Walking the Talk

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The Journey and the Struggle

18 months ago I wrote about my plan for maximizing menopause preparedness.  As with so many missions, this one has experienced both successes and failures.  Since January 2016, I have grooved my exercise routine in the most awesome way.  I am all over the TRX, doing Spiderman push-ups, incline presses, pistols and more.  I get my cardio intervals and I’m foam rolling.  I feel stronger now than at any time since high school, and I’m proud of this accomplishment.

*sigh*

The eating, on the other hand, continues to be a challenge.  Earlier this year a patient looked at me without expression, and stated bluntly that I had gained 8.7 pounds since the last time he saw me.  Right after that’s kind of inappropriate, I thought, well, he’s right, I have been gaining weight.  Last March I wrote about weight loss strategy, thinking mainly about my exercise habit formation.  Sadly, my own weight has gone opposite to the desired direction, despite an honest attempt at adherence to my own advice.  Evidence suggests that weight loss really is about 80% diet and 20% exercise.  But sometimes you can only focus on one thing at a time.

Back in 2008, when I finished nursing, I thought, I can get my body back!  I knew I was not going to exercise, and I had no energy to police my food choices.  But I also knew I was eating too much, so I decided to just cut my portions in half.  It felt easy, decisive, and empowering.  I lost 25 pounds in 9 months, and got down to my wedding weight.  But eventually I acknowledged that though I was thin, I was squishy.  So I connected with my trainer in 2014, the primary goal being to get moving without injuring myself.  Right now I’m up 17# since my nadir in 2009, though I’m much more fit than the last time I lived at this weight.

Talking the Walk

I’ve always had a love-love relationship with food, and it shows in my weight/habitus.  I notice also that my own state of mind and body has influenced the advice I offer to patients.  Before I exercised regularly I spoke to patients a lot more about diet; now it’s more balanced.  One patient brought it up recently.  He asked, “What about the doctors who smoke, or the obese ones, how can they advise anybody about healthy habits?”  I’ve thought a lot about it, so I was ready to answer.  To me, there are three main options, all of which I have tried.

Disclaim.  We doctors can rely on our authority to tell people what to do to get healthier.  They notice our fat rolls, or smell cigarette smoke on us.  They see the dark circles under our eyes and surmise that we don’t sleep enough.  Maybe they can tell we don’t exercise.  But we admonish them to eat less and move more.  We say (subconsciously) to ourselves, “Do what I say, not what I do.”

Avoid.  Rather than give lifestyle advice at all, we can focus on prescriptions and referrals.  We feel we have no place instructing patients to eat more leaves, go to the gym, or quit smoking, when we don’t even do so ourselves.  So we don’t even bother, feeling like hypocrites.

I think both of these responses are rooted in shame and perfectionism.  And I think we should not fault physicians for choosing them—that would be meta-shaming–never helpful.  These are normal, human responses to our professional training and expectations.  Physicians have long held positions of authority and expertise.  Until very recently, our relationships with patients were mostly paternalistic.  But with burgeoning access to information, a culture evolving (rightly) toward patient autonomy, and physicians experiencing historically high levels of burnout and suicide, we cannot afford to burden ourselves with the illusion that we must be perfect in order to be credible.

Connect.  I think the healthiest response, for both patients and physicians, is for us doctors to acknowledge our own struggles; to empathize with the difficulty, the conflict, and the utter disappointment of not being able to control our actions and choices as we would like.  I think patients don’t expect us to be perfect.  But they do want us to be human and relatable.  I often find myself saying, “I know that feeling,” or, “Yep, that’s my weakness, too,” or, “Oh, and what about x-y-z?  That’s my problem!”  Only once has a patient said to me, “Shame on you!”  He was a perfectionist himself; I didn’t take it personally.

I stress eat. I eat when I’m bored.  I eat late at night, and I love sugar, starch, salt, and fat.  The struggle is real, and I know it all too well.  So when I ask you, “What small changes can you commit to in the next month?” believe me, I’m asking myself also.  And if you tell me something that has worked for you, I’ll probably try it.  I still think my ‘4 A’s of goal setting’ apply: Assessable, Actionable, Attainable, and Accountable.  I just haven’t found my 4A formula for eating yet.  But lately I have taken a more lighthearted approach to healthy eating trials.  Nothing is life or death, and I know iterative changes are best.  If one thing doesn’t work, hopefully I can learn something and move on to the next.  No dessert on weekdays.  Vegetarian on days I work.  No eating after 8pm.  No starch at dinner…  Meh, none of it seems to stick yet.  Even my cut-it-in-half strategy doesn’t appeal to me these days.  It’s so frustrating!  And it’s also okay, because I know I’m doing my best, just like my patients are.  We can all just take it a little more lightly, one step at a time.

