Slow Burn Fitness

I don’t know about you, but when I see pictures of these thin little things in spandex jumping around on magazine covers, it drives me crazy.  I’m 5’2″, weigh 219.5 (– as of Oct 2003.  I’ve been losing weight), and I am not in good shape from a workout point of view.

I also hate to hurt when I exercise.

Not only that, but there’s this cultural sense of guilt we have in not being perfectly fit, as if we’re committing a sin somehow.  Makes you feel like garbage about yourself after awhile.  Me? I say that the guilt is completely unnecessary, even if I do want to be healthy.  I’m not a bad person because I am short and fat.  I won’t be a better person when I am short and in shape.  As I often tell people who compliment me on my weight loss, and say, “You must feel so much better about yourself.”, no, I don’t feel better about myself.  It’s just possible to run up the stairs.

So, if you’re overweight and take a cab if you have to go more than a few blocks, what the heck do you do? What if walking a mile is quite frankly out of the question? What if that “gentle half an hour walk” you’re supposed to take every day is really too much?

Stop feeling guilty about it, for one! You can start small and create an enormous snowball effect in your fitness.  Put on clothes and comfortable shoes. Pick a direction.  Walk as quickly as is comfortable for you for five minutes. Come back at the same pace.

Forget about it until the next day.  The next day, do the same thing.

When you’ve done it seven times, walk five and a half minutes instead of five before turning around.

Do that seven days in a row.  Then walk six minutes.

Oh, sure, it’ll take you about four and a half months to get to your target of walking a half an hour a day.  So what? Do you perhaps have a deadline? Are you going somewhere? You know that exercise is good for you.  Chances are good that you’re not doing it because it hurts.  It might be that your fitness level is pretty low.  Hey, I’ve been there.  I feel for you, because it really does stink to feel like that.  I know what it is to want to get in shape, get in shape now, then push myself too hard, get injured and quit.

I don’t do that any more.  That’s how I got to weigh 245 pounds and exhausted myself.  I felt at all times more or less the way I feel now when I am just recovering from the flu or something.  Yeah, that’s right, I felt slightly ill at all times.

As of this writing, I walk a good brisk 20 minutes a day.  I get my heart rate up to 21-22 beats in ten seconds, which is about 70% of my maximum and a good conditioning rate.  (You should be very careful to find YOUR correct target heart rate, as this is fairly individual).

I can hear you saying, “But what if It’s nasty weather out there.  I can’t go out in the rain! It’s cold, It’s yucky! Gray days depress me too much to do that!”

Get outside anyway.  I’m serious.  I grew up near Washington DC, which has abominable weather for a good portion of the winter–gray, yucky, dreary, you name it.  You know what, that ickiness you feel from lack of light will actually be alleviated a bit if you get outside.  No kidding.  Even on a yucky gray day, thereis a lot more good sunshine for you to absorb than there would be in your living room or in your office.  I now live in Vermont and work in New Hampshire. You want yucky weather? Try our winters.  Falls are gray and rainy and days are about an hour shorter in the dead of winter than where I grew up.  Believe me, the people who thrive up here learn to put on the boots and the polar fleece and get their butts outside into the sunlight while we have it!

If it’s the chilly damp that is kicking up your arthritis? Again, I genuinely feel for you.  I have it, too, and have since I was twelve.  Yeah, yeah, losing weight is supposed to help, but darn it, I hurt even when I weighed 117 pounds, ya know?

Exercise is actually good for arthritis, too.  No, don’t go jogging.  That’s too hard on your joints.  But walking at a pace that gets the blood pumping a little bit (a LITTLE bit!) is going to help.  You need strong muscles and to increase your bone density more than most, if you have this.  Get out there and walk. I promise you that if you start really small and stick with it while gently increasing your time, you will feel better.  If walking five minutes makes you hurt too much, start with four and a half, or three and a half or even two! you’re not going anywhere, so It’s a good idea to try.  Your body will thank you and you’ll be around a lot longer.

Now, cardio is all well and good, and I get a bit of it every day.  But what about other things? Strength training is vitally important, especially if you are or have been quite out of shape.  Your muscles are working harder than most peopleis are.  Think about it a minute — if you’re carrying 100 pounds of adipose tissue (I was), it would be as if someone else were carrying a 100 pound backpack.  You need to be stronger so you won’t be so darned tired! (Yeah, yeah, ideally you should lose the weight.  Ya think if you do all this you’re not going to lose a little adipose tissue and put on some muscle?)

Fortunately, walking is a weight bearing exercise — great for your behind, your thighs, your calves and you ankles.  So what about the upper body?

Pushups.  Okay, let’s be realistic here.  Chances are slim that you’re going to be able to drop and give anyone one, much less twenty! that’s okay.  Can you lean against a wall with your hands at pushup height and pump out a few? Betcha can.  If you’re strong enough to be able to do more than twenty this way, you do need something more challenging to get the upper body strength going. Forget those silly “girl” pushups, with your knees on the floor.  that’s not really going to build muscle.  Instead, once you’ve gotten to the point where wall pushups are too easy, do them against your kitchen counter.  When that gets too easy, drop the elevation again to a very sturdy table.  After that, drop it to a chair and so on until you hit the floor and are doing pushups the old fashioned Marine way.  Your upper body will love you for this.  I have found that as I have put on muscle that the daily tasks of life are simply less fatiguing. Obviously, at a desk job, I don’t do a lot of heavy lifting, but yes, I do have to lift a big carton of copier paper every now and then.  I have a family of six, so the weight involved in lifting groceries is certainly a non-trivial issue.  While I certainly do like looking good, for me the primary motivator is that when I am physically strong, it is less likely for me to get overwhelmed by the daily things I have to do.

