To Erma Bombeck, With Love

As many of you know, I’ve been struggling with my weight & fitness for the past couple of years. I was in pretty great shape when I met Betty, & got lazy, for starters, which was then exacerbated by (1) pretty extreme depression after 9/11; (2) quitting a job that was very active for writing, which is not; and (3) getting older and having my metabolism slow. Effectively it’s been a decade since I worked out at a gym regularly, which is embarassing to admit, though I have almost always walked regularly, and some distances, do some yoga, work out with free weights & calisthenics, & of course try to watch what I eat.

Recently, I joined a gym again because watching what I eat and walking a lot and doing at-home workouts wasn’t helping.

But – I know this is going to be a shocking revelation – I am totally out of shape. I go to the gym in my baggy sweats and t-shirt, and get on the Precor elliptical machine, which is kind to my flat foot and bad knees, and start pedaling. In minutes, I notice how much slower I am going than anyone near me, and yet – and yet – my heart rate shoots straight out of any health zone, weight loss or cardiovascular. I slow down a little more, take breaks, watch my heart rate respond, and then notice I have become the literal tortoise to the hares pedaling around me.

Worse yet, I am sweating profusely, and because I use demi-permanant colors on my hair, I sweat a light pink, which has caused me to stop using the gym’s towels to mop my brow and to bring my own bandana instead.

It’s pretty damned embarassing, and yet I trudge on, listening to my iPod, trying not to notice anyone who has noticed how much I’m sweating, hoping no one will ask me how I’m doing because I don’t have the breath to answer, but reminding myself that I used to work out about 6-8 hours in a gym, on the Precor but also with a full weight machine circuit AND mat exercises. I have a right to get my chubby, out of shape self back into shape. But wow is it awful feeling so glooby and middle aged and wondering if I should get a more supportive sportsbra so that I don’t offend the tiny youngsters around me who look they have never eaten anything but carrots and water and have no idea they, too, will age.

What struck me even more was that I have been in good shape, and did go to a gym regularly, & that I can’t imagine what it might be like to join a gym when you’re an out of shape woman approaching her 40s if you never were in good shape and never did belong to a gym at all. I’m not sure I could do it, and now I am not surprised at how many women joined Curves (a woman’s gym whose owners are pro-life, and who I don’t support). My first gym was a Lucille Roberts, to be honest, and my second was in the West Village where most of the men were gay and plenty of the women lesbians.

But this is more like a Brooklyn gym, with a mix of people in it, and I can’t make up my mind if I’m more uncomfortable being judged by the men or by the women. Or both. Or neither.

You can’t get in shape staying at home, I know. I don’t want to be out of shape anymore, especially as the ongoing march of age will not stop or even slow down. I’m happy that somewhere in my body there is a memory of what “in shape” feels like, & looks like for me, so I will try to shut out the embarrassment I feel and pedal on.

19 Replies to “To Erma Bombeck, With Love”

  1. don’t lose faith. your endurance and speed *will* improve, and faster than you think. I lose my cycling muscles sometimes, and they do come back after I get back out there. and, basically, Congradulations on getting back to the gym. I’ll send energy your way, hope that helps. And thanks for that tidbit on Curves, I didn’t know they were pro-life. Hm.

  2. Yes, pedal on. I’ve found it can take a month or so of nearly daily work for my cardio vascular system to noticably respond, if I’ve been off for some time. But it does come around eventually.

  3. As someone in his early 40s who’s regularly going to a gym for the first time since being forced to in high school (and who spent 20 years as a smoker), I understand your gym woes.

  4. Anyone who’s used an exercise appliance with a calorie counter on it knows you don’t burn much calories for all the effort you expend, but unfortunately the only way to lose weight is to take in less than you expend. Which means the average person who doesn’t spend any or much time in the gym needs to average 1500 calories a day if she wants to lose weight. If you do this, you’ll shed 50 pounds within 6 mos to a year. I lost 30 lbs in 3 months. This included fasting for 24 hrs. once a week. If you fall off this wagon, the weight just piles back on faster than you can say Dairy Queen. The reason? It’s evolutionary. It’s a biological/visible signal to the opposite sex that your reproductive contributions (eggs or sperm) are past prime. Bottom line? 1500 calories for an adult bon vivant is torturous. Working out is torturous. It’s bloody torturous to go against evolution. But that’s why God invented muumuus, is it not?

