For many, many years, I, like many people, hated exercise. I also wasn’t too keen on my body. I saw exercise mainly as a tool for body modification, but one which left me generally tired, frustrated, and easily thwarted. I am 5’ tall. I am genetically predisposed to big ol’ legs, and I saw these as a penance rather than a gem. When I was 28, I lost something like 30 pounds so that I was a mere 117 through strict food control, limited booze, and walking. So.much.walking. I did this after seeing a doctor at the university where I was a grad student for an indigestion-and-tightness feeling. Her advice? Lose weight. (didn’t help, btw.)
Man, if I had a nickel for every time I heard or felt that impulse to drop pounds. BMI is too high. Clothes are too tight. Self-love was not part of the equation, ever, even though I went to a feminist university for undergrad and was a believer in the rhetoric. Knowing something in your brain and your gut are two different things. I was a chubby youngster, and even as my weight went up and down over the years, that kid’s voice tended to be the loudest in my head.
Magazines, websites and TV pitch cardio to women as the be-all end-all of exercise, because it’s trumpeted as the best, fastest way to lose weight. The equation is thus simple: women should primarily exercise to take up less space. Thus, run, use the elliptical, or in my case as a young person, get down with those awful Cindy Crawford workout videos. Do not do so for reasons of personal accomplishment, unless that accomplishment is to become smaller. In which case, good for you.
When I see photos of myself at 117 pounds, I’m kind of floored by how scrawny I was. I am forty pounds heavier now. I am not always good at accepting that. But my god, I am strong.
I started lifting heavy weights a few years ago at the university gym. It took a lot of swallowed pride to put on my gym clothes and be vulnerable—gasp—in front of my students. But the gym was free, and I had a book—The New Rules of Lifting for Women: Lift Like a Man, Look Like a Goddess—I’d taken out of the library and eventually ordered on Amazon. I watched videos to get an idea of good form. And then I tried. I used the barbell, the plates, the dumbbells. Within a year, I could lift my (then-smaller) bodyweight. And I loved it.
That’s evidently the trick with exercise: Find something you love, and you won’t mind doing it (as much—I do still have those days where I don’t want to go to the gym). And for me, I hated cardio. It generally left me bored and feeling bad about myself. But lifting? It’s always a challenge. Successes are exciting—new personal bests!—and failures are motivating. Don’t get it today? Get it later. It’s a very different motivation than “yay I made it through half an hour on the treadmill,” which is something I don’t find even remotely motivating. At all. Even better, it allowed me to eat more (I wrestled with guilt cycles about counting highly-restricted calories) because you have to eat to lift and make gains.
It’s the best exercise ever.
I no longer work out at the university gym. When I was on sabbatical, I started working out elsewhere so as not to get sucked into university stuff. Now I just prefer my other gym; it’s the one “crazy” annual expense in my budget. I also spring for a trainer.
I can lift 200 pounds off the floor.
I can carry all the groceries in one trip.
I can move my own furniture.
My bones are strong as a consequence of resistance work, which bodes well for me in the future.
And while I use a lot of serious gym weights, you can do a lot with your own body and stuff you can find—google and see for yourself.
The traditional ways of knowing you’re doing well, health-wise, don’t quite work for me, and that’s taken getting used to. My pants are always becoming too small (I’ve stopped buying any at full price and hit up thrift shops) because my booty is huge. I have great quads—sure, they’re huge, but they support my whole body and let me do pretty much whatever I want. My shoulders are broad—these are great for filling out shirts, sure, but also help stabilize my growing arms.
Exercise is important—it can help stabilize mood (it keeps me from killing people), improve bodily function, ward off disease, and promote community. But don’t exercise for some mythological state of smallness, or because you feel you have to for reasons tied to the awful covers of “Women’s Health,” a misnomer if I ever heard one. Do it for you. Find something you like, and to hell with the rest of it. Find workouts that challenge you, that hold your interest. For me, that’s heavy lifting.
Being strong kicks ass. Being big kicks ass. It’s all infinitely better than spending your life seeking smallness. If you’re looking to feel good, carry all your own stuff, and rival Beyonce’s thighs for strength, you should give heavy lifting a go.
We’ll talk about all of this more later, when I interview my trainer. He’s ALL about empowering women in the gym, so I adore him. Just wait until I ask him about the pink dumbbells.