This is not a before-and-after weight loss story.

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My first EVER gym selfie. Ahh!

Just over a year ago, I had my first sit down with my trainer, Coretta. Through my tears, I told her that I had gained 40 pounds since my mother died, and could no longer recognize myself. Depression and a string of injuries had made it impossible for me to train like I always had; as an elite athlete. Not to mention, years of vacillating between extreme calorie restriction and binging had wreaked havoc on my metabolism. I was constantly in pain, and terrified of losing control of my health and dying far too young, like my mother. As much as it pained me to admit, I needed help.

I was nearing my 30th birthday, and was having so many joint problems that I honestly didn’t know what I could even do in the gym anymore. I knew my body needed activity. I knew that getting stronger would improve my mental and physical well-being. But all of my favorite workouts (basketball, soccer, rugby, spinning, and running) were off the table. I hated the gym and resented working out for any reason other than to improve my performance on the field. No longer being an athlete was (and remains) a sore subject for me, and I was resistant to accept that I would need to find a way to love fitness without playing sports.

As soon as Coretta said the words, “it sounds like it’s time to get back to you,” I knew I was in good hands. I had hope.

In the past, I would have jumped immediately into strict “clean eating,” and exercising 6 days a week. Most of my previous weight loss efforts have involved punishing my body by beating it into shape. Those efforts were driven by an external goal — a number on the scale that I randomly deemed my “ideal.”

This time, I started my training out slowly, doing two days per week: one day in the pool and one day on the floor. At first, I hated the pool. “That’s for old ladies!” I would exclaim, with an air of superiority. I wanted the floor. I wanted to lift heavy! I wanted to get immediately back to being the athlete I once was.

But wants and needs are two different things. “You need the water,” Coretta insisted. “You need to recover and build the foundation for bigger things. You need to walk before you run.”

I was a reluctant grasshopper, but I trusted in her deep knowledge and kind heart so much that I fought my (terrible) instincts and followed her instructions. My inner self-judging perfectionist was screaming at me to do more, to push harder, to kill myself to be thin if I had to. But in my heart, I knew that slow and steady would win.

Over the months, I began to shift my perspective and started viewing working out as self-care; one of the most loving things I could do for myself, rather than a punishment for being too large. I have learned to LOVE going to the gym, and the feeling of strength and balance that it affords me. I have learned that maintaining a love of fitness isn’t about before and afters — it’s about the journey, and celebrating every single little gain along the way. I stopped beating myself up with the “shoulds” and started listening to myself instead. My workouts with Coretta became non-negotiable me-time, rather than just another appointment to keep on my calendar. I’ve slowly added more days at the gym each week, and have even incorporated yoga (an exercise I previously deemed “not intense enough” for me), which has helped me tune in and listen to my body.

What a difference a year makes. Today, Coretta had me running sprints for the first time since I started this quest of getting back to me. I should be able to play sports again quite soon, which I’m really looking forward to. But even if I could never play sports again, I am amazed at how much I have learned and how far I have come. I am now the strongest I have ever been (yes, including when I was a college athlete) and I have never been healthier. My joints feel a thousand times better. My resting heart rate is down a whopping 20 BPM from this time last year. And most importantly: I have stopped trying to disappear.

The funny thing is that I haven’t lost a pound. I have lost inches and body fat percentages and a pants size, but not a single pound. The lack of movement on the scale has been very frustrating and discouraging at times, especially when I’m doing everything “right” and still don’t see the numbers drop. My exasperation is compounded when I see friends posting their incredible before-and-after transformations on social media. But one of the biggest lessons that this whole experience has taught me is to stop looking over my shoulder at everybody else and to look within me. Their success is not my failure. Everyone’s journey is different. Every body has different needs. I am only hurting ME by holding myself to ridiculous standards and comparing myself to others. That is what got me into this mess of abusing myself in the first place!

So today, I choose to compare myself to where I was a year ago, and more importantly, to celebrate how far I have come. As I was stretching after my workout, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and for the first time in years, I saw the “me” that I recognize: tall, broad-shouldered, beautiful and strong.

And I had nothing but love for her.

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Perspective from a pink-haired angel lady

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For the last few weeks, I have been feeling uninspired and dragged down. A wave of grief has come over me like I lost my mother yesterday. Even as I remind myself that grief knows no logic, rhyme or reason, I find myself constantly surprised by how it catches me off guard and sweeps me into its tide. Despite my best efforts (and of course, constantly berating myself), I can’t focus on my goals. I can hardly even motivate myself to take on my to-do list. January felt like I was running a marathon without my feet even touching the ground. February feels like I’m walking through quicksand; going nowhere fast.

