Aging

To Squat or Not to Squat? (That Really Is the Question)


At 47, the writer has made peace with the fact that no amount of healthy dieting and working out will help her lose weight. So why does she do it?



“You can add squats to the bicep curls if you want.”

I don’t want.

It’s Wednesday morning, and the YMCA’s Cardio Sculpt class is packed as always. We’re in the muscle endurance section and the instructor Lynne is suggesting that we add squats to the set of 36 curls. The voice in my head reminds me that this probably isn’t going to make much of a difference in my futile weight loss efforts. I do the squats anyway.

There is no escaping the assertion that if you work hard enough—that if you eat and exercise in just the right way—you can have a perfect body, or at least the body of a 17-year-old. It is the message of virtually every book and article on weight loss. With this comes the corollary: If you don’t have a perfect body, you are not trying hard enough. But for many of us, no matter how hard we work to achieve a physical ideal, we have bodies genetically predisposed to fight every effort. With age and childbearing, the fight only gets harder. With perimenopause: Forget it.

This isn’t a new story for me; it started when I hit puberty at the ripe old age of 10. By the time I was 12, I looked like an adult, with the height and breasts to match. I was perfectly healthy at five-foot-six-and-a-half and 135 pounds, but surrounded by girls you could snap like a twig, I felt giant. Throughout high school and college my weight was average—150 or so—but I always felt huge. As a young adult, my weight crept higher, and after two pregnancies I topped out at 175. Unable to lose weight on my own, I tried Weight Watchers. Over the course of eight months, I lost 30 pounds.

For the first time in my life I was not overly conscious of my body and I didn’t feel judged. Clothes were fun. Summer was a little more comfortable. While shopping, a saleswoman would guess that I was a size 8 and I’d be filled with pride. To put it bluntly: I felt like I was finally in the club. I continued dutifully as a “lifetime” Weight Watchers member, following the program and attending meetings. There were a few bumps along the way—the banana chips with the incorrect calorie information fiasco—but for the most part, all went well. Then I reached my mid-40s.

You know the novel Flowers for Algernon (or the movie version, Charly )? Everyone read it in the 1970s. A man is surgically cured of his mental retardation, but over time the effects of the cure wear off. When he returns to his previous existence, he must live with the curse of remembering what it was like to have once been a genius. My weight loss experience feels a lot like that.

I can maintain my weight without gaining in my daily life, but as soon as I get sick I gain a few pounds, and I cannot lose them. Eventually this adds up. My favorite clothes no longer fit and the heady feeling of control is gone. I have too much around my middle and the inevitable shame is back. Most people would say I look fine. I know that I’m strong and that I have excellent endurance. I wish I could say that was enough.

I’ve done the research. Is there more I can do? Virtually everything I’ve found on weight gain and perimenopause says the same thing: “You’ll gain weight. You should consider eating less and exercising.”

The Mayo Clinic website should be helpful, right? “The most profound weight gain in a woman’s life tends to happen during the years leading up to menopause (perimenopause). Weight gain after menopause isn’t inevitable, however. You can reverse course by paying attention to healthy eating habits and leading an active lifestyle … Successful weight loss at any stage of life requires permanent changes in diet and exercise habits. Take a brisk walk every day. Try a yoga class. Trade cookies for fresh fruit. Share restaurant meals with a friend.”

I’m sure it’s rude to roll my eyes at the Mayo Clinic. These suggestions may work for someone who has effortlessly maintained a healthy weight her entire life and is only now gaining at menopause. But if you’re already doing these things in spades, what then Dr. Mayo Clinic?

I’ve consulted doctors and a nutritionist. They’ve checked my thyroid (it’s fine) and my metabolism (painfully slow), and they offered a diagnosis: “Yeah, you’re 47.” With my genetic and ethnic background I should either look like the black-clad bubbes in the shtetl or Benny Hill in drag. I suppose that anything slimmer than that is a victory.

Eating much less is not possible, especially if I want to avoid debilitating blood sugar crashes. Exercising more than an hour a day, six days a week is also not an option, unless someone starts paying me to do so. So I stick to Weight Watchers and then some. I pare away carbs, tearfully refuse bread, up my protein, skeptically consider more healthy fats. I eat less some weeks, more some other weeks. I take my vitamins and drink my water. I exercise daily: weightlifting, spin classes, cardio intervals, pilates, Tabata (which is Japanese for the longest 20 seconds of your life). I walk instead of driving whenever I can. I take the stairs.

Nothing.

I have become afraid of food. I dread going to parties knowing that unless I eat nothing, I will eat too much. I avoid entire restaurant varieties because there are too many temptations. I can guess the Weight Watchers point values of anything. I’m also furious. I’m following all of the rules; I’m doing everything right. This should work.

I may never be the person who accepts and loves her body, no matter its shape. The neural pathways are too well worn and society’s message too deeply ingrained. However, I can try to learn to live with it. Slowly, with fits and starts, that is exactly what I’m doing.

Meanwhile, back at the gym, as I continue the bicep curls and throw in a few extra squats, I listen to Pink blasting from the speakers: “Why do I do that, why do I do that,” in the extended dance mix of her song “Perfect.” It’s a good question: If I won’t lose weight, why do I keep going to these classes and throwing in those extra squats?

I go so that I can be healthy no matter my weight, and so that in 20 years I will be as strong as the 70-year-olds in my class. I go so that I can impress my teenager with the definition of my biceps and deltoids. I go because it is an excellent antidepressant, it helps me sleep better, and it gives me the energy I need to keep up with my life. And let’s be honest, I keep going in part because there’s a crazy lady inside of me who will never give up hope that she’ll see 150 again.

 

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