***Before I begin, I'd like to say that writing about weight, body image, health and any other subject pertaining to our bodies isn't easy. I never know if my voice is relevant, and I suppose it depends on the perspective, the reader and the message. All I can speak to is my own experience, which is a little myopic but, ultimately, authentic. Cut me some slack if I jumble a little. :)
I got a whole little body analysis done over the weekend, which included standing on a machine in yoga pants and a bra (no shoes or any metal) and holding two little hand-wands and not moving or talking for 45 seconds. The machine spit out a sheet of numbers and analysis, and the woman who owns the shop (a nutrition supplement store) helped me interpret them.
I was nervous. I haven't had my body fat calculated since I was 27, just before my wedding. I had it done at a gym in Washington DC, where I was a member. They did a whole little workup on me and finally gave me the results: I was hovering near obese with a body fat percentage of 26.7 percent.
I still remember the number and the words: borderline obese.
I am 5'8 inches tall and weighed, then, 132 pounds.
I'd always thought of myself as relatively thin. I worked out and watched what I ate. So I was surprised to be told I was on the cusp of what is so often described in the media as a health crisis.
The trainer suggested a diet of less fat and more fruits/vegetables. He also suggested working out with weights, both of which I was already doing.
For breakfast I had a cup of coffee with skim milk and sugar and a low-fat berry muffin from Starbucks at my desk. For lunch I ate a Cosi salad with low-fat dressing and a big slab of bread. I usually had a snack of low-fat yogurt or string-cheese. I ate meat and starch and veggies for dinner. If we ate out, I chose salads or veggies and rice. I didn't eat fried foods or fatty foods or even a lot of food.
I worked out several times a week, at an expensive gym, where I walked or jogged on the treadmill, put in 30 minutes on an elliptical and then went through a weight rotation with machines.
So how was it possible I was 'borderline obese?'
Fast-forward 14 years and some change. I am here in NC, and my ballet teacher suggests I go get this body fat calculation as a kind of baseline assessment of where I'm at and what my goals are.
I should add here I like to have goals and was speaking with her about building muscle so that I can, say, hold my leg in a certain position. She wasn't just suggesting this out of the blue or off the cuff.
So, on a whim, I went in and found myself standing on that machine, not talking or moving, holding the hand wands.
A minute later, with my shoes back on, the results were in.
There is a lot of information on that sheet of paper. The machine measures water content in your body, skeletal muscle, how much each limb weighs, etc. It tells visceral fat levels and basal metabolic rate (how many calories a person burns without exercise).
But let's get down to brass tacks.
My percentage body fat is 17.8%.
I am 42. I've had 2 kids. I no longer lift weights. I don't belong to a gym (though I do belong to Jazzercise and go a few times a week - still, no machines).
How did I lose almost 9 percentage points of body fat as I've gotten older? And is it a good thing?
I'll start with it being a good thing (or not).
According to the machine, I need to put on 9.7 lbs. of body fat mass. My body fat percentage is just below healthy for a woman of my age and weight.
Isn't it ironic that I'm always just hovering on either healthy and unhealthy? I'm never squarely in the middle? I feel like that speaks so much to my relationship with food overall and how I tend to behave - swinging one way or the other, never sitting in the middle.
More on that later.
For now, there is evidence I could use a little more fat and muscle (3.3 lbs. of lean muscle mass is suggested). As a woman in my 40s, I'm acutely aware that I'm losing muscle as I age, which puts me at risk for 'greater weakness and less mobility,' according to Harvard Medical School. As I dug around more, I read a study by the NIH reporting the greatest loss in strength comes after the age of 50, when we can lose as much as 15% of our muscle mass, power and strength per decade. Per decade!
But still - how did I go from 26% to 18% (give or take) body fat in a decade, 14 years older than I was before?
Also, I am relatively the same weight. I was 132 then and I am 128.4 now. I don't think 3.5 lbs. of weight loss explains the change in percentage.
For reference, here is a photo of me from last week at the ballet studio where I take lessons. It's not the most glamorous of photos, but it's the best I could do.
Here's what I did/changed in these 14 years:
1. I started body-weight workouts and gave up weight machines.
After the birth of my second child, I saw an Oprah episode with Gwyneth Paltrow and her trainer, Tracy Anderson. Gwyneth's enthusiasm for this new trainer and her workouts was pretty compelling, so I ordered a few workout DVDs and started what can only be described as the hardest workout of my life. Of.My.Life. Tracy Anderson doesn't believe in phoning-it-in or working out for 20 minutes. She believes in hardcore dance cardio (40 solid minutes) and an hour of toning exercises that look like you're batting at things in your periphery and flinging your arms around but which somehow tone and build muscle in ways no weight machine ever did. A few years after discovering TA, I heard about Sadie Lincoln, who'd begun training Madonna. I moved over to Barre 3 because I felt it was a little more doable and the attitude was less about 'problem areas' and 'teeny-tiny arms' and simply building a strong, balanced body for daily life. Since then I've done Ballet Beautiful, yoga and dance cardio classes at gyms, including Zumba.
