Beach body acceptance and YOU: losing weight and losing your mind

My mum was weird about food when I was a kid. She’d have us eat massive amounts of junk food for dinner on Fridays – multiple packets of crisps and mars bars, not just some pizza or something – and then she began to go through phases of weird diets and being pointed about what I ate. I distinctly remember her having me eat a sausage sandwich and 2 cream cakes for lunch daily, then telling me my face was too round. I also remember her vowing to eat nothing but cereal because she was too fat. No surprises that I didn’t really understand much about balanced meals and healthy eating by the time I got to adulthood, then.

I was pretty overweight for most of my adult life, with occasional drops down to almost regular BMI at particularly active times. I was also pretty anti diet culture and vowed to never count calories because that was stupid, and I didn’t really like to think about weight because it made me feel bad and it was all shallow rubbish anyway. But I’m not blind. I could see that most parkour regulars were leaner than me. I knew I huffed when I ran. I knew I wasn’t keen on what I saw in the mirror. So what could I do?

When you look at weight loss now, pop culture gives you two basic options. They’re probably more complicated than how I see them, but I’m a pretty simple person. Here is what I see in front of me:

Option one is to be beach body ready. I have to strive to eliminate those “problem areas.” I should exercise for weight loss, burning as many calories and as much fat as possible. My aim should be to get as thin and as hourglass as possible within a basically safe weight range, then wear tiny waisted jeans. Or I can join some kind of slimming club – count points, listen to calorie burning tips, listen to people talk about their metabolisms and so on. Did you eat off plan yesterday? That is NAUGHTY. You have been BAD.

This is not for me. I wasn’t exercising to lose weight – all I wanted was to be able to train more and better! I wanted to have lower bodyfat levels and more muscle mass, but I wasn’t interested in looks. I wanted to run and climb and tear my trackies on walls, not pose in jeans.

Option two is to reject weight loss completely and be happy as I am. BMI is rubbish, restricting calories is always pointless and bad for you, and that beach body chick is unrealistic anyway. Just eat what you want and work on strength only. Anything else is just giving in to diet culture and there are no health implications with being overweight. Also, everyone ends up at their natural predestined weight anyway, so there’s no point. Restricting food is punishing yourself and hating yourself.

Well… this kind of doesn’t work for me either. It’s a lot harder to pull yourself onto a high wall when you are heavier. It’s harder to run, too – you have more to carry. You’re weighed down when you jump. And I’m afraid I’m going to err on the side of caution with the health stuff and go with the medical scientist guys.

I think it was the strength training and weight lifting that pushed me over the edge. In weightlifting, your bodyweight is a vital piece of information – if someone weighs 52kg and squats 80kg, it’s a different game entirely from a 75kg person squatting the same. And then there’s the concept of power to weight ratio – you want to have the muscle mass to be able to move yourself explosively without weighing enough that it is harder for that muscle mass to do it. I don’t care about jeans or bikinis, but I care very much about being able to do stuff. And so, with advice from the long suffering Emmet, I decided to lose weight – but if options 1 and 2 both seem wrong to me, what should I do?

It turns out that there’s an option three. You can just decide what you want to do and then do it. You don’t need to worry about whether it’s supporting sexist ideas about what a woman should be if you want to drop ten pounds and make pullups easier. You don’t need to experience actual guilt over eating a cookie (why do people do that? Feel guilt about being a dick on public transit or something, not eating a cookie. Just eat it or don’t). You don’t need to buy into celebrity diets or try to keep up with a Kardashian. You don’t have to want to punish yourself for how you look because you think your power to weight ratio will be better in a lower weight range than you are currently in. You decide what you want, what is probably actually sustainable for you, and you do that thing.

The best thing about taking option three is that it is different for each person. Would you like to be an ultra badass triathlete? Cool! Your body composition will probably be pretty different from someone who wants to be a MEGA POWERLIFTER, which is also incredibly awesome. Are you gonna be a big heavy roller derby blocker who just shrugs jammers halfway across the room? Ain’t nobody gonna mess with that. Good choice. I imagine you might feel comfortable being built very differently from a dedicated ballet dancer or an acrobatic flyer. It’s all good. You do you.

So what next? Well. That’s almost as contentious. You’d think that reducing your calories would be a pretty non controversial thing, but NO. Upon starting to eat a certain amount of calories daily (making sure I had a balance of protein, fat and carbohydrate that worked well for me), I was told the following COMPLETELY TRUE FACTS by a variety of people who had previously had little to no interest in my diet:

  1. calorie counting is unhealthy and will give you anorexia (no it won’t – Anorexia is a horrible, horrible condition that takes years to recover from, and you don’t catch it from calorie counting like it’s the bloody flu)
  2. Weighing food is obsessive and miserable and makes you obsessive and miserable (not really. It only takes a few seconds to weigh something like a portion of rice)
  3. Calorie counting means you won’t eat enough and will try to eat so little you get ill (not really, unless that’s your goal. There are plenty of ways to figure out a reasonable level for you that will create a caloric deficit without actually resorting to starvation)
  4. You will go into a magical STARVATION MODE that means your body stores everything as fat (how exactly would this work, if you are taking in less? Do you photosynthesise and store that as fat while you use your food energy to walk around and function?)
  5. Your metabolism will break (why do people think your metabolism is like a small device inside you that arbitrarily breaks down if you don’t overeat? Your metabolism is based on your mass, age, gender and activity level. It is not magic. Technically it will slow as you lose weight, in that having less mass means you need fewer calories to do your thing)
  6. You’re eating too much meat/the wrong kind of rice/a cookie/not enough fibre/too much carbohydrate/too much fat/too much protein and are probably DYING (dieting means that everyone needs to advise you, apparently. Even if you’re already being advised by someone who actually knows their shit, and ESPECIALLY if you’re not eating whatever the people around you expect you to eat)

Great. Really helpful. The good news is that people do get tired of this as you fail to spontaneously combust, starve to death in front of their eyes or gain 400kg because your metabolism broke down.

If your nutrition plan is sensible and you stick to it, you’ll start to lose weight. As your shape changes, you can expect the following from the people around you:

  1. Helpful critiques about your current appearance – my favourite moment was when someone pointed out how undefined my forearms were. Um. Thanks?
  2. Helpful reminders not to go TOO FAR. If you are a woman, people may want to let you know how important it is to maintain your current breast size (because that’s your most important feature, right?) or that you don’t want to look too much like a man or a female bodybuilder, which is pretty much the same thing (it turns out that both sex changes and becoming a competitive bodybuilder take a lot of time and very specific efforts, so don’t worry about this)
  3. People trying to get you to eat junk food. Just this once. Oh, go on. You can “afford it.” This is weird as hell and kind of creepy. If you do this to people, please stop or at the very least tell me wtf your motivation is, thanks
  4. Other people starting to tell you how skinny they used to be or how healthy their diet has been lately. I do not know why. I can barely find matching socks in the morning and I am more likely to be thinking about giant space fish than your diet, unless you’ve started one of those weird milkshake scams or have decided to only eat fruit for two weeks, in which case you are weird. Either way, though, I’m not the food police so please stop
  5. Other people telling you how fit they used to be until they turned 30/took an arrow to the knee/had a kid/got Netflix, giving you reasons why they could not possibly run at lunchtime/go to a gym/do zumba/bench press 3 times their bodyweight like they used to and/or informing you how hard their pilates/yoga/jog/body pump was last night. And not in a conversation way – I’m up for talking any gym bullshit – but an EXPECTANT way, like you’re meant to approve or disapprove or something.

What are you meant to do with all this?

I just don’t know. To get serious for a minute, losing weight did great things for me. I felt better, strength exercises were easier and I gained so much energy. I could run more, do more parkour, do pullups, lift heavy. Even my breathing was easier. I slept better. The actual process of following a sensible nutrition plan was not difficult – it took a long time, but as it wasn’t an extreme diet or particularly restrictive, that was no biggie.

Peoples’ reactions and expectations are another matter. Ten minutes on the internet blasts me with statements about how weight loss is self hate and self abuse, that I’m not light enough, that my legs are too big, I don’t have abs, I have too much muscle, I don’t look like a woman, I’m not feminist enough, I’m giving in to the patriarchy, riots not diets, how to cut belly fat, ten foods to never eat, how to avoid bloating. I’m too fat, I’m not fat enough, I should smash my scales and I should check my diabetes risk because IT COULD HAPPEN.

 

But I don’t belong to any of these people. I don’t have any need to meet their expectations. I will choose what I want to do, I will make sure it is sustainable and actually realistic, and I will do it. I will consider my body composition in relation to my health and the activities I want to be good at. I will track and measure as much as I want, or not at all. I’ll never be thin enough for some, and I’ll never be anti diet enough for others, and that’s okay. I’ll be a tiny ball of determination and enthusiasm about everything, including nutrition, and that’s good enough for me.

 

Couch DOMS: The pain of inactivity

Hello. I haven’t been around for a while. I didn’t quit, but life got a little difficult. By “a little difficult” I mean that my post concussion symptoms stuck around and a major mental health crisis landed me in inpatient psych care a couple of times over the past few months. It wasn’t exactly fun, and it was serious enough that I’m not sure I’d be here without intervention by some very good friends and NHS crisis services. I’m not fully better, either. Recovery from a serious breakdown like this is not fast. There is ongoing treatment and I’m limited in various ways.

There are, however, opportunities and things to learn in this situation. I’m not glad I’ve gone through this, but it has taught and is still teaching me a lot. This is one of the more painful lessons.

I’ve never understood why people experience aging differently from me. At 34, I felt better than I ever had in my life. Sure I wasn’t the fastest or the strongest in the world, but I was strong and able. While my coworkers were talking about sore knees, I was squatting more than my bodyweight, jumping from height and running on a daily basis. I ached plenty, but it was not the depressing degeneration other people my age described. I had the pain of well used muscles that would peak around 48 hours after training and then dissipate. They talked about waking up with throbbing joints and stiff backs that gradually worsened over time, reducing their ability to exercise. They were “too old” to jump. This pain, they comfortably assured me, was inevitable and permanent. Soon I too would be unable to run and lift because of my knees realising I was no longer 20. It was amazing that I was still able to jump at all.

I had very strong suspicions that my training was exactly what was keeping me from this. A few minutes on google will give you an idea why – regular exercise is well known to keep your joints healthy and supple. Not only that, but I could see parkour practitioners, runners, skaters and lifters much older than me casually demonstrate their fitness every day. It seemed far more likely to me that the majority of my “too old” coworkers and acquaintances were feeling the long term effects of sedentary lifestyles and poor diets than waking up on their 30th birthday too old to move.

One of the interesting things about being in the middle of a mental health crisis is that physical activity is pretty hard. It’s not just a matter of willpower to get off the couch – your cognitive capacity drops like a crossfitter after a Grace workout. How does exercise even work? you need shoes. How do those go on? Outside is too hard. You can’t go out there. Maybe you could do some stretching but suddenly you’ve forgotten why you’re standing here.

That’s if you’re safe enough to be outside without supervision and aware enough to be able to leave the room without major concentration. It’s hard, guys. It’s really, really hard.

And so I became sedentary. I’m okay with that. I lost a lot of fitness, but when you have been a danger to yourself and unable to carry out basic self care like knowing when to shower and understanding you can’t go and live in the park, that’s not really a priority. When a neighbour calls the police on you hiding in the bushes outside your house because you are so afraid to go inside in case someone in your building sees you, your lifting schedule kind of falls by the wayside a bit. There’s also the small matter of medication. In mental health crisis care, you’re quite often given strong anti anxiety and sedative drugs for a brief period. Being stoned out of your brain is not a healthy long term strategy, but can make you a lot more comfortable while you are in a very bad state. It does, however, make exercise a bit awkward. Ever tried rail precisions on valium? No, me neither. I’d suggest not.

Over the next few months, I began to feel the things my coworkers described. I had trouble getting comfortable at night because my right hip and knee ached. My hip flexor was so tight that I got used to regular twinges. My left ankle hurt where it had been sprained badly in skating and this led to pain further up the leg. My shoulders and thoracic spine ached and ached. I was degenerating. I could feel it, and it hurt. I couldn’t run like this. I couldn’t jump. I couldn’t trust my joints. What if a sharp pain hit while I was out training? What if something tore? It felt uncontrollable and unfixable. I couldn’t get stronger in this state.

This is the DOMS you feel after spending too long on the couch. I don’t recommend it if you can avoid it.

Weight change is also a thing. While in crisis, I dropped kilograms. I wasn’t really going to eat unless someone fed me (which friends and crisis staff did. I’m forever grateful for waking up confused to find the friends looking after me while waiting for the NHS to place me somewhere had left a bowl out with granola and milk right next to it, a cup with a teabag and instructions on how to eat breakfast).

In the months that followed, however, I gained fat. This is okay. Remember that impaired cognition? That doesn’t go away immediately following a crisis. You can only handle so much thinking and planning before you dissolve into a puddle of tears and stress. It was far more important that I keep my hormones in a happy state by eating regularly and as nutritiously as possible than I start considering body composition and food tracking. Weight can be lost later – I had done it before, after all. A few kilos are not going to kill me.

As I recovered enough to start taking tentative steps towards exercise, though, the effects of that extra weight became pretty clear. Running is harder – there’s more of me to move (we’re talking a maximum gain of 6kg here, but that’s a fair amount for someone my height). Jumping? Yeah. There’s some extra baggage dragging me back down there. General cardio? I can actually feel how abdominal fat affects my ability to catch my breath.

So that degeneration is my life now, right? I got mentally broken, am not fully healthy yet and won’t be for a very long time. Time to accept it.

Nah.

You can’t just get off the couch and go outside for a run while in crisis. You can’t cope with a busy, fast-paced parkour class when you’re mentally vulnerable and unable to deal with stress. But it gets better, and there are things you can do.

I attempted various things off and on during the past few months. Between periods of psych care, I managed to get in some parkour classes (I couldn’t even keep up when they were running, just like when I started, but that’s never been a reason to quit). I did a bit of lifting, but not regularly enough to help me. But I also worked a lot more on lighter, gentler activities. First, I was able to go for a walk even just to a coffee shop. Then I could go to bagua class (more on this another time – for now, think of it as tai chi while walking in circles). A while later, I could swim once a week or so – no stress if I wasn’t up to it, but when I could, I did. And with just these gentle activities once or twice a week, those pains – the aching back, the bad hip, the dodgy knee – they stopped. Those seemingly incurable pains that had kept me awake and stopped me from feeling comfortable and told me I was weak now – they melted away. I barely noticed. I would suddenly remember that I hadn’t felt a stabbing in my hip for a few days, then I kind of forgot that it had ever happened. I started to sleep better. I found myself running without thinking about that sore knee.

And now I’m sitting here, writing after almost a year of feeling incapable of it, and aching again – but this time with good old post-lifting DOMS. My lower back is tender. My shoulders ache after doing overhead press with small dumbells. My legs are wobbly. But this doesn’t feel like degeneration. I can rest in this ache knowing that I’m getting stronger as I recover from it. It isn’t a pain that makes me feel helpless – it hurts because I worked those muscles hard on purpose and with purpose. It’s a strengthening ache, not a weakening one. It’s predictable and makes sense. It doesn’t make me afraid of running in case a sharp pain stabs me out of nowhere. It’s the most welcome pain I have ever felt in my life.

People say exercise hurts, but after trying both, I don’t think any training aches will ever compare to the uncontrollable, senseless, constant pain of living on the couch.

 

98, 99, 100.

I posted a pretty simple video on Instagram yesterday. Here it is:

I’ve been at a pretty low point. My confidence has been hit by skating injuries, I still have post concussion issues and I have lost so much strength I feel like I’m back where I started a couple of years ago. I don’t feel like I can risk playing roller derby. I may well change my mind later, but if I don’t, I will have quit without even passing minimum skills. That hurts.

There’s something important I’ve come to understand and accept through all of this, though – movement is my life. Training is my life.

