 5k were easy…running down towards the falls, enjoying the view. I’d seeded myself at about the 7:30 mark, but I found myself passing that pace group and then evening out between the next one, so the crowd had thinned quite a bit.
The first aid station was at the 5k mark, and I walked in to have some water and walked out with the first snack — one of those pressed fruit bars from the grocery store. I’ve been trying to work out inexpensive things to take on runs, and a thirty-nine cent bar is a lot easier to swallow (ha, ha) than the more expensive performance foods and gels.
As we left the 5k station, we were running in sun. The golf course itself was screened from view — it felt more like being out on a back road or laneway, and I only caught a few glimpses of sandtraps and groomed greens. With the sun out, I was warming up…but as the course dipped down and closer to Mount Rundle, we moved into shadow and I had to layer back up. This really was a theme for the run…warm patches of meadow followed by very cool stretches in the shadow of the most glorious mountains.
I am, most definitely, a slow runner. Melissa’s is a race that attracts a lot of fast runners. At this point, there was a lot of room between me and the other runners, and as I got towards eight kilometers, the faster runners in the race were already onto their second lap.
Boy howdy, is that a weird feeling. The first speedy runners blasted by, and I had that moment: what on earth am I doing here? I’m so slow…I don’t belong here. This is awful! I clapped for the faster runners, and to my surprise, they were congratulating ME. “Good pace! Keep it up! Great run! You got this!” It was a real lift to the spirits…especially as I hit 11k and realized I still had another ten to go.
Leaving the 8k aid station, I snacked on a package of Honey Stinger gummies…and shared them with a fellow runner (also his first half marathon). Then off running again, and I kept finished that first lap of the golf course, had a bathroom break, another fruit bar, and charged out for the next lap.
This was where everything started feeling hard. I’d trained well through the summer, and I was feeling pretty confident that I had the strength to finish. Certainly the scenery was keeping the run breathtaking in all the right ways. The sharp smell of pine and the croaking of mountain ravens will stay with me for a long time, I think.
But there was something about this long stretch…I’d read about the psychology of long races, and the point where the effort becomes just as much mental and emotional as it is physical. For me, it was the ‘dig deep’ moment…I had to look inward, trust my body, and settle in for the long run still to come. The fast runners had left us all behind, and it was time to get the job done.
My 5k friends were texting encouragement to me and I was reading the messages on my Garmin…and at this point, those little buzzes were really welcome. I knew they’d be waiting for me at the finish, and those motivating messages helped so much. So did the sight of a Parks Canada ranger keeping a close eye on something off in the trees…
More snacks. More positive self talk. A few more walk breaks. My pace was feeling good, legs good, feet starting to get a little sore…but I was doing it. When I hit kilometre sixteen, I started thinking about how I only had five to go, and how it was just my evening run. Just my regular, run of the mill, after-work run through the neighbourhood. It helped to look at the distances and think about where I’d be if I was back home.
At 18k, I had my last snack — a gel I’d been saving as a ‘just in case.’ I’d been keeping up a fairly regular pace but I was suddenly very hungry and tired, and in retrospect, I probably needed one more snack than I’d packed. Fortunately the gel — the one I almost put back but left in my pocket after my friend told me to take it for emergencies — did the trick.
The run down along the falls meant a slog uphill. At the top of the hill, I saw the marker for the nineteenth kilometre, and the volunteers were cheerfully calling out that it would be level from this point on.
Home stretch! At this point, I was dodging tourists on the pathways and running past 5k and 10k runners leaving the race, but I was determined to keep going. My friends had been tracking my progress, and were waiting close to the turn point into that last little bit.
I managed to put one last burst of speed and sprinted in to the finish…I wanted to finish strong, and finish proud, and coming in as fast as I could manage was the way I wanted to do it.
I did it! At 39, I ran my first half marathon. After a year of hard work and preparation, I finished with a chip time of 2:37:45, towards the back of the pack for overall time and for my age group. I am deeply grateful to have the strength and health to do this, and as I approach 40, I’m also very grateful to have friends to share my training and run talk with, and that we celebrated this accomplishment together.
We all went up to the hot springs afterwards, and I ran into another half marathoner — one of the fast ones that lapped us. I was congratulating him on his fast run, and how much in awe I am of the people that were flying by me. But what really struck me was what he said about seeing the slower runners (and I paraphrase):
“I see all of you, and you’re just on your seventh or eighth kilometer as we’re going by on fourteen and fifteen, and I think ‘goddamn, look at them…they’re pouring their heart and soul into this, and look at them — they still have the whole race ahead of them but goddamn if they aren’t giving their all! It’s so %!@#ing amazing, because you’re just made up of grit and will and ^!$#ing determination.”
And that, friends, is exactly what you should remember the next time you think you are too old, too slow, too out of shape, too inexperienced, too amateurish, too whatever to do what you want to try to do. Grit and will and determination. You have it all.
So, it’s the last day of my vacation; I’m on my way back to Newfoundland after an awesome 9 days of coming home to Nova Scotia. In the last couple of years, I’ve been coming home in May and September, to the Bluenose and Maritime Race Weekends. Training consistently has been a real challenge the past couple of years (I’ve mostly been a weekend warrior), but by signing up for races, it at least keeps me in the headspace of aspiring to be an athlete again.
