Sunday, February 10, 2008
In Defense of Exercise
I live in a second-story walkup, as they would call it in Europe. Not that this is Europe, but the allusion is accurate. The “walkup” is the point I want to make here. There is no elevator. There is only my own body to carry me from point A, the front door, to point B, my apartment. There is also only my body to carry me down the three
flights of stairs to the laundry room and garage and garbage and recycling bins on the
backside of the building. This is because the house is built on a hill.
When I say “my body,” what I really mean are my gluts, my hamstrings, and my quads. Now, my biceps, triceps, and lats do some work when I schlep the garbage, the bottles and newspapers, the wood for the fireplace, the baskets of laundry and laundry soap up and down those stairs, too. They also assist in the mountains of stuff I carry daily in my work – large pieces of marble and limestone for a project, samples of carpeting, tile, and wood. Books filled with pictures meant to inspire.
But I began to notice in my 53rd year that I could barely carry my own suitcase up and down the stairs, a compact 40 pounds with a handle. I was asking my 18-year old daughter to have good manners and offer to carry her mother’s suitcase for her. When she rolled her eyes at me like I was a ludicrous specimen of the modern female species, and said something like, “You are sad,” I realized I was fading fast and needed to do something about it or I would soon be bribing the carry out boy at Lunds to follow me home and lug my groceries up the flight of stairs, especially when the purchase included cat litter.
This couldn’t be. I live alone much of the time because my husband travels with work. I have never been a wimp, but I was sorely on the road to Wimpydom. Not to mention, that I was not thrilled with the look of these weakened and flabby muscles, now hidden deep within a layer of fat. Yes, fat. Let’s just call a spade a spade. I prefer long sleeve shirts. I wear tank tops under my shirts the way my mother must have worn a girdle – to hold everything in place.
So, to start the New Year with the most clichéd resolution of all – I determined to get in shape. To do so I hired a trainer for one session a week for four weeks, then once every other week. I knew I would never, ever untangle the jungle of exercise equipment at the gym on my own. I would probably accidentally kill myself, wrapping one of the machine cables around my neck while trying to climb on to the thing. I was never a jock. I have no ball skills. I was a Thespian. At best I started doing yoga in the ‘70’s when we all wore muslin drawstring pants and ratty t-shirts to class. I don’t own any lycra, Gore-tex, or polar fleece. I went to my first session prepared to do several fitness tests, including a body fat analysis.
We met in the dressing room, where Lisa, my trainer, pinched my tricep, stomach, and thigh, each in three different places with a caliper that seemed the ideal tool of torture for disagreeable siblings. She hovered over her calculations for a moment and looked up, raising her eyebrows as if to warn me of the news to come. “Well…” (Pause.) “You are 31% body fat.”
I kind of knew that was little high. I recall being 20% in a college health class (30+ years ago!) “What does that mean exactly?” I asked.
“Well….” (Pause, again.) “It says you are ‘at risk for obesity.’ At 32%, you are obese.”
“Oh, my god.” I actually started to laugh because, even though I know I have gained some weight during this obnoxious stage of life called perimenopause, I would still be considered “small” by most – jumping from a whopping size 4 into a slightly less whopping size 6 in the last few years.“So,” I asked, “do you think when I go out in public, people look at me and say under their breath, ‘That poor woman, she’s at risk for obesity.’? Do you think I embarrass my kids”?
She wasn’t sure if I was serious. I wasn’t. I was laughing at myself. But the lesson was more serious. Clearly, I might look small from the outside, in my clothing, but I have lost muscle mass over the years and turned those pounds into fat. That explains why I was losing strength and it certainly explained the jiggles – muscles don’t jiggle – fat does.
So, we got to work. She kicked my ass, as they say. But, session by session – and most of them on my own - over the course of five weeks, I see change. First of all, I sleep like a baby again. I have biceps now. I have muscles that define my shoulders. I could carry my own 39-pound suitcase up the stairs last week – no problem – no panting on the third step. The effect seems to be top down; I see the most change in my arms and ribcage (which I can find again!) but I am hoping, like gravity, the effects continue to drop toward the earth and soon, the only muffins in this house will be in the oven and not sitting on top of the waist of my jeans.