Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Fat Girl Speaks...


Unbelievable that I, a committed all-around potato of the couch variety, would think, much less say, that exercise changed my life, but it's true.

All my life, I've been the big girl. When I was in grade school, I shot up to my current height of 5 foot 7 by about age 11, so I was always placed dead in the middle of the class picture and usually looked like I was about 30 years old. High school was essentially the real life version of Shermer High (The Breakfast Club, anyone?) and my classmates were all tiny little things who looked cute and ironic in their peg legged garbage man pants, whereas I just looked like a garbage man. In retrospect, looking at old pictures, I was anything but overweight in my teens, but when you're surrounded by diminutive, clear-skinned, glossy haired perfect girls who can all wear the knee high riding boots that were de rigeur at OTHS in the 80s, well, it's pretty natural to assume you've got the physique of a piano-mover.

God knows, though, I had the build to handle obesity. My first semester at university (Go you Gryphons!), away from the level-headed meal planning of my parents' house, and with a whole world of fried foods at my fingertips, I gained 30 lbs in the first semester alone. And it was...okay. I was big, but I'd always been big, so it was doable. And the undergraduate uniform of faded mens jeans, voluminous Peruvian wool sweaters and desert boots certainly didn't require a good figure to pull off. I think I got away with it for so long because, like I said, I've got a big build and no one would ever believe me if I told them my actual weight. So you get to fooling yourself that as long as people express disbelief at the number of pounds, you're not that fat.

I continued to get more robust over the years after graduation, eating my way through an emotionally trying mid-20s relationship, until somewhere in my late 20s I decided I needed to lose some of that avoirdupois. My friend Shona and I decided to give Weightwatchers a try and, despite the fact that we'd recover from each wretchedly cheerful weekly meeting with natchos and beer at the pub, it worked! Well, it worked because I was living at home at the time and my mother is a fabulous cook who could make rubber tires taste good, so with her help I was actually eating truly delicious food and lots of it. I managed to lose about 30 lbs and went off to a new job in a different city suddenly single and looking a hell of a lot better.

And then I met my husband. And the weight started to come back on. Which is not to say that the man's been forcefeeding me like a goose meant to give up its fois since 2002, but I suddenly had a willing audience for my culinary skills. And vice versa (our third date, Christopher made polenta from scratch with a mushroom and tomato sauce that was to die for), AND the man writes about wine for a living so suddenly a whole new world of flavours and textures opened up for me. And I was happy. So I ate, and he ate, and I think it wasn't more than 7 months before we got the first serious talk from both his mother and mine about the possiblities of adult-onset diabetes and heart disease and the like. And yet we continued to eat, and drink, and laze about in each other's delicious company for the next 7 years.

(It doesn't help that about 3 years ago I was diagnosed with P.C.O.S., an endocrinological disorder that not only makes me infertile BUT also means that I've got the metabolism of a sloth and gain weight easily, especially around the middle. As an added bonus, obesity exacerbates the symptoms of P.C.O.S. so it's best controlled by watching your weight. Which, as I've said, you tend to put on more easily and keep on more easily than non-P.C.O.S. women. Bit of a fatch-22, if you see what I mean.)

But all that ended for me in January of this year. I don't know what it was, whether I'd just become uncomfortable in my own skin, or was dismayed at all the clothing that wasn't fitting anymore, or I was sick and bloody tired of the P.C.O.S. thing and the insulin-resistance that comes with it, but whatever it was, I'd officially had it with being the Big Girl. So, I decided to do something about it.

Bringing us back to my earlier, outlandish statement of EXERCISE CHANGED MY LIFE.

Mesmerized by a local gym's t.v. commercials promising that I could lose up to 40 lbs in 10 weeks, I joined up in mid-January. The program, called Lean & Fit, involves three circuit-training classes a week, no more, no less, plus a strict and sensible diet. This is gonna be a snap, I thought. The prospect of eating 5 to 6 times a day (or every 3 to 4 hours) sounded heavenly to me, and how hard could these 30-minute circuit training classes really be?

(insert loud, derisive snorting sound here)

It was hell. HELL. At least for the first three weeks. First of all, it seemed like I was always eating and my co-workers got tired of the clink of my spoon against the glass container of cottage cheese, frozen berries and almonds that became my staple daytime meal. Secondly, the classes themselves were HARD. I lasted all of 10 minutes at the first class and had to spend the balance of the session marching in place in the corner (they warn you not to stop moving, or you might vom. Seriously.), alternately gulping water and breathing like a carp out of water. It took me two weeks to figure out that I had to start the session at a strength station rather than a cardio station, or I'd not make it through the whole half-hour. And it took me three weeks to stop being terrified of the trainers.

But it was working. I lost close to 15 lbs in the first three weeks and was watching my body change shape right before my eyes. My legs, always my worst feature, were changing from tree stumps to tree trunks -- not slender by any means, but definitely recognizable as legs and not Doric pillars. My neck was thinning out -- again, far from swan-like but no longer a thick column of extra chins. And, most satisfactorily, my hourglass shape was returning. Lo and behold, Kara had a waist again!

But more importantly, I felt GREAT. Not only was I sleeping like a baby, but my longtime nocturnal bouts with crippling heartburn had ceased to exist. And mentally, I was on top of the world. I was more even-tempered, I had energy, I was alert, it was amazing.

By the end of the initial 12 week Lean & Fit session (I'd had to take a hiatus about 2/3 of the way through to have my knees checked out, turns out I've got arthritis, yet another condition that will be markedly helped by losing weight), I not only could get through each 30-minute class without stopping, but also without collapsing when I got home. I'd come to absolutely love going to the gym, feeling a bit out of sorts when my schedule prevented me from making it to all three classes every week. AND I'd lost 34 lbs.

So, naturally, I celebrated by taking a 10 day vacation in Berlin and eating my face off. Okay, not quite true, the trip had been in the works for a month or two, and I did temper all that eating with a tremendous amount of walking, but you can't go to Germany of all places and not schwein-out on potatoes and sausages and cake and beer. It's impossible. Luckily, I only gained 5 lbs on vacation, which is an easy amount to work off and certainly doesn't represent the thin end of the wedge in any way.


Except for the fact that the vacation, spent in my favorite city on earth, was too short for my taste and I wasn't happy about coming home already. So I got a case of the blues and spent the first week home eating my face off and not walking, and just getting more and more morose as I ransacked the kitchen in search of the food that would make me happy again.

Only the thing is, there wasn't a food that was going to make me happy -- wait, let me rephrase that, because food IS happiness to me, I read cookbooks like they're novels for chrissakes, I write about food whenever I get the chance for hubby's magazine, I LIVE to cook for people! It's my happy place!

So, okay, the thing was, food wasn't the answer I was looking for last week. The answer, as I rediscovered last night at the gym, was exercise. I was scared to go back after a two week absence and was convinced that I'd be back at square one, unable to make it through more than 10 minutes of class. Happily, however, all my prior hard work had paid off and the class, while in no way easy, was not the pure hell I'd expected. I even managed to do 11 proper (read: on my toes, not my knees) push-ups without falling on my face at the end of it. But more importantly, I came home in a great mood and had a lovely evening at home before enjoying a deliciously full night of sleep. Not to wax too poetic or anything, but this morning dawned bright and hopeful and my day at work certainly went better than any last week, And the reason? Exercise.

It's clear that exercise will always have to be a part of my life, not only for physical health (I have another 66 lbs to lose to reach my goal weight) but also for my state of mind. Life is too short to be miserable and if something so simple can stave off the mean reds, then why not keep it up? Obviously, it's not the cure for all that can ail you, but it's one hell of a start.


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