Never Too Late

During a period of two weeks that contained bad sleep, evening social plans, and a blood donation, I skipped several boxing classes. Instead, on many days, I took long walks, jumped rope on the patio, did a 20-minute workout with hand weights, and played volleyball. I love walking, especially up the hill to the east. It takes me up into some beautiful neighborhoods and then steeply down all the way to the lakeshore, so that on the way back I can challenge myself by jogging up the hill, or at least walking fast. I get exercise, and I get to indulge my habit of staring into other people’s flower gardens or admiring pretty houses.
I also really like working out with the jumprope and weights on the patio in our back yard. Being out in the air, under the sky, and looking around at my plants is much more fun than lifting weights in the house. But when I work out at home, I don’t push myself the way I do at the boxing classes.
During this break in my routine, I’ve realized that I want a new and different physical challenge. What I think I’m most interested in is trying soccer. This would let me explore the new appreciation of team sports that I’ve gotten from volleyball. I sent email to the Washington State Women’s Soccer Association and the Greater Seattle Soccer League, asking them if they’ll take an inexperienced but fit woman and teach her to play. This seems like a lot to ask, since they are leagues of competitive teams and I’ve never played, but it’s worth a try.
What I would be looking for is a new and strenuous outdoor workout and a rewarding team experience. I really am excited about having finally learned to see playing a team sport as a fun type of challenge instead of as guaranteed humiliation. Well-intentioned Title IX, which took effect when I was in first or second grade, meant that as a girl, I had to compete with boys who were more experienced with the games and who hated girls. As an adult, I’ve had to take people’s word for it that girls now enjoy sports in school. Obviously something has changed since I was there. It will be a tremendous leap for me if I can experience that enjoyment at the ripe age of 39. It’s never too late to have a happy childhood, says my favorite bumper sticker.
I also have plans to take classes this fall toward a certificate in technical writing, so if either of the soccer leagues will take me I’ll have to wait and see how my fall schedule works out.

In Good Habits We Trust

It’s easy to berate yourself for skipping workouts and to worry about backsliding. Diet and fitness writers always remind readers not to beat yourself up, but to get back on the wagon and keep your eyes on your goals. I want to add the idea that if you’ve been exercising regularly, exercise has probably become a habit. You can probably trust this good habit to persist in the same way that bad habits seem to do. If you’ve seen exciting rewards from exercising, it makes even more sense to think this good habit will stay with you.
I’ve had some unusual stress recently that has prevented me from sleeping well. Anxiety and lack of sleep has made me feel so depleted that I’ve skipped some of my workout classes, which are challenging even when I’m well rested.
Each time I skip a workout, I wonder if I’m going into a backslide and am about to start gaining weight again. But I can look back over many years and see clear patterns in my exercise habits. Many active routines, such as bike commuting or going to the Y, became boring after a while, or I needed a break for some other reason. Looking back, each time I took a break, I always returned to the routine (or found a new one, if I needed a change). My activity level was not always high enough to keep me fit and trim, but still, the habit of being active always persisted.
Lately, with the boxing workouts, the exercise habit has been strengthened by its rewards, which I have no intention of giving up. The rewards, increased fitness, strength, and athletic abilities, reinforce the good habit that caused them. I’m more committed than ever to staying as fit as I can through activities I enjoy.
During this tired week, when I’ve started to feel like a couch potato, I’ve asked myself what I’ve actually done each day. Almost every day that didn’t include a boxing workout included a bike ride, yard work, a long walk, or any combination of the three. I know I can trust in the active habits I’ve developed and know that I’ll go back to the gym as soon as I’m ready.

Strengthening the Lower Back

A friend of mine said she wants to start riding her bike more, but when she went for a ride recently, she wound up having a sore lower back for several days. This made me wonder what’s the best way to start strengthening a weak lower back without lifting weights.
The best list of exercises I found on the Web is on a University of Chicago Student Care Center page. It describes seven simple exercises, with illustrations lower down on the same page.
Each exercise performed while lying on your back includes the instruction “hold a pelvic tilt while you perform the exercise.” (The pelvic tilt itself is exercise No. 1.) This means keep your lower back pressed against the floor, not letting it arch up at all. If this is difficult, spend more time on the pelvic tilt exercise alone and master it before going on to the others. They won’t be effective, and can add to any aches and pains you’re having, if you can’t keep the lower back flat against the floor while doing them.
Aside from these exercises, the U of C site lists other activities for strengthening the back that include walking, bicycling, swimming, and cross-country skiing. It also lists some exercises and sports to avoid because they can stress the back.
If I were to suggest an exercise program to help my friend work up to longer bike rides, I’d say start by taking walks. While walking, concentrate on keeping your back tall and straight. Instead of letting the lower back sag, hold it up by keeping your abs just a little taut. Flex the butt to pull your body forward as each heel comes down in front of you. Walking up a slight incline can make it easier to feel the pull forward from the heel through the butt. Don’t lean forward or pull through your knees.
At home, work on the pelvic tilt with knees raised as well as with legs flat on the floor. Add the other six exercises to your routine when you can do them while holding the pelvic tilt.
These suggestions come from combining the instruction on the U of C site linked above with what I’ve learned about posture and alignment at Cappy’s Boxing Gym. See a doctor before dramatically increasing your exercise or if you think you have an injury that might make these exercises unsafe for you.

