I have decided that henceforth, the mascot for my fitness goals will be a weasel. Like this fellow:
If you’re wondering why I think a weasel will help me meet my fitness goals – read on.
For the last fifteen years, I’ve been a couch potato. Like many people, I’d try to get into an exercise routine, do it for a couple weeks, and then drift off into quitting. I wasted a lot of time kicking myself for lack of discipline, but I couldn’t get anything to change. Finally, things became critical. Over the last ten years, I gained 40 pounds (helped liberally along by a medication side effect of which I knew nothing). My blood sugar jumped, and I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes about two months ago. Clearly, I needed to make some changes, fast.
But how to do that? I knew I could get (and stay) fit, since I’d done it in the past. In fact, I’d been a hard-core endurance cyclist fifteen years ago, doing crazy stuff like the Davis Double Century – riding 200 miles in one day – and cycling from San Francisco to Los Angeles, 585 miles in 7 days, with AIDS Lifecycle. Four times.
Obviously something had changed. I spent a few days thinking about it, and finally realized that my problem wasn’t self-discipline. In fact, I realized that self-discipline, while it works short-term, isn’t effective for long-term changes, especially big ones. In fact, it can be actively self-destructive when you try to use it to make long-term changes. Because self-discipline is a conversation between your conscious mind and your subconscious, that goes like this:
Conscious mind: “Doing X will be good for us! We should do X!”
Subconscious: “But I don’t want to do X! X is no fun!”
Conscious mind: “Tough noogies. X makes sense, and I control the body, so we’re doing X. Besides, I’m sure that if I make you do X long enough, you’ll start liking it.”
Subconscious: “Ah, I see. So the beatings will continue until morale improves?”
The subconscious, of course, hates being forced into things as much as anyone else. So it drags its heels, glowers, and waits until the conscious mind is distracted by some other problem. Then it grabs its chance, sabotages your motivation, and bam! You’ve quit doing X. Subconscious 1, conscious mind 0.
Practically speaking, the only way to make long term changes in your life is to get both your conscious and subconscious minds convinced that they want to do this. Which is tricky, since your subconscious mind, by definition, doesn’t respond to logic.
Fortunately for me, I’m a veteran project manager. I spent twenty years convincing groups of obstinate, opinionated people, none of whom worked for me, to pull together into a cohesive team that worked singlemindedly towards our common goal. In other words, I am a sneaky, manipulative bastard, a world-class expert in brainwashing others into carrying out my evil whims. (Tom Sawyer, eat your heart out!)
Surprisingly, it had never occurred to me to apply my project management supervillain powers to myself. So for ten years, I was out there dutifully flogging myself on in the name of discipline, just like everyone else. And getting what they got – zero results. And then, like all the others, getting angry at myself for not having done it, and resolving to do better next time. Repeat over and over until too frustrated to try.
Okay, so flogging myself doesn’t work. Time to dust off the cape and Spandex, put on my evil mind-control propeller beanie, and motivate myself.
The first thing I asked myself was, “What makes something fun? What makes it worth doing?”
And here it is: I’m a storyteller. I love to write. I also love adventure, but mostly because adventure gives me the fodder for writing new stories! I’ve been blogging about my adventures, discoveries, and creative work for over 15 years now. In fact, my blog encourages me to get into the studio more often simply to “feed the blog”. And it encourages me to reach higher, because epic projects make better stories.
Ohhhhhh…That’s why I couldn’t convince myself to do “easy” things like going walking!! There’s no story in it. Duh!!
Having figured that out, I went on to ask, “What makes a good story out of exercise? Why did I succeed at cycling where I failed at other forms of exercise?”
Well, here’s one hint:
That’s me riding up a hill during AIDS Lifecycle, a 585-mile, 7-day ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles, raising money for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. This is a really tough ride – three of the days are 100+ miles and the others are pretty close to 100 miles. It takes about eight months of training to prepare for.
But, as you’ve noticed, it’s also a fabulous ride – an epic athletic event which I turned into my own personal fashion show, with seven elaborate costumes (each made by yours truly), one for each day of the ride. The final day of my last ride featured the dress with tutu-of-gold, embellished with 1000+ peacock feathers!
So of course it was interesting. Epic, fabulous, and creative! A great story.
Based on this analysis, I’ve realized that I do best at exercise when I have epic goals, a preparation process that makes for great stories, and a certain element of fabulousness.
My main fitness objectives are to stay in decent cardio shape and build muscle (which helps reduce blood glucose levels), without having to spend 15-20 hours/week training for it. Based on those criteria, I decided to try weightlifting. Not only does it fit all three criteria, but the weights will help maintain bone density – important since Asian women are particularly prone to osteoporosis. (Though, based on my last DXA scan, my bone density is better than 95% of people my age, so I’m not too terribly worried for now.)
There are basically three flavors of weightlifting. There’s Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, and bodybuilding (which isn’t exactly weightlifting, but). Bodybuilding is not my thing – it’s mostly about appearance, so it requires not only developing insane amounts of muscle but cutting body fat to an unhealthy and unsustainable level for competition. The rules for competition also make the Miss America Pageant organizers look like a bunch of radical feminists. (I know it’s not much better for male bodybuilders, but that is hardly a recommendation.)
Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting are both about strength, but involve different exercises. I decided on powerlifting because it’s a more popular sport, which means more trainers with expertise in it, and probably more divisions if I choose to compete. I haven’t decided that yet – I’m not really interested in becoming a champion or anything, but doing specific events usually helps focus my training and make for a better story. An unending narrative is not nearly as interesting as a tale with beginning, middle, and end.
Right now I’m still doing basic preparation – getting into decent physical condition and doing sets with lots of reps and relatively low weights. That’s because it’s best to start slow to give your bones, muscles, and tendons time to acclimate to the strain, and to perfect your form before attempting lots of weight. I hired an excellent trainer, Touissant Tenette at Silicon Valley Athletics, to teach me correct form, push me hard while avoiding injury, and keep me showing up (because workouts with him are fun!) until I have more concrete goals.
I have chosen a long-term goal, though. Powerlifting features three exercises: The squat, the deadlift, and the bench press. I feel that a proper cavewoman should be able to muscle her husband around the cave, and since Mike’s hair isn’t long enough for me to drag him about by his hair, I want to be able to squat, deadlift, and bench press Mike.
Right now, Mike weighs about 170-180 pounds. My weight, back before I started packing on pounds, was about 130 pounds. According to strengthlevel.com, an advanced-level female weightlifter my age, weighing 130 pounds, should be able to deadlift 232 pounds, squat 199 pounds, and bench press 139 pounds. And if I can get to elite level, I should be able to bench press 189 pounds! So I won’t even have to make Mike go on a diet – if I work hard enough, I’ll get there eventually.
(I’ll probably weigh more than 130 pounds when I reach advanced/elite level, of course – that’s just my natural couch-potato weight.)
The next question is what units to use to measure progress. (Because pounds, let’s face it, are boring.)
Well, here was my first idea (of course!):
In the grand English tradition where the foot was the length of the king’s foot (yes, I know that’s apocryphal), the obvious unit for measuring progress is the “cat,” since Fritz and Tigress rule the household with an iron paw.
But this gets me into dangerous territory. Do I measure progress in “Fritzes” (12 pounds)? Or “Tigresses” (10 pounds)? Given that I’m merely a human servant, giving precedence to one cat over another seems like a dangerous thing to do. I could measure in “standardized cat” units – which of course would be 11 pounds, since I’m reliably informed that there are only two cats who are relevant to my life as a feline body servant. 🙂
But that is dangerous as well – what if one cat gains or loses weight? It would make it very difficult to report my form from day to day. And cats are pretty heavy. A 1-cat weight gain sounds much less epic than a 10-pound weight gain.
So I needed another unit. I thought about it for awhile, before stumbling on the obvious answer. Weasels! Weasels are intrinsically funny, they’re cute, and they’re small and light. And they’re fabulous! The species most commonly described as “weasel,” the least weasel, weighs only about 1-8 ounces for males and 1-4 ounces for females. And they’re adorable:
Naturally, with such a wide range of possible weights, I needed to establish a standard weasel weight. Fortunately, that is easily done. I wrote off to NIST (the National Institute of Standards and Time, which is responsible for establishing and maintaining standard units of weights, among other things), and asked them for the mass of their standard weasel. This really shouldn’t have been hard – all they’d have to do is go down into their vaults and weigh their Standard Weasel, which is presumably down there munching their Standard Mice and keeping company with the 1-kilogram sphere, the Standard Reasonable Person (for use in lawsuits), and other time-honored standards frequently used in daily life.
But have I heard back from them? NO! And this is where my tax dollars are going. Sigh.
In lieu of a direct ruling from a standards body, I have decided that the standard weasel will be 4 ounces. Converting from pounds, that means my goal is 700 weasels, Mike’s weight in standardized weasels. (At least until I hear back from NIST. I mean, seriously, guys? You can’t even tell me what a standard English weasel weighs?)
So far the only stat I have is from my last round of weight training, the deadlift, at which I can do 10 reps with 380 weasels (95 pounds). I don’t yet know my one-rep maximum, though – we’re still working up to that. But it appears I still have quite a few weasels to go.
Now, if you’re wondering about the practicalities of lifting that many weasels, I think 380 weasels is very do-able. One scenario would require a bunch of very well-trained weasels standing on an Olympic bar. Or maybe I could do buckets of weasels! I like the idea of lifting buckets of weasels. Or Vietnamese-style baskets of weasels, as in this photo from my 6-month trip through Southeast Asia. Visualize the greens in the baskets replaced with scampering weasels, and you’ll understand why weasels are so much effective for staying fit than mere self-discipline.
Yep! After thinking this through thoroughly, I think that weaseling my way into fitness is the right way to go. And thus, the weasel will be on the coat of arms I’m developing for my powerlifting persona. Watch this space for jacquard-woven weasel banners!