Category Archives: Fitness

My Irrational Love of Running

I love to run. I wasn’t built for it – short, muscly, a little knock-kneed and uncoordinated. canstockphoto1568459I started to run in high school track. I was slow, but I could finish the race. I got put on the 3000 meter run, because regardless of placing, you’d get points for the team at a meet if you finished. During the track award dinner my senior year, the coach said “Michelle gets an A+ for effort”. At the time I thought it was damning and faint praise. Now I think it sounds like a pretty good gravestone epitaph.

One year we were challenged by our coach to run 100 miles over the course of the winter. He called it the Arctic 100 challenge. My brother and I were going through our Rocky phase, swallowing raw eggs and bouncing around like we were fighters and then we’d run through snow, slip sliding on icy small town sidewalks, the snot freezing inside our noses.

In the Army, I ran a lot of hills because I had to and the Presidio of Monterey was nothing but hills. I could finish. And I was still young enough that the late night binge-drinking and that early morning cigarette before P.T. didn’t incapacitate me.

Afterwards, in college, I lived in an apartment building surrounded by prefab condos and hills. I was trying to quit smoking for the 492nd time and decided to start a regular running program. The very first stretch of the run was a steep uphill jaunt. I was usually sucking wind by the time I got to the top, but I knew if I made that hill, the rest of the run would be okay.

canstockphoto20579326In my 40s, I started training in taekwondo. With a lot of heavy footwork and kicking, running had to take a backseat to the many injuries I was getting. My sparring partners tended to be teenage boys about a foot taller than me. I ended up with a black eye, turf toe, pulled muscles, wrecked quads. Running just made it worse, since I was using many of the same muscle groups.

My dojo (school) closed and I decided after four years of having the crap kicked out of me, I was done as well. To compensate, I took some circuit training classes, which included a lot of jumping and knee work, until I could barely step off curbs or go down stairs without stabbing pain. The injuries to both knees took months to recover and I was depressed about the idea that I might not be able to run again. Again, this caught me by surprise.

It strikes me as odd, this running thing. I’ve never been fast. I don’t look like a runner. I don’t even have any competitive ambition except against my last time or distance. I sweat like crazy, my face turns all red and at nearly 50, there are parts of my body moving independently of any muscle. Still, as soon as I felt ready, I started to run again.

Today I finished an 8 week 5K training program. I did my last run slowly, steadily, and strongly. I’m starting a 10K program next week. It makes no sense to me – this love that I have for something I’m so incredibly unsuited for – it has become this touchstone that I return to again and again.

Perhaps it is my unsuitability, my lack of speed or grace, my inability to wear stretchy, breathable running clothes with aplomb, the lack of competitive drive, that makes it all appealing to me. It does not require much from me except that I show up and that I keep going. Sometimes that seems like a pretty good metaphor for life.

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Is there something you love to do that makes no sense to you?

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Leaning into the Fraudian Complex

canstockphoto17112100I’m a writer.

I speak several languages.

I am fit and active.

I love my family.

I believe love is the right choice.

But, but, but…

What about the fact that I’m none of these things consistently or expertly?

What about the fact that I don’t spend each and every day honing my writer’s craft? And that despite working on a novel, 80% of my reading is nonfiction?

What about the fact that if you ask me any question in the languages I know well on paper, I’ll have a blank look on my face?

What about the fact that I don’t look like an athlete? Or that I eat enough for four athletes…of the Sumo kind?

What about the fact that on Monday morning, I’m glad to see my family out the door?

And for all the love I purport to feel, to advocate for, why am I repeatedly calling fellow humans jackwads and dipshits while driving?

*****

I had the good fortune of hearing the author Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge, 2009 Pulitzer Prize), give a lecture last week. She talked about the value of fiction and why it’s important to readers. She spoke about how fiction gets to the truth of characters and in turn, to the truth of ourselves. I took notes and all I could think was – as a writer, I’m a complete and utter fraud. This is a bad thought to have a week before I’m scheduled to pitch my novel to three literary agents. But it’s bad in a way I have learned to value.

*****

When I started tutoring English learners, one of the students asked me in front of the class what languages I spoke. Ever eager to sound like I knew something of value, I muttered “I speak a little Spanish, German, French and Russian.”