While you’re working on this, you might also want to work on your abdominal strength.  Once you get to that full-fledged pushup, you’ll notice it works your abs, too.  Building ab strength is insanely easy.  Lay on the floor.  Now, see how much of your body you can lift off the floor without using your hands. Didja get your head up? Good.  What about your shoulders? Great.  Whatever you can do, try to do it five times.  Was that easy? Do more.  Did that hurt? Do enough until you can feel it, but not enough for it to be painful.  Now, every ten days, increase the reps by one.  you’ll be pumping out crunches before you know it.  In reading accounts of athletes, the ones I admire the most (gymnasts, martial artists, yogis and dancers) all say that trunk strength is crucial to overall condition.  I used to trivialize this concept until I had been working out several months.  But then I noticed that as I was able to increase the amount of crunches I was doing, the more stable I was in other workouts.  I have a desk job, but do not experience that bane of seated professions — back pain. While yes, back pain has many causes, strong supporting abs go a long way to reducing potential problems.  My skinny husband, who is an artist and spends many hours at a drafting table notices that if he does not do his crunches, he will get a horrid backache after a few hours of work.  Just remember to work up to increased repetitions on this.  You do not want to hurt yourself.  And also remember, whatever you can do today is okay.  You’ll be doing more next month, and a year from now, if you keep this up, you’ll look back on your progress and be amazed.  But if you push too hard, feel bad about yourself or punish your body in the process, you’re going to be stuck where you are.  don’t do that to yourself.  Really.  you’re okay where you are right now.

Okay, so we’ve got our strength and we’ve got our cardio.  One more thing: flexibility.

No, stop groaning.  Stretching is a sensual delight when you do it right. Stop looking at me like that.  I’m serious.

Remember, this is not supposed to hurt.  If you stretch until it is painful, you’re damaging muscle and tendons.  We’re trying to be good to our nice bodies that carry us around and do so much.  No punishing, please.

Confession time: I am fairly flexible for a woman of my age, medical condition and weight.  I studied things that require a lot of stretching all my childhood n ballet, martial arts, that sort of thing.  If I am describing things that make you laugh at me or wince in pain, remember that the point here is not to become a contortionist.  The point is to remain mobile.  It is not a contest and your present fitness level is okay.  It’s where you are and what you have to work with, and you’re fine person just the way you are.  You get fit to feel better, not to be better.

So.  First things first.  Can you touch your toes? No? that’s okay.  My skinny husband who finds a two-mile run a pleasant outing cannot, either.  When you get up in the morning, reach up and try to touch the ceiling, then lean back as far as you can comfortably.  Then lean over and try to touch your toes until you feel a pleasant pull.  PLEASANT PULL not PAIN.  No pain, no pain.  You do not want to tear anything.  Hold it at that nice pulling feeling for about ten seconds, then rest for a few breaths then try it again.  Then forget about it until tomorrow morning.  Keep doing that until you can touch your toes.  This may take awhile, and that’s fine!

I do a yoga exercise (yogis call it an asana) called the Sun Salutation several times every morning.  It stretches and limbers your whole body and feels oh so good–especially if I do it after a hot shower, so that all my muscles are warm and relaxed.  If you’re limber enough to do this, great, but don’t sweat it if you’re not.  The point here is to build fitness, not beat yourself up about your present state of fitness.

However, if yoga isn’t your thing, there are lots of other things you can do to make building flexibility fun.  Another thing I really enjoy doing is putting on some sexy, groovy music and just stretching out.  (Little Red Corvette is a favorite “stretching” tune of mine).  Start slowly with this and always move slowly.  No bouncing.  Bouncing is bad and evil and a quick route to a torn muscle.  Be nice to your body and don’t do that.

Start standing up with your feet together.   Reach your hands up as far as they will go.   Keeping the back straight and bending from the waist, slowly lean over as far as you can until you feel a nice pull all along the backs of your legs.   If you hurt doing this, you’re pushing to hard, so ease up.   Do this a few times, then move your feet about twice shoulder width apart (don’t lock your knees.   Keep them an itty bitty bit bent!), and reach your hands up as far as they will go again.   Lean over as far as you can with your back straight.   Come up, then lock your fingers and lean to the side as far as you can, being sure to keep your torso and legs on the same plane.   Then go to the other side.   Do this until you feel a nice pulling stretch.   Then lean to the front and try to put your hands on the floor.   If you can ease yourself to the floor without moving your legs, great.   If not, don’t sweat it and just sit down and part your legs in as wide a V as you can manage.   Reach up again, and try to grab your foot and put your chest on your thigh.   If you can do that, you limber thing you (I can, but it’s only because of my far too generous cup size), try to put your forehead on your shin.   Hold that for a few breaths, then move to the other leg and do the same thing.   Then lean over as far as you can to the center.   Aim to keep your back straight and put your chest on the floor.   I never could do this, by the way, even after ten years of dance classes, but aiming for it is good because it helps you maintain proper form.

The key to this entire article is to start small and have a plan for building a little bit at regular intervals.  My own personal fitness goal is do be able to do 100 pushups.  I am not yet to the point where I can do 20 proper pushups on the floor.  I started at wall ups, am now doing 20 pushups with my hand elevated on a seven inch step, and am probably about eight or nine months away from my goal.  I know that if I keep going Iill probably be on the floor in a week, and will be able to increase my reps every couple of weeks.  But I look back on my progress and am glad I started very small and carefully.

I am hoping that those of you who have a long way to go will look back in a year and be amazed at what those little steps to fitness can do for you.

2 Replies to “Slow Burn Fitness”

  1. This article is fabulous. Exactly and precisely what I need to get over the fear of starting. Thanks so much.

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