Immeasurable measures of fitness progress

For several months I have been working with trainer J to improve my overall health. Yay me, right? If you have followed my many posts on the subject, you know this is presently a Very Big Deal to me. While I try to restrain myself from having the zeal and ardor of the born again, the exercise and all I am learning does presently consume a larger than normal share of my spare time and energy.

On my good days I think everyone needs a hobby. And I, as a particularly hobby-less person, am merely fixated on the one thing that I am actively pursuing aside from my self-employment/freelance project work and my regular job.

On my less self-charitable days, I think I need to just keep my head down and pretend I am a couch potato who watches endless amounts of TV and knows what people are talking about when they reference current television shows or team sports. I simply do not watch that much TV or follow team sports, and when I do while folding laundry or some other stationary activity, I am still catching up on older TV series on Netflix that everyone was discussing 5 or more years ago.

But oh well.

When I first started, I was hesitant to mention to my kids or close friends my latest attempt to exercise. I have been down this exercise and fitness road a number of times, and rarely has anything stuck with me or become an actual habit for more than a couple of months. Or it kinda/sorta sticks, in that I pursue it intermittently enough to be continually starting over for a few weeks every few months. Essentially, my efforts have been rather half-assed, inconsistent, and not very productive in terms of results.

But M has been so proud and so excited about my stepping up and going to the gym he tells everyone we know about the good and great things happening for me as a result. Where I might tell a couple of my closest friends about what I am currently doing in the gym, M will share all the details with anyone and everyone who knows us both and even a few who know me only as M’s non-running spouse.

This time has been very different. This time I have not only stuck it out, I have increased my training sessions with J from once to twice a week. This time I practice on my own for 4 or even 5 of the non-training days. This time I speak up and ask the stupidest questions imaginable because I’m not getting it when I’m there by myself and trying to do the exercise correctly. This time I have my completely irrational meltdowns, feel sorry for my pitiful self, and then I grit my teeth, get out of bed, and go back to the gym to try again.

This time I am pursuing it with a mindful, intentional determination that I will succeed on my own terms.

At this point in my life I have both the time and resources to focus on slow and steady improvement. Hard to believe it was only 6 months ago when I began this training odyssey, just a few months ago when I decided to truly get serious about making some progress. I can pick up and use 25 and 30 lb. dumbbells. I can perform a TRX single leg Romanian deadlift (Amazing Big Deal to me). I can actually do forward and reverse lunges, and I have learned how to do lateral lunges with the TRX straps. For other people these are small cakes stepping stones to bigger and better things; for me, these are HUGE, mind-blowing, make-me-say-wow! accomplishments.

Yet I have no specific, measureable goals. And in the currency of fitness, measurable goals are a Very Big Deal indeed.

In my world, people love good success stories, myself included. We all love to hear how others have set, worked hard, and eventually achieved their goals. I enjoy hearing about the trials and tribulations, especially knowing there is a happy ending. I like being part of someone’s cheering section; for just about anyone else I am a cheerful advocate in good times and compassionate listener in less good times.

I have tried that – refer to my Fall Fitness 2015 if you want to see some examples of my version of Specific Meaningful Action-oriented Realistic Timely (SMART) goals in action – and actually failed pretty miserably.

In 5 months I lost a total of 4 lbs instead of the 20 I had hoped for/chosen as a goal. In 5 months I averaged 2 flexibility/yoga classes per week rather than the 3 to 4 I selected as a goal. In 5 months I did virtually nothing toward developing and implementing a cardio HIIT program 3 days per week I set as my goal. Yes, I met and eventually exceeded my expectations on the strength/resistance training, and yes, I wrote and posted updates on my progress for the 20 week series period. But looking at this pragmatically, I could maybe go 50% success on my goals for that series.

But pragmatism aside, I disagree with that 50% success rate for the series. In fact, I feel phenomenally GREAT about my progress and consider myself 100% successful with those 20 weeks.

What I achieved cannot be measured in conventional ways with scales or tape measures or even the size tags on the clothing I am wearing right now. Our social circle is comprised of runners who use ounces and inches and seconds shaved as measures of progress. My long-time friends tend to measure forward progress in pounds and inches lost and dress sizes dropped. The world at large counts results as something tangible that can be measured in before and after ways. So much of it is how well you perform or how you look that determines each effort a success to be celebrated or a failure to be mourned.

I have been asked more times than I can count about what my goal or objective is for hiring a personal trainer, how many pounds I am down or inches melted off, or even how much weight I am now lifting and whether I intend to “bulk up” and become a body builder. Once, someone even asked (in a genuinely curious and curiously hopeful manner) if I had designs on power lifting. It makes me smile now, but at the time those questions were posed I had no idea whether there was a difference between a body builder, power lifter, and weight lifter or if the terms were synonymous with those who moved ginormous amounts of weight for fun and/or personal satisfaction. And no, none of those things are even on my radar as potential future objectives. I do not seem to possess the competitive mindset nor can I imagine myself doing anything of the sort. Then again, I could not imagine myself ever picking up a 30 lb. dumbbell and doing anything more than putting it back on the rack. The possibilities certainly seem endless.