  5. As a 40something male who’s making his first ever inroads to getting fit, I commiserate. But keep it up – we both know the benefits are waiting down the road…

  6. hey, thanks everyone. i forgot to add one other piece of the puzzle: betty, who eats what she wants & drinks what she wants & never gains a damn pound. it’s very hard to live with that.

    marci, i very rarely eat more than 1500 calories a day. that’s only weight maintenance for me. some of us just have slower metabolisms, too; as i’ve joked my whole life, my body was built for farm work, & it takes a LOT of exercise to keep me fit. the good side is that i do tend to build muscle well, & that’s very healthy for a body.

  7. And … it’s just the (new) beginning (life begins at 40, remember?), of a personal investment which we all hope will become permanent so we hear/read soon a happier Helen … Pedal on and keep us posted, we’re with you!


  8. oh yes, lots of walk with the big dog pulling me, eating less than a nat, and being hungry 24/7 has netted me a huge 3lb loss, thats from christmas to now ! I have lost a size or two, but the DR wants to see pounds come off, and I still get winded way faster than before. And, taking it easy, at the DR’s behest after the stroke, well I’m sure the three lbs. are back.
    I have gone as far as trying to join a gym near my house, I dont like curves either, but lucille roberts is too much money, and the other ” serious ” gym rejected me because I’m a health risk. Should have lied about the stroke.
    Out with the dog a few more times a day I guess.
    Good luck Helen.

  9. Marci has some great points. Might it also be suggested that one eats extremely small amounts numerous times a day, yet keep within that 1500 calorie limit. This will assist in getting the metabolism up. It will also assure that the body’s ancient instincts to store fat in the “famine” cycle does not occur.

    Concerning exercising, it is important to vary the workouts almost daily. Do they have weight training machines? If so, at least 2-3 times a week exercise each muscle system with weights. It is not so important the amount. Light weight is fine. The muscle mass must move though. Muscle mass builds and firms quickly this way. Even a slight increase in lean muscle makes it easier to lose weight because muscle burns calories far faster than fatty tissues. (Note: In the early stages of weight loss – body toning, the weight “might” go up temporarily as the exercise transforms fatty tissues to lean muscle. Don’t worry about it. Muscle weighs more than fatty tissues but building it will lean out the entire figure.)

    It is also suggested to do crunches for the stomach and lower back muscles “every day”, “every workout” minimum 100 per day. This will tone waist and hips.

    As to aerobics, might it be suggested to not just use the bike? If you are doing 21 minutes on a bike, its sometimes good to do 7 minutes on the bike, 7 minutes on a ski – elliptical machine and 7 minutes just walking, even at a slow pace. This allows the body to use more muscle systems instead of getting the body in a rut just using specific muscles. The key is to try and exercise the whole body system.

    Join a yoga class and learn to stretch. One can lose weight merely by stretching the muscles systems so they lengthen. Stretching will also assist weight loss. The body won’t “bulk up” this way either.

    As to heart rate in aerobics, it is “not” the speed, its the heart rate. If your average is 3 MPH but your heart rate is over 125, no problem. Check the charts. There are ideal “heart rate zones” for age, height etc. So don’t worry about speed. Just make sure the heart rate is in the groove zone for you body style.

    Finally, Don’t quit! There is a time about a month into a regular exercise regimen when the body and mind say, “this isn’t working.” It is critical to push through this period. It will take about three months of regular exercise for it to become a habit in the life. Once that happens, endorfens in the body push the mind to exercise because the body craves those endorfens that are created while exercising. Then body toning weight loss becomes a lifestyle.

    Hope this helps,

  10. Did anyone see the NY Times article linking high fructose corn syrup with obesity?

    Does Fructose Make You Fatter?

    High-fructose corn syrup is a sweetener used in many processed foods ranging from sodas to baked goods. While the ingredient is cheaper and sweeter than regular sugar, new research suggests that it can also make you fatter.

    In a small study, Texas researchers showed that the body converts fructose to body fat with “surprising speed,’’ said Elizabeth Parks, associate professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. The study, which appears in The Journal of Nutrition, shows how glucose and fructose, which are forms of sugar, are metabolized differently.

