After years of being a gym rat, I stopped all exercise last March, except for dog walking and yoga classes at my workplace. Since there haven’t been any workplace yoga classes since November and dog walking has been curtailed by the weather, I’ve hardly moved at all since the holidays. It has been a long time since I've been this inactive (15 years).
Since December, I’ve noticed more pains in my abdomen and chest. I also get out of breath easily. The last time I panted to catch my breath like this was when I was in Bolivia at high altitude. Is it because I'm at my all-time top weight? I don't think so. Chubby people can have excellent cardiovascular capacity and muscle tone. Fatness does not correlate to lack of health. I've basically staged a nine-month rebellion against my own grueling exercise standards and have taken physical inactivity as far as I'm willing to go. I want to be healthy again, but in a reasonable way. To this end, my focus is on movement and breathing, not getting back into size 8.
The challenge of course is that having stopped all exercise and letting myself go flabby, I can’t just jump back into the same routine as before. I used to be the woman who always kept up with the Pilates instructor, never stopped for a break during step class and hit every yoga pose without having to modify it. I used to be one of those who made it to the gym every damn morning and you wondered what motivated her like that.
It's different now. I took a Pilates class two weeks ago, my first in almost a year, and I couldn’t keep up at all. It was extremely humbling. I actually felt grateful for my pudgy physique because I figured that anyone looking at me would think, “Another overweight, middle-aged woman who's trying to keep up with us. Poor thing.” As embarrassing as it was to be the inept person, I would have felt worse if they knew the powerhouse I used to be. It wasn't so much that my rolls of fat got in the way, but that I had so little abdominal strength and lung capacity. I gladly played the role of the out-of-shape midlife person who hadn’t exercised in decades because that felt more comfortable than the truth: a year ago I was the person who kept up with every move and now I was floundering.
It shifted my view of the people in exercise classes who look like they don't belong there. I used to feel like I was better than them because I could keep my heels flat on the ground for downward-facing-dog and they couldn't. Now I'm one of the people who flops onto my back because my abs give out before we're even halfway through a set of Pilates repetitions. From now on, I will look more kindly on those who need to take the modified poses.
Maybe this is how it would be for a pregnant woman who prides herself on fitness, then has to go on bedrest: after months of gaining weight and taking it easy, she tries some exercise that turns out to be much more difficult than she's ever experienced. She thinks, "Oh my god, what's happened to me? Is this my body now?" Then she starts calculating what it will take to get her previous fitness level back. That's where I am.
As relaxing as my nine-month sabbatical from exercise was, I'm tired of its effects. (Yes, nine months is the human gestation period. What a coincidence.) After a couple of weeks of trying a few activities sporadically, I made a point of exercising this past weekend in exactly the ways that felt good for me: walking and yoga. I re-committed myself to moving regularly and -- for the first time since last March -- I put in thirty minutes on the treadmill before work yesterday and it felt great. I'm proud to be moving in fun ways that make me feel good. My yoga-and-walking exercise plan isn't ambitious, but I don't care. I'm starting where I am and doing what I like. No more physical movement I don't enjoy.
Throwing all my nutrition and fitness routines out the window last year was like hitting the shutdown option on my health habits. After years of frantic dieting and painfully early workouts, I finally allowed myself to just let my body go. I ate whatever and did whatever for nine months, and it was like re-booting my mindset towards fitness.
Now I am only allowing back the eating and exercise habits that I like. I want to improve my health, but I'm only willing to do what feels good. I will stop evaluating how good people are based on how well we hit yoga poses. I'm going to find out what health and fitness are like when they're NOT connected to self-hatred, guilt and ego. I can't wait!