Taking Up Space versus Emotional Eating

Diet and pop-psychology pundits define “emotional eating” as using food to comfort ourselves when we’re upset or stressed, even if we’re not hungry. They suggest we replace eating, under those circumstances, with other ways to comfort ourselves. This makes sense to me in principle, but last week another way of expressing the concept came together in my mind. For me, emotional eating is what I do when I’ve tried to take up more space in my life and feel frustrated or anxious instead of gratified. The relationship between taking up space and eating was new to me. (Except in its physical sense!)
Taking up space in life means asserting your needs, expecting them to be met, and doing what it takes to make that happen in a constructive way. Obviously, asserting yourself and following through can sometimes lead to obstacles and fears as well as to rewards. A while back I listed, just for fun, ways in which I’d like to take up more space. I tried to dream big, but my list contained a surprising number of small convenience items that had been bugging me. One was fixing my three leaky car tires, which needed filling every time I was at the gas station. Why should I put up with that?
The service station guy said I should come on in. But he didn’t have time to look at all three of the leakers right then, so he asked me to come back in two days. Frustrated in the day’s mission, I bought and ate a bunch of chips and pop with my lunch. I felt entitled to a treat.
I don’t always resort to food when I’m frustrated. I’ve become very aware of that urge, and I can often deflect it. This time it took me by surprise, but the triviality of the frustration (waiting two days) made the chain of events easy to see. My resolve, directed at having a specific need met, lost its direction and zoomed off at random. The goal and the motivation were no longer specific (fix the tires because I want a reliable car). They were vague (do something that is just for me).
The connection between the desire to assert and meet my needs, and the urge to eat, is clearer to me than the concept of emotional eating for comfort. I don’t need to comfort myself; I need to assert myself, take up more space in life, define my needs and meet them. In fact, extrapolating maybe too far, are we infantilizing ourselves if we assume we need so much comfort? We’re not babies. Maybe what we feel isn’t a need for comfort; maybe it’s bottled-up energy. We can try to channel that energy into achieving what we want, even if it’s something as small as fixing the tires or making ourselves a healthy meal.
Seeing this connection makes me want to ask myself in the future, when I have an uncharacteristic food craving, “What constructive thing can I do to assert my needs and meet them, instead of eating half a bag of Ruffles?” Maybe some of the time I’ll come up with a good idea, accomplish something, or make an exciting plan.