I never would have thought 3 lb. hand weights, planks and moving slowly and with intention could give me better results than all those hours with a trainer at a gym lifting weights - squat machines, rows, etc. But as I began these workouts, I not only felt stronger; I felt more balanced overall and happier.
So, I stopped isolating muscles one at a time, with 5-10-20 pound weights, and I started focusing on these 'accessory muscles' and using body weight.
2. I limited carbs, added fat and stopped eating wheat.
I have IBS. I've had 'stomach issues' my entire adult life, from ulcers to IBS to a host of other indefinable diagnoses. In my twenties, I ate the Standard American Diet. I had low-fat cereal for breakfast with skim milk. I had Lean Cuisine entrees for lunch or dinner. I ate a lot of bread and crackers and cereals. I didn't eat much fat.
Then, a doctor suggested I cut wheat from my diet to see if my stomach felt better. Within three days, my stomach was noticeably more settled. A lot of the daily pain I had was gone. I have limited wheat now for about 6 years. I went 2 years without eating it at all. Now, I have it occasionally, when I'm at a dinner party or if I bake something I really want to try. Otherwise, I steer clear. When I stopped eating wheat, I noticed I wasn't getting shaky and hungry all the time. I spent most of my twenties and thirties going from one meal to another, on the verge of some kind of hypoglycemic meltdown. Not eating wheat stopped that. I could go from breakfast to lunch without issue. No shaking. I was hungry by 12 or 1:00. But I wasn't light-headed or dizzy.
Since then, I've gone through phases of cutting carbs entirely (keto), which was awful, or keeping carbs to a minimum, which I do now. I eat carbs, but I try to eat potatoes, rice, oatmeal and veggies/fruit as my carbs. I've noticed better sleep, more stable moods and overall less inflammation since eating this way. Also, I've added in a lot of fat (whole fat dairy, butter, coconut oil, olive oil, etc.). When I don't eat carbs, eating fat is never an issue. In fact, my cholesterol was so good eating this way, my doctor left a little note on my test results. So, for me at least, this diet seems to work best for where my body is at right now.
If I sound like a bastion of good health, don't be fooled. I eat a ton of sugar. I've tried to limit that or cut it out entirely and never 'succeeded.' I eat candy, too. It's not even high-brow dessert. It's m&ms and ice cream. So, I'm not trying to sell myself as a glowing picture of health. We all have our 'thing.'
3. I started getting decent, regular sleep.
Prior to having kids, I didn't have healthy sleep habits. I was up until 1 or 2:00 in the morning, watching Law & Order or whatever else was on TV. If I had to work, I'd manage to pull it together in the morning.
Many nights I took Nyquil to get to sleep. Then, I had kids.
My daughter was a horrid sleeper, and she often woke for the day at 4:30 or 4:45. For the day. I was absolutely sleep-deprived, rancid and on the edge of sanity - the very edge.
When we took her to a sleep clinic and finally got help, I realized that if I was going to make it as a mom and be even remotely pleasant, happy and responsible, I had to get on track with sleep.
When I got regular, quality sleep, I ate less junk and far fewer carbs. When I ate better, I had more energy for workouts, walks and playing with my kids. When I did all of those things, I slept better.
I still took meds for sleep, mostly Benadryl. I still had a really hard time with insomnia. But over time, I saw such huge benefits from focusing on sleep that I remained committed to sleep as a priority. Today, I take Lunesta and melatonin to help me sleep. I get to bed on time, at the same time most nights. I don't sleep-in on weekends. I don't take naps. I have a night-time routine to help my body transition.
In short, I try really hard. I think this has made a huge difference in my ability to eat well and exercise consistently.
4. I became 'athletic.'
As a kid, I was told (and experience confirmed) I wasn't 'athletic.' In fact, everyone in my family was told this, probably based on neither of my parents identifying as 'athletic.' We were told our talents lay in the cerebral arts.
Readers - if anyone ever told you this, either directly or indirectly, don't for one second longer believe it. People aren't 'athletic.' People learn to play certain sports, having access to lessons and parents who take them to practices and space and time to play. That's it. There is opportunity, taken or untaken, but there isn't some sort of athletic type out there who was born to participate in the Olympics and the rest of us are doomed to being picked last for wall-ball.
