The Comparison Trap

One of the fitness writers I really like is reluctant to post her numbers much.  You know, how much weight she’s lifting.  With her position as a fitness educator, it makes a lot of sense.  Either you’d look at them and be too intimidated to want to start lifting, or as an experienced lifter might say, “She ain’t all that.”

I posted my numbers recently to a board where exercise was under discussion and got called a powerlifter, or had people really surprised I could lift that much, or compared themselves and what they could do to what I am doing and feeling discouraged –especially when they find out how much I weigh.

I like the ego boo of “Damn, you’re strong!”  I’ll admit that.  But I’m not by any stretch of the imagination a powerlifter.  Nor should anyone look at my own weights and be discouraged.

The comparison thing can be just gawdawful stupid.  I do it in the gym, myself.  What’s worse, I don’t tend to compare myself to the female lifters, I compare myself to the men.

I was lifting this morning and there was one other person lifting there, too.  This guy really was a powerlifter.  He was working out with 250lbs on the bench press.  I felt apologetic about my pitiful 70 lbs on my own bench.  Dumb?  Of course.

Chances are slim, indeed, that I’ll ever be working out regularly with 250 lbs benching.  Well, okay, let’s rephrase that.  That’s not even a goal for me.   There are women who can bench 200+ and most of them are professional bodybuilders or weightlifters.   (These are the drug-free stats.  There are enhanced women who lift more than twice that).

For ordinary fitness (rather than as a competitive athlete), comparing yourself to anything but your last (recent) workout is absurd.

I had a martial arts instructor once who put it this way, “Don’t worry about whether or not you’re better than the guy next to you.   Worry about whether or not you’re better than yesterday.”


Looking for the mouse

Believe it or not, this video has given me a far greater understanding of and sympathy to fanfic.

Thing is, it’s not about fanfic at all, but about an amazing cognitive shift. Please do watch it. It’s fantastic.


This is gonna talk about body, weight and weight loss issues. Stop reading now if that stuff offends you.

I’m thinking about this because I’m feeling unmotivated to go to the gym. One day, more or less, really doesn’t make a big difference in health or fitness or weight loss. I’m going to do it anyway because I’m interested in keeping my habits strong. It may be a real slacker workout. Who knows. But it’ll be a workout, by damn.

I’m in a funny place body-wise right now. While I am, indeed, trying to take off some excess adipose tissue, I don’t look in the mirror and hate what I see. I look fine. I’m using the clinical term because it’s not too terribly emotionally charged.

I don’t look at my eating habits with any disgust. I’ve switched to doing No S and ya know, it’s a nice, sustainable and sane way to eat. It contains excess, is non-invasive, and I can have treats on weekends if I want them. I’ve been losing about a pound a week, which is about as fast as I care to do so. (Much faster and you’re risking losing muscle. I run my thumb over the calluses on my palms and shudder that the work might be wasted. No thanks).

So where is the funny coming from?

Well, I’m writing a book about getting fit without getting too caught up in the weight loss aspects. I almost feel like I shouldn’t lose weight because of the book. On the one hand, I’m saying, “Look, you can get fit without being focused on getting skinny/thin/whatever.” and on the other? Well, while I’m changing my eating patterns about as moderately as is humanly possible, that change is causing a loss of adipose tissue, and that’s kind of why I chose to do it.

Am I thinking about getting thin when I’m working out? Not at all. If I’m in the weight room, I’m thinking about form. I’m doing the arithmetic twice to make sure I’m lifting the correct amount of weight for my workout. If I’m walking, I’m probably listening to music and thinking about what I’m going to be writing next. In the pool, I’m probably also mentally composing something I’ll be writing — a Misanthrope article, making notes about how the workout is making me feel to talk about motivation to get fit, working out a scene in Stoneflower.

