Episode 23: “Hope begins in the muscles”

In which our protagonist goes in search of the magic wand to make her exercise

Dear reader, brave creator, I’m going to start this week’s missive with a little warning: within this episode I will discuss topics of weight and exercise. If there’s a danger that could cause you pain, you might want to skip this week. It’s ok if you need to do that. Be selfish. Take care of yourself first. That’s what this is all about.

I’ll wait… 

OK, let’s begin.

First, the shaming

There’s this guy who lives near me. I don’t know him from a bar of soap, but if I happen to walk past him he waits until he’s alongside me and then calls out one word, loud, at the top of his lungs. He cries: “FAT!” Then laughs to himself and keeps walking.

Now, this is, as far as I can tell, a grown adult man with all of his faculties. He just takes it upon himself to point out to me that which I see every time I look in the mirror: I am far from thin. I am not the appropriate size for a woman in this era, and I never have been. 

But here’s something else I learned eons ago, in my single days: I’m also not fat enough. There is a certain type of person who covets and deifies the larger lady - but I am not the right shape for that. I don’t have a large enough chest or behind, and I don’t fit that image, either. Plus-sized fashion reminds me of this, too, by billowing at the top if it fits in the middle. It seems I am not the right kind of plus-sized to be appropriately plus-sized.

Every day, every hour, