Beauties and Freedoms

hands on center poster

Both these things are simultaneously and frustratingly true.

A . I feel good in my body, and it’s been a long while since I have. My clothes fit fine, and I feel confident in how I look. My weight is irrelevant. 

B. I step on the scale every day. In fact, I do it several times a day. I get on first thing in the morning before I eat or drink. I step again after I exercise for the thrill of seeing it go lower. I really like weighing less, and when I don’t lose, or when my weight goes up, I am a bit depressed. I know weight fluctuates as we gain and lose water as well as gain and lose weight. I know scales are imperfect measures, not only because they give us partial pictures but because they are not entirely precise and reliable mechanisms. Still, some part of my happiness hinges on a number on a scale. Despite my knowing that this number is irrelevant, I am hooked into its power. 

Sometimes I hide the scale. I put it away or I put it outside in the shed so I won’t get on it. My husband weighs himself daily now, too, so I’d need his cooperation, which would mean ‘fessing up that I have a scale problem. I could. I could say, hey, let’s do this thing weekly, like normal people. Of course, his daily weigh ins don’t matter so much to him. He’s checking on whether he’s eating too much. His weight goes up, and he cuts back the next day. Simple. 

I know for sure that given a choice between weighing less and feeling worse, I’d choose weighing more and feeling better. It’s not the weight. It’s what I eat. 

For months, and if you’ve been reading this blog you know it’s disturbingly true, I’ve felt old. I lost my mojo. Everything felt limited rather than expansive and possible. I felt puffy and saggy and depleted. I thought I was feeling the extra weight and inevitable aging. I was feeling what I was eating.

Some people, apparently, can eat whatever they like in moderate amounts. They feel good and their weight is appropriately stable. I am not one of those people. There is a huge variation in how we experience nutrition, and that variation is the result of a complex cascade of variables: our thoughts and beliefs, our genes, our personal history, what our mothers ate and did (really! there’s evidence that it’s not just genetics but epigenetics that determine our health). 

I recently read a Gretchen Reynolds article about studies that show the effects of exercise on our bodies, brains, and moods. This article explores how excess body fat results in loss of cognition. This study showed that making rats fat resulted in “poor memory and learning skills." Cutting out that fat surgically resulted in a return to previous levels of cognitive abilities. 

What scientists think happen is that excess body fat weakens the blood-brain barrier so that substances released by fat into the bloodstream - substances which cause inflammation -  can reach the brain. That inflammation may prevent healthy synapses from forming and performing, which results in slower cognition. 

Here is the amazing and cool part: exercise worked like magic, once again. The scientists took “obesity-prone mice” (I’m assuming they were altered to make them prone to put on and keep on weight). After fattening them all up, half began to run 45 minutes a day on a treadmill while the other half remained sedentary. 

Fascinating part number one: after twelve weeks, both groups were equally heavy. The additional exercise hadn’t resulted in a net weight loss. However, some of the body fat was now replaced by muscle. More importantly, the mice had lost fat from their middle. 

Best of all, their cognitive skills improved. Reynolds writes, "More telling, they did much better on cognitive tests than the sedentary mice and, when the researchers examined tissue from their hippocampi, showed little evidence of inflammation and robust levels of the chemical marker of synaptic health.”

I feel kind of bad for the mice that run every day and don’t lose weight. Bodies are amazing and individual. Apparently, we’re not all going to respond the same way to cardiovascular training.  When we look at exercise as a means to lose weight, we’re missing the big picture. Exercise is how we keep not just our bodies but also our brains healthy. 

Just like the fat, exercising mice, some of us exercise and get leaner, and some of us do not. This is not a matter of not trying hard enough or doing the right thing or having the right mindset. Those mice stayed overweight. They were healthy, possibly healthier than sedentary mice at a normal mice-weight. 

Some of us eat ice cream and feel fine. Some of us do not. Some of us eat wheat and sugar and drink coffee and feel fine. Some of us do not. Get over it. Whether you’re the feel fine folk or the don’t feel fine folk, it ain’t nobody else’s business but your own. Your experience has no relevance on another’s. 

It’s human nature to compare. It’s human nature to think, “Well, if you just did X, you’d be fine because I did X, and I’m fine.” It’s kind, even, to want others to experience what we have. 

Truthfully, I’m that way about exercise. I’m pretty darn sure everyone would be happier and healthier with daily exercise, and there’s a lot of science to back me up. However, I’ll believe you when you tell me that exercise doesn’t make you feel good. I’d suggest you be sure to give it enough time -- consistent and at least 6 weeks, though 12 is better, because that’s what science tells us -- but I’m willing to believe that even if every science experiment known to man has shown that exercise makes our brains work better and our bodies fight disease and our emotions more resilient, that may not be your experience. 

Go ahead and tell me to get off the scale. You’re right. I know you’re right. Go ahead and tell me that my weight is fine now. I know it is. You can even feel a tiny bit superior to me that you don’t have this fixation with numbers from a machine, this fixation that has the power to alter my mood. 

I haven’t shaken my desire to be at a certain weight. But here’s where I’ve gone for the win.

I don’t feel so old anymore. I don’t feel puffy and saggy. I feel 50, sure, but 50 no longer feels like I’m 2 days away from 70. That’s not because I lost weight. I didn’t have to get down to a certain magical weight. I didn’t have to return to my most “I feel fly!” weight in order to feel good. I changed what I was eating because what I was eating was making me feel terrible and now what I eat makes me feel good. 

When I changed what I was eating, the results were magical. My spirit lifted. My sense of self strengthened. 

I still am working my way back to my best possible health and I’m not there yet. I need lots of rest and I don’t always have the energy to focus. Until today, for instance, I hadn’t written a blog post in weeks. I’ve got bills and taxes and a bunch of those little chores waiting for me and each day, I just can’t quite rally to focus on them. So I know I’m not my most vibrant yet. That’s okay. I’m at home in my body again. I’m myself. 

I look at my body and feel good.  You know, I envy a hard, tight body with rippling abs and long limbs. I could take 20 pounds off my frame and not look like those pictures of those athletes. I’m guessing those athletes don’t always look like their pictures either. I can live with my envy. I can appreciate what I’ve got and enjoy it even as I feel desire and envy when I see bodies that I believe are more beautiful than mine. This is the crux: other bodies are more beautiful than mine and that doesn’t stop my body from being beautiful. It’s not either/or. It’s both/and.

I feel good in my body. This for me is the ultimate. I would not trade this for anything, not even a long-limbed, rippling abs, total athlete body. Not for youth, either, though sometimes I’m still jealous. That’s okay, too. I’m starting to appreciate being 50 a bit more, with its particular challenges and heartaches and its particular beauties and freedoms.