Does, “This will help you lose weight” get me into the gym? No. Not even a little. I have a fair idea of the calories burned by my workouts and they’re not high enough to be a great immediate motivator. (Exercise is important, but it’s not the big calorie burner people think it is). I’m actually feeling unmotivated today. I’m visualizing how much I liked the feeling of accomplishment after a great set of bench presses. I’m running my thumb over the calluses in my hands with a certain measure of pride. I’m thinking about how cool it feels to have Dream Theater’s “Learning to Live” playing on my iPod while I’m doing squats, and the anticipatory rush I feel as I hear the keyboard intro, flip my ponytail over the bar and load the iron on my shoulders. (I have a “weights” playlist and for some reason my iPod will trip to “Learning to Live” when I start my squat set about 80% of the time).

If I feel unmotivated to swim, I visualize the moments where it felt good. I imagine being an Orca, moving sleekly through the water. I think about how I love the blue of the water and the way the light plays off the ripples when I’m doing breaststroke. I think about how the water feels moving past my body. I visualize the stroke technique and the way the stretch and reach feels good when I get the crawl correct. I think about the sense of accomplishment I feel when I haul my exhausted butt out of the water after completing a mile. I think about sensation of my hair coming down with a hot slap on my back when I pull off my cap — and the feeling of pride at how hard I had to work out for my hair to be hot in the cool water.

That is what motivates me on a daily basis, even if I have other long-term effects. The scale? It’s a number. Body shape? I only spend about a few minutes a day in front of a mirror. Doing? Ahhhh, that does feel good.

Getting my Courage Back

I tore my left ACL (knee ligament) in the early summer of 2004 attempting a flying side kick.  Yes, yes, that wasn’t the wisest of things for an overfat woman in her mid thirties to try.   I know, I know.

I didn’t even realize the ligament was ruptured until the lack of stability was causing me problems a couple of years later.   I got an MRI and was cautioned that surgery would indeed help and probably solve my stability issues, but that it wouldn’t solve any issues of pain I might have — in fact, I might have more trouble in that area.

Pain, I’m used to.  The lack of stability was not something I’m okay with.  So I got the surgery and wound up having the medial meniscus repaired at the same time.  (We didn’t know it’d been torn until they opened my knee up).  Lack of mobility freaks me out, and recovery from the surgery has to rank up there with the scariest experiences in my life after a couple of incidents where my children were severely ill or injured.

It’s been a year on since I’ve had the repair done.

I still never do anything much that requires jumping or torque on my knee, even though that ligament is probably stronger than the one I was born with.   Because I’d had to spend so much time being cautious on stairs and uneven ground, it’s become an ingrained habit.  In the winter, I walk on ice as if I were in my eighties rather than half that.

I’m starting to plod rather than leap.  I’m not light on my feet.   This isn’t a weight issue.  I’ve been quite light on my feet at considerably heavier than I am now  –probably not as strong, either!   Hell, I’m not even doing dance moves that I used to.

I’ve been playing a little with plyometrics and doing (careful!) jumping exercises on my stairs.   Thing is, it’s a hit or miss, catch as catch can type of thing.  I think it would be useful to develop a definite program with gentle progression and make it a habit.

If I get used to certain moves, maybe I’ll be getting my physical courage and faith in my body back.

What's Fit?

A person capable of swimming a mile has achieved an above average level of fitness.

Percy Norman Swim Club


I have to say I have to frown a little at this one. Not that I’m not still excited that I finally can swim a mile. I freely admit I get a big ole kick out of it. I worked a long time to do it, and that it’s my usual swimming workout is kinda cool to me. It was a big <ahem> milestone.

It doesn’t stop me from hurting when I’m on my feet all day. Hell, it doesn’t stop me from hurting when I’m in the water on my bad days. My joints are so bad right now my hands hurt while I was swimming, never mind how my hips, knees and ankles feel walking home from the gym. This means I’m not exactly gonna be able to hike a few miles even if I need to.

I see fitness as being able to cope with random emergencies and get through one’s day comfortably. When I have flares like this, it does interfere with my day, by damn! Forget running away from danger.