So by the time menopause actually hits, I’m confident that I will be prepared to meet it, with grace and maybe a little irreverence.  I’m learning to judge myself (and thus others) a little more gently.  I’m learning to love my body, whatever shape it’s in.  After all, it’s the only one I’ll have this time around, and I need to maintain it for the long haul.  Turns out, my patients have been my best companions and consultants on the journey.

 

 

 

 

Aging Rocks.

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My high school friend went tubing with her kids, and her body let her know the next day, it was not happy.  As so many of us do when we realize life milestones, she posted to Facebook, “I must remember that I am closer to 40 than 20.”  Before I could type my, “Amen, sister!” another friend astutely pointed out, “Might I remind you that you are closer to 50 than 20.”  OUCH!  And, true.  We were 38 at the time.

This year I turn 44.  Sigh.  And wooo hoooooooo!!  Aging kinda sucks, and it also freaking rocks.

***

Recently our babysitter invited me to volleyball night at her church.  I played in high school and college; it’s how the hubs and I got together.  We relived those days briefly in 2015 when some local people organized a loose pick-up group.  Like many such groups, the level of play varied, and we had fun, but weren’t challenged much.  I expected the same last week, but nope.  I walked into a small gym filled with people averaging, by appearance and vernacular, about half my age.  I watched wide-eyed as they leapt Michael Jordan high, serving, hitting, blocking, and digging better than any team I had ever played for or against.  AWESOME!!!  I finally get to play, after all these years!  And yikes.  I got a little nervous.  These people were intense, skilled, and young.  “Take a seat, Grandma,” I imagined them saying.  But I was a guest of a regular, so I had a little street cred.  And, everybody was very welcoming and friendly.

I stretched discreetly on the narrow sidelines, something we old people must do to prevent injury.  I reminded myself to take it easy, no need to go all out and pull something.  A few more full circle arm wheels and test jumps, and I was ready to go.  I felt my heart pounding a little as I stepped onto the court.  I was one of two women on my team, and my sitter-friend (the other woman) was very encouraging.  I served underhand, as I can no longer rocket it overhand like I could 30 years ago (working on this).  Two thirds of the way through the night my right knee started to get a bit wobbly, and I sometimes felt a strange zinging sensation up and down my lateral thigh.  Grandma, I thought.  It’s usually my left knee that aches.  This was a new pain, with no attributable trigger.

I had so much fun.  The general skill level ranged wider than I had initially observed, though it still skewed high.  I estimate that I ranked in the upper half, maybe upper 40%, rustiness not withstanding.  Everybody was mindful to make sure we all touched the ball, a very egalitarian league.  As such, I got to pass, set, dig, and even hit a few.  I held my own, and it felt good.  One young man gave me the compliment of my month when he said I seemed ‘not that old’ and ‘nimble.’  I could have hugged him.  I went home a little sore, and more than a little high.

***

I credit the last three years of fitness training for my utter lack of pain the next day.  After all, I’m doing things on the TRX that I could not have done at 16, and I’ve exercised 5 days a week, most weeks for the last 18 months.  I’ve relearned how to ride a bike, I can run 5K as a casual jog, and I’m as strong as I’ve ever been in my adult life.  I just need slightly more maintenance nowadays.

But the best part of the night was mental.  25 years ago my worry over what people thought of me loomed over my consciousness in a way that robbed my fun.  Back then every mistake I made on the court chipped away at my confidence, and more mistakes inevitably ensued.   Sometimes I’d have an “on” night, and I always had enough fun to keep me coming back, but too often I’d go home wondering if my teammates regretted my presence.

No more.  I no longer have anything to prove to anyone but myself.  I’m just here to have fun and maybe make myself better—and I can only do that if I’m with people who play better than I do.  I’ll own my mistakes and not beat myself over them—we all mess up sometimes.  I know what I can and cannot do.  I own all of me, and I’m okay.  Looking back, my self-defeating attitude was probably worse for team morale and performance than any dig I missed.  Not anymore!

Maybe some people already had this kind of self-efficacy in adolescence.  I can recall a few peers in my youth who had that calm, collected aura about them.  It wasn’t arrogance or superiority.  Rather, it was an unassuming and authentic self-assuredness, which often translated into a generosity that attracted others to their orbit.  That’s how I feel now, and I think this manner of self-confidence comes most organically with age.  It’s the same confidence I see even more in my older, wiser friends.  I might have run faster, jumped higher, and hit stronger in my teens and twenties, but I would never go back.  Life is too good now, with decades of accumulated experience and integrated learning.

My kids were there last week.  They watched me participate with enthusiasm, mistakes and all.  When I commented that I might not have helped my team much (we lost all our games), my daughter sounded surprised.  “But you’re good!” she said.  Like I said, I left more than a little high.

