But I'm TIRED!

In a change of topic to shock everyone, I’m going to talk about.

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Gaining physical fitness when you start out obese and severely out of shape.1

One of the realities of being quite overweight is that you are often flipping tired! Will taking off fat and building muscle help? Of course. No-one argues that. But, if you’re like a lot of other people you’re told, “Oh exercise is great, exercise is wonderful, you’ll feel so much more energetic if you work out!”

Yes, and no.

What very few people who try to encourage us to work out say is, “The first month of starting a fitness program, even a very sensible one within your present fitness level, is going to mean that you are going to be tired. You’re going to need an extra half an hour to an hour’s sleep a night so that your body can build the muscle it needs to start getting stronger and more energetic.”

Oh, they’ll slip in “get plenty of sleep”, and yes, that’s good advice, but the detail is generally lacking. I’m not sure why. Maybe they’re afraid of scaring us off from starting. It’s a mistake, though. We know how to cope with difficult. We do it every day of our lives.

It doesn’t scare me to know that I’ll be tired for a month, but the payoff will be feeling great after that! I bet it doesn’t scare you, either. But, if I’m told, “Just exercise and you’ll feel great”, and I don’t feel great for weeks, I’m going to think something is wrong. Why in the world would I keep up with that? And why don’t more exercise proponents talk about it?

The problem is a simple one. It’s easy to forget what starting out feel like. I woke up this morning feeling a little sore because I’d done some different lifts last night. But it was a “good” sore — kind of a “Go muscles for gettin’ all strong and stuff!” When I got in to work, I ran up to the third floor with Disturbed blasting in my iPod, and my backpack full of exercise gear because I could and it felt great! I felt like I could wrestle a grizzly bear, give him the first fall, then eat him raw without salt. Back in July when I was starting out with serious lifting, I was resting at each landing (which I hadn’t been doing before) because my muscles were sore and I was tired.

A properly designed exercise routine isn’t an instant payoff thing. Oh, you’ll notice little positive changes early on. If you have trouble sleeping, you might find you sleep more deeply, and wake feeling a little better. When I found a cardio-type exercise that didn’t hurt, I was lucky enough to start getting the endorphin rushes pretty early on. You’ll notice little subtle changes in strength and endurance if you pay attention, but they are pretty subtle. In general, though, at the end of the day, you’re going to be tired. That’s okay. Your body is obediently trying to adapt to your new routine and needs the sleep to do it.

But that wonderful rush of energy and strength is a minimum of a month away — more likely two or three.

Thing is, you’ve sweated out two or three months of something difficult to get something good. I know all of you have. You might have a college degree, or have tediously practiced an instrument to learn to play, or done any of a number of things. This is no different, really.

1Yes, I do have other things on my mind, but they mostly involve getting Keith Hamilton Cobb in… Nevermind… Don’t want you clawing out your eyeballs.

Language and Choice

I have to go to work in the morning.

I have to get the house clean.

I have to finish this term paper.

I have to pay my bills.

I have to make this sweater for my mother.

Ever said anything like that? (Be honest, you have!) We all do. It’s an idiomatic quirk of the English language. Idioms are telling, however, and this is something I’ve been examining lately.

I’ve been doing an experiment lately –replacing “have to” with “choose to” or “want to”.

“Honey, I want to get enough sleep not to feel badly in the morning when I go to work, so I want to go to bed now.”

“I know that Martian Spider Silk would make a great sweater, but I am choosing to pay my rent rather than buy the silk at this time.”

“I want to get the house clean.”

I notice a serious emotional difference. Instead of feeling put upon, I feel a sense of power. Now, people often feel different things, but I find that because I am removing “have to” and “should” from my vocabulary, I am experiencing two things:

First, I feel a sense of empowerment. There is this sense of endless possibility, and I could choose any of it. This means, I am much more focused on doing what I really want.

Second, a sense of background guilt is gone. I don’t feel bad if I don’t clean the house. I chose not to! I didn’t skip out on what I “should” do. If I want a clean house more than I want to fuck around on the Internet, I am perfectly free to put the computer down and pick up the cleaning rag.

Now you might say, “But I don’t have a choice — not really!”

But you do. For every Harriet Tubman, there were hundred of people in the ante-bellum South who said, “I don’t like slavery, but I can’t help any of the slave escape. It’s too dangerous.”

What they were not saying was, “I am choosing not to help in this, as I do not want to risk myself/my wife/my husband/my children in this. My immediate family is more important.” This is not a judgment. Were my immediate family not more important to me than the General State of People I Don’t Know, I would be living very differently from how I choose to live.

When you remove “have to” from your life, all of a sudden you are faced with the fact that everything you do is a choice and it is very difficult to hide from facing the reality of choices you don’t want to make or are uncomfortable coping with the consequences of. I choose to be heavy rather than to diet, and I am aware that’s a choice. I choose to write a lot because it works for me and makes me happy. I choose to get rid of clutter, not because it’s acceptable to have a neat house, but because it makes me happy. If I say, “I am choosing not to clean the house” and there is food rotting in the sink, I am directly confronted with the fact that there are things more important to me than whether or not the house stinks. The consequence is there and there is nothing to hide behind.

We live in a culture that trains us to be uncomfortable with facing up to doing what we want. Not only that, but we live in a culture that is not very accepting of choice. You’re supposed to want to earn a lot of money and accumulate a lot of physical things whether that really makes you happy or not. You’re supposed to have children, and God forbid if you say you choose not to.

Facing the fact that everything you do is a choice takes a lot of courage. You really face up to your self in a lot of ways, and it can be a path to self-judgment. You can feel bad about yourself because you really don’t want what you should want, whether or not it’s because of idealism or something more external. It’s a risk, too. Try saying, “I choose to do X” to someone in your life who doesn’t want you to do X. You can get all kinds of reactions from (happily) supportive to downright hostility. You’ll be asked to justify yourself. Now certainly you can choose to, but ya know what? You do not have to make choices that you can explain to another person such that you get an agreement as to the validity of your choice. You might want to. That choice might work best for you. But you do not have to.

It’s always down to choice.

Depressed? Employed? You Can Cope

You feel as if you’re wading through molasses, you find it difficult to make a decision and your ability to concentrate is shot.   Yep, you’re feeling depressed.

This could happen for any of a number of reasons.   In today’s economic climate, it is not unusual to feel pressured about money and work.   This can be a vicious circle.   You feel insecure about your job, you get depressed and you find it harder to be an effective employee.

Employers today are aware of this problem.   They see the loss of productivity and the absenteeism.   Here’s the lucky thing for you: The hiring process is an expensive one, and employee retention is actually very much a cost saving strategy.   Employers do not like high turnover if they can avoid it.   Since you want to do a good job and keep your job, what’s the conscientious worker to do? First things first.   Get help.   Do something.

Most large companies have an employee assistance program.   This is a program specifically designed to help employees experiencing problems in their personal lives that might be affecting their jobs.   These programs are strictly confidential, and will not reflect negatively on one’s career.

Getting help is completely crucial.   According to Dr.  Maynard Brusman, a consulting psychologist with over 20 years’ experience in the employment psychology field, doing nothing is dangerous.   The more you do nothing, the more likely you are to believe that you cannot do anything.   After a time, you can fall into a pattern of learned helplessness, believing that if you have done nothing that there is nothing you can do.   Nothing could be further from the truth.

What can you do for yourself? I mean, even if you go to a counselor, that’s only an hour a week.   So, what can you do?

One of the very best things you can do is get some exercise.   Don’t be annoyed because this is being thrown at you all the time! It’s thrown at you all the time because it is true.   The human body is made to move, not sit behind a desk.   You genuinely need the chemicals your body produces in exercise.

Exercise does not mean a red-line workout that makes you feel like you are going to throw up.   No, no, no.   Going for a nice walk counts here.   Get the heart rate up a little for 1/2 an hour or so –maybe break out in a sweat, but even that is not necessary.   You just want to make sure you move.   Even if you are in poor shape, just go walk slowly for a little while each day.   You will receive emotional as well as physical benefits.

The reason “go out for a walk” is so often touted as a Good Thing to Do is twofold.   There’s the exercise component that gives you a stronger body and floods you with mood enhancing chemicals, but there is the additional benefit of sunlight.   Sunlight is also a proven mood enhancer.   People who work in climate controlled buildings with no windows are going to be more susceptible to mood disorders related to light deprivation.   It is especially crucial for those of you with such issues to Get Outside on occasion, and a walk will do that for you.

Keeping company with positive, upbeat people is also a good idea when you are feeling depressed.   You might feel like hiding from the world, but sometimes getting by yourself and stewing is only going to reinforce negative thought patterns.  Feed your mind with positive things.   Play upbeat music.   Wear colors that encourage a brighter mood.   Focus on activities that give pleasure.

Eating right is also important when you’re suffering from depression.   Stress takes its toll on the body, and doing what you can to keep your body healthy will make it easier to cope.   Do your best to eat a good, balanced diet – especially making sure you get enough of the B vitamins.   These vitamins are useful in combating stress and elevating mood.   Foods high in B vitamins include dried beans, whole grains, fish, dairy products, poultry, eggs, bananas and avocados.   Remember that peanut butter and banana sandwich you ate as a child? When you make it, be sure to use natural peanut butter on whole wheat bread and you have yourself some real, healthy comfort food that is high in B vitamins and will help you to cope with depression.

What do you do if your work performance is suffering? That certainly can and does happen when you’re having a problem with depression at work. One of the most important things to do is to lay out a plan.   Break tasks into small, manageable units -say fifteen minutes.   Even when you’re down in the dumps, you can file for fifteen minutes, or read a report for fifteen minutes, then take a break and make some notes.   This helps to keep you in control and helps to prevent procrastination, a serious problem in a depressed employee.

Some workers use calendaring programs or timers to break up their day and their tasks.   This not only keeps you focused on the tasks at hand, but can be a distraction from negative feelings.   The one caution here is that you do not overwhelm yourself in a situation where you might already feel overwhelm.   Schedule breaks for yourself and be realistic about what you can accomplish.   The whole point of breaking down tasks into small segments is to prevent being overwhelmed.   Donit cram your calendar so full that it is impossible to get anything done.   This will contribute to negative feelings rather than alleviate it.   Prioritizing is essential.

I keep a list of “I don’t feel like it” tasks -little, quick things that do need to be done and can be handled easily.   When I am feeling a bit stressed out or unable to cope, I do one of these little tasks.   Being able to cross something off my to-do list tends to restore my faith in my ability to cope.   Any little ten-minute thing that does not take a lot of brainpower but has a small positive effect is a good thing.   For myself, organizing something tends to improve my mood.   I’ll clean my desk, or straighten one small file drawer.   This is a fairly individual thing.   The only real rule is to make sure that it is one small thing, and that it is not something urgent or something that causes you stress or pressure.   It’s important to make the list beforehand.   Then, when you’re feeling depressed and find thinking difficult, you have a plan.

Talk to your employer about accommodation that will help you in your depression issues.   It is possible that she will be sympathetic.   Employers prefer employees who are proactive, so taking steps to solve your problems reflects positively on you.

Amy, a bookkeeper in a music store, is being treated for depression and is on a medication.   Her employer knows that Amy has a problem with depression and is willing to work with her -giving her flexibility in hours and is willing to keep lines of communication open.

The unfortunate truth is that an employer is not always so accommodating.   Julian, a former employee at a health food store, had this to say:

At my place of employment, there were perfectly pleased to have an employee in the herbs and supplements department who could speak from experience on the various remedies for anxiety and depression, and they were perfectly willing to encourage the product reps to give me freebies, but when it came to actually working with me to let me have a schedule that would allow me to spend a reasonable amount of time with my family – forget it.

What do you do in this situation?

Remember the problem with learned helplessness.   Don’t fall into that.   Taking proactive action is crucial to your personal health as well as your career.   Julian’s choice was to get training to become a baker – a job that has a schedule that gave her time with her family.   She also sought out a position in which she was able to have a wider range of choice in her own work and minimal customer contact. Both Amy and Julian had different work situations and different methods for coping with the problem.   This is often an individual and subjective thing, which is one of the reasons that getting help is a good idea.   A good therapist will help you tailor your solutions to your own individual needs.   While depression is a difficult problem, it is not a hopeless situation.   As always, taking care of yourself is the key.   If you cannot handle the big stuff, take little positive actions.   They will have a net effect.   But whatever you do, try to keep going.

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.