Does this mean I can’t get “fit”? To a degree, that’s about right. I really can’t.

But I do what I can. “Can” is swimming a mile (and used to be swimming 400 yards), or walking two or three (and used to be a couple of blocks). “Can” is lifting heavy weights a few times a week. I can prevent muscle atrophy. I can get my heart pumping harder for a half hour or so to keep my cardiovascular system healthy. I can lift heavy stuff to maintain my bone density. I’m certainly far fitter than I would be if I did not attempt to move on a regular basis.

Do I find it discouraging that I’m never going to get to the point where I can run an easy 5K or be able to go all day like a lumberjack?  Kinda.   I just try to ignore that, though, and keep on with what I’m doing because I know that working out is what I need to do.

1My maternal grandmother

The No S Diet

The No-S Diet I’m in favor of simple, workable solutions. The No S Diet is exactly that. The basics are simple. You could read the cover of the book and get the whole idea of the diet.

No Sweets.

No Snacks.

No Seconds.

Except (sometimes) on days beginning with S.

That’s it.

Reinhard Engels, librarian-trained computer programmer, came up with the diet as a way to control his own weight issues.  Over a period of time, combined with some other systems he came up with for exercise he lost about forty pounds.

Did he stop doing the diet afterwards?

No! No! No!

And that’s exactly the point.  The No S diet is a long-term solution rather than rather than a short term patch.  You won’t lose ten pounds in two weeks on this.  On the Everyday Systems bulletin board, the successful No Sers are more likely to talk about losing 20lbs in a year than something more dramatic.  There’s even been a “throw away the scale” thread among people who get more focused on scales than good habits.

Not that the more dramatic losses don’t happen, but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule.  (I also note they tend to be male.  Men lose fat easier, damn them. I used to cuss about it internally when I was a Diet Center counselor).

So?  Friends, I’ve gained that much in a year many, many times.  Yes, I’m awful when it comes to yo-yoing and it’s one of the reasons I like No S.

This ties in to the Kaizen post I made a few days ago.  The constant simple refinement often gets the best and most lasting results.  It’s a non-invasive, sustainable habit — certainly more so than my gym fixation.  You would not believe what I go through to make sure I have the money to keep that up! (I just like lifting heavy stuff and swimming, what can I say?)  No-one has to make special meals for you, and it includes the idea that yes, you’re going to have a treat sometimes.  It just contains the excess.

I’ve actually put the concepts to the test — three single plates of food three times a day.  I don’t stint.  I eat enough to carry me through to the next meal.   And you know what?  When I do a caloric analysis using FitDay, I’m eating about what I need to to lose weight at a gradual pace.   Not only that, you’d be amazed how good food tastes when you’re genuinely hungry.

When you get the book, do pay special attention to his section on snacking.   It’s a real interesting eye-opener.

I will note that Mr. Engels did include exercise in his routine.  He Urban Rangers a whole bunch, and does Shovelglove every N day (Normal day.  Weekdays and non-holidays).  It is the combination of portion control and exercise that worked for him.  I think only one or only the other would not have had nearly the effective results.

The Power of Habit

I’ve been hitting the gym consistently for about six weeks now.

I’m getting to the point where I don’t even really give it a lot of thought, I just go.

Yesterday, I did my workout and all. Last evening a friend came over and she’d had a stressful day. She wanted to go for a walk instead of having a martini and growling about the troubles, so we did.

I was a little sore the next day, and my joints were a bit creaky. (Walking a lot does that to me. There’s a reason I’m a dedicated swimmer). But, I didn’t even consider blowing off my swim with the excuse I’d already gotten in some extra cardio. I had kind of an excuse — a photo shoot during my normal swim time. Yet, when I got home from the shoot, I packed up my gym bag and just headed to the pool without giving it a second thought.

That’s the power of habit. I didn’t spend time making a decision about whether or not to work out. I just did it because that’s what I do every day. Utterly without thought. Went to the gym and because it’s Wednesday, I swam my mile.