It was, to my knowledge, true – if you wanted me to count to 10, list the colors of the rainbow or ask you where the bus station was. I’m proficient in asking for another beer in German or talking about military tank positions in Russian. I can accurately describe cows or the children at the swimming pool in French. In Spanish, I have a terrific food vocabulary, because Mexican food is the bomb.

So, in the back of my head, I really felt like I was telling a lie, even if I’d get off on a technicality. Lies bother me. Especially my own. I intone Jean-Luc Picard in my head Make it real. Since starting tutoring a few months ago, I’ve been relearning or building up languages. I start off every day on DuoLingo. It takes canstockphoto993916me about 20 minutes, but in the last two months, my language skills have improved exponentially. I started enjoying it so much that I’m ramping things up a bit with workbooks and online websites in those languages. I frequently wander the house repeating nonsensical phrases, sometimes mangling all four languages in the same sentence. International incident, here I come.

*****

I have never in my life looked like an athlete. I’m solid, but short and round. All my life I’ve been fairly active. I look in the mirror and it never reflects back at me who I think I am. This disconnect between how I feel and how I look frustrates me to no end. Years of martial arts, running, tromping around in combat boots hauling packs, endless numbers of push-ups, weight training, and in the end, I still look like a disheveled hausfrau. This time my body is a reflection of the lie.

canstockphoto2201991I’ve only ever dealt with half the equation – exercise. The reality is that I eat like a horse. A horse who could eat its own body weight in mashed potatoes. I eat well – really, really well. From my twenties on, I’ve resisted dieting, mostly to my benefit. But as my income grew, so did my access to all the foods I loved – foods that I didn’t get growing up and foods that I generally couldn’t afford or have access to during my Army and college years. Simple foods, even some that are quite healthy, I eat in large quantity.

My truth is that if I want the outside to truly reflect how hard I work, how much training I’ve done, I have to come to terms with the mentality I have, that whatever is in front of me now might be gone tomorrow, so I better get while the gettin’s good. I went through an absolute culling of personal belongings and clothing over the winter and found the same mentality at work. If I liked something, I bought two or got all the colors, because tomorrow it might be gone.

I want the reflection in the mirror to look like how I feel inside. I want to make it real. So I’ve begun doing that most mundane of dieting tasks – tracking calories and setting a target goal that I get all my servings of fruits and veggies. I just started Week 6 of an 8 week 5K training program. I’m starting to see results. My humble brag is less about the particular goals than it is about the fact that the lie had become untenable for me to sustain. It has simply become easier to make a lie the truth, than deal with the angst of wishing it to be so.

*****

Elizabeth Strout said it’s the job of the writer to be bring honesty to the reader, because it helps us get in touch with our own truths. That’s been rolling around in my head the last few days. My own truth is that despite all my experiences as a human, I am not an experienced writer. I have not, like Ms. Strout and so many working writers, spent my days and nights learning the craft.

Next week, when I sit in front of my first literary agent ever, I will be out of my depth. And that is the truth.

canstockphoto6167076Somehow, even confronting that truth head on, I find it invigorating. I have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Because when that conference is over, when I’ve gushed out the verbal vomit that will be my pitch, I will return home knowing that I need to make it real. I’ll spend my days and nights learning what other writers already know. My path is one of retroactive truths, but truths…eventually.

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My History of Compulsion

My life has been stripped down to bare essentials over the last year. It’s a luxury that is entirely uncomfortable. What are we without our distractions? It turns out that I am a melting pot of compulsive behaviors, twisted patterns of self-delusion and convenient rationalization. Smoking, drinking, gambling, casual sex, overeating, overexercising – I’ve run the gamut over the last 20 years and avoided looking seriously troubled, by switching compulsions so that everything just looks like a phase.

I think I've got BINGO!

I think I’ve got BINGO!

I stopped gambling at 20. I gave up smoking at 30. I traded in casual sex for a long term relationship at 32. I quit drinking at 35. I eased up on my body by quitting martial arts at 46. I quit repetitive jobs and volunteer roles at 47. I’m a lifelong learner without the community ed fees. So, at 48, I am preparing to face down the devils that have been along for the whole ride – money and food compulsions.

