lots of talk about exercise

Another long post!
I’m making sure there’s more talk about feelings and gender and power in DJing and dance. Even if they’re just mine. :D

I’ve been doing some pretty hard core exercise lately, which you’d know if a) you follow me on twitter, b) are a real live hooman friend of mine, c) I’d kept up with posting my dailymile posts here.
I guess I’ll get on that last one soon.

So what’s the deal? I started running in March or so this year, loved it, and used to run three times a week and go social dancing once. But that hurt my knees. So I dropped one run and added in yoga. Didn’t help. I went to see my podiatrist/physio (bless his blessed cotton socks), he gave me some exercises to toughen up my knee, and I started back at running twice a week with an aim for three. Sore knees. I started doing dance work on night a week, properly, in a hall and everything. Then I started swimming laps twice a week at the pool to complement my two runs per week, my one social dancing night and my one night of dance work.

It’s gold.

I love swimming. I used to swim a lot, doing swimming club in school until puberty put a stop to that, we grew up swimming a lot, and I’ve done laps at various points. But this is different. It’s so wonderful. I love the way it’s not impact exercise – no knee or joint pain. Just lovely stretches and a serious arse-kicking. Right now I’m running Mondays and Fridays, swimming Tuesdays and Thursdays, dance work Wednesdays and social dancing Friday or Saturday night (with the odd Sunday session) and lots of incidental walking and the odd long walk in between. It’s perfect. I love it.

It’s the perfect balance, so long as I don’t push the swimming too much. Right now I’m really not swimming as hard as I could. I do 1km in 30minutes and I could do more. I did more on Tuesday and ended up with a sore shoulderback (I think it was my trapezium, on the left side) on Wednesday. So I’m taking it easy, working up to more laps gradually. Unlike running, I have some swimming Skillz, what with that swimming club work as a youngun and some sort of bizarre genetic predisposition towards it (I think it’s actually the strength in my shoulders). So I feel good about swimming.

I still love running. I love the way it seriously kicks my arse and leaves me all tremble-muscles and sweaty. But it’s rough on my joints at the moment. I have added in lots of stretches and strengthening exercises, but I’m not quite there yet with those. I don’t want to suggest that running itself is bad for you or your joints. The issue is that it’s a repetitive exercise – you do the same exact movements – over and over again. And gravity is involved. And if you’re heavier, and without proper muscle tone, you tend to just flop down into your joints. That’s me. I’m pretty fit from dancing, but I’m not running fit. And you do need to strengthen your muscles for running.

Hellz, you should really be doing lots of stretches and strengthening exercises for sitting on your arse all day. I’m 36, so I’m not at my prime, running wise. But that’s ok. I think it’s a good idea to work up to being a ninja runner. I’m gradually strengthening my muscles so that I am more efficient. That means making sure the muscles in my legs work properly, so I’m not knock-kneed any more.

That’s a real issue for a lot of women, especially ones who don’t do much exercise – arses out, no core strength, knees falling in towards each other. The opposite is often true of many men – crotch forwards (so it looks like they have no arse), no core strength (but too much upper body strength), knees opening out like bow-legged cowboys. These sorts of physiological (should that be biomechanical?) issues are party socialised, but also to do with the physiological differences between men and women. And you do get men with the ‘female’ issues and vice versa.

I’m focussed on getting good at running because running is really good for basic aerobic fitness, and also for being efficient when you’re moving quickly. Which is perfect for cross-training for lindy hopping. Which is really just lots of running. With lots of jumping and leaping and bending and stretching and…
I love swimming because it makes me apply the same principles of biomechanics I use in dancing and running, but to my body while it’s suspended in a resistant environment. Gravity doesn’t kick my arse (especially not mine – I’m still ridiculously buoyant), so I’m free to experiment with movement in new ways. It’s kind of like yoga – when you’re inverted, you get to see how your everyday movements and muscle use are shaped by gravity and habit. Tipping all that upside down, literally, helps you become aware of your habits and also more aware of how your body works. Swimming is kind of like that. But you’re in WATER.

As per usual, I’ve thrown myself into this routine with somewhat obsessive enthusiasm. I am a little ob-con, which means I’m good at things like PhDs, exercise programs and other tedious tasks with perceivable goals. You usually see the results of a new regular exercise routine at six weeks or so. Provided you’re actually doing the exercise regularly and with some sort of discipline. And I am.

