Which scenario would you pick?
You can eat anything you want without gaining a pound. Your body looks great, remaining trim no matter what you do or consume. However, there’s no real physical fitness behind those athletic good looks. You can’t run; it’s hard to even walk from place to place. Forget exercise — movement is simply not pleasurable.
Whatever physical exercise you undertake is accomplished with ease . You can do just about anything quite competently (run, bike, lift weights, martial arts, dance, you name it), no matter your age. All movement is a joy. However, no matter how closely you watch your diet, no matter how much physical activity you enjoy, you will always be some 20 pounds overweight. In other words, you won’t look like the athlete you know you are.
How Closely Is Weight Tied to Physical Satisfaction?
I put that hypothetical scenario to my husband. We were walking to a nearby coffee shop for breakfast, and there was some moaning going on from one (or both) of us about a few hard-to-lose pounds on this particular Sunday morning. Yes, thank you, I see the irony.
For me, the choice is a no-brainer, though one I might make somewhat reluctantly. Breaking my ankle and the aftermath — immobility, loss of muscle, frustration at rebuilding physical prowess, diminished balance, the accompanying depression over forced inactivity — showed the value I place on a functioning, healthy body. That experience profoundly shaped the way I structure my workouts; I’m now focusing on doing things that strengthen my body so I can avoid pitfalls of aging (falling and a lesser range of motion). I’m not so much training for events as I am working to prevent future problems.
It’s also become clear that I will participate in a physical activity that I enjoy DESPITE what doing so does to my physical appearance. Let me explain.
Since I found exercise in my 30s, I’ve chosen my activities based on how happy they make me. I started out with Jazzercise (it was the 80s, naturally), and that new cardio-based workout resulted in some pretty significant weight loss, especially when combined with breastfeeding (though I was not performing them simultaneously).
In the late 90s, I discovered running, which became a consuming passion for the next 15 years. I added in tai chi and yoga for a change of pace and as compliments to my running routine, and in the 00s, friends talked me into triathlons. After trying my hand at Ironman Coeur d’Alene, I realized how much long-distance events fed my soul. That’s when I came over to the dark side — trail running and ultramarathons.
It was during my first 100-mile trail race, Rocky Raccoon, that I slipped and broke my ankle one icy February morning. That 2011 accident changed my exercise course significantly. Since then, I’ve cut back on running and upped yoga practice. I walk more. In 2012, I took up boxing.
Sports and Body Metamorphosis
I’ll never forget the year I was training for the Pikes Peak marathon. It was to be my first trail race. I had no experience at altitude and had certainly never taken on such a daunting elevation chart. The training was intense. Lots of hill work (and in Austin, that means Hill of Life repeats on the Barton Creek greenbelt). One day, my good friend and training buddy Marty threw out a question: “Are y’all’s butts getting bigger?” He’d put on some pants that showed he had much more junk in his trunk. We all agreed — those monster hill workouts were making our rears and calves grow. But I didn’t care. I like a fit body, and besides: running kept my weight down.
My marathon PR came at 132 pounds. Ironman weigh-in weight was 136, and I was happy. It is very, very hard to see anything wrong with a body that can swim 2.4 miles, bike 112, and round it all off with a marathon (26.2 miles). Longer-distance trail running gave the scale a slight uptick. Through those years, my weight hovered at 140 pounds. I rationalized that this was what my body needed to perform in the way I asked, though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish for a return to my skinnier days. Every extra pound could add time. But I was clearly fit and healthy, and I ran the race of my life (the 100K at Bandera).
That February 2011 fall took me from 140 to 150 pounds in no time. When I had to pump the breaks on any activity, every mouthful seemed to head straight for my thighs, butt, or stomach. But I reasoned that a return to regular exercise would shed pounds and I’d quickly be back to happily running multiple long days, fearlessly tackling trails, and weighing less.
Except it didn’t work that way. I also got whacked with the menopause stick. Hello, 50! Thank you for bringing a sluggish metabolism, hot flashes, mood swings, and weird cravings into my life. And for inviting my extra weight to hang around.
I often joke that weight loss proves God is male. My husband decided to improve his diet and focus on slimming. In solidarity, I ate as he did. The results? He lost more than 30 pounds and looks fabulous. I lost 3…and then they found me again.
Combine my very efficient ultra runner body (burn those calories slowly so I can go forever!) with being female (hello, wacky hormones!) and throw in one crappy injury (please, sit on your ass and do nothing!), and it seemed I was sunk.
That additional weight has fought removal every step of the way. I’ve worked hard to improve my fuel (watch those portions! avoid emotional eating! make good choices! up workout intensity!) and, recently, took off 5 pounds. They’re clearly gone for good; two vacations later, the needle on the scale hasn’t budged. People have noticed; perhaps more importantly, I’ve felt their loss. But I’m still double-digits away from that Ironman/ultra/marathon/Jazzercise lower weight. Will I ever get back there?
I’m 53 years old. I can run rings around tons of people my age (and some younger). I often do two workouts a day — and enjoy the hell out of them. I can walk 2 or 3 miles for fun when I don’t want to drive somewhere. I’m excited about going to fitness camp in August, and I’m not worried about how I’ll perform there. I still look forward to finding new ways to move.
Clearly, my body works well. And yet…
Some days, I’m sad to think that what the world sees is a lumpy, dumpy older woman and not my inner goddess athlete.
I wonder if perhaps the activity I currently enjoy most — boxing — is encouraging my stockier physique. My arms and shoulders have grown, and I like the strength that goes with those muscles. My core is solid. I’ve seen improvement in fast footwork, something that got lost when I focused on my “mountain troll shuffle” during all those long runs. My runner stamina is paying off (I’ve joked that my bouncing and weaving is simply running away from my sparring opponent). The resounding sound of glove connecting with mitt and bag gives incredible satisfaction.
Would I trade any of the gains I’ve made for the sake of appearance? If quitting boxing guaranteed I’d be back at my slimmest, would I give it up? Nope.
Maybe my problem is I’m looking at bodyweight all wrong. Perhaps I need to forget about dropping any more pounds. After all, I’d have to return to my marathon PR self to make the Olympic boxing lightweight class of 123 to 132 pounds. That weight has eluded me for, oh, 10 years.
On the other hand, I could focus on improving what I’ve got — adding more muscle, building strength — to embrace my heavyweight self (152 to 165 pounds). The past tells me that as long as I’m boxing to the best of my ability, I’ll be happy no matter my size.
I think I’ll choose happiness. And in the course of that mission, I know my body will serve me well.