Working Through Gym Anxiety

It’s not unusual to feel uncomfortable in certain workout settings. For a long time I wouldn’t join a gym or take an aerobics class because of anxiety and self-consciousness. Upscale health clubs seemed to be full of fashion models and buff show-offs, people who walk naked from the locker to the hot tub looking as elegant as if wearing their wedding clothes. When it came to the actual workout, I was afraid to try to keep up with an aerobics class. Other times, I thought I’d like to work out with machines or weights, but when I had the opportunity, I found I was unsure how to use them.
Two anxieties seemed to be at work when I wanted to join a gym but couldn’t bring myself to do it. One was a lack of confidence combined with resentment of goodlooking people who might pass judgment. The other was nervousness about being physically able, through skills or strength, to do the workout: lift the weights, operate the machine, get through the class without keeling over. How can we cope with these anxieties, other than by giving in to them?
I eventually gained confidence by visiting many gyms over the years to test and re-evaluate my comfort level, and by asking many questions of friends who enjoyed gym workouts and classes.
If you feel self conscious in the gym or the locker room because of how others might see you, consider giving it another chance, and really look around at the people there. Every gym I’ve visited, including a large, upscale one, has contained a whole cross-section of ages, shapes, and clothing choices. It’s easy to focus on the buff people and their spandex, but look past them and see everybody else in their cotton T-shirts and shorts. Notice that they’re concentrating, and usually not looking at each other. Imagine the rewards they’re getting as they work toward their fitness goal. Those rewards can be yours.
No matter what you’re self-conscious about, remember that you’re a customer entitled to help and good treatment, and that you’re the equal of everyone in the gym: they’re all pushing for their own improvement, just like you.
Nervousness about physical abilities—keeping up with an aerobics class or being able to do everything on your workout plan—may or may not go away. First, try going into an aerobics class with the commitment to do the same one three times no matter what. Repetition will prove to you that you can get the moves down, and it only makes sense for it to take several tries. Then try different classes to see which ones you like the best, regardless of how hard it is to keep up, because now you know all it will take is practice.
That said, I’m still nervous every time I go to my regular exercise class—a boxing workout. Although I’ve acclimated to the workout, and am practically addicted to it, I’m still nervous before every class. Every time our first round of jump-rope starts, I wonder vaguely whether I’ll make it through the hour or whether I’ll do something so awkward that someone will get impatient with me. But when I look around, I see that everyone is awkward sometimes, and nobody is impatient.
The point is that even if nervousness (which we feel in so many different situations) doesn’t go away, we can do the activity anyway and benefit from it. If you’ve decided that challenging gym workouts or classes would make you healthier, I suggest three things. First, look around. Defeat self-consciousness by knowing that others feel the same way, that others accept and support you, and that they’re not really looking at you anyway—they’re concentrating on their own workouts. Second, work through nervousness and enjoy the results you earn. Third, don’t be afraid to ask for help or information that could help with either self-consciousness or nervousness. You’re entitled to it.

Volleyball Tournament

Last Saturday was the company picnic and the culmination of all of the recent volleyball practice. Most of our team arrived at the picnic venue, a huge park at the foot of Mt. Si, as soon as it opened in order to start warming up and practicing our serves and passes one last time.

That’s me in the long-sleeved white T-shirt. I had just astonished myself by getting under a spiked ball and returning it over the net—though I didn’t manage to do that in an actual game.
Pretty soon the young volleyball-player officials took their posts and the tournament started. My knees felt weak with excitement and nervousness. Was I really doing this? Had I actually chosen to expose my shaky new skills and my tentative new enthusiasm to a group of acquaintances and strangers in a competition? Was I out of my mind?
During the first game, I was so overwhelmed at being involved in a volleyball tournament (even one that was only at a company picnic) that I had a lump in my throat the entire time. I felt happy, proud, thankful, and relieved to be able, finally, to participate in a team sport at a competent beginner level. And I felt vindicated. If sports in school had been better supervised, I would have been able to learn to play decently instead of cowering while others were too aggressive. I also felt an echo of sadness and embarrassment (as if back in school) at having been the one who was always the last picked for teams, at having somehow fallen into the role of a kid who was always humiliated during games. Of course, I wasn’t the only one, and I know now that it wasn’t my fault.
We lost the first match, which put us into a bracket with other losing teams. We practiced until it was time for the second match, which is now a bit of a blur; I think I sat out the first two games so that someone else could play, and the team won one game and lost the other. I played in the third game, which we won, taking the match and progressing to a match with another team.
Our opponents for the third match were raucous and edgy and intimidating, with a cheering section of men holding beer cups and singing songs. We beat them, and I felt good because a series of my serves had brought us from behind and into the lead by a point or two.
Speaking of serves, all week I had been practicing an overhand serve, but I could only make it about 75 percent consistent before the tournament. But some of our teammates had inconsistent serves too. So if I risked my overhand and missed, I wouldn’t be the only one who had ever flubbed a serve. I used the overhand serve several times in the tournament with about fifty percent success. When we were behind and I was tired, I used the underhand, which was reliable.
We would lose our fourth match and be eliminated from the tournament. Most of us were tired from being out in the sun, and probably mentally tired as well—I know I was. Our three most skilled players became more aggressive to try to compensate. This is one of the reasons I didn’t dig out any spiked balls in an actual game: in practice sessions with only a few of us on the court, I had a clear path to anticipate the spike and get under the ball. In matches, more aggressive players always lunged for the dig.
A challenge came up in the fourth match when I was in the position of setter (front center—the person who sets the ball up for the attacker). One of the most skilled players was in right center, a nice guy who I like and have enjoyed practicing with. He announced, right before a serve, that he was now the setter. I was speechless. Did he really just preemptively take my position? He did.
I decided to wait until my next turn as setter to say anything. Did I have a right to object, or should I back off? Would I be making a scene if I let him know what I wanted? The team had planned to play our rotating positions, and not specialize. I kept asking myself how I would feel if I passively let him take my position. It became clear to me that I truly wanted to play the setting position, because I felt that I was good at it and because I was entitled to.
When I rotated into front center again, I let the player know I wanted to set, because then I would know I have a purpose in the front center position. He agreed immediately. Still a little angry, I went on to say thank you, and I don’t think I’m all that bad at setting, if you don’t mind. He seemed surprised at my vehemence and was gracious about it. We had two unremarkable volleys and quickly rotated out of those positions. Later, between games, I told him I was sorry I might have overreacted. He smilingly brushed it off and I felt fine again.
I don’t really think I overreacted exactly, because the player should not have assumed it would be fine with me for him to take my position. I had been doing well as a setter. I apologized because I wanted to make sure he didn’t think I was so prickly as to be a lost cause as a teammate. Maybe it wasn’t necessary; maybe in a sports setting, little flare-ups come and go and don’t need to be mentioned. I don’t know. It’s not only playing the game that’s new to me, but also the “language,” or the accepted communication style.
Inexperienced players like myself aren’t the only ones who have more to learn about teamwork. Skilled players can learn to resist the urge to jump out of position to retrieve a ball that’s heading to someone like me. They can learn that when they get out of position, they don’t just diminish the fun for new players. They also are less likely to hit the ball accurately and are less prepared for the next volley. It would be much better to play strictly in position for as long as it takes to bring weaker players up to strength. Then the whole court would be full of competent players.
Even though the tournament is over, Tom and I and our teammates are looking forward to more practice sessions starting this Saturday. It seems I’m not alone in finding this to be an exhilarating new experience.