If anything, I have become a student of the art of exercise. While I could never do what J does (personal training), I am learning so much in our sessions my focus is almost completely consumed by the hows and whys of the exercise technique and what it takes me, personally, to perfect those movements. The amount of weight and the impact of repeating the exercises over and over are part of that equation yet less concerning than the actual process and the place of each movement as building blocks in my exercise pyramid.

But when pressed I state my goal is better health, and better health is a large, complicated task. There is no specific destination with a “goal achieved” sign at the end of the road. I expect there are waypoints, forks, three steps forward, two steps back type progressions, but when this objective ends for me I expect it may be at or very near the end of my story.

Such results-oriented thinking has actually wreaked havoc on my head, interfered with my good feelings and made me doubt whether I was serious or not about whatever the heck it was I thought I was doing. My responses of improving my health or trying to learn to exercise safely and sanely without harming myself or others were met with doubtful looks or pitying stares. It was unintentionally humiliating. The intent to be kind, supportive, and encouraging was backfiring badly. I began to feel like I needed to have concrete goals to work toward to feel good about my efforts. And let me just say this clearly: the whole goal-setting process truly sucks for me.

One day trainer J very gently told me he’d like me at the gym practicing the routines he was teaching me twice a week on non-training days. Up until that point I had been dilly-dallying, sometimes working at it from the comfort of home and sometimes not working at it at all. Before we had gotten to that point, I had tried to put this goal stuff into words with him, tried to ask him what our end game was or if I could or should have some goal or goals in mind for our training sessions. It was a clumsy, awkward, half-baked attempt to ask the questions and get some clarity on my doubts. As I recall the interaction J just brushed it aside with a vague and unsatisfying answer. Completely not his fault; we were pretty new into getting acquainted and learning to work together; the context and timidity with which I spoke made it seem like another of my random “why am I doing this again?” type queries as we were closing out a session.

A lot of things changed once I started putting forth the effort to practice and really learn what J was trying to teach me. I grew bolder in speaking up after ceasing to care whether he privately thought me a complete idiot. Being sure the trainer you have engaged probably thinks you are a box of rocks about what he’s trying to teach is very liberating. Once I had myself convinced what he thought about me personally did not matter a whit I began to trust him more and stating very clearly what was on my mind, even going so far as to share my tearful, angsty meltdowns when I grew frustrated trying to repeat what we had just gone over. (For the record, I now know J does not believe or feel I am a box of rocks with what he is trying to teach me or in general.)

Since those early days J and I have had many discussions about goals and end games. Mostly I am comfortable in my no specific goals standard, because I have immeasurable and less common measures that show more progress than any scale or tape measure could capture. I am so adverse to the idea of specific measurable goals that seeing a tape measure in another trainer’s hands makes my blood run cold, and the idea of measuring my progress with a scale is like voluntarily, knowingly entering into an abusive relationship. If I occasionally feel like my heart rate monitor is judging me, I can only imagine the violent mental spin cycle I would go on if I allowed the scale to have any input or impact on my life and better health objectives.

Right now I am focusing on the positive, immeasurable measures of progress with my training and my consistent practice.

I am healthier. Since I started training with J, I have had injectable insulin eliminated from my life and the dosages of the two remaining oral medications I take to help me control my blood sugar cut in half. Last I checked the scale had barely moved and I have no idea what the tape measure might reveal, but I suspect it also would show no significant differences. Yet where it is most meaningful to me, I have made amazing progress. My former endocrinologist referred to me as a “statistical anomaly” among his patients, in that through lifestyle changes alone I got off the needle and am controlling my diabetes mostly through diet and exercise.

I dare to imagine a life with diabetes controlled by diet and exercise alone. Six months of regular training I am off insulin and am taking the lowest dosage of oral diabetes medication since my initial diagnosis. It has given me a new type of terrifying hope that I may eventually learn and be capable of adjusting my diet and sustaining my exercise regime to keep my numbers under good control without any medication.

I am physically stronger. When I started, I thought an 8 lb. dumbbell was heavy. Seriously. I thought anyone who utilized heavier dumbbells and weights was very strong, a body builder or a dedicated weight lifter. Yes, my progress can be measured in light of being able to utilize a 10 or 20 or even 30 lb. dumbbells, and I feel as if I have only just begun on the journey of possibility. I do not count on it exactly, but there is subtle confidence in my belief that it will happen for me in time. And I am certainly in no overwhelming rush; the weights are all over the gym for me to pick up when I am ready and capable.

I whine and freak out mostly in writing. Blogging is how I sort out my thoughts and feelings about training and exercise and what other avenues I want to explore for improving my long-term health. I still have meltdowns and tearful bouts of frustration and angst, but overreactions aside, my fears are more manageable when deconstructed and analyzed. Regular practice, learning all I can learn in my sessions with J has given me a different perspective and slant on the life I lead, what I desire most and wish to achieve, and what it can be like for me. I deserve my successes and my big and little wins in and out of the gym. It is very much like creating a cost/benefit analysis of being calm and rational about it versus being emotional and frustrated and giving in to my fear and anxiety.