I only got to thinking about it while I was enjoying the fact that getting the blood pumping with no stress on my joints was making my joints feel better. It amused me1.  It also got me to thinking about habit in general and how it works for you or not.

I think the cool thing is that you can make it work for you. We talk “Bad Habits” all the time because they seem like chains that bind us.  The thing is, we don’t honor the good habits we have as the wonderful safety harness that they are.  I think that’s a mistake.  I also think it’s a mistake to look at habit changes in terms of the negative.  You know “breaking” a bad habit?   Because when you’re trying to change a habit, you’re also trying to build a good habit.

I find for myself I’m a lot more successful at going to than running from.  The exercise habit is a good example, but there are others.  I’ve developed mental habits over the years that are not as big and obvious, but my goodness they’ve been wonderfully productive.  In each case, they’ve been a case of “going to” rather than giving a lot of energy to the old, negative habit.  Instead, in the instances where I’ve been successful, I’ve had a replacement positive I was trying to build.  Focusing on that works a lot better for me.

Specific and measurable also works a lot better for me as well.

So, instead of “quit being disorganized”, you’d look at it as, “I spend five minutes every evening putting everything that’s collected on the counter by the entrance to the house in its proper place.”  At first you’ll concentrate on it.  At first you’ll get excited about racking up your string of successes.  And this is good.

But at some point, it’s just what you do and you kind of forget about it.

1 For the record, I don’t recommend laughing when you’re trying to take a breath doing the crawl. Just a little tip.


I exercise seven days a week and I go reasonably hard compared to what I used to do ten years ago (the occasional walk).

Actually I exercise a lot compared to what I did five years ago, too.  It didn’t automagically make me skinny, but by golly I am more fit!

The thing is, that article?  Buddy, I stand by it.  It is honest, no kidding, a great way to get started.  Little, incremental goals have an enormous positive effect over time.

The Japanese use this concept in the workplace (they call it kaizen, which is usually translated loosely into English as “continual improvement”).  The thing is, these are not great, dramatic leaps of improvement, but daily, incremental tiny little things.

To give you an idea:

When I started swimming in July ’06, I was swimming 400 yards in 20 minutes, and that was my cardio.  Walking?  Bite me!  That made my feet hurt and my calves cramp up.  (Yes, I was walking every day in Oct ’03.  I stopped working out for about a year.  Not making that mistake again.  I lose fitness fast, dammit).

Now, I swim a mile in ~45 minutes.  Ideally I’d like to be able to swim a mile in half an hour.  That’s gonna be awhile, I think.

When I started lifting in July ’06, I was squatting 30lbs.

I’m squatting 85lbs now, and have gotten a lot more serious about lifting.  I’ve got my eye on squatting 100lbs as my next mid-range goal.  I’m years away from the ultimate goal of squatting my bodyweight.  That’s okay.  I like to keep my eyes on the little goals.

Thing is, I have little goals for every single workout.  In the weight room, I’m either increasing a rep each workout, or I’m increasing weight.   In the pool, I’ll either try to swim for a longer distance, or a shorter time.

So where does this end?

It doesn’t.  It’s an open-ended system.  These tiny little goals are enough to keep me interested, and they’ll change and refine over time.  I’m 39.  There’s certainly a limit to where I can go physically.  But I don’t really look ahead to find that.  In five years (barring accident or debilitating illness) I’ll probably look back on what I’m doing now with a lot of pride in how far I’ve come.

But right now, I’m looking at the next rep and the next five pounds, or the next 100 yards.  It keeps things small an immediate.

That means that adding a minute to a walk when you’ve gone from ten minutes to eleven minutes is really good.  If you consistently challenge yourself with little goals — just that next step, or that next small habit change, they add up.  If you can walk a block before your calf cramps up, looking at my workouts might be discouraging.  Thing is, that was me, no kidding.  And I got here by small, incremental goals.

Walking and Treadmills

I couldn’t face another lap in the pool today, so I took a walk instead.

I almost blew off any working out today. Slept in quite late again today after getting my son off to school. I decided to go ahead and get some exercise because it’s gray and nasty. Being tired is okay. Gray and nasty means that depressed might follow, and I liked the nap alternative a lot better than the probability of depressed.

I pushed myself enough that I was sweaty with only a sweatshirt in 36F and rain, so I went reasonably hard. I’m lucky I have decent places to walk. I actually considered going to the gym and using the treadmill, but that’s just too weird for me when it’s over freezing and I have a place outside. And you’re not looking at the world’s biggest fan of the outdoors, either, I like outdoors well enough, but I’m beginning to think I’m a city girl at heart and like “nature” for vacations and stuff. Mom used to call me a houseplant.

But even so, to walk? I’ve got a perfectly good sidewalk in front of my house and I can walk for miles on it. I could see a treadmill in really horrible weather, but weather that’s so bad I’d want to use a treadmill would be weather I’d want a treadmill at home and not a gym because I won’t want to be driving.

I’m actually considering throwing in a half hour walk every morning on top of my other workouts now that the weather has gotten nicer. When I was working at Hogwarts, I probably did walk about a half hour to forty-five minutes throughout the day, what with taking the bus and stuff like that. And that was on top of weights three to four times a week and swimming at least three times a week.

Couldn’t hurt, I suppose. I’ve heard the “magic number” for getting quite fit and easy weight control is five hours of exercise a week. That would be about right if I started throwing in the walks. God knows it would mean exercise variety, which is never a bad thing. Also, I am concerned that I’m not getting much weight bearing work besides the lifting. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of swimming, but I’m also concerned about keeping my knee muscles strong. ACL surgery was no damn joke, and I want to protect the rather painful investment by making sure I’m keeping the supporting muscles strong.

From the Outside

I have something of a love/hate relationship with fitness literature — especially bodybuilding.

On the one hand I like to look for information.

On the other? It can be discouraging.

When I see articles about how someone’s life has become so much better since they got thin and look great in a bikini I want to scream, “You’re missing the point!” I mean Jesus Christ, I’m poly. Of course I want to be found attractive. But ya know, that’s a lot of work to go to get approbation from the outside. And the idea of finding life validation in terms of how sexy I’m seen is kinda scary to me, because it puts my life worth in someone else’s hands. No thanks. See, when I work out, I do it to be stronger. Would I like to look hot in a bikini? Sure. But honestly that’s years away if it ever happens and isn’t much of a motivator to get my ass into the pool or a bar loaded across my shoulders. At this stage it’s the energy to do my day. It’s having physical options. It’s not to waste some inconvenient surgery I got (ACL repair) last year.

It’s not about what I get from the outside that gets my ass in the water. It’s what I feel on the inside that does it. It’s about challenging myself to do something difficult. It’s about the joy of movement. Swimming a mile isn’t for “someday when I’m skinny”. It’s for now. It feels good now. I’ve lost lots of weight before, and no compliment, no flirting, nothing ever felt as good as knowing that I could swim that mile, lift a heavier weight, or the security that I could handle myself physically in an emergency situation.

When I was 17 I got my greenbelt, and part of the test was to do 75 pushups. Oh the greenbelt felt great. (So did the celebration after class my boyfriend and I indulged in!). But ya know, the solid knowledge that I could do 75 pushups, the sheer solitary accomplishment of it, was what felt best.

I dunno, maybe that makes me a cold fish. But it is the way I feel.

I actually got asked what I was training for today in the pool1. I said, “The Not Dying of a Heart Attack Century Marathon”.

1I woke up grumpy as shit today, and when that happens, there’s nothing for it but to put on the sexiest, dirtiest music you can load onto an iPod and swim a mile and revel in the sheer sensual physicality of the water and the movement. I swam hard, my friends!