My long, careful progress at the gym has turned on me. My knee injury is flaring up for reasons I don’t understand. Despite going through a full stint of physical therapy last year and doing everything in my power to prevent re-injury, I’m back to experiencing pain, patella maltracking and limited mobility. Needless to say, I’m very frustrated. It’s been starting to feel like no matter what I do to care for my body (Healthy food! Frequent and safe exercise! Vitamins! Getting enough sleep! Stretching and yoga! Cutting out high-impact activities, despite loving them desperately!), it betrays me.

My researcher brain demands answers for my injury flare-up: Is it the weather? Did I go too hard with the squats? Am I being punished for wrecking my joints with youth sports? Am I doomed to stop-and-go activity for the rest of my life? How can I nurture my body when it screams out in pain every time I try to do right by it? Why does it insist upon rebelling against me, even as I pour love into it day-in and day-out?

My grief compounds the injury. Everything feels more difficult without my mother to lean on. She had a way of making everything feel manageable. Without her, I sometimes feel like I’m aimlessly paddling a canoe out in the middle of the ocean without knowing which way is land. It’s enough to drive me up the wall. Yesterday, while in the pool working out with my trainer/mentor/friend/cheerleader/counselor Coretta, I started to weep.

“This is good,” she assured me. “We need to talk about it. And I need you to understand that as you age, injuries are an inevitability. You don’t just go through rehab and bounce back like you did in your early twenties. Your body has to reckon with all you put it through when you were young and destroying it with sports. This is not going to go away. We’re going to have to find a way for you to manage it and not let it derail you.”

While technically (ok, fully) correct, this was obviously NOT what I wanted to hear. I stubbornly fought her, the woman who has saved my life on more than one occasion, by listing off my reasons why it isn’t fair; why this shouldn’t be happening to me.

“I know. It sucks. But you’ll get through it.”

“I feel like I’m back at square one.”

“You’re not. You can’t see it, but you’re not.”

I resisted her tough but empathetic love throughout the rest of my workout, stewing in my anger. I wrongly assumed that if I did all the “right” things, my body would fall in line; that by my sheer will and grit, I could put myself back together both physically and emotionally. It all felt so unfair. Have I not suffered enough? I’ve always known that life isn’t fair, but for some reason I thought that the universe would recognize how much I have been through, and cease my suffering accordingly. Why should I be hurt again? I played by the rules and it didn’t matter. I was despondent.

Coretta left me and proceeded to worry about me all day. I know I hurt her heart every time I hurt, but I can only be where I am, even if that place is Shit Palace. Thankfully, she always understands.

This morning, I woke up and could feel my will beginning its triumphant return. I arrived at the gym with a decent attitude. As Coretta and I worked out on the floor, I could not keep my eyes off of a woman working out nearby. She was super fit and trim — an obvious gym rat — with long blonde hair adorned with pink streaks. Not going to lie, I was pretty envious of her body, and feeling a little insecure working out next to her. Coretta complimented her hair, and we all got talking. The woman proceeded to tell us that that she had recently undergone neck and knee surgery to correct decades-old injuries from a car accident she was in over twenty years ago. Like, we’re talking screws in her neck and building a new ligament in her knee. These were serious surgeries! “My neck isn’t working so great,” she explained. “I have limited mobility, it cracks all the time and it hurts every time I turn my head.”

“How do you do it?” I asked, gesturing towards the weights she was lifting.

“Well, it’s going to hurt either way. I figure I may as well be here, doing something that makes me feel good.”

I was shocked. I mean, completely shocked. Suddenly, my gimpy (but fixable!) knee didn’t seem like such a big deal. And knowing that this woman has been through so many physical setbacks, but still rocks it at the gym and has maintained a body I can only dream of, really lit a fire in my belly. If this woman can drag her ass to the gym after neck and knee surgery, I can, at the very least, have a good attitude about the things I can still do. I am not back at square one. I am so much further along than I give myself credit for. I guess I just don’t let myself recognize my progress. Typical!

The woman finished up her workout, and left me with some words of encouragement: “you’re doing great. No matter what, just keep going.”

Talk about eating a piece of humble pie.

As I pushed through the rest of my workout, I could feel my perspective shifting. I could also see the elated (and maybe a little smug) sense of self-satisfaction Coretta was feeling from watching me have my a-ha moment. I’m not really one to see signs, but this happening felt so pointed; so necessary for me in this moment.

“Sometimes, a pink haired angel lady shows up just when you need her,” Coretta said.

Indeed. Thank you for the lesson, angel lady.

And now, I keep going.

Dear Judgy Gym Rats: Stop Complaining about “Resolutioners”

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Here they come again — the barrage of gym rats complaining about “resolutioners” on social media. “Watch out!” they say, “the resolutioners are coming!”

“Ugh!” they complain, “the gym is crawling with resolutioners. Can’t wait until February when they all give up on their goals and go home so I can have my gym back.”

As though their $20 monthly fee to Planet Fitness entitles them to an empty, private gym.

As though they are more entitled to the equipment than a person who pays the same membership fee, but only walks into the gym 12 days out of the year.

As though those “resolutioners” aren’t contributing to the very reason why their membership is so dirt cheap.

I’ve got news for all of you hoity-toity daily gymgoers complaining about the January sign-ups: you look like assholes. There I said it. Now I’ll explain why.

First off, your gym membership is subsidized by those “resolutioners” whom you find so annoying. Studies show that a whopping 67% of people with gym memberships never use them. If everybody who paid for a gym membership actually used it on the regular, costs would skyrocket: Gyms would need more space, more equipment, more repairs to that equipment and a heck of a lot more staff. Conversely, if none of those January people bought memberships, guess who’d pick up the rest of the tab? You and your holier-than-thou gym buddies is who. Would you like paying over $100 per month for your gym rats – only facility? Probably not. You save hundreds of dollars each year for the slight inconvenience of dealing with a packed gym during one month. Oh, the horror!

Secondly, and this should really go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: You don’t own the gym. I know it’s hard to believe, since you’re there almost every day. You know the staff and the other gym-goers. You have your routine. You shower at the gym more than you shower at your own house. You feel like you’re at home. But you’re not. You’re just another customer, like all the other paying costumers. You don’t pay more for your membership than the guy on the machine next to you, and frankly, you’re far costlier to the business than any resolutioner will ever be. So stop thinking that because you hang around at the gym every day, you own it. The owner owns it. And they probably can’t stand your attitude towards the people who actually make their business a lot of money.

Your attitude towards those “resolutioners” actually brings me to my third, final, and most important point: you are contributing to the reason why so many January sign-ups fail to meet their goals. Now, I’m not saying you’re to blame for their “failures.” That would be a huge stretch, to say the very least. But imagine you’re going to a gym for the first time. It’s cold outside, you’re feeling unsure about yourself. You’re not sure what to do once you’re there. Or maybe you’re sure about your routine, but not sure where all of the machines are located. You’re nervous and a little embarrassed about how out-of-shape you are, but you’re ready to get started on your goals. You get to the gym and the staff is super nice to you, encouraging you to sign up for a premium membership, which, they explain, is a much better deal overall. You like perks. So you sign up. Then you actually get to your workout. You’re surrounded by other folks like yourself, but you can’t help but notice some bad energy in the room. There are a few people looking at you with disdain. They’re muscular — obvious regulars — and they’re walking around like they own the place. They sneer at you as you take your turn on the squat rack. They seem obviously annoyed by your presence. Your sense of shame deepens. You feel watched. You feel unwelcome. You feel like you don’t belong. You go back a few times, but you can’t shake the feeling that this is not the place for you. That you’re not really welcome, despite the smiles from the staff, and the convenience of the location. You feel dread every time you tell yourself to go to that place, and sustain those stares and that judgment.

You may think this example is overly dramatic, but this has been my exact experience at almost every gym I’ve ever joined (and those gyms span three states and nearly every price point out there). Even though I am a former elite athlete, I have always felt rather uncomfortable in gyms. The environment is really not welcoming to newcomers, or folks coming off injuries, or even former athletes trying to get back in shape (all of which I’ve been at various points). It wasn’t until I joined an all-women’s gym with an extremely supportive community environment that I felt comfortable at the gym. Since then, I’ve realized that I don’t actually hate the gym, I just hate the hostile environment that pervades so many. And guess what? I’ve been consistently going to that gym multiple days every single week. I’m now a year-round gym rat, when I used to be a resolutioner. I no longer feel a sense of shame every time I go to work out (which is perhaps the most de-motivating feeling on earth). I’ve gained confidence, a support system, new friends, strength and most importantly, a healthier relationship with both my body and mind.

Hostile, non-welcoming environments are really pervasive in gym culture, and they need to end. If you are going to judge people for “giving up,” perhaps you should consider how difficult it is to be in their shoes; how overwhelming it is to step into an unfamiliar environment and feel unwelcome. Perhaps more people would live a healthy lifestyle and reach their fitness goals if they didn’t feel shut out and judged.

But that’s not really what you want, is it? You obviously don’t want the resolutioners to succeed if you “can’t wait” for the time when they “fail” and leave the gym. You want the gym to be cheap and empty, and that rests on those people failing. The absolute least you could do is stop complaining about the one month they’re filling up the gym, and subsidizing you for the rest of the year.

The most you could do is be a little kinder. I’m not saying that you need to stand at the door and greet the newcomers or show them the ropes (let’s leave that to the professionals). You don’t need to spot them, or even converse with them. A simple smile would do. Or just, you know, not openly mocking them on social media and glaring at them while they try to work out. The smallest bit of compassion and kindness can go a long way with someone who’s just starting out.

Remember: we all start somewhere. This year, I’m hoping every single one of those resolutioners meets their goals, and sticks it to the assholes who complain about them. Even more than that, I’m hoping those newly minted gym rats don’t need to read this next year.

Happy fitness-ing in 2016, folks! Be kind to yourself and others.

Confessions of a Former Calorie Counter: Why I’ll Never Do it Again

As a child, I was unusually large. Doctors predicted I would be 6’1 based on the size of my hands and feet (er, rather my “paddles” as my mother would jokingly refer to them). I was also quite the athlete, relishing being tall and strong and sturdy. I excelled at basketball and soccer, and my impressive size allowed me to dominate most girls my age. It was not uncommon for my parents to pack my birth certificate with us to tournaments in case of Chelsea Birthers — other parents who just couldn’t believe I qualified for my age group. More than once, a parent or coach demanded to see documentation of my age, as though 11-and-under-soccer was serious enough business to warrant going through the trouble of defrauding the system. In truth, their skepticism at my prowess gave me great amusement and pride.

But somewhere along the line, things changed. I can’t remember the exact moment when it became painfully clear to me that being larger than the other girls was no longer to my advantage, but eventually, cultural messaging, bullies, and my own family urging me to watch my weight kicked in. I learned that a new currency was worth more than athleticism, strength, skill, or even intelligence. The new currency was thinness.

Something I do distinctly remember: being twelve, sitting in my best friend’s room, covering for her while she hung out her window to smoke a cigarette. Her walls were adorned with posters of the Backstreet Boys and silly pictures of our friends. That’s when I noticed something new that I’d never seen before — a note tacked onto the wall, signed by our other best friend. In part, it read “Chelc is annoying, too fat, and needs 2 learn 2 wear makeup.”

With my heart in my throat, I made a quick excuse of why I needed to go home. I spent the rest of the day drowning in tears and self-loathing. If my very best friends were calling me fat, what were the others saying?

That day, I vowed that I would lose weight, no matter the cost.

“Just eat 1,200 calories a day, and exercise,” they told me. “Calories in, calories out — it really is that simple!” I was already exercising a minimum of 15 hours a week with my rigorous basketball training schedule, which at times included two practices a day. So, the only real option was to eat less. Way less.

And so it began.

The first diet I remember being on was Slim Fast, during my Freshman year of high school. I would skip the cafeteria and sneak into my mother’s classroom during lunch to drink my shake in secret, so that nobody knew I was trying to lose weight. That would have been like an admission that I knew I was fat, and my pride would not let me view myself that way, even if others did (example: somebody in my high school created the super complimentary AIM screen name chelcisafatass to harass me). It also helped to hide in my mom’s office so that I wouldn’t cave and order more food because I was SO fucking hungry all the time. How could I not be hungry subsisting on a 200 calorie shake that was supposed to get me through 7 hours of learning and 2 hours of basketball practice?

The rest of high school and college were a blur of low-calorie/low-fat yo-yo dieting. I continued to train hard for basketball, and then rugby, and vacillated between starving myself and eating everything I could get my massive paws on. Throughout it all, there was a constant — the floating number in my head: 1,200 calories.

If I couldn’t live on 1,200 calories a day, I feared I would be fat, unhealthy and unhappy. Nobody would ever love me, and I’d never achieve any of my goals. Why couldn’t I have more self control?!

I did everything that the multi-billion dollar weight loss industry wanted me to do — I subscribed to magazines that shamed me about my body and encouraged me to disappear, rather than to get stronger. I ate horrifying diet foods like egg substitute and “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” SPRAY (hilariously, I was afraid that the solid version of this fake butter would be way too many calories). Most disturbingly, I spent far too much of my precious energy and brain power obsessively tracking every morsel of food that entered my mouth and debating things like, is this brand of unsweetened almond milk worth purchasing, with a whopping 40 calories per serving, rather than the brand I normally buy, which they’re out of, that only has 35 calories a serving?! 

I bought the first two Hungry Girl cookbooks, and made myself close barely recognizable approximations of the salty and fatty foods I had grown to love and turn to for comfort. But I never felt satisfied.

I was a hungry girl, all right. I was hungry, depressed, and I was becoming increasingly more sickly and injury-prone. With every crash diet that took 10 or 20 lbs. off my frame, I gained back nearly twice as much.

I was in an endless cycle — practiced insanity — where I honestly thought, and said out loud, “calorie counting is the only thing that works for me.”

I’ve got news for you, Past Chelsea: If calorie counting was working for you, you’d be thin by now. You’d be maintaining your weight, rather than fighting an endless battle to lose it. You would be thriving, rather than breaking your body to reach an unattainable ideal that promises to give you worth. If calorie counting was working for you, Past Chelsea, then you would be able to sustain the habit long-term. Please take my advice — calorie counting isn’t working for you. Oh, and your beloved Hungry Girl? She must call herself that because, honestly, who could ever feel satisfied while barely filling their stomach?! And with imitation food, no less!

Well, Past Chelsea is no more. Today, I’m happy to say that I’ve given up calorie counting once and for all. Through years of food education, I’ve learned to eat (and love!) real, wholesome foods, and to cook healthful meals for myself from scratch, without fake food substitutes. I’ve learned that it’s ok to eat full eggs with yolks and avocados and yes, even butter — that the calories and fat will not in fact kill me. I’ve learned that a half cup of full-fat Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked is a hell of a lot more satisfying than an entire box of Skinny Cow ice cream bars.

Admittedly, I am heavier than I was in my calorie counting days. Part of my weight gain can be credited to the trauma of losing my mother in 2013. Another part can be attributed to a few chronic injuries that keep cropping up as a result of taking poor care of myself throughout my youth. And I think that the rest is probably my body adjusting to getting more food — a result of my steadfast commitment to finding balance after years of yo-yoing between deprivation and binging.

Though I’ve gained weight, I’ve never been healthier or happier with myself. Sure, I would love to lose some inches, but my weight does not define my health or my worth. According to my most recent bloodwork, and the fact that I haven’t been seriously sick in nearly two years (Fun Fact: I used to call myself the Pokemon trainer of flu viruses — had to catch ’em all!), I’m healthier than I’ve ever been, by a long shot. I look younger, my skin is softer, and my hair is longer and healthier-looking than it’s ever been in my entire life. So suck it, health trollers! I’M DOING JUST FINE.

But I’m also a wee bit vain, so I’m currently trying to lose a few inches and build some muscle (I do live at the Jersey Shore now, so I really have no choice in the matter!) for summer, and just generally for health/life/being comfortable in my jeans and whatnot. I even entered a weight loss challenge at my new (hopefully forever!) all-lady gym. Last night, I went for my first training session, and had an absolute blast pushing myself. I explained to my trainer that my goal is to lose the weight the right way (for me): no calorie counting, eating mostly clean, and working out with both consistency and variation.

As I was leaving the gym, a member of the front desk staff stopped me; “you get this book as part of your training package.” She handed me a copy of 1994’s “The 1200-Calorie-a-Day Menu Cookbook,” replete with low-fat recipes, including “ingredients” such as light margarine, reduced fat cheese, fat free mayonnaise, and my old frienemy, butter flavored spray product. I wanted to tell her no thanks, that I would not be partaking in the 1200-Calorie-A-Day lifestyle which almost ruined me, and that the low-fat “health” advice offered in this book is so antiquated that even the U.S. Government has updated their dietary guidelines and evolved beyond using it. But then I thought, better not. And hey, to each their own.

Besides, sometimes, realizing just how far you’ve come really is enough.