How to Exercise with Friends who are Recovering their Fitness

After several years of inactivity and weight gain, I am Ready to Exercise!

People who struggle with their weight, or who experience psychological or emotional imbalances that interfere with consistent self-care and fitness have probably been here many times: After a period of inactivity, we find ourselves ready and even excited to return to a fitness regimen. We generally also find ourselves with a body that is much less fit and possibly much, much larger than it was the last time we were in an exercise groove. Calling that “discouraging” is an understatement at best.

If you are friends with someone like me, and if you are reasonably fit and your schedule aligns with ours, you may at some point receive a request to exercise with us. We want accountability, companionship, and encouragement to do this thing we’ve probably done or attempted many times before: Getting in Shape. In the past, we may have run marathons, biked across Europe, or hiked to Machu Picchu. We may have played sports for many years, or been dancers when we were younger. But whatever our previous achievements, we now find ourselves at the beginning, and needing support. And if we’re feeling very brave, we may even ask for it.

I recently reached out to a friend who, although I enjoy her company immensely, became my workout partner mostly by virtue of having a schedule similar to mine and belonging to the same gym I do. After a few workouts together, I have realized that she’s the absolute model of everything I have ever needed in a workout partner when I am doing the difficult work of Getting in Shape. I feel so very lucky to have her in my life and especially to have her at the gym with me!

I want to share what she does that I find so helpful, so that any of you reading who find yourselves in her position might be able to better navigate it, or so that anyone currently standing in my XL active wear might get some ideas about how to recognize and ask for what they need to be successful.

To begin with, She’s Flexible About Time. My friend schedules enough time at the gym to allow me to do a longer, slower workout, or to finish a workout that began later than expected. She understands the massive psychological resistance I have to work through just to get there, and so if I’m running late, she simply hops onto a cardio machine and greets me cheerfully when I arrive. Unlike working with a personal trainer, a late start with my friend doesn’t have to mean a shorter workout. She understands that what may be a 45-60 minute experience for an already-fit person could take me up to 90 minutes, and she never rushes me.

Something else she does that is incredibly healing and esteem-building for me is that She Lets Me Lead our Workouts. I’ve exercised with many people, some of whom were professional trainers, who mistakenly equate my being fat or out of shape with an ignorance of how to exercise. But my workout partner understands that I have experienced both Being Fit and Getting Back in Shape many times, and she respects my knowledge of fitness and exercise. She may do higher-intensity activities in between our sets, or get on the stair-climbing machine next to my treadmill during cardio, but she’s also genuinely happy to let me do the workout I already know my body needs, and is even excited about learning from me! Unless you’ve done it, I don’t think you can imagine how intensely validating it is to be the fat one at the gym helping your fit friend with her form and breathing! She even texted me the day after our first workout to say that she was sore in new places, and thanked me for getting her out of her fitness rut! I honestly feel that she’s benefitting from this arrangement as much as I am, rather than holding herself back to let me catch up, and it’s wonderful for me to feel valued for what I have to offer.

In our conversations at the gym, I’ve also observed that She Doesn’t Tell Me How to Think About Myself. She winces a little every now and then when I use the word “fat,” but she doesn’t do that whole “You’re not fat!” thing that women often do to each other. Telling someone what they just said about their experience isn’t true is not a compliment, it’s projection at best and gas lighting at worst. With a BMI of 30.4, I’m straddling the line between “Overweight” and “Obese,” and pretending otherwise is neither helpful nor flattering. When I mention my weight, or the difficulty it’s causing me, she listens and sometimes asks questions, but she doesn’t try to assuage her own discomfort by telling me that my experience or my feelings about it are wrong. What she did say today when I was talking about my flabby arms was, “Well, your tattoos are way too beautiful to cover up, so I’m glad you’re willing to show them off!” Now that’s a compliment!

Finally, and this may seem like a small thing but it can make the difference between success and failure for someone in my position, She Schedules our Next Workout Before She Leaves. She and I have dynamic work/life schedules, and so we can’t simply decide to exercise every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday before or after work like many people can. Before we say “goodbye” for the day, we get out our calendars and choose the next time to meet, typically within 2-3 days. If we need to change it later, we can, but having the next workout agreed to and scheduled eliminates the potential barrier for me of having to contact her and go through several rounds of phone- or text-tag to make plans to exercise again. At this stage of my fitness, where everything still feels unduly challenging, it would be all too easy to give in to the temptation of letting it slide for a few days, and then a week or a month, and eventually giving up altogether. The simple act of taking a moment to put it in our calendars removes that temptation and keeps me on track.