I went back to Chainstore and I set myself to repeating this simple little vault 100 times. It’s less impressive than a lot of people do on their first day, and I struggled. Without keeping it that small a vault, I was clipping my feet, landing poorly and generally screwing up. So this is it. This is my turn vault right now. This is me doing them over and over because I know that the only way to regrow my confidence, strength and coordination is to grind away at it over and over until it’s natural to me.

I would not be doing this if movement wasn’t the centre of my life. I could do so many other things. I could go to a gym and do generic fitness classes for health, or maybe go swimming, and treat exercise like a chore that I do to keep vaguely healthy (no, not everyone in generic gym classes thinks this way – but it’s a pretty common attitude with exercise for some reason) and then go home and watch American Horror Story. I could do pretty much anything other than repeat this movement.

I’ve said my vaulting here is unimpressive. It really is. My landing is super loud. I’m not graceful. You can see the tension in my hands. Other people in Chainstore were balancing on rails way above my head, doing massive jumps and bigger, better vaults. But this vault, right here, this clumsy, cautious hop from a box over that railing – it’s MY vault. It’s ME. Behind that movement is every parkour class I’ve ever been to. Every struggling, humiliating attempt to get onto and over an object has built up to this very ordinary and banal moment. Every time someone has said just the right thing to keep me from giving up has led to me being there, still not giving up. Every negative thought I’ve had about myself is expressed in the tension of my hands, and every happy training moment I’ve ever had, alone or with friends, is in the jump. No other vault by anyone else could be like this, because nobody else has lived that collection of experiences.

And I’m not special. This is true for every single person, at any level, training anything. Every time you see someone moving, whether at their best or their worst, it’s expressing their real selves and everything that has led up to that moment of time. When you see an experienced, skilled practitioner land a perfect rail precision it’s easy to marvel at their skill. But in that landing is years of trying, failing, boredom, irritation, optimism and sheer grit. Every time you see someone hesitantly attempt so much as a monkey walk for the first time, you are seeing all their past experiences up to now and who they are – their preconceptions about the propriety of crawling on the floor, the softness of their computer-user hands, the spark of curiosity that brought them here, the determination in them that makes them keep trying when they don’t really get why the coach is going on about “opposite hand, opposite foot.” How they learn. How they face the world around them.

This is why movement is my life. It’s not because I’m good at it, or because I’m such a dedicated athlete I believe I will overcome all my limitations and get good at it. That’s really not the point. It’s because I cannot stop. It’s the only natural way I know how to learn about and express who and what I am, and it’s the only way I know how to understand the humans around me.

And that’s why every time I break and fail and lose what little ability I have, I’ll be back. I’ll have reps to do.

 

 

Injury lessons 3: Brains

I think I’ve made it fairly obvious that sometimes I get injured. I’ve also been pretty open about how poorly I deal with it. I tend to become quite depressed, and have an extremely unhelpful habit of training before healed enough to really be doing so.

Roller derby is a pretty questionable sport for me to take up, considering all of that. Its injury rate seems disturbingly close to Black Friday in a Walmart and I’ve been particularly clumsy. Before my first year of training was over, I had experienced a sprain bad enough for a brief spell on crutches, which I complained about roughly as much as people who break both their legs and maybe a wrist, landed on a haematoma, which made me scream embarrassingly, and concussion.

Concussion means you have a headache and feel weird for a few days and then you’re fine, right? You might get light sensitive or feel kind of sick but it’s hardly as bad as that sprain. Right?

Wrong.

This is the worst injury I have ever experienced. When I had an abdominal tear, it was devastating to be basically unable to move for so long. When I hurt my ankle, that brief spell of being on crutches made it really hard to even eat (it was a good few days before I was able to eat a hot meal, and that was a Subway sandwich) and knocked my confidence hard. And that was partial weight bearing – people who have a break have a MUCH harder time than me. Having my shoulder get injured over and over again has led to me paying a hell of a lot for physiotherapy, without which I would never be able to climb or do parkour again. And the haematoma thing was just really cringeworthy. Oh, and it hurt. But with a concussion, what’s injured isn’t a limb or a joint. It’s ME – everything that makes me myself.

The initial concussion came about when I ran at someone on roller skates (I’m pretty sure that’s basically how you play derby, right?) and fell over backwards, smacking my head off the floor in the process. I was checked for concussion symptoms and told to sit out for the next three jams, which I did while staring mournfully at the coach like a sad stray puppy stuck outside in the rain. And also a truck has just swerved and splashed muddy water all over it. And also it was just abandoned by a family who were moving and didn’t want to take it with them. And… anyway, you get the idea.

A couple of hours later, I started feeling very unwell in the pub, falling asleep and hacking up bile in the bathroom. I was taken to hospital. I remember bits about this – I was completely convinced I was going to be in trouble for saying I was fine during training, I cried on the bus about the stickers on my helmet, I was afraid of the doctor’s pen when he asked me to track it with my eyes and I had a CT scan before being taken home at about 2am. Not my home. A loyal buddy had stayed with me the entire time, and took me back with her, where I stayed in a nest of blankets and sofa bed for two days, cried a lot and made her put the Babadook on Netflix because I thought the sounds would be soothing.

I didn’t go back to work for over a week. I spent my time asleep. I don’t remember a lot, but I know I didn’t eat much. I couldn’t cope with going outside to the shops – at one point I came across a derby friend who works in a local supermarket, and started crying helplessly because I hadn’t been able to find bin bags for days. She found me bin bags. I lived in a constant brain fog, and it was an achievement the first day I only needed one nap.

When I did go back to work, it was a nightmare. The phone ringing hurt. Two people talking at once would overload me and leave me staring blankly straight ahead. The screen hurt my eyes. I had no emotional control over myself. I had two weeks of leave coming up, and spent most of it resting. At some point when symptoms went down, I worked through the recommended steps for return to exercise – short periods of cardio, gradual introduction of harder stuff – until I was back to roller skate fights.

This was a mistake. I wasn’t actually fully okay. I still had memory issues, was a little slower, and had burst of intense anxiety. And then it happened. I ran at someone, I fell backwards, I whiplashed and there I was again. Not as badly as the first time, but bad enough.

So as of now, where am I at, and why is it so bad?

I’m back to work. It’s difficult. I have problems with headaches, processing instructions, spelling, multitasking… this has all improved a lot lately, but for a good two weeks all I could do was come home and sleep.

Training is very limited. I can swim and do mobility. I hope to start running soon. I’ll probably be able to skate next month, but not contact. I won’t be touching any contact sport until at LEAST October.

There are quite a lot of things I have lost.

  1. I don’t write so good no more. This is the first time I’ve been able to write a long piece for three months. I make silly mistakes, like mixing up there/their/they’re and to/two/too. Numbers are a lot harder, too.
  2. My personality is bad now. I have negative feelings. It’s harder to interact with people, partially because I get tired and confused easily and partly because I’m just not me. During the worst of it, I was like a five year old. I’d cry at anything, I needed a nap every hour or two, I barely knew how to feed myself and I was incapable of coherent thought. Now? I feel like I don’t even know me, let alone like me. I’m really not sure I like me.
  3. I can’t do all the things. My life revolves around climbing stuff, running around, skating, jumping, lifting things – I can’t do this right now. There was a brief period between concussions when I could, but my symptoms got worse and I had to stop. It was a major milestone when I went swimming two times last week and did some contact juggling.
  4. I was never a calm person, but after concussion 2 I was having panic attacks on the tube in the morning. I’ve lost a lot of ability to deal with crowds, especially commuting.
  5. I do not have confidence now. I can only think a few days in advance. I can’t imagine skating properly again, although I talk about it like it’s a thing. I doubt myself constantly – even telling people about concussion effects makes me feel like I’m a wuss or a hypochondriac, because many people have no idea what a concussion can do. I know that physical brain damage can be present even when concussion symptoms are fully clear, so I’m going to be terrified even when all the symptoms are gone. I got a cold this weekend, and panicked in case it was my brain regressing again.

There are a couple of good points in all of this. Firstly, people have been really great. I’ve had helpful medical advice (from qualified people), derby friends checking in on me throughout the whole thing, and let’s not forget that one person who stayed with me until 2am in a hospital and fed me chicken nuggets for two days while I whimpered on her floor. Secondly, some of it is slowly going away. The most helpful thing so far as been acupuncture. I hate needles and I don’t like alternative medicine, so god knows why. I don’t even care why. I’m desperate.

The scariest thing about this, though, is that I’m not at all alone. There has been a lot of media lately about the previously ignored effects of concussion. This guy’s experience is particularly upsetting, with a ray of hope. There’s a whole community of derby players out there who have suffered badly after concussions. Some have had to quit their jobs. Some skate again, some never do. It’s not much fun.

I don’t really know how to end this. Mainly, I just want people to know what a concussion can do. I hear people talk casually about them like they’re no more serious than a bruised-up knee. They can change your life completely, and put everything on hold. So yeah. Helmets don’t save you, don’t fall backwards, and try not to be me.

Adults don’t play

Some lunchtimes, I do something childish and utterly unacceptable in modern society. It’s a thing I have absolutely no business doing as an adult woman with a professional desk job.

I go out to play.

If you don’t know any better, it sometimes looks like I’m exercising or training for something, which puts people a bit more at their ease – stretching is a little odd, but if it looks like I’m doing yoga, then that’s fine. If I’m running around, that’s even better. Running is admirable as long as I’m doing it to lose or maintain weight, burn off chocolate or even train for a race, although at 34 years old society is a little doubtful as to whether I should really be doing sports. Isn’t that something you only do until mid-twenties. Juggling is also okay. It’s a little laughable to coworkers, but to random park users, it looks like I’m a busker rehearsing an act. Apparently adults can play with toys as long as it’s to earn money, but when bystanders ask me about it and I explain it’s just for fun, it can be quite confusing for them.

Skating, however, is not acceptable for adults. Don’t I know any better? People may think I look silly. And even worse, I sometimes go out in the sun and practise very basic tumbling and moving around on all fours. There is no excuse for a grown-up doing a forward roll or a cartwheel, or lolloping around like a monkey. Unless you are a professional athlete, it’s an undeniable truth that one day, you do a forward roll joyfully, freely, just for the sheer delight of it, and then you never do another. You have crossed an invisible line into adulthood, and like the border of a foreign country, there are things you may not carry through, and there are new laws you must obey.

You may not carry your skateboard, unless it’s to reminisce over. You cannot bring your yoyo, your hula hoop or your rollerskates, although bicycles are allowed for certain activities such as travelling to and from work. Movement is only allowed in special areas. You may move rhythmically to music in clubs if you are a young adult, or to dancercize music at any age provided you are inside a designated gym area. Exercise is for a purpose, not because you just like it. You must have a goal. You can choose whether it’s to burn calories, get stronger, be healthier or look better, but you must have one. Ball games may only be played with children, unless you participate in an organised training group of some kind. Stretching is allowed, but requires a mat and a flat, temperature controlled indoor space, and preferably an authority figure in the form of an instructor. In fact, the only forms of solo exercise a respectable adult may perform outside in the public eye are running and cycling – and female runners in particular are still subject to catcalls from those who have better sense than to do something so undignified.

When you are not exercising in a permitted manner, there is no wasteful moving for fun. You run only when necessary, because you are late. Otherwise, you walk. You do not do anything that may mess up your hair. You dress in limiting, uncomfortable clothing and avoid puddles, getting sweaty or touching the ground to keep it pristine.

As an adult, there is no climbing outside of very special gyms especially for that purpose. Pavements (and only pavements) are for walking on, and a wall may never be clambered up or over. Benches are for sitting on, never for vaulting. Clear, empty outdoor urban areas are for standing in or walking across to get from one destination to another – never for practising quadrupedal movement, or rolls, or sprints. Railings are never, ever for standing on.

Think I’m exaggerating? You’re wrong. I’ve been present while random members of the public approach my friends and I because they don’t want children to see us balancing and think it’s okay. I’ve seen old men complain because we are jumping from one flat paving stone in the grass to another. I’ve heard a police officer say – after acknowledging our right to be where we were and admitting we were not causing a nuisance, damaging anything or impeding anyone’s route through the area – that people don’t like that we’re doing it. I’ve had people mock me for running, and coworkers ask if people laugh at me for tumbling.

Adults do not go out to play.

You know what, though? It’s fun. It’s really fun. Have you ever envied the freedom of a child running just because they love it, instead of out of some sense of guilt or duty? Do you remember what it’s like to look at a flat, grassy area, a hill or a wall and see a million things to do? When was the last time you experimented from moving from one stretch or balance position into another just to see what would happen? Do you remember what it’s like to test your limits – not in a macho self-improvement way or to test your fitness, but just seeing how long you can balance on one leg or hang upside down out of pure curiosity? Have you ever taken one of those giant inflatable gym balls and instead of steadfastly doing your usual pilates routine, tried to see how far across the room you can get on it without touching the floor?

You’re still able to do all that. You never lost that freedom to feel wind in your hair when you run. You can still jump over puddles and random objects in the street. You can kick a football outside, or balance on things (just don’t damage them!). You can even do cartwheels – and nobody can actually stop you. Sometimes they will try. Sometimes they will make fun of you. But they can’t make you stop unless you choose to.

There’s lots of injustice in the world. Awful things happen to good people. The rich take from the poor, children die, law enforcement shoot people based on race alone. These are big things, and I am a small person, but the social stigma surrounding free movement and play for adults is the one thing I feel like I can stand up to. So can you. Set yourself free. Rediscover how your own body works. Show others they can do it too. Go out to play.

 

January part one

Over the past couple of years, I’ve started to see January in a brand new way. I spend the entire month not sure whether to laugh, cry or punch everyone I see in the face (sorry, guys!) And the reason for this is something that enriches my life massively – training and nutrition.

I’m not the kind of person you expect to see complaining about new people at the gym. Nothing makes me happier than seeing people find a sport they love, learn something about their eating habits that improves their health and ability to move, or tries something new and difficult. I grin like an idiot every time I see someone skating for the first time. When I see a noob attempting their first ever vault at parkour I want to stop everything, hug them and throw them a party. I do a happy little dance inside every time a woman who’s been told that weights are just for guys picks up a barbell. If I could high-five every runner I see on the street, my palms would be even more raw than they are already (barbells are hard, guys). So why am I bitching about the month where people make an effort en masse? It should be exactly what I want.

But it’s not. It’s more like witnessing an entire herd of innocent, wobbly-legged fawns make their way into sunlight for the first time only to be gunned down by hunters who are such douchebags they probably don’t even put their rubbish in the bin afterwards. And those hunters are the fitness industry.

The fitness industry is honestly pretty terrible year-round, and a great example of this is Zumba.

First off, I do not believe in telling people that they should not be doing activities I do not personally find useful. Unless you are playing volleyball with the kettlebells or using the squat rack for your planks, then you do you. I’m not anyone’s boss, and everybody everywhere should be free to enjoy whatever movement activities they want without people on the sidelines telling them they won’t get anything out of it. Do you enjoy Zumba? Good. You do that thing and don’t let anyone tell you to quit, least of all me.

However, let’s take a look at the marketing. Zumba.com tells me that it is “a total workout, combining all elements of fitness – cardio, muscle conditioning, balance and flexibility, boosted energy and a serious dose of awesome each time you leave class.” A cursory google search strongly implies that you’re going to burn 500 to 1,000 calories during a one-hour class, with emphasis on the 1,000.

Leaving aside the issue of exercise being about burning calories because this is a post all of its own (I eat calories deliberately for exercise, I don’t exercise to burn calories), let’s consider that in the context of my own overall energy use in any given day. My caloric burn if I am sedentary and maintaining weight is around 1500 calories – this isn’t high, but I’m pretty small at 55-56kg. My burn if I am training at my preferred level, which is pretty much daily with occasional days off, but also multiple sessions on other days, averages at around 2,200. I figured this out with a combination of nerdy spreadsheets, advice from Emmet and self-monitoring, which is a lot more investigation than most people feel the need to do – and even with that much observation, I would be completely unable to tell you what my burn is for any of my activities. I can tell you how many sets and reps of what weight I did on last Tuesday’s squats and bench press. I can tell you how many laps I did in that part of last Sunday’s derby training. I can tell you how far I ran in how much time, how much I ate and with what macros on any given day, and approximately how often I need to refeed while attempting to maintain with a daily base of 1900 kcal (it’s twice weekly if I’m training a lot, FYI).