    In humans, triglycerides, which are a type of fat in the blood, are mostly formed in the liver. Dr. Parks said the liver acts like “a traffic cop” who coordinates how the body uses dietary sugars. When the liver encounters glucose, it decides whether the body needs to store it, burn it for energy or turn it into triglycerides.

    But when fructose enters the body, it bypasses the process and ends up being quickly converted to body fat.

    “It’s basically sneaking into the rock concert through the fence,” Dr. Parks said. “It’s a less-controlled movement of fructose through these pathways that causes it to contribute to greater triglyceride synthesis. The bottom line of this study is that fructose very quickly gets made into fat in the body.”

    For the study, six people were given three different drinks. In one test, the breakfast drink was 100 percent glucose. In the second test, they drank half glucose and half fructose; and in the third, they drank 25 percent glucose and 75 percent fructose. The drinks were given at random, and neither the study subjects nor the evaluators were aware who was drinking what. The subjects ate a regular lunch about four hours later.

    The researchers found that lipogenesis, the process by which sugars are turned into body fat, increased significantly when the study subjects drank the drinks with fructose. When fructose was given at breakfast, the body was more likely to store the fats eaten at lunch.

    Dr. Parks noted that the study likely underestimates the fat-building effect of fructose because the study subjects were lean and healthy. In overweight people, the effect may be amplified.

    Although fruit contains fructose, it also contains many beneficial nutrients, so dieters shouldn’t eliminate fruit from their diets. But limiting processed foods containing high-fructose corn syrup as well as curbing calories is a good idea, Dr. Parks said.

    “There are lots of people out there who want to demonize fructose as the cause of the obesity epidemic,” she said. “I think it may be a contributor, but it’s not the only problem. Americans are eating too many calories for their activity level. We’re overeating fat, we’re overeating protein and we’re overeating all sugars.”

  11. And another.

    Good News on Saturated Fat

    By John Tierney

    Should we be reconsidering the conventional wisdom on saturated fat? Yes, according to Gary Taubes’s interpretation of the new report in The New England Journal of Medicine on a two-year diet experiment in Israel.

    The Israeli researchers found that people on a relatively low-fat diet lost less weight (6 pounds) than those who ate a low-carbohydrate or Mediterranean diet (10 pounds). These relatively modest weight losses were interpreted as discouraging news for dieters, and they also set off a debate on whether the whether the low-carb diet was really an Atkins-style diet, as my colleague Tara Parker-Pope reported.

    Mr. Taubes prefers to focus on another aspect of the study: perhaps the best news yet about saturated fat. As I wrote last year, in a column about Mr. Taubes and his book “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” the medical establishment originally warned people to avoid all kinds of fat, but subsequent studies kept failing to produce evidence of the benefits of a low-fat diet. Then the supposed experts said the villain wasn’t just any fat but specifically saturated fat. But now their recommendations are being undermined yet again by research, Mr. Taubes says. Here’s his take on the new experiment and a series of similar trials:

    These trials are fundamentally tests of the hypothesis that saturated fat is bad for cholesterol and bad for the heart. They’re not just about which diet works best for weight loss or is healthiest, but what constitutes a healthy diet, period. (This is the point I made in my Times Magazine story six years ago). Specifically, these low-fat/low-carb diet trials, of which there are now more than half a dozen, test American Heart Association (A.H.A.) relatively low-fat diets against Atkins-like high-saturated-fat diets.

    In this last test, the A.H.A. diet was about 30 percent calories from fat, less than 10 percent calories from saturated fat; the low-carb diet was almost 40 percent calories from fat, around 12.5 percent saturated fat. In this particular trial, as in all of them so far, the high-saturated-fat diet (low-carb or Atkins-like) resulted in the best improvement in cholesterol profile — total cholesterol/H.D.L. In this Israeli trial, the high-saturated-fat diet reduced L.D.L. at least as well as the did the A.H.A. relatively low-fat diet, the fundamental purpose of which is to lower L.D.L. by reducing the saturated fat content.

    So here’s the simple question and the point: how can saturated fat be bad for us if a high saturated fat diet lowers L.D.L. at least as well as a diet that has 20 to 25 percent less saturated fat?

    It could be argued (and probably will be) that the effect of the saturated fat is confounded by the reduction in calories, but the A.H.A. diet also reduces calories and in fact specifies caloric reduction while the low-carb diet does not. It will also be argued, as Dean Ornish does, that the source of the saturated fat was not necessarily meat or bacon, but beans or other healthy sources.