Everything my friend does to make me feel excited about going to exercise with her, I think she does intuitively, without even realizing how deeply she’s helping me heal from the issues that prevented me from maintaining my good health and fitness in the first place. She happens to be genuinely patient and accepting on a level that few of us (myself included) ever master without a great deal of inner work and practice. But everything she is doing is also relatively simple to put into practice with just a little self-awareness and effort. For your friend who is fighting their way back to being healthy after an extended period away from exercise, your ability to show up just a little differently for them could be the very thing that gets them through this critical “beginning-again” period and back into a life of comfort and ease in their bodies and in the world.

And that would probably make you both feel fantastic about yourselves.

The New American Experience

It’s taken me awhile to collect my thoughts since November 8. I have an acquaintance who reaches out to me now and then, for support and occasional big-sisterly guidance. She’s a lovely, caring and intelligent young black woman living in a metropolis far away from her family. The past few years have been difficult for her, as our country has seen escalating brutality (or is it simply increased coverage of the violence?)  against people of color, as well as a persistent systemic indifference to the loss of black lives. Even as she works hard to achieve her dreams and live a life of meaning, she is bombarded with imagery and messages that contradict what she knows to be true about the essential value and goodness of herself and her loved ones. Fear and oppression create a constant undercurrent to her daily activities.

She contacted me after the election. “Is this really happening?” she asked, “What do I do?

She asked me to write about it. I’ve taken that charge seriously, even as I marvel at the irony: How can I, a white woman in my 40’s, advise a young black woman about navigating the American experience post-election in 2016? I’ve heard many white people’s advice to black people about staying safe in police encounters: “Be respectful. Be polite. You won’t get hurt if you just follow instructions.” The trouble with that advice is that it doesn’t work for people of color. Philando Castile couldn’t have been more respectful and docile when asked for his identification, and he still ended up dead, murdered in front of a child. There isn’t a more submissive posture than kneeling with your head bowed, and still, Colin Kaepernick is getting death threats for exercising his 1st Amendment right to express his opinion. There is no amount of submission that guarantees a person of color safety in the presence of a white person’s fear. And our current political and social climate has intensified that reality by orders of magnitude.

As a woman, I’m frightened enough for myself. My husband is big and strong,  but he also has black hair and brown eyes, and skin the color of a perfect latte, and for the first time since I’ve known him, I’m genuinely afraid for his safety. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be black, or to be (or look, whatever that means) Muslim, or gay, or to be an immigrant to this country, documented or not. Because when riled-up white dudes go looking to smash someone, they don’t stop and ask for papers.

But afraid and overwhelmed of people never triumph. The people who navigate adversity successfully, even during the most terrifying of times, are those who are able to steady their nerves, clear their heads, and take action. And so that’s what I’ve spent the past couple of weeks considering. There are some clear and astute writings out there offering instruction on how to resist the oppression that threatens to accompany the incoming regime, so I won’t try and and re-invent those ideas, but here’s what I want to share with my young friend, and with anyone who cares to know my thoughts:

  1. Stay Safe and Healthy. It’s more important than ever for people who feel vulnerable or targeted to ensure our physical safety first. It’s unfair and oppressive, but we can’t change the world if we’re dead, so be extra careful about where you go, how you go, and with whom. Get off your phone and stay alert to your surroundings. Gas stations, parking lots and bus stops seem to be popular places for troublemakers to target individuals, so be extra mindful being alone in those places. And we all need to take action to maintain our physical and psychological health, including good nutrition, regular exercise and social engagement, staying hydrated and sleeping. If you’re currently insured, especially through the Affordable Care Act, get your check-ups and glasses and dental exams and whatever else you may have been putting off before December 31, because the healthcare landscape is facing some potentially drastic changes. Those probably won’t happen in 2017, but why take chances? Make the appointments now.
  2. Stop being Incredulous. Really. Right now, make a decision to never let the words “I can’t believe it” leave your lips again. It’s happening. It’s real. Accept this reality and position yourself accordingly.
  3. Boost Your Signal-to-Noise Ratio. Gather facts, not opinions. Mind your news sources, and check the source and the date of any article you see on social media before you read or share it. Edit your feed, and start to hide, unfollow, or block sources of misinformation or fear-mongering. We already know it’s bad. We need to know exactly what is happening, and what we can do about it. Also, stop arguing with people on social media. If anyone’s mind is to be changed at this point, that will happen through experience and example, not because someone in a comment thread told them to think differently. And subscribe to print media. The free press is already dying, and we need to support it.
  4. Determine Your Priorities. The Dakota pipeline, the rise of the white supremacy movement known as the alt-right, the 700+ (and growing) hate crimes that have been committed since the election, for-profit prisons, women’s health care, voter suppression, attacks on immigrants, climate change, for-profit prisons and the militarization of police…. the list goes on. Trying to address everything all at once could lead to doing nothing at all. Pick an issue, or your top 2 or three, and focus. Trust that other people will do the same for the issues that speak to them the most.
  5. Ask Before Helping. If you really care about something that you aren’t directly part of, inquire before jumping in to help, because they might need something other than what you assume. Or they might need it later, because everyone is trying to help right now, and they’re overrun.
  6. Take an Action (or Two) Daily. Once you have determined your priorities, and inquired as to what might be most helpful. Do one or two things every day to effect change or offer support. Call one legislator. Make a donation. Sign up for training to escort women to medical clinics. Offer to accompany your friend or neighbor  who feels vulnerable to the grocery store, or to pick up a few things for them while you are out. Do what you can, in small doses, as a daily practice.
  7. If You Feel Called to Protest, Learn How to Do it Safely. Don’t just show up with your pithy poster board and flip-flops. Read up on what you need to do to prepare for the physical and possibly legal discomfort you’re signing up for.
  8. Cultivate Joy. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the Holocaust survivors I’ve had the privilege of meeting in person, it’s that happiness is a discipline that must be practiced daily, regardless of circumstance. Your misery will not alleviate the suffering of others, but your joy can serve as a beacon to attract others into your circle. You are alive, and younger than you will ever be again. Don’t waste it.

Lastly, my husband and I had a long talk this past weekend about the dangers of conflating “conservatives” with whatever we’re going to end up calling the phenomenon of hatred that is overtaking popular discourse at the moment. We agreed that it’s more important than ever to listen carefully and gather all the facts before taking action of any kind. Responding to headlines, stereotypes, or appearances is what got us into this mess. It certainly won’t be what gets us out of it.

Frugal Tuesday: Wash Your Hands!

Last week, what I thought were allergies turned out to be a cold. It kept me home in bed for two days, and I’ve been dragging myself through my days ever since. Today, Mr. Vega, who hardly ever gets sick, is also down for the count.

So it seems like a good time to review a basic healthcare practice: hand washing. It’s not something we think much about… We either do it or we don’t. Most of us do, but probably not as often as the CDC recommends:

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone who is sick
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • After handling pet food or pet treats
  • After touching garbage

They don’t mention one of the dirtiest things we own, that we are touching constantly with our hands and our faces: our cell phones. You don’t even want to know what scientists have found on them, but if you’ve ever taken your phone into a bathroom, you can probably guess. Sanitize your phone case often and wash your hands as frequently as if you were touching a public restroom handle!

The Center for Disease Control also recommend washing your hands for at least 20 seconds, a time that many of us fall short of. Whether the water is hot doesn’t matter, because if the water were hot enough to kill germs, it would also be hot enough to give you 2nd or 3rd degree burns. What matters is soap, friction, and time.

Frequent and thorough hand washing reduces the spread of illnesses such as colds and diarrhea, especially in people with weakened immune systems. And avoiding missed work days and doctor visits is always a frugal win in my book.

Frugal Tuesday: Don’t Shave!

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Beards are big right now! And they have been for a few years: Back in 2013, Business Insider reported a 10% drop in Schick razor sales, and my guess is that sales have continued to decline.

A few months ago, Mr. Vega found himself mixed up with a group of guys from the Austin Facial Hair Club, and because we become who we spend time with, it wasn’t long before my husband ditched his razor, too. He joined a competition called the Six Month Sprint, wherein a bunch of guys shaved on the same day last August, took “before” photos, and pledged to meet up again at the Come and Shave It event in February to compare facial hair. Sound strange? Maybe it is a little, but they’re good people who spend a fair amount of time involved in philanthropic activities, as well. And there’s no denying they have a shared interest!

People sometimes ask me whether his beard bothers me, but I confess that every time I look at my husband’s face, I see money! All the money we aren’t spending on razors, or shaving cream, or aftershave… and because he swears that the only way to get a good shave is at the end of a long, hot shower (“to soften the whiskers!”), we’ve seen savings in our water bill, as well. He does use a lovely-smelling beard oil, but that doesn’t cost nearly as much as all the acoutrement of shaving did. And whether my husband is clean-shaven has no bearing on how much I like kissing him!

Beards may keep men (and the women who live with them) healthier, too! Just last week, BBC News reported on a study in which

The beardless group were more than three times as likely to be harbouring a species known as methicillin-resistant staph aureus on their freshly shaven cheeks. MRSA is a particularly common and troublesome source of hospital-acquired infections because it is resistant to so many of our current antibiotics.

Far from living up to the stereotype of being dirty, it appears that mens’ beards may contain a microbe that actively fights viral infections!

Giving up shaving isn’t for everyone, but if you’ve been thinking of giving it a try, you might end up saving some money… and staying healthier, too!

 

Frugal Tuesday: Batch Cooking

Taking an afternoon to whip up a batch of burritos, or really anything that freezes well, isn’t always my first choice for weekend fun. But every time I do it, I’m glad I did. Having some grab-and-go breakfasts, and also some lunch or dinner meals ready and waiting, keeps us eating more healthfully and also saves us from the siren song of takeout or delivery.

This weekend, we made breakfast burritos, and my comfort-food favorite, bean & cheese. What are some of your favorite make-ahead meals?

How We Became Average Americans (And What We’re Doing to Stop It!)

Last year, Mr. Vega and I were living in a 486-square-foot apartment in a not-so-perfect neighborhood tucked into the vast urban sprawl of Los Angeles. We had a thriving container garden on our balcony, and we supplemented the soil with compost created by a colony of red wriggler worms that also lived in a container on our balcony and fed on our fruit and vegetable scraps and coffee grounds. Our meals were all organic and made-from-scratch, often in a slow-cooker, and supplemented with green vegetable juice fresh-made daily. We kept a batch of kombucha brewing on a kitchen counter, a small bottle of organic vanilla beans and bourbon (otherwise known as “vanilla extract”) in a cupboard, and a bigger bottle of cherries, sugar and bourbon (otherwise known as “cherry bounce…” if you haven’t tried it, you might want to!) under the kitchen sink. Our refrigerator was a smaller apartment-sized unit, and we liked it that way, because it was harder to overlook what we had put in there and let it go to waste. We did our laundry twice a month, two loads at a time in our building’s communal laundry room, and hung about half of that to dry on a rack out on the balcony.

We were weird.

We seemed like perfect candidates to move to Austin, Texas… the city’s motto is “Keep Austin Weird,” after all! Housing prices in Los Angeles were proving pretty unforgiving, and we had our hearts set on homeownership, so we packed up a U-Haul and headed eastward, towing one car and shipping another. We had come out a month earlier and secured jobs and an apartment, but because we didn’t know the area, we chose an apartment in a more expensive part of town than our old place in L.A. This one came with a much smaller balcony, and we moved in mid-summer, too late to start a garden. It also has an in-unit washer and dryer, which came in handy, as we weren’t used to the longer drying times required for hanging laundry in the humid air of central Texas. We also weren’t prepared for how we might have to adjust our home-fermenting efforts: my first batch of kombucha grew a healthy layer of mold, and I haven’t found the motivation to try again. Although our apartment in Austin has 50% more square footage than our last place, the storage options are not well-designed, and so the kitchen is much less functional. And we still haven’t learned how to cook on an electric stovetop without burning things!