My results? Dancing is much easier – I can breathe and jump and leap with more energy and control. But my improved fitness and muscle and control means that I can actually do more while I’m dancing. I can experiment with new ways of moving. Which was one of my main reasons for doing this in the first place: decreased fitness and increased physical girth (as in not-muscle but just generous flesh…ooo, I do like that thought – generous, bountiful flesh!) make it difficult to do some movements. They also prevent you doing movements for longer periods of time with more repetitions. Which is what you need to practice something. I find my decreased size means I have a greater range of movement – I can move my legs at the hip within a greater range, I can bend further, extend further and jump higher. It’s quite exciting. It’s also very interesting.

I want to make it clear. I’m not rushing this. We started changing our lifestyle a couple of years ago. I don’t want to ‘drop a lot of weight’ or suddenly get really fit really quickly. I wanted to make slow, gradual changes so that they could be sustainable. It is nice to be slimmer – it simply feels better to be able to do more exercise with this increased fitness and smaller physical size. It’s less weight on my poor foot and joints, and it means I do have that greater range of movement and flexibility and strength in my joints.

I also want to be clear: you can carry lots of flesh and be fit and healthy. But you can’t be fit and healthy if you don’t do at least five 30minute blocks of sustained exercise per week. That means a brisk walk (not a slow stroll) FIVE times a week. One of the consequences of this exercise, though, is that your muscles develop. That means you get stronger, not just in the muscles your body is using to move you around, but also in other systems – respiratory, digestive, pulmonary. You also use food more efficiently – you use food. So you’re less likely to ‘put on weight’ because your body isn’t storing as much ‘excess’ calorie as it was when you were spending your whole day on the couch.

And – best of all – exercise fires up your body-chemicals, and improves your mood. Exercising regularly just makes you feel good. It’s really hard when you’re weighed down with depression or caged in by anxiety to get out there and walk or run or swim or cycle or dance or stretch or tai chi or yoga or whatever. But once you do get out to it regularly, your general mental wellbeing improves. I find I have far less trouble with anxiety when I’m exercising regularly. Without it I can find it difficult to leave the house, to go do social situations, to even catch a godDAMN bus without freaking about missing it.

Exercise sort of dissolves those feelings. It lets me out. I think that this is the part I like the most. It’s like exercise makes me strong enough to do things I can find very difficult. It makes me strong, emotionally, but also socially. It helps me free my sense of humour and my wit. I make better jokes when I’m exercising regularly. It also lets me do creative things like dancing or telling stories or whatevs.

For me, this is where exercise becomes a feminist issue. Because happy, healthy women with confidence and creativity and happy, healthy bodies are in a very good position for fucking up the patriarchy. And because happy, healthy men with confidence and creativity and happy, healthy bodies are also in a very good position for fucking up the patriarchy.

At this point I want to write about wellness and (dis)ability and health and feminism, but I don’t have the space. I have a post brewing, though. But let me state this, very very clearly:

The ‘right’ amount and type of exercise for YOU is determined by your body and by your self. There is no point whatsoever in comparing your exercise with someone else’s because:

  • you are unique;
  • you have a unique genetic makeup, therefore your physical/emotional/mental potential is unique.
  • your lifestyle is unique – you might be a mother like other people, but you are mother to your children, living your lives, not someone else’s; you might be a student like other people, but you are student in your body, not their’s;
  • Your body and your brain – the way they work together – is unique.
  • You are the sum of your life to this point, and that means you have to take that into account. You might have had some troubles with alcohol or with depression or with your parents. You might have been a hardcore sprinter as a teenager. You might be wondering where your gender is at, and what or who you are. You might have broken a bone years ago and have it left more fragile. You might have some serious long-term illness. All this stuff comes with you on every run and every swim and every walk. So you have to be gentle with yourself.
  • You’re here for your whole life, not just a weekend of it, so you have to plan your exercise for your whole life. Don’t think “I have to lose weight for my wedding” or “I have to get fit by christmas”. Think “I deserve to feel really good, and I deserve to feel better every single day” and work on that. Long term goals, short term pay-offs.

So my fitness and exercise plans aren’t ones that will work for everyone. You have to find your own balance point. That might mean yoga once a week or it might mean cycling to work every day. This brings me to my other serious point:

Exercise should be fun. If it’s not, change what you’re doing. Really, seriously, it should make you feel fucking AMAZING. It might pound and pummel you, but not in a bad way. It might leave you buggered and breathless, but it should also leave you thinking “YES! I am doing that again tomorrow/next week!” You mightn’t have any interest in exercise that’s hardcore – that’s also cool. It might be the way your gentle yoga leaves you feeling light and calm and centred and full of happiness. But it should be good feelings, not guilt or frustration or shame or anger or unhappiness.
For me, dancing is the very finest thing on earth. When I’m dancing, when the music is good, and I’m feeling good, it is the best feeling I’ve ever felt. It can be any music and any dancing. But the way I feel at that moment is beyond words.That’s why I run and swim and stretch – because it improves that. Sure, I enjoy running and swimming and cycling for their own sakes as well, but dancing gives me direction. It’s the payoff. I also find that fostering that part of my life – with its creativity and physical challenge and partnership with other dancers – fosters the other parts of my life which are about stillness and calm and quiet.