You can’t get much more obsessive and nerdy about this stuff than I am. And yet I can’t tell you how many calories I am burning if you have me do an hour of zumba. There are so many variables – my size and current weight, whether I am using calories to recover from what I did yesterday, how intensely I am following along (and this is pretty damn subjective) and what exactly the movements are in that given session. If I take the lowest “average” burn Google casually suggests, I’d be burning 500 – that’s an entire third of my basic sedentary energy burn. Very, very unlikely – but a great selling point if you want to sell weight loss to people. Hmm.

Now onto the “complete workout” claim. Zumba is dancersize. It’s actually a lot of fun, and I would definitely agree that it is cardio – dancersize is very like aerobics, after all. “Muscle conditioning?” Not so much. You are not providing any resistance whatsoever, unless you add tiny wrist weights. This would give you some initial muscle gains, assuming you are brand new to conditioning, but you would plateau extremely quickly.

Balance and flexibility? If you have not trained balance at all and are very new to movement, then trying to keep up, stand on one leg when necessary and so on will help you with that. You will not continue to progress beyond that, however. Improving your balance is hard work. Balance is pretty important in both parkour and skating, and it’s something I’ve had to work very hard on, being dyspraxic. The most improvement I have seen personally is when I’m regularly attending the Chainstore balance and accuracy class – this is an entire hour devoted every week to improving your balance skills.

Anyone can improve their balance, with focused training and work. They can’t do it with an hour of musical aerobics, and anyone selling a class on that basis is ignorant at best and a liar at worst.

As for flexibility, I have no idea how Zumba could possibly increase that. This is not helped by the fact that there is no methodology provided for this claim, and no evidence – what’s the average increase in hip range of motion in people doing one Zumba class a week for an entire year?

If you are selling an exercise based on a claimed result, you need to be able to back that up. You don’t get to perform medical procedures on people to create a physical change without explaining exactly how that works and the chances of success. You shouldn’t get to make spurious claims that you can improve someone’s balance without some evidence behind that.

Zumba is fun. Zumba is moving around in a way people enjoy, and I am willing to believe it can improve your cardio fitness, confidence and coordination particularly if you are not currently exercising a lot, or do little cardio. Zumba is absolutely not, however, the all-in-one, weird trick that will turn you into a super fit person with visible abs, amazing balance and flexibility and sleek, “toned” muscle (don’t even get me started on that). You enjoy Zumba? I’m happy for you. Carry on. The guys making money from making these claims to you? Yeah, we need to talk.

Next up: how January is like a giant 24/7 Zumba advert, and what that does to people.

 

 

Injury lessons 2

I sprained my ankle last week. For everyone asking “what happened?” the answer is basically “roller derby.” I’d like to pretend I did something totally badass, but I basically just fell down like a twat.

Everything indicates that it’s a pretty simple and low-grade sprain, as opposed to the really nasty ones, which can be just as bad (or worse) than an outright break. As ankle injuries go, mine is pretty much the least that could possibly happen, particularly as someone else actually broke their leg in three places the day before. I was bearing some weight on it before I even left the hospital. It has still been an educational week, though. These are the things i have learned so far.