After a lifetime spent working freelance and part-time jobs, I took full-time work about six months ago, in addition to keeping a couple of my part-time gigs, so that we could save for the house we came here to buy. While I’m glad I did, I now find myself without the time or energy to shop, prep and cook like I used to. Week after week, we found ourselves letting our fresh food languish in the standard size fridge while we stopped for takeout or reached for convenience foods, and without a compost bin, 100% of our food waste has been headed to the landfill. We decided to fill our freezer with some Trader Joe’s frozen options, just to get us through the transition… not ideal, but healthier and less expensive than takeout, or most of the big-name convenience foods. After Mr. Vega sustained a sports injury that makes it difficult for him to walk without pain, even the trek to our closest Trader Joes was proving difficult to fit into my busy schedule, and I found myself shopping at the chain grocery store nearest my workplace, buying and consuming the very products that we’ve avoided so diligently for the past few years. There’s a bit of a vicious cycle going on here: our busier schedules and poorer nutrition means that we have less energy to shop for and cook the healthy foods that would give us, well, more energy! But at the end of a typical 9-hour workday, all we really want is to eat something that we don’t have to cook, lie on the couch and watch TV. And we’ve gained weight. Like most of America, we are now overworked, overweight, malnourished, and trying to function in a state of near-constant fatigue.

Our expenses have gone up, too. Living in a “safer” neighborhood in Austin costs us more in rent than our dodgy-but-familiar part of Los Angeles. The landlord-tenant laws are different here, so our rent is about to go up $200-$400 (the amount would depend on the length of the lease we sign). And our incomes decreased considerably when we left the West coast. We’re fortunate to still be earning enough to give us some margin, even with our current spendy lifestyle, but we’re keenly aware that adding children to our family, needing to care for aging parents, or experiencing a health crisis of our own would change the balance considerably. From where we sit, it’s very easy to understand how some “low monthly payments” for anything that makes life easier would start to look pretty good to a lot of people right about now.

Now we’re average.

What’s keeping us going is the knowledge that our situation is temporary: We’re currently in escrow on our first home. It’s a two-bedroom house, not much bigger than our current one-bedroom apartment, and we’ve got a healthy down payment so our monthly payments will be about the same as our rent. It’s got a couple of fruit trees in the front, a big backyard for gardening, a good-sized kitchen pantry, and a covered deck where we can hang our laundry but still have it protected from summer showers and the grackles that are ubiquitous here. There’s also a gas stove, more counter space and the opportunity to buy whatever size refrigerator we like. If all goes well, in a few months we’ll be collecting rainwater, composting, eating home-grown vegetables again, and playing host to bees, bats and butterflies. We’ll feel more comfortable inviting friends over for dinner and game nights, because there is ample street parking and zero chance of upstairs neighbors complaining about the noise we make when the conversation gets boisterous at our dining table. It will take some effort to keep our tired bodies moving after we come home from a full day’s work, but I think we’ll be able to do it, because we know from experience the good financial and physical health that any amount of urban homesteading can bring. And loathe as I am to do it, because I’ve come to love the people I work with, once we’re settled and have made a few improvements to the house I’ll be able to leave my part-time job and keep my workweek down to a more manageable five days a week instead of six.

We are not wealthy people, but we have had the luxury of working less-than-full-time, or at least of keeping flexible hours, for most of our working lives. Our year of living like “average” Americans has brought me a lot of compassion for people with fewer options. I now have answers to some of the questions in my head that start with “Why don’t they just…?” This experience has taught me that “they” probably don’t exercise the options I’m thinking of because “they” are exhausted and feeling unwell, and there isn’t always someone else to pick up the slack. I’ve learned that an unexpectedly busy week means that fresh fruits, vegetables, and even meats are likely to go unprepared and uneaten, so it’s easier to just not buy them in the first place. I’ve discovered that something as simple as a poor apartment design can have a big effect on a family’s ability to maintain healthy habits. I can see how a weeklong disruption in a steady income could throw off a working parent’s finances in ways that, if you throw in a few late fees and re-connection charges, could take years to recover from.

Living in this country, in this economic climate, is a real struggle for the average American these days. Working flexible schedules, growing and cooking your own food, staying out of debt, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance can go a long way toward making life easier, but those choices aren’t available for everyone. And they certainly aren’t options that I’ll ever take for granted again.

Have you been able to stay out of the “average” American cycle of work-spend-work? What choices have you made to accomplish that?