A Dreaded Team Sport Revisited

Tom and I are going to play in his company picnic volleyball tournament next Saturday. I’ve been to three practice sessions. This is a big deal because (1) I hadn’t played volleyball in twenty years and (2) in school I was a complete failure at all team sports for the entire twelve years. I could swear that the various rules were never taught—people just seemed to know them. And I couldn’t concentrate on the progress of a game, instead staring into space and then ducking the ball as if I was being shot at. This made the other kids yell at me a lot.
Tom’s volleyball friends welcomed beginners, so I summoned my nerve and started showing up. After six years of trying various workouts, including a year and a half of boxing classes, I’m more confident of my athletic abilities. I thought, well, at least I know I’m in good enough shape to lunge for the ball if that’s the best I can do. I’m pretty sure I won’t be afraid of the ball any more, because in boxing we routinely fling around a 10-pound medicine ball and I have little difficulty with that. I might as well try.
I’m really glad I did. During the first game of my first practice session, I found myself mentally gushing, “I love volleyball! I’m going to join a league this winter!” (And then asking myself, “Have you lost your mind?”) I turned out to be as competent as any beginner. I make my share of mistakes and my share of good passes and sets just like everybody else. I can now tell the difference between “those guys are hogging the ball” (which hasn’t happened very much) and “I can’t be allowed to take the ball because I’m a pathetic player” (as it seemed in school). Another happy discovery is that nobody minds if I ask to have a rule or a play explained. Another is that I’m now able to concentrate a little better on the action—though I do have a hard time remembering the score.
Enjoying a team sport and finding a whole array of rewards in it has been a new experience that I never thought I’d have. I thought I’d missed out on it for good. Even if we don’t play any more after this weekend’s tournament, I’ll have a lasting new perspective. I won’t be afraid of team situations, and I’ll be able to look for the fun in them.
Revisiting something I used to dread, and changing my feelings about it 180 degrees, were made possible by my six-year exploration of various fitness activities and goals. That exploration, which was tentative at first, allowed me to try out new physical skills on my own terms. My relationship with a supportive spouse has also helped me feel secure going into situations that made me nervous, even when he wasn’t going with me. And nothing was quite so nervous-making as the thought of playing a team sport with people I didn’t know. Now I’m looking forward to playing in a tournament, something that four weeks ago I never would have dreamed of doing.
What formerly intimidating activity have you re-evaluated and come to appreciate?