  1. Don’t go skating when you’re not 100% well. I was still a bit off-colour from a kidney infection, and hadn’t been able to eat properly for about a week, partially because of the amazing side-effects of my superstrong antibiotics and partially because of basic unwellness. Yes, I know it’s entirely my own fault. Don’t worry. I’ve had plenty of alone time to reflect on exactly how much I screwed that up and remind myself how stupid that was.
  2. Roller derby people are really, really pro at first aid. I went down on a track full of skaters weaving around each other in both derby direction (anticlockwise, in case you were wondering) and in counter-direction, heard a nasty crack and experienced pain. About 30-45 seconds later, I was off that track, had the skate off, had been assessed and had an ice pack on. Within about two minutes, someone was getting my stuff and someone else was changing out of their kit so they could take me to A&E (thanks!) Within about ten minutes, I had been moved out of the building and was en route, without ever having inadvertently put weight on the ankle and hurting it further. At no point did anyone lose their cool, or allow me to lose my cool. I was not left alone at any point – the person who took me to A&E stayed with me until a parkour buddy arrived to take over (thanks, Denny!)
    It’s not just the first-aiders/coaches who are pro. I have been in situations where someone hurts themselves in a parkour class and the other participants invariably stop what they are doing, turn around, stare and comment, sometimes quite audibly. This is not meant badly, but it’s beyond unhelpful. Imagine it. You’ve gone down, you’re on the ground. You’ve heard something – maybe a crack or crunch. You’re in pain and vulnerable. A group of people is STANDING OVER YOU. They’re excited and frantically asking if you’re okay. Are you okay? OH MY GOD, WHAT’S HAPPENING?
    I’ve actually had well-meaning people crowd me in an acrobatics hall when I got accidentally kicked by someone and needed a minute to control my breathing. This took me from a slight bruise and needing a minute to chill out to having a full-on panic attack in a corner, curled up in a ball and hyperventilating because I couldn’t escape from all the people.
    In roller derby, you’re taken off the track, or if you cannot be moved, you’re blocked off. Nobody crowds you. Someone calmly assesses you, and some people are assigned to get your stuff, take you to get checked if needed and so on. Everyone not assisting gets on with training and skates around as normal. This is not callous. It’s pragmatic, and actually helps to keep things calm.
    By all means, do help if someone goes down at parkour or somewhere. I’m not saying everyone needs to ignore someone screaming on the floor. If you are the first-aider on scene, start helping as appropriate. If you are a first-aider but not responsible for people in a class, make sure someone is getting the coach or responsible person. If the casualty is already being first-aided and you are not doing anything useful, back the hell off and give them space. Stay in earshot if you think you might be needed, but otherwise, just get out of the way. Do not stare.
  3. B Team definitely exist. Not only that, they are capable of picking me up and carrying me across a track full of skaters even when I’m informing them precisely how many kilograms I weighed that morning and how heavy that is because I’m such a huge weightlifter. Thanks for not squatting me. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it at that point.
  4. A&E is really boring and you will wait for a long time. This is not a complaint – even if the leg is actually broken, you won’t die. Other people coming in with mystery abdominal pain, breathing problems and their heads falling off are more urgent than you, and that’s how it should be.
    However, feel free to make your own entertainment while you’re waiting. If you’ve just come from skating, a fun game is to wear your helmet while being wheeled about. Make sure to tell any hospital staff you pass that you’re really great at rollerskates. It’s fun for you AND for them!
  5. People who don’t do a high-impact risk-bearing sport can be extremely unhelpful. This isn’t true for everyone, but it is a thing. On my first day back at work, I had someone approach me and cheerfully ask if “this was it for skating now”. He then went on to inform me that skating is entirely for teenagers (this is pretty awkward, seeing as roller derby is for 18 and up – there is a junior version, but I get the impression it’s a lot gentler) and heavily imply that I shouldn’t be doing it at all. I was informed by someone else that “at a certain age” it’s extremely difficult for injuries to heal (I’m 33, by the way, and healing perfectly fast, thank you) and the parting shot on Friday by coworker number 1 was to remind me to not skate this weekend, not because I was still on crutches, but because I’m not a teenager.
    I honestly have no idea why people believe that teenagers are basically Wolverine, and the minute you hit 25 you must simply stop moving and live attached to your office chair like a barnacle that has settled onto a rock at sea. I also have no idea why they find injury almost funny. I don’t need outpourings of sympathy for a sprained ankle, but the guy assuming I would have to quit skating seemed actually cheerful about it. If I did have to quit, I would be absolutely devastated. There’s almost a sense of schadenfreude about it, like I should never have even tried.
    This is all for a grade 1 sprained ankle. They didn’t amputate my leg. It’s not fatal. It will take a few weeks of rehab before I can skate even non-contact, but it’s an incredibly minor and routine injury. I cannot even imagine what the reaction would have been if it had actually broken – which happens to skaters a lot, by the way. And no, they don’t just automatically quit.
  6. Stuff seems pretty much pointless, even with a minor injury. I eat at intervals because I have to, I make myself go to work because I have to, and other than that there doesn’t seem to be any reason to really do anything. If I didn’t have to go to work, I’m not entirely sure I’d even have had a shower this week. About 90% of my non-workplace social contact is based around training, and the other part (Zen) is based around being in a small area with too many people for me to cope with right now, so I don’t hang out with people much. Even blogging has seemed too hard, so I’m pretty much no use to myself or anyone around me, especially as I am currently rehabbing my shoulder as well. This is 100% my own fault, so I’m not complaining, and I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on exactly why I am dead weight. It’s not fun, though, so sometimes I watch DVDs or play Sudoku instead.
  7. Crutches actually require skill. Also upper body strength, so if you think you might hurt your leg at some point, start training your triceps now. You can use the edges of the rubber stoppers at the bottom to gain and direct momentum and get some real speed up. It does tire you out, though, and you do have to be careful to not slip and accidentally impact your wrecked leg. You also can lose feeling in your hands. Learning how to do various things with them is actually quite fun, though, and you will be motivated. Getting a cup of tea from the kitchen to your room pretty much becomes a Crystal Maze challenge, without the fun parts. This is on easy mode, too – I was partially weight-bearing from the start, and the pain was really slight.
    It may seem odd I’m using crutches for an incredibly minor injury. The trouble with an ankle sprain is that simply walking around repeatedly loads the currently-unstable joint with all 55 of my kilograms, which isn’t particularly helpful for healing. I’m down to one crutch already, and can walk normally for short intervals, but breaking into a jog or stumbling could cause a resprain, which is bad news.
  8. You have to use your words. A lot of people volunteer to give me a seat on public transport. A lot of others do not. I am absolutely not going to stand on a moving vehicle and risk wrecking myself further, so I ask them to let me sit down. There’s no need to be a dick about it – people may appear physically able when they are not, so don’t get accusatory, but anyone who is able to stand should be letting someone on crutches sit, and I approach them with that mindset. Say please, say thank you, but definitely express that you need to sit. The chances of an entire bus or tube carriage being occupied by people with invisible disabilities is pretty damn low. Someone can get up for you.

All in all, I’d give mildly spraining your ankle a 3/10 for fun activities – it’s not enjoyable, but it’s pretty damn minor and provides useful crutch training for worse injuries. You also get to work on your assertiveness skills, and develop your problem solving abilities. Always a silver lining, right?