This year I did the 5k on Friday night, and the 10k Saturday morning, for a ‘Tartan Twosome’ Awesomely, so did my niece, Christina, who lives in Dartmouth, who is one of the best ambassadors for running I know. She gave me a drive for both races, and we arrived in plenty of time to enjoy the great vibe together at the race site beforehand. Lots of east coast music, pirates, and even highland dancers. As usual, though, when I was getting dressed for the first race, I was wishing I ‘looked’ and felt more like a runner — that I was leaner, my form would be better, that I would be faster, etc.
Then (also as usual) I got to the race, and was super-impressed with everyone else who was there, all rightly being hugely proud of themselves, and enjoying their accomplishment of being there and participating! Immediately, I was brought back to my happy place, and reminded of the reason I continue to run and sign up for races in which I know I have no chance of being competitive: I think everybody else is awesome for their efforts, so how come I don’t think the same about me? I’m a better person for however much running I fit into my life, regardless of whether I turn into the “lean, mean running machine” I dream of being someday. Success before I even started the race! Yay!
The 5k went way better than expected, especially considering I had been battling sinusitis and laryngitis since that Wednesday. The race is an out-and-back that ends on a downhill and comes back in through the Fisherman’s Cove village of shops on the water. The crowds of people cheering everybody on was amazing, as was the live entertainment along the way. Musicians were playing traditional music and cheering on participants, too. The 10k the next day was pretty rough, with more hills and heat, but, also with the help of the crowds and musicians, I finished, and even managed not to beat myself up about having to walk 2 or 3 times. Instead, I’m using it as huge motivation to recommit to running, and see how much I can improve between now and next year! Can’t wait!
But perhaps the best part of both days was reconnecting with friends and family with whom I’ve lost touch over the years. Like Linda, who put the idea in my head when we met in 1999 that I could and should do a marathon with her, and continued to support me through training, even after she had to stop her own because of an injury. She did whatever runs she could with me, checked in with me about training, and had me stay overnight at her place before the Valley Harvest marathon, so that she and her husband could get up ridiculously early and drive me to the marathon from their place in Sackville. Afterwards, they brought me back to theirs, to put me in the jacuzzi with a cold beer in hand. There she was, crossing the Sunset 5k finish line, looking exactly the way I remembered her from nearly two decades ago — amazingly strong and super-fit, and at 60-something!
And Meghan, a friend from school who I hadn’t seen in years, but have gotten huge inspiration and encouragement from through Facebook, following her journey to being the best person she can be by focussing on her fitness, while also being wife, mother to two children, and working full-time.
And I’ve reconnected with my sister, who’s been living away for years now; my sister-in-law, who lives in Nova Scotia, but you know.. life; and Christina; we’ve all committed to doing a Tartan Twosome next year, and supporting each other in our training efforts as we go. And so begins another year of training, and seeing how close I can get to my goals. One thing is for sure though… there’s no shortage of amazing inspiration and role models to be found!
Angie White is a former academic with a PhD in philosophy from Western University. She is from Nova Scotia, and is now enjoying being back on the east coast, living in St. John’s, Newfoundland with her husband and puppy.
A couple of months ago someone asked me the question that I have dreaded being asked most. The question was a simple one: Are you fully recovered?
Let me back track a bit. Almost three years ago, I suffered from a severe concussion. I had cognitive and visual problems, endless dizziness, migraines, and neck pain. Together these symptoms left me in bed in a dark room for almost 7 months. I was able to brush my teeth and shower, but I wasn’t able to grocery shop or cook. I was able to see people, but only for short times. I was largely isolated from my husband and my, at the time, 6 year old daughter. The dog was really the only one I could tolerate for longer periods of time, but at times even she was too much to handle.
For the most part, through hard work and some good luck, I’ve managed to get back to the things that I love. In the fall of 2016, I started a new academic position and in the winter I returned to teaching. This year I returned to a full teaching load. I’ve also returned to travelling and giving talks on a very limited basis. Most importantly, I am able to spend time with my family and to do the simple things that I love like grocery shopping. Even though it didn’t quite stick, I even managed to start running again this summer. All things considered, things have been going very well for me. I am proud of the progress that I have made and continue to make.
Given all of this, one might wonder, why was THAT question so difficult to answer? In part, it is hard to answer because I had recently been asking myself the same question and I hadn’t come up with a good answer.
The question itself confuses me. It isn’t clear to me what being recovered looks like at this point. If the person (and myself) was asking whether I am back to being the same person that I was before my head injury, then the answer is no. And, what comes next is difficult to say out loud and to admit to myself: I am not the same person that I was before my head injury. Sometimes I have still have days (sometimes many days) where I can’t out of bed. Sometimes, I am still overwhelmed with migraines, nausea, and numbness for weeks at a time. Sometimes, I am still cognitively hazey (this is probably the hardest thing to admit as an academic). More fundamentally, I am aware of my vulnerability, sometimes overcome with (irrational) fear that I will return to that dark room and be unable to do the things I love most.
On the other hand, perhaps I have just changed. Perhaps this is all part of my new norm. I have great days and not so great days and somehow I push through. Perhaps, then, I have recovered as much as I can.
Another option (according to the medical experts that I am working with) is that I’m still a work in progress. According to my neurologist, it can take almost 6 years to fully recover from a brain injury. This isn’t often the answer that people want to hear. People prefer a quick and complete success story – one where the person goes from being stuck in a dark room to being back in front of the classroom and travelling around the world, as if the accident had never happened. Unfortunately, in many cases of brain injury, this is a far-fetched scenario.
At this point, I’m still not sure how to answer THAT question. All of these are live options. My guess is my answer will change with place and time.
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 was 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 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.