I started reading about compulsive behaviors in December to accompany a month-long online shopping fast. And now I’ve started to play Compulsion Whack-a-Mole. Stopping one compulsion only to have to confront another. My appetite became insatiable. I’ve kept it reined in over the years alternately through smoking or exercise or cycles of deprivation. But now I’m the monster who could eat Minneapolis.

To be clear, I have disordered eating behaviors. This is my caveat to say that this is only my situation and my perspective and this is how I choose to deal with it. There are people for whom compulsive eating disorders are a life and death issue and I would not want to conflate my situation with theirs, nor suggest that this is some personal, solo quest. I have support – a life coach, friends and family.

canstockphoto14409836The problem with any compulsion is that it is not a rational beast with which to reason. People get very high and mighty about weight loss and self-control and discipline and I’d like to drop kick their asses to the floor. Fantastic – it’s not an issue for you! Now, go away. This human has some work to do.

So I’m here – desolate, yet pragmatic and determined. Everyone has their own threshold for “hitting bottom”. If I express that I feel like I’ve hit bottom, inevitably someone will pop up and say “well, at least you haven’t blah, blah, blah…” Yes, there is always someone less fortunate, situations more serious, things more important to worry about. My head is not fully ensconced in my ass. However, this is where I’m at and the only perspective I can truly address.

Hitting bottom for me is a sense of hopelessness.  Bottom for me is discomfort in how I move and feel. Bottom for me is hitting numbers on a scale that I have not managed since being pregnant. Bottom for me is having shitty workouts because I’m too tired or breathless. Bottom for me is not being able to run as much. Bottom for me is feeling my body become an impediment rather than a functional part of my existence. Bottom is feeling out of control, with no end in sight.

And lately, bottom for me is the sense of exhaustion and exasperation about all the energy that I’ve expended in my life thinking about weight and food. I’m headed into the 3rd, possibly 4th quarter. Time is running out and I don’t want to keep wasting it.

Our stories all start somewhere and that is where I begin to untangle the stranglehold of compulsion. I’ve begun my first homework assignment, writing my history of eating and weight. It’s hard work, because it is often painful and cringe-inducing, but something else more important is emerging – a sense of compassion for this person who is me. Sometimes I sit back and think “who wouldn’t be completely messed up after that experience?”

I’m not turning this blog into some sort of self-help, weight loss journal. But I tend to write from where I’m at and this is a long-term project that I’m just starting. It’s not about food or numbers on a scale or the right workout for that roll just under my chin. It’s about addressing that gaping void that I’ve spent a lifetime trying to fill. This shit is getting real.

So, I’m going to share just a few of the notes that have emerged while writing about my history of eating and weight.

1975  There’s 4 kids now in my family. My stepfather is a construction worker and an alcoholic who works inconsistently due to the recession. We get government cheese and butter and welfare food coupons. I sneak bread at night because I’m hungry. I hope each morning, as the loaf gets smaller, that my mother won’t notice.

1986   I get flagged at an Army weigh-in. I spend the next few weeks running the flight line at Goodfellow Air Force Base and starving myself. I make weight. My platoon sergeant makes me squad leader for the “fat squad” to get everyone running more. Not the honor he imagined.

1991   I’m watching “Prince of Tides” in a movie theater in Iowa City. I have a massive panic attack during the family dinner scene. My heart is racing, I’m sweating, my stomach is turning. It occurs to me many years later that it felt like dinner with my family growing up – unpredictable, confrontational, critical, sometimes violent.

Eat me! Eat me!

Eat me! Eat me!

There is more. More that is too personal, too painful to reveal publicly, but you get the idea. Unearthing the most painful, crappy parts of one’s history is necessary work, but it makes me want to eat a house. I write about it here because part of any compulsion is secrecy and solitude. But some of you are house-eaters and maybe I just wanted to say hey – me too, friend, me too.

