aging · body image · fitness · weight lifting · yoga

Muscles and Aging Women’s Bodies

I loved Nanette’s post about strength training and the feminine ideal a couple of weeks ago, and I have to admit that it made me long for those days as a grad student in my twenties when I used to work out at the gym a lot and, like Nanette, I could literally see the results. If you didn’t see Nanette’s post, here she is and this is what it’s like to have a buff, young body that shows your effort:

nanette Back shotI know we’re not all about looks here, and for all sorts of reasons. I’ve talked openly about the inspirational disvalue of fitspo. But oh how fabulous those back muscles look.

Lots of us aren’t in our twenties anymore. And lots of us have bodies that never really did show the fruits of our labor in quite that same dramatic way (if at all) in the first place. For women with aging bodies, much of the mental work goes into accepting that we may never look the way we think we should, should have (or wish we would or would have) or we may not be able to maintain the body we had in our twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, etc.

We need to let go of some of those more superficial dreams because hanging onto an appearance ideal is the biggest indicator of who is going struggle with aging. Check out Sam’s post about this topic here.

We don’t have to fight aging. Instead, we can age well. See what Sam has to say about that here.

I’ve been reflecting on all of this lately because, not suprisingly for a woman in her fifties, I have lots of friends in their fifties too. And we all have thoughts about aging. Lots of “battle” language in my conversations with friends these days as they continue to fight their bodies.

I’ve already sworn off talking about people’s weight loss goals and diets with them. Not interested.

But I realize too that, true to the challenge Sam and I set for ourselves in 2012 when we started the blog, taking weight loss and body composition out of the equation, I am in fact the fittest I’ve ever been in my life. I feel pretty awesome. This week, another friend of mine, also in her fifties and also the fittest of her life, came with her partner to spend some time with us for a few days on our sailboat in the Bahamas.

We were super active, walking, hiking, swimming, kayaking, and even taking in a yoga class on the beach one day. We talked about how hard we work to stay strong and physically healthy these days, and also how energized and committed we feel to our respective routines. Being on vacation, it didn’t even cross our minds not to stay active. These things just evolved as part of each day.

Part of that “battle” language I talked about just now has to do with rejecting the aging body.  We are told that at a certain age, our bodies become “unsightly.” I swear someone invented the tankini to shame older women into ditching their two piece bikinis so no one would have to look at our bellies. If, as Nanette says, the feminine ideal is for women to be soft and demure and weak, the older woman is supposed to be even softer, weaker, and more invisible.

Not too long ago, it wasn’t uncommon to encounter lists of things that that women “of a certain age” should not wear.  According to this article:

Our bodies change and in many cases not for the better. Arms don’t have the muscle tone that they used to have and totally sleeveless tops show this is off so well. This will be equally true of thin woman as those who are overweight.

If these articles had their way, we would be walking that fine edge between being too frumpy and dressing in an age-appropriate way.  And no one is spared–the fat and the thin are equally at risk of getting it all wrong. But that was before it became clear that those women were a force to be reckoned with, responding with a loud and resounding “f**k that!”

The mental work of overcoming internalized and externally imposed expectations about how we are supposed to look has a huge impact on our ability to feel good in the bodies we have, no matter how the passing of time may affect how we look. I’ve heard lots of people say, and I believe it to be true, that body confidence is a lot more attractive, sexy even (and yes, we get to keep being sexy and get to — gasp — keep having sex), than even the most objectively perfect-looking body of an insecure person (remember: the more wedded we are to our looks, the tougher it is to age).

Anyway, if there’s one thing Cindi and I rocked this week it was body confidence. Why? Because both of us feel strong and healthy and energized by what we’re doing. We may not have tons of it, but both of us have some muscle that we didn’t have a few years ago and we feel it. Here’s Cindi, rocking her new found pipes on the beach.

My friend Cindi, looking awesome after beach yoga and a long swim in the ocean.
My friend Cindi, looking awesome after beach yoga and a long swim in the ocean.

And here we are after a bit of a hike to see “the monument” at the top of the ridge, down to the beach on the other side, and then back over again, on our way to the long and deserted beach that ranks as my favourite place to go swimming in the entire world. Smooth white sand, soft surf (on the calmer days), and clear turquoise colored water.

Cindi and I, expressing our trees with enthusiasm from atop the ridge. Photo credit: Jan Hertsens.
Cindi and I, expressing our trees with enthusiasm from atop the ridge. Photo credit: Jan Hertsens.

If Sam is right that aging is a lifestyle choice, it’s a lifestyle choice we’re not choosing to make right now, at least not in that way.  If you’re an older woman whose body isn’t quite the lean machine it once was, or maybe never was, then maybe it’s time to make the choice to love what you have and work it to its best potential.