So I think we should all seek out exercise that pleases us. Running isn’t for everyone. You mightn’t be a runner or swimmer. You might be a trapeze artist or a juggler or a ninja or a climber or a hiker or a gardener. Keep looking until you find that thing that makes you feel that good. And the best part is that the more exercises you try, the better able you are to try more exercises, and more things generally!

For me, that’s the other best bit. Hurting my foot made me suddenly think “oh shit, I might never be able to run/dance/garden/hike again!” so when I did get some mobility and freedom from pain I was NOT going to put off trying new things. No fucking way. Our bodies are phenomenal things – there is no way I’m going to miss out on trying as much as I can.

This is another thing that makes exercise feminist. It makes us strong and convinces us to seek out good stuff. Good stuff that mightn’t have anything to do with heterosexual monogamy or buying shit.

Here’s another thing I want to mention. Being fat does not equate to being unhealthy. I actually don’t like to use the expression ‘being fat’, because it’s meaningless – it’s relative and requires comparison with other bodies. And that way leads bullshit self-loathing and division between women. Not to mention paranoia, depression and unhappiness. Exercise is about being strong – physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s about feeling good. It is NOT about comparing yourself with other people. So you can have lots of lovely booty – you can be a lushly fleshy creature – and still be fit and healthy. But not if you don’t get your heart rate up, work your lungs and muscles and sweat a little. Sorry, sex, heavy drinking and sixteen course banquets do not qualify. :D

I want to end with another point. One that’s really at the heart of this. Simply ‘being skinny’ – ie just some bones covered in skin – is not a good goal. Aim to be ‘healthy’, and aim to be well. I wish some of the women I know would realise that muscle tone is the sign of good health. Every now and then I see a sister cringe when I talk about my muscles. It’s not ‘mannish’ to have muscles. And, to be honest, ladies, you’re going to have to work really hard, for a really long time to even approach a man’s musculature.

I really think of my muscles as proof of my strength. Not just of my physical strength, but of myself. I’m strong enough to get out the house, or to make a joke or to tell a story or to manage a relationship or to run my household or hold down a job. I’m strong enough to know how to ask for help, and I’m strong enough to help other people. I think this idea of strength is the opposite of what a lot of women are raised to think. We’re raised to think – constantly told by telly and advertising and almost every single relationship we have with other people – that women are physically weaker than men, and that we aren’t strong enough to make decisions or to run our own lives.

I also see a lot of women using ill health or physical weakness – pain in particular – to gain control of their lives or relationships. If you have a headache you don’t have to go to work/deal with that conflict/solve that problem. You have permission to go to bed or to be looked after. I mean – most women I know carry pain killers in their bag. How many men have pain killers on them all the time?

This was a big one for me, because I used to get horrid headaches which were stress related. I find exercise keeps anxiety and stress headaches at bay. I’ve also learnt that when I feel a headache brewing I can reach for a painkiller (because sometimes you just need to), or I can go for a walk or get a massage or choose to let go of that trigger point (saying ‘no’ to a responsibility, for example).

I think that my relationship with medical professionals is a good example of this. Pain in my foot or knee? I could take a bunch of pain killers or stop running. Or I could go see my physio, who then works with me to set up a strengthening program where I work to manage my pain. This is the sort of pro-active, empowering relationship many men have with their sports coaches, but which women don’t have because they don’t do sport, competitive or otherwise. For me, this is the most exciting part of all. Having a ‘bung foot’ doesn’t mean not dancing or not walking or taking lots of pain killers. It means getting orthotics, doing an hour of strengthening and releasing exercises per day and managing the amount and type of sport I do.

Yoga taught me: you don’t skip yoga because you’re injured. That’s when you most need to go to yoga. So exercise has taught me that your physical (dis)ability is not about opting out. My physical limitations aren’t actually limitations – they’re just part of how my body works. So I need to work with that, rather than in spite or or around that. Dancing helps with that thought too – an unusual body shape is a very useful and creative thing.

I’m not really sure how to end this, other than to say that I think it’s a very great shame I didn’t do much exercise between 15 and 25. A very great shame.

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