 

Some Resources that I’m perusing:

Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole, MS , RD and Elyse Resch, MS, RD, FADA

Starting Monday: Seven Keys to a Permanent, Positive Relationship with Food by Karen Koenig

Spent: Breaking the Buying Obsession and Discover Your True Worth by Sally Palaian

Stop Eating Your Heart Out by Meryl Hershey Beck, MA, MEd, LPCC

50 Ways to Soothe Yourself without Food by Susan Albers, PSY.D.

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Brain Blurts on the Treadmill

One of my favorite workout songs is the Foo Fighters “Walk”. It’s a nice warmup piece, starting with motivational lines like Getting good at starting over... and I believe I’ve waited long enough…

What I like most about this song is that it makes me laugh every single time I hear it. It’s the singer’s crescendo to a primal yell of “I never want to die!” that does it. When I’m running on a treadmill at the Y, sweating along with a young, old, multi-gendered, multiracial, differing needs crowd, it seems like a great equalizer.

That’s why we’re all here, in this odd, smelly place littered with medieval/bondage equipment, right? Fitness, strength, weight, appearance, functionality, it doesn’t matter the reason, because when you strip everything down to the primal basics: We don’t want to die.

Except for the lady next to me, because if she keeps talking about her gall bladder surgery to every passerby, so loudly that even blasting Foo Fighters doesn’t block her voice, I’m going to sidekick her into a pile of elliptical machines.

Have a happy Wednesday!

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A Blogger for Self-Defense

This is the introduction to a series of essays on the importance of self-defense and physical power. I am not an expert on self-defense, nor a physical fitness guru. I do not condone violence, but advocate taking whatever action or inaction is needed to survive potentially dangerous situations. Not every situation is defensible through physical force. canstockphoto6758958Last month, I stopped participating in Bloggers for Peace. It is a great concept, but I felt like a hypocrite. I’ve not been feeling peaceful for a long time. The unfortunate side affect of reading blog posts and the news, is that the world starts to become a very ugly place, especially in regards to issues related to being a woman. Disproportionate attention gets paid to the negative and the horrifying, so we read about the Steubenville rape, the murder of a paid escort in Texas, the abuse that many women have received at the hands of a “loved one”, a constant stream of politically and religiously motivated moralizing gone awry, based on the premise that our bodies are the collective property of the state.

I cannot, at this moment in time, advocate peace in the face of all of this. Being a conscientious person, I recognize that I live and feel a strange sort of dichotomy. At what point do I take action and NOT use my words? So, I’m writing about violence this week, in the form of self-defense.

Much of this is going to apply to women, simply because that is my perspective, but I hope male readers find something of value or can contribute their own perspective.

My hesitation on writing about this subject evaporated yesterday. I watched a YouTube video of a Taekwondo spin hook kick. A commenter had written “this would be a good kick to use on a woman who is yapping”. The star of the video, a skilled martial artist, responded “Yeah, that’s true.” Now I know, in my rational mind, that douchebags populate these sites, but most martial arts training advocates respect and discipline. It was disheartening to see, once again, something positive tainted by wankers with no sense of honor.

To clarify, for those who haven’t read this blog before, I’m a 45 year old woman. I spent 4 years of active duty in the US Army, in a military intelligence unit attached to an infantry division, which meant a lot of time out in the field. I am a practicing martial artist, just a short step from my 1st degree black belt in Taekwondo. I run, weight train and do a variety of workouts that support speed, flexibility and strength. I’ve gone through labor and delivery of a child. I’ve had ripped corneas, more bruises than I can count, torn and pulled ligaments and muscles. Last night I dropped a 250lb man in a self-defense move and the night before that, I sparred intensely with a teenager a foot taller than I, taking a kick to the jaw.

This is all to say, I’m not afraid of the pain and I am not afraid to use my power. As a woman in this society, it is considered wholly unnatural to be an advocate of putting the hurt on someone else. We’re encouraged to do flutter kicks to flatten our abs and leg lifts to tighten our butts.  Every time I see the covers of women’s magazines, I cringe. Even the so-called fitness magazines are focused on appearance and not capabilities. I would love to see the title “How to make No mean No: Giving a Beat Down He Won’t Forget” or “Self-Defense for Parking Lots: Keys are for Eyeballs, Knees are for Groins” or “50 Ways to Leave Your Abuser”. Instead we’re told how to organize a shoe closet or how to make ourselves look “hotter” (there’s a word that deserves to be beaten to death).