I’m a bit squishier than my younger self, with the muscle I have hiding under a less lean physique, but I’m feeling strong and vibrant. And life is good. I can still do yoga. I can do squats, lunges, bench presses, dips, and am coming close to being able to complete a full pull-up for the first time in my life (stay tuned for a progress report when that day finally comes). Not to mention (but I will) the triathlons, half marathons, marathons…

We may be getting older, but we are not ready for those tankinis yet, unless that’s what we want, because as the Huff Post rebuttle to the ridiculous idea that people get to police our clothing choices says:

You are over 50 for fuck’s sake. Wear whatever you want. If you’ve made it to 50 and still need to consult articles on how to dress appropriately then you are so missing out on one of the best things about being over 50. One of the best things about getting older is realizing that we don’t have to spend our energy worrying what other people think and we get to be comfortable in our own skin…



body image · diets · eating · fat · fitness · running · swimming · weight lifting · yoga

Reflections on Setbacks

Disappointment concept.I had a demoralizing experience at the bod pod earlier this week. The bod pod measures body composition (lean mass to fat ratio).  I went once before, in September.  And since getting leaner is one of the goals I have, the bod pod is a good way to get an objective measure on that.  Tuesday’s result: I’ve lost 2 pounds of lean mass and gained 4 pounds of fat since September.

I had some reservations about going to the bod pod at all. First, I’ve been following the intuitive eating recommendation of staying away from the scale. This has been a great freedom for me and has released me from years of obsession with food and weight. That alone is a great success for me, not one I will trade in, even for a few pounds.

Second, I know for a fact that I’ve fallen out of routine lately, with both my running and my weight training suffering for it.  Backing off of the weight training is likely a key explanation for my loss of lean mass.

Third, I don’t think I’m getting enough protein. As explained in my last post, I’m making an effort to get more.  That post yielded some good advice. I’m tracking protein for a little while anyway, until I get on track. I’ve got some distance to go. Yesterday I fell short of my 100 grams/day goal by 24 grams.

So I have the explanation for why the decline in lean mass and increase in fat.  Today I’m feeling okay about it but I have to say that on Tuesday and yesterday I felt pretty discouraged.  I remember that feeling from when I used to weigh myself regularly.  Given that I’ve fallen out of my routine, I probably didn’t need the bod pod to tell me that my lean mass hasn’t increased and that my fat has increased. In fact, that little voice in the back of my head was telling me to cancel the appointment.

The thing was all made worse by the fact that the bod pod guy assumed that I would feel discouraged and went into a long list of suggestions about what I should or could do about it.  These ranged from relatively sound advice about working with a sports nutritionist or following the Precision Nutrition plan, to eating all of my food within a six hour period each day between 4 p.m and 10 p.m. (!!).  I really just wanted to get out of there at that point, but he’s a nice man and I didn’t want to be rude. At the same time, I wasn’t seeking his input, just the results of the test.

I only enjoy wallowing in the negative for a short time.  So I spent that evening and yesterday feeling discouraged and demoralized, a little bit hopeless and a little bit helpless, frustrated and sorry for myself. I shared my tale of woe with Sam, who is always great at lending an empathetic ear and seeing the positive side of things.

What good can I glean from this setback, if that’s even what it is?  The first question is of course this: is doing a bod pod measurement a useful thing for me to do, given my aspirations to stick with intuitive eating?  I’m not so sure it is. I think for the time being I would do better not to monitor my “progress” in this manner, but instead to stick with a few performance goals that I can feel good about.

To that end, I’m getting back on track with my running now that the weather is a bit better. I start a clinic with a local running group this evening.  It’ll be my first experience running with people and I’m kind of excited about it.

The other issue is my resistance training.  I’m not pushing myself as hard as my trainer used to push me. That’s I guess the main reason we hire trainers, isn’t it? But I’m not interested (at the moment, anyway) in going back to the training studio.  It’s a lot of money and I have enough knowledge to figure out my own workouts. It’s the motivation factor that I need to get back.  I’ve got to mull that one over a bit. I could start training at the Y again. I have a membership already because of the pool, and I have fond memories of the camaraderie of the gym.  Maybe.  If I can’t get my home routine back on track over the month of May, then the Y is an option.

And then there’s the issue of what IS working. Sam reminded me that, for me, getting over the food obsession and letting go of the scale are significant changes.  The bod pod result made me question everything for a short time. I started to think that intuitive eating wasn’t “working.”  I even felt drawn to go on some sort of diet, but then remembered that diets don’t work. The fact is, intuitive eating is working just fine.  Other than that I now feel it’s time to focus a bit more on high protein choices, I’m doing well with the intuitive eating approach.

A brief reflection on “what went wrong” yields that the main issue hasn’t been food (other than that I could get more protein) but training.

Being fixated on the numbers that the bod pod gives me isn’t much different from fixating on the numbers on the scale.  I’ve learned that it’s really difficult for me to react well to a reading that isn’t as “good” as I wanted it to be.  Yes, it’s information, but is it the sort of information that I really need to have in order to achieve my fitness goals?  I’m not so sure about that.

Re-grouping, I plan to stick to my original commitments: running 3 x a week; resistance training 3 x a week; yoga 3 x a week; swimming 2 x a week; leaving the car at home more often, opting to walk or cycle instead.  That’s a good re-start.

Once I have the routine back in place, I can think about upping my performance goals.  I like the strategy of gradual progression, adding just a little bit each day or week.  For example, instead of swimming for 25 minutes, swim for 30; or make a few of the laps sprints. Instead of doing 20 kettlebell swings, do 22.  That sort of thing. Subject matter for a future blog post.

For now, I’ve got to be somewhere soon, and if I’m going to walk instead of drive, I need to hit the road!

[image from Bigstock]