It’s taken me almost 30 years, but I think I’ve found the paramount rule of diet and exercise:
We can’t change our bodies.
Now before you bite off my head, hear me out.
I’ve been a larger person almost my whole life. I wear a size 11 shoe and a size 34G bra. I’m not morbidly obese, but I’m someone who has always had to watch what she ate. I can’t eat chips or cookies or cake without it showing up somewhere later.
I need to work out multiple times a week to keep the weight off. I gained about 20 pounds in high school and then lost it all plus some in college with a combination of stress, smoking and simply dieting, but not exercising. I was the thinnest I’d ever been, but certainly not the healthiest. I felt fantastic being lighter and, being a busty girl, I couldn’t wait to go to Nordstrom to get fitted for cute new bra—surely I’d be at least a size smaller by now.
Boy, was I wrong.
I stood there, topless in the Nordstrom fitting room, staring at the lingerie fitter in disbelief. Not a single size smaller? How could that be? I’d lost almost 30 pounds!
I got over that shock fairly quickly, but as the months and years progressed, I started to add daily exercise to my routine—mostly taking lengthy hikes with my dog and lifting weights—nothing crazy. Then I started doing the Physique 57 DVDs at home. These are the videos that tout “results in as little as eight workouts,” the result being “long, lean muscle” and “sexy, like a dancer.” I started to do these workouts about three times a week, on average.
Slowly, I noticed that things began to change. I could no longer fit into my size six Express pants! What was happening? My legs had always been on the thinner side (compared to the rest of my body)
Was I overeating? Possibly. But even my mom noticed that my once flat rear end was more round and lifted—maybe that’s what was blocking my pants from buttoning!
My fitness routine gradually picked up as I started spinning and lifting heavier weights on a regular basis. Last summer, I worked out the hardest I’ve ever worked out in my life. I exercised six days a week, spinning, lifting weights, and doing Physique 57, and I ate cleanly 90 percent of the time.
Still a solid ten pounds over what I weighed in college.
My legs turned into tree trunks and my arms could no longer fit into my once loose-sleeved tee shirts. My mom and I went out for an Italian dinner one night and the owner asked me if I was a soccer player! I felt like the Incredible Hulk. A far cry from the ballerina-looking women of the Physique 57 DVDs! Not to mention the fact that I was totally exhausted, coming home from the gym on weekends and taking two hour long naps. I was reaching the point of burnout.
My point? Your body is your body.
It’s taken me a long time to realize this. When I look back at pictures of myself over the last ten years, I look essentially the same—long legs, big feet, big head, big chest, extra padding in the middle. The only difference is in the tone of my body.
Now, I can’t go without exercising. I physically need to spin and lift weights. Unlike many people I know, I can’t do cardio alone. While it’s been cited to be great for stress relief, it just doesn’t leave me feeling firm or strong enough. Then again, I only do spin as cardio, other than walking my dogs or the very occasional kayak ride. I’m sure if I did a higher resistance sport like running or boxing, my tone would improve. For me, it’s more about cardiovascular health and the endorphin rush. I love feeling strong—knowing that I could kick someone’s ass if I had to.
A lot of my inspiration comes from my mother and grandmother; both look incredible, mostly because they kept moving their entire lives.
My mother can ride 50 miles on her bike like it’s nothing. I will call her, sweating like a pig and panting after a spin class, to ask where she is. She’ll reply nonchalantly that she rode her bike to Mahopac and is coming home to take the kayak out on the lake. Clearly, she has an active gene that I do not. It’s not my natural state to be in motion, but I do recognize the important of it and how it contributes to your overall health. However, my mom’s not perfect. She doesn’t have a model body, and yes, she has some body fat.
And here’s the kicker that I think gets lost these days: you can have a little fat and still be in great shape!
Because, let’s be honest, how many of us really look like those Pinterest “after” pictures?
Whether you’re 5’2 and shaped like a pear, or 5’7 and an apple like me, exercising is going to give you a firmer, stronger version of yourself. It won’t suddenly transform you into Kelly Ripa or Cameron Diaz.
For example, I actually need to do squats in order to give myself an ass. On the other hand, people spend hours on the spin bike trying to ride off their rear ends. My mother, for example, gains weight in the opposite of the places I do—mostly in her lower body. When she exercises, her legs and rear end get big and rock hard. It’s comparing apples to oranges, quite literally!
I truly believe that two people can perform the same exercise routine and have completely different results.
Body sculpting does work, and with the help of a personal trainer, I think that you can certainly slim down some areas while building up others. However, for the average person like me who just wants to stay in somewhat decent shape, embrace your figure, whether it’s curvy, top-heavy, bottom-heavy or straight like a pole.
I now exercise about 4 times per week, enough so that I feel good but not so much that I don’t look forward to my workouts. Sometimes refraining from a workout helps give me anticipation and more energy for the next one. I think you should feel like shouting Kanye West after a workout: “I’m killing this shit!”
Exercise should be an enjoyable part of life. If it’s causing you undue stress, then it’s time to make a change.
Now get out there and kick some ass!
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Ed: Catherine Monkman