    But the nutritional reason why meat has been vilified over the years, is that it’s a source of unhealthy saturated fat. It’s not that meat per se is bad — unless you buy the colon cancer evidence, which has always seemed dubious — it’s that the saturated fat in meat makes it bad. So the argument about the source of the saturated fat is irrelevant.

    The question hinges on whether saturated fat raises cholesterol and causes heart disease. One way or the other this trial is a test of that hypothesis. It’s arguably the best such trial ever done and the most rigorous. To me that’s always been the story. If saturated fat is bad for us, then these trials should demonstrate it. They imply the opposite.

    Why does the A.H.A. continue to insist that saturated fat should be avoided, if these trials repeatedly show that high saturated fat diets lead to better cholesterol profiles than low-saturated fat diets? And how many of these trials have to be done before the National Institutes of Health or some other august institution in this business re-assesses this question? After all, the reason the food guide pyramid suggests we eat things like butter and lard and meats sparingly (and puts them high up in the pyramid) is that they contain saturated fat. This is also the reason that the A.H.A. wants to lower even further what’s considered the safe limit for saturated fats in the diet.

    Is Mr. Taubes right? If eating more saturated fat improved the dieters’ cholesterol profile (while also enabling them to lose weight even though their calories were not restricted), should the federal government and the American Heart Association stop warning people about saturated fats?

  12. Thanks Christinesus…. very interesting and valuable information.

    In a similar vein, there was an article way back in the early 90’s that theorized one reason why Americans especially have a hard time losing weight. The article hypothesized that the heavy use of food preservatives like monosodium glutomate (spelling?) causes major problems for weight loss.

    Although the body has a tendency to flush out most chemicals, there is a build up in the body of these preservatives. These chemicals are designed to preserve organic material. However, they can not tell if they are preserving the food, or after they enter the body, preserving the fat cells. So when the preservatives remain in the body after ingestion over time, they sort of say, “Hey there’s a fat cell, lets preserve it!”

    Hence, we fight to lose weight against those very chemicals that are precisely designed to preserve organic material, namely our fat. Example that I remember from the article: It is better to use regular non preserved half and half in coffee than say Cremora even though technically there are more calories in the half/half. Reason, the Cremora is so laden with preservatives that the stuff “pickles” the fat and makes it difficult to come off.

    The article stated that if one eliminates those preservatives, and after flushing them out of the body (takes about a half year) weight will more easily fluctuate. That means eliminating the preservatives does not directly make one lose weight. Instead, it allows the natural body functions burning calories to eliminate fat without the resistance caused by the preservatives. Hence, weight loss if far faster following all the other rules. Weight can go up, but it also can go down measurably faster because there is no chemical fighting the loss of fat cells.

    Anecdotally, I found this to be very true. I primarily shop at Whole Foods and eat much Asian food that does not have preservatives. Even when I get a little overweight, weight loss is faster because the body is not fighting the accumulated preservatives that can’t tell the difference between food and body fat cells.

  13. helen, i know just what you mean.

    i did a couple of starts and stops before i got into a regular gym habit, and now i’m a bit cowed at the thought of going back again, being as out of shape as i am at the moment. size-wise i’m doing ok, but damned if that run i took two weeks ago didn’t knock my ass out.

    but yeah…it took at least two years for me to overcome gym intimidation. now i’m much better at tuning out the people around me — watching those nifty tv screens at the gym help — but all i could do for a while was watch them. and it may be that when i go back to the gym again (hopefully in the next month or so), i’ll experience what you’re experiencing.

    you are not alone!

  14. Please Lynnewu… let us know….. At a loss of 100,000 lbs. each we all won’t exist in material form if we can spread this profound knowledge around… the planet will return to its pristine condition, the environment will heal…….. it will be utopia!

  15. Helen, you might want to try a stand up desk for writing. Google N.E.A.T for more info on non-exercise activity thermogenesis.

    We are experimenting with this at work as we spend all day sitting at computers.

  16. “Please Lynnewu… let us know….. At a loss of 100,000 lbs. each we all won’t exist in material form if we can spread this profound knowledge around… the planet will return to its pristine condition, the environment will heal…….. it will be utopia!”

    Evidently parody is not your strong suit there, sparky.

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