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.

 

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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.