To Train Or Not To Train

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My sister and brother-in-law run marathons.  No, wait, they are elite marathon-running machines.  By next weekend, they will have run 150 marathons between them in just a few years, including Ironmans and ultramarathons, in 39 states and at least 7 countries.  They lead training groups for Team to End AIDS and enjoy a loyal following of running enthusiasts and friends.  So you can imagine my honor when they recently told me, “You could totally run a marathon, Cathy.  You’re already more fit than a lot people who start training.”

For a moment I actually considered it, because wouldn’t that be so cool, to enter that elite circle?  Then I quickly remembered: I. Hate. Running.  …For now.  But it got me thinking recently–talking politics may be like marathon training.  Some people really like it and do it well (by ‘well’ I mean they are informed, articulate, respectful, and engaging with people from all points of view—their discourse is elevated).  They resemble my sister and brother-in-law: athletes who consistently perform at the top of their training, with few or no injuries, leading others to follow in similar aspirations.

Other people, however, would sooner feed themselves through a wood chipper than strap on a pair of running shoes, or engage in political discussions.

Most of us are somewhere in the middle, I suspect.  I can run a few miles with my trainer if she makes me–the conversation and scenery distract me and the time goes by faster.  And I know I can slow down or take a rest if I have to–it’s safe.  But I have many other preferred exercise activities.  Could we consider talking politics as the elite marathoning of communication?  It is so hard to do well!

When I think of long distance running my mouth goes dry.  I get short of breath and my knees hurt already.  I feel the incredible slog, one heavy step after another–not at all like what I imagine my family feels, bounding weightlessly like antelopes toward their next PR.  I experience a version of the fight-or-flight response, a visceral sensation of threat: I’ll have blisters everywhere, I’ll never make it to the end, they’ll have to carry me, I’ll have a heart attack and die!

Maybe some people have a similar reaction to politics?  I don’t know enough, it’s too complicated.  It’s overwhelming, I’ll look ignorant, people will judge and shame me before I can even finish a thought.  It’s all so emotional, I can’t handle that, it will only escalate into conflict, my relationships will all be at risk, I’ll lose all my friends!

As you may have read, I have been trying to get some conservative friends to engage face to face.  I am genuinely curious about their points of view; I want to understand.  I want to practice my skills—curiosity, openness, empathy, identifying shared interests, withholding judgment.  Two invitations were initially met with a non-response.  After a follow up call or two, I am scheduled to meet one set of friends for dinner this week, and the other said he was too busy.  I feel like I’m dragging them out running when they would much rather play golf or go bowling.

I have realized: we don’t all have to keep up with every day’s new political freak shows.  We don’t all need to be the debate champions of our particular ideology.  Not everybody has to be a marathoner.

HOWEVER:

We all need exercise.  The body is built to move.  Regular physical activity, as we all know, reduces our risks of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.  Did you also know it can decrease depression, dementia, and even cancer?  So pick your sport—just do some kind of movement every day!

Similarly, even if we don’t all talk politics, we all need effective communication skills, especially in the arenas of conflict resolution, negotiation, parenting (which encompasses them all), and the like.  We are social beings—we only survive by cooperating and living well within our tribes, and by tribes living well among one another.  That can only happen if we practice getting along.

So if you’re not a runner/marathoner, what do you do?  What is your thing, how often do you engage, and what keeps you coming back?  If you hate talking politics, how else are you already a great communicator?

Maybe you’re a natural at getting your toddler/tween/teen to see the wisdom of the rules and getting their buy-in to follow them.

Maybe you can always help your boss and coworker iron out their differences because you can understand both sides (are you in HR?).

Maybe you like to debate the merits of the Marvel Comic Universe vs. DC—and you could argue both sides because it’s just more interesting that way.

We all have areas where we shine, where we contribute to the tribe through words and actions.

I have picked up some tips along the way:

  1. Validate people’s feelings, even if you don’t agree with their position or behavior.
  2. Stay open to the 2% truth of an opposing philosophy or idea.
  3. Withhold judgment on the whole person even though they espouse an ideology you despise, at least until you know from multiple encounters that they have no shred of kindness or humanity in them.
  4. Look for what you have in common with people, and choose to focus there more than on how you differ.

So even if you’re not an elite running machine like my sister and brother-in-law, or you’re not your community’s foremost political pundit, know that your other training matters.

I may complete a marathon someday…  Never say never.  For now I’m happy to stick with my TRX, kettle bells, 7 minute and Betty Rocker workouts (once again, I have no financial interests in any of these businesses).  I appreciate my family’s invitation to run, and I respectfully decline at this time.  Similarly, I will try to be more mindful about inadvertently pressuring people to talk politics.  It’s never meant to be adversarial, only a bid for connection—I’m looking for training buddies!

I don’t need everybody to talk politics.  But I do need everybody to practice excellent communication, especially in political discourse.

We all need that.