Learning New Eating Habits

I’ve gone through phases in my attitudes toward exercise, fitness, and food. I went from blissful ignorance to a sense of dread when I saw I’d gained too much weight and couldn’t lose it. I needed to relearn how to eat. How did other people lose weight, other than by going on unrealistic diets? Small, discrete suggestions from people who’d been there were what I wished for. Eventually I found routines and meals that allowed me to get back the fitness I lost. I want to share some of the stages I went through and steps I took, in case someone else is looking for tips as I was (and always am).
I was an active kid and ate whatever I wanted, including unlimited quantities of the foods you’re supposed to have only in moderation. I was a miserable flop in gym class, never able to concentrate on organized games or remember the rules. Instead of playing sports, I climbed trees, ran sprints on the sidewalks and in the local vacant lot, skateboarded in front of the house, and rode my bike as fast and as far as I could.
In my twenties, I biked to work in summer and paid no attention to what or how much I ate. Although I noticed I was slowly gaining weight, I had no idea how to stop. Rather than make the effort to learn about nutrition or to fit more exercise into the cold months, I went into denial. I told myself I was still very active and had a long way to go before I’d have a weight problem.
By my mid-30s, I had gained 25 pounds. I had lost all of the muscle definition I’d had in my upper arms, shoulders, and thighs. I’d started a workout routine at the YMCA two years earlier and had continued to gain weight (though much more slowly). I was frustrated, but all I knew to do was to keep exercising. After all, what would I eat if my favorite, convenient, comfortable foods were off limits? I don’t cook and I don’t make detailed meal plans. Thinking ahead about the week’s meals is tedious and stressful for me, and I can’t make myself do it.
In 1999 I learned that my aunt, 30 years older than I, had osteoporosis. Because I knew I could still prevent this disease in myself, this event motivated me to change my diet. I changed one eating habit at a time, continued exercising, and finally started losing weight. I was stunned when I weighed myself after a two-week interval and discovered I’d lost five pounds. I actually asked the gym staff if their scale was out of calibration. In eight months I lost eighteen pounds and regained some of my muscle tone.
To lose the extra weight, I made the following changes one at a time, adding a new one every week or two, in approximately this order.
* Substituted sparkling water for Coke, both to cut calories and to try to protect my bones from calcium loss.
* Ate two pieces of fruit during each work day, whether I wanted them or not.
* Eliminated pizza for eight months, substituting smaller portions of Thai or Chinese food (also fattening but not as bad, either because I ate less of it or because pizza is so extremely high in calories).
* Eliminated ice cream for eight months.
* Bought small quantities of fruit home to eat each weekend and made sure I finished it all by Monday morning.
* Ordered only nonfat lattes and mochas if I wanted a coffee drink during the workday.
* Bought and installed a nutrition software program to help me count calories eaten and burned.
* Measured ingredients in my meals to make sure my calorie counts were accurate: exactly one tablespoon of mayo in the tuna salad, exactly half a cup of cereal and milk, and so on.
* Eliminated lattes and mochas completely (including nonfat) for five months after deciding to think of them as a snack choice. Instead if I wanted a snack, I’d have one handful of trail mix (nuts and dried fruit) or one ounce of smoked salmon. I kept these snacks at the office along with bottles of sparkling water.
* Reduced my consumption of peanut butter sandwiches from one a day to three a week. Substituted spicy, Asian-style frozen meals made by an organic brand.
Along with continuing to exercise at the Y every other day and to walk as much as possible, those changes to my diet were what finally tipped me toward weight loss. I never had to meticulously plan meals or cook ahead for the week; all I had to do was learn some convenient one-step meals and go easy on whatever ingredient was the most fattening. It also helped to tell myself, in a loud internal voice, that I could have the leftovers tomorrow instead of finishing the whole serving now, or that I could come back to the restaurant for dessert another time if I still wanted to.
What are the most useful changes you’ve made while building healthier routines into your life?

FitNotes’ Mission

Many choices and habits, some harder than others, add up to physical fitness. These choices require daily effort and attention, and even some creative thinking. Together they add up to a process that never ends—and that’s good. Talking with others about this process, and about the rewards of being in shape, helps me maintain better habits.
I want to use FitNotes to learn, and to help others learn, by talking to each other about how to get fit and stay fit through exercise and reasonably healthy eating. I’ll share my experience and my reading in short, upbeat articles, to let readers know why I think that if I lost weight and got in shape, you can too. I hope you’ll leave comments and send email that will spark conversations and allow us to learn from each other.
Some topics I plan to write about in weekly columns: enjoying exercise for its own sake; being proud of meeting small and large exercise goals; how exercise improves mood and attitude; building muscle without a gym membership; pros and cons of calorie counting; meals that are healthy and convenient; and more.
I’ll also list links to other websites that seem to offer high-quality help and information, whether free or commercial. Please let me know if you find any good fitness weblogs or sites.
Disclaimer: I’m not a healthcare professional; I offer personal experience, reading, and opinions as a basis for columns and discussions. Nothing I write should be taken for medical advice. See your doctor before starting any new exercise program or diet.