I started taking horseback riding lessons on a whim at the age of 35. I was bad. I am a tight rider, which is about the worst thing you can be on a horse. Still, I stuck with it. I rode for 3 years, anywhere from 3-7 times per week. Over those years, I got better. I learned how to ride dressage and tore through the North Carolina horse country at a solid gallop. I had strong, tight inner thighs with a cut down the middle of muscle definition. My abs got strong. My posture improved.
Most of all, I felt like I was finally 'good' at something athletic.
Then, when my kids took swimming lessons, I asked if I could join them. The teacher agreed to teach me privately after their group lesson. In one summer I went from floundering and a half-assed doggy-paddle to full-fledged swimming, strokes and a swim cap and breathing under my armpit.
In Arizona, I started dance cardio classes at a gym as a way to get out of the house and engage my brain. I wasn't any better or worse than anyone else, but for years I'd been afraid to look like an idiot. Once I stopped being so afraid that someone would laugh at me, I actually started having fun and building up all sorts of leg strength in the process.
Finally, back here in NC again, I started taking ballet lessons. I've never taken ballet in my life, not even as a kid, so I'm fumbling around, tipping over and making every mistake in the book. But I am finally at a place in my life where my fear of looking bad is trumped by my desire to learn, grow and engage.
5. I listen to my body and myself.
I do the workouts I love. I eat the food I love (which doesn't include sweet potatoes, zucchini spirals or protein powder). I drink wine but not too much. I eat sugar. I go to bed by 10:30. I get up by 6:30. I don't eat late at night. I don't run. I don't do CrossFit or eat a ketogenic diet. I sauté my vegetables in butter and eat dessert after every meal, sometimes after breakfast.
I don't listen to anyone else more than I listen to myself. I hear what people have to say, and I base my judgement of their opinion on a lot of factors, but I never take it at face value. I trust my own instincts now more than ever, and I also trust that I don't have to have a perfect diet, hardcore workout routine or rows of supplements to be healthy.
I also try not to tell anyone else what to do, realizing that what works for me won't work for everyone and that my 'journey' (for lack of a better word) is mine. It's full of all my own mistakes and pitfalls and triumphs. But it's mine, and I can't beat people over the head with suggestions to cut out gluten or do barre workouts or whatever else I'm doing in that moment anymore than I can do what anyone else is doing - be it CrossFit or marathons or meditation.
When I stopped trying to model my life and health after someone else (celebrities, neighbors, gym trainers), I found what works for me. I'm happy with where I'm at now. I'm happy that I'm learning new skills, engaging in more athletic endeavors and have a solid grasp on my limits.
That's what I've done over the last decade to get fitter and healthier. I would say I still have a long way to go and perhaps things will change, but right now I feel good about where I'm at. I've moved 7 times in those 14 years, and I've struggled a lot through those transitions. Having healthy habits to fall back on has been one of my saving graces.
Finally, I want to say something about what haunts us.
When I was a kid, I was teased mercilessly about having white skin. I wrote about that here.
As an adult, I've been told a whole host of ugly things about my body. Most of those comments have been back-handed 'compliments.'
I had a boss once approach me in the filing room and say, "You'd look great if you just had better calves."
On a bus in China, a Chinese couple spoke openly about me in Chinese, assuming I couldn't speak or understand the language.
The man said, "She's pretty for a Russian but a little fat." Again, I was about 135 pounds....and not Russian.
The one comment that haunted me the most, however, came a few days after my wedding. Someone repeated a comment someone else had made about me. The comment was that I wasn't overweight or anything, but I just looked soft.
That stuck with me. I'd look in the mirror and see arm flab or belly fat or saddlebags, and I'd think: soft.
We all have those comments that haunt us, most of them said without a lot of thought, most of them not even meaningful or accurate. For whatever reason, though, they stick with us.
I've noticed as I've focused less on working out for the approval of others and more for my own mental health and wellbeing, that haunting has lessened.
It's not gone.
I am not an enlightened health guru.
I still check my butt out in the frozen foods section at the grocery store to see if my jeans look okay.
But I do believe that when I act from a place of acceptance and genuine good will, even toward myself, the results are so much better, the experience richer and the agitation much less present than when I try to get 'healthy' by sticking to a fad diet in the hopes of looking like an airbrushed celebrity.
My goals now include continuing to build muscle through exercise I love, eating more fruits and vegetables (I eat fewer than 2 servings a day most days) and getting enough water.
I always want to be improving and getting better. I know some people think that's perfectionism run amuck. I know many people who think there is some baseline normal that is 'good enough.' That's not how I roll, which has its pros and cons.
For me, though, the point isn't to be getting better for some external approval or to meet an arbitrary goal. The point is to be working from an internal compass - sometimes easier said than done but definitely better than the alternative.
I'm off now for ballet class, grocery shopping and hustling some laundry. If the floors get vacuumed it will be a miracle.