I’m an average woman who was never particularly coordinated or athletic. My education about violence and physical force started at a young age. Pushes, shoves, punches, slaps, ear twists, hair pulls, belt whippings, threats from behind a gun sight – all from people older and bigger than I, people who I should have been able to trust with my well-being. When I was a four-eyed, awkward, puny and shy 4th grader, a group of girls pushed me off my bike and took it. I did not react, except to cry. My crying matured into a quiet, stony stare when I was attacked, either physically or verbally. I dreamed of being a vigilante, of defending kids like myself, of taking down the bullies. I seethed with rage that had nowhere to go, except inward.

My Army drill sergeant had nothing on me. He could get in my face, scream at me, force me through unceasing pushups, flip my bunk – I did what I was told and stared stonily into the distance (hence being called into the senior drill sergeant’s office for an “attitude problem”). I knew he was a drinker – his eyes had that same red, watery look that my stepfather had the morning after a bender. Been there, done that, dude. I stared him down. 100 pushups later, I still stared him down. He gave up, winded from all the yelling. Probably needing an aspirin.

These days, I’m an advocate of peaceful existence. But becoming a mother to a daughter forced me to re-examine what that means to me and what I want it to mean for her. I began to train, to learn a martial art, to become as strong on the outside as I am on the inside. I’m prepared to defend myself. And not with flutter kicks (unless they’re to the head).  I have begun to believe the world would be a more peaceful place, especially for women, if we each knew our personal power, could walk confidently out into the world, could know what we were capable of and that we have choices.

Tune in Tuesday    

Claiming Public Space: The Power of Posture

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Preparing for Your Own Worst Enemy

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I left the YMCA in a huff last night after a mediocre workout. A group of women were having a yak-a-thon in the corner of the weight room. This is a pet peeve of mine – rabid, loud socializing when I’m working out. It’s not just the women, either. I’ve seethed as men stood around saying creepy things to each other like “you’re getting really big” or “which protein powder do you use?”.

I’m on the road back to fitness after a tedious winter of flus and injuries and entropy. It means that any excuse is enough to make me give up and go home. When you go looking for reasons to quit, you are guaranteed to find them. My trainer used to say “you get to use that excuse only once and then it gets crossed off the list.” I’m a creative person, though. I once used the fact that I’d forgotten my headphones, to go home and have a snack instead.

My goal over the next three weeks is to show up at the gym consistently. The idea that it takes 21 days to make or break a habit is pseudoscience from the 1960s. A current study suggested that it can actually take over two months for a habit to become automatic, but it also showed that the time frame can vary widely from one individual to another.

For me, the three week repetition seems to do the trick. I emphasize the words show up, because I have walked into the gym, seen how busy it was, turned around and headed home. I still gave myself kudos for making it through the door. Most of the time, I do stick around and get some exercise done.

For the last decade, I worked as a business manager for a recruiting firm. The training for recruiters/sales people always involved starting out with a script. When the potential client/customer raised an objection or concern, the sales person had to be ready to overcome that objection. Much the same concept can be applied to personal goals. Know your favorite obstacles. Go through the script. Be prepared to counter that obstacle. Here’s the conversation I had yesterday with myself:

I need to work out today.

My shoulder hurts from the Pilates class yesterday.

Quit whining. Ice it and do leg work instead.

Fine. But I’m not going to enjoy it.

Injuries are a common excuse of mine. The injuries are real. At 45, doing high impact activities like taekwondo and running means injuries every other month or so. It’s a known obstacle and one that I’ve had to become adept at overcoming. This is where having a trainer has been especially useful. The minute I say that I need a break because of a quad injury, she has 20 exercises at the tip of her brain that I can do instead. I’ve learned enough from her to know that, unless I am in a coma, there is always something that I can do.

The practice of overcoming objections is a habit in and of itself. It’s hard for me to make excuses about anything without that other voice in my head saying “but you can do something“. Unexpected change in my schedule is high on the list of obstacles. If I planned to write all afternoon and have to take my mother-in-law to the dentist instead, it’s very easy for me to do a Scarlett O’Hara and put off writing until tomorrow. I have to force myself to think of that something that I can still do today. I have learned to jot notes and outlines in waiting rooms, during piano lessons, at an oil change or in the five minutes before I have to go somewhere else.

Taekwondo training lately has been focused on self-defense techniques in real life scenarios. The key is always awareness and thinking through the “what ifs”. Just like objections and obstacles, I have to talk myself through the B I will do if A happens. It’s important not to confuse concepts, though. If a mugger jumps out at me in a parking garage, I might whip out a notebook and jot down tomorrow’s post. Worse yet, when my neighbor needs a ride to the grocery store on a day when I’d planned on painting the kitchen, I might take out her kneecap.

When your biggest obstacle to meeting a personal intention is yourself, you know all the tricks and excuses. I give myself a mental, condescending pat on the head. That’s nice, dear. Now, go do something.

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The Body Eclectic

canstockphoto10785869Over three years ago, I began to meet with a personal trainer on a weekly basis. My working class roots resisted what seemed like a posh luxury, but this was an indulgence I could justify. Like many people, I am juggling roles as an employee, parent, caretaker and writer. It is very easy to let the caretaking of my body slip down the list of priorities. Now, it seems reckless and unacceptable to ignore the longest relationship I will ever have.

I am being taught how to strengthen, recover and challenge my body with deliberate intention. I want to honor this amazing entity that carries me through the day, that survived grueling marches in combat boots, that housed my child, that does a million complicated tasks within a single day.

Many years have passed since I tried to starve my body into submission or indulged in punishing workouts for eating too much. I no longer see my body as an enemy, a distant necessity which must be managed and controlled. Enough has been said about what culture dictates about women’s bodies (although I see some expectations trickling down to men as well). We know the body politics and the commercialization and the airbrushing outrages. I’m a bit tired of it all, because it has become irrelevant to my body.

My body exists as is. Torturing it to meet unrealistic standards, damaging my self-esteem when it doesn’t meet those standards and having it constantly in my mind as an issue is completely useless for my health. I am learning to block the noise and pay attention to what is important. I get angry when I start to write about this topic, because so much energy, so much time, in my lifetime alone, has been wasted on the issue of what we should look like and so little on what we should feel like.

Amazing things happen when you turn your gaze inward and stop looking in the mirror. Do you feel strong? Do you feel energetic? Do you feel appreciative of all the muscles, bone structure, nerves and blood required to just move you through your day? Some days, I don’t feel any of those things, but I’ve gotten in the habit of doing a mental once-over. What hurts? Where am I stiff or sore? Am I tired? How much sleep have I been getting? Does my body need more water? So often we take better care of the car in the driveway than of the vehicles that brung us.

I’ve always had the desire to feel strong, but that desire has met intense psychological resistance. I’m self-conscious about my body and an introvert. Workout DVDs were my gateway drug, done secretly in my home where no one could see when I tripped doing the grapevine or hear me grunting while doing lunges. My idea was to become completely fit before going out into the world to exercise, so that I wouldn’t look out of shape or silly.

It’s an objection that I’ve overcome, but one of the most difficult mental obstacles for people to get beyond. I used to be one of those people who would drive down the street and see someone overweight running and think “I would never do that, looking that way.” Here’s a secret: How you look is completely irrelevant to how you feel or what your fitness level is.

You cannot look at a person and tell how fit they are or how wonderful they feel with all those happy brain chemicals bouncing about in their heads. Their being is not about you or your judgments, just as your body is not about theirs. Now I see somebody working out and no matter how they appear, I think “what have I done today to take care of my body?” Some days, it will entail a nap, or a slow deliberate walk or just stretching out a bit. Other days, it might need more, but it needs mindfulness.

I return to the YMCA on Monday, after a hiatus.  My sole goal: get there. Once I’m there, I’ll worry about what I should do next. My insecurities will raise their ugly little heads and I will be tempted to be envious of tiny Ms. Lycra in front of me or feel smug when I see someone barely able to jog a few minutes. It’s all bullshit and like cultural dictates, irrelevant to what I need to be doing.

Areas of my body will be jiggling on the treadmill that hadn’t before. I will not have coordinated workout clothing. I will sweat profusely and look and smell not particularly delightful. I will not, well into my workout, even feel particularly good. I will appear graceless doing bench presses and lat pull downs and rows. People will look at me and wonder if my red face indicates a potential cardiac event. But I won’t care, because I will walk out of there with my happy brain chemicals, my sweaty head held high and the gratitude of a body that I’ve honored.

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