I am mentally and emotionally more resilient. Walking through the front doors of the gym has been an ongoing challenge. While intellectually I understand that no one cares or notices what I am doing or not doing while I am physically present, the anxiety, intimidation, and terror of being in the club is very real. At first my hyper-responsibility was the primary motivator that got me to the gym for my sessions with J, and my respect for him has played a part in forcing myself to get there to practice as frequently as I do. As time has passed I have become more insulated from my fears and grown more confident that I belong in the building as much as anyone else. I have more work to do in this area, but I am noticeable better and remind myself continually that is has only been a few months.

I feel more positive about me the person. Childhood abuse and trauma leaves a lot of emotional and mental scars, and I have had to accept that the events that injured me have colored all aspects of my life to date. On a daily basis I make conscious choices about being crippled by irrational fears, dreadful insecurity, and chronic inferiority – all characteristics I try desperately to conceal. Doing my best to overcome those barriers, accepting the many small successes I have accumulated at the gym has increased my overall confidence. It also softens and mitigates my sense of self-loathing and personal worthlessness. I still have to hide behind the illusion of an invisibility cloak to make a lot of things work, but the toll is small for the overall well being it brings.

I deserve the good things that happen. In most ways I love all aspects of my life and feel very fortunate and very blessed to be alive and thriving. However, the foreboding that comes with always waiting for the other shoe to drop can weigh upon the spirit and the soul. While I am happy, positive, and upbeat for everyone else around me, my heart has quelled in fear for so long I cannot remember ever feeling deserving and free to hope for myself. That is changing, because I am forcing myself to make it change. This one is a little more difficult to articulate, but I always feel lucky when things are going well, when I achieve success or positive results. Luck actually has little to do with it, particularly with the recent difficult physiological transformations I have achieved. Hard work, discipline, a little blood, buckets of sweat, and far too many tears made it happen. I work hard. I listen. I ask questions. I try, fail, try again. And again. Any of the successes I have detailed, I deserve every single one of them. And someday I am going to believe that rather than just nodding and smiling the way I feel I am doing right now. I think positive for everyone around me, and I am forcing positive thinking into that same mindset as it applies to me as well. And it’s freaking HARD work.

For me, these are the things by which I am measuring my forward progress. Maybe the scale will go down and my body will continue to reshape into something more conventionally, mainstream fit. Or not. Better health is still a tangible objective and far more meaningful than being a few sizes smaller and therefore prettier than before.

Besides that, I am just fine just the way I am right now.

5 thoughts on “Immeasurable measures of fitness progress

    • Thank you! Your encouragement and support means the world to me. Now get me off this damn chair and make me stop eating crap!
      Seriously, I’m sad and heartbroken and need to pull myself together and get some Christmas shopping done.

  1. I love this! I can so relate to every word you wrote. I have always had a hard time setting a measurable goal. The one I started with was in good enough shape to hike Camelback mountain.* Haven’t done it yet – but I feel like I can. But I love the changes in my body, physical and mental health, and my attitude towards the gym. I trust my body will tell me when it is where it should be. I’m so glad you found J and he is such a good trainer. It does make a huge difference.

    And yes, we all deserve the good things that happen!

    *At one point recently a goal popped into my head of “seeing who I would be – looks and health wise – if I wasn’t hidden under decades of emotional eating”. Not exactly something you can say to people when they ask what the end game is. 😉

    • Yep, I hear you. I’m having a very bad day here and eating some silly corn chip things and drinking a bottle of coke. But now I’m stopping, because it is purely emotion driving me and I need to find a healthier avenues … like Christmas shopping. I have been basically feeling pretty f–ked over and sorry for myself with the loss of my friend. I cannot seem to stop crying and pull myself together. But I went to the gym this morning, moved a bed to my son’s house, and now spent 45 minutes writing my eulogy while mindlessly eating.
      My point to all that? Thanks for bringing me back to reality. I am so sad and grief-stricken, but SAK, I’m BETTER than this. I can do BETTER than this. Thank you for reminding me of that.

      • Oh – I am sending you big hugs and lots of love. I get the sad and grief stricken and NEEDING to embrace those emotions for a while. But your friend would not want you to hurt yourself because he passed. Cry yes. Or go shopping. Or my favorite – cry and go shopping via the internet at the same time.

        I know eating is so easy – we’ve had a lifetime of soothing ourselves that way with the added “bonus” that the results of that eating makes it easier for us to hide. You are stronger than that my friend. I read your words here and I am continually struck by how brave, giving, thoughtful and strong you are. Your friend saw all that too and more I am sure, and loved you for it.

        And now make sure you forgive yourself for the eating – stop beating yourself up over it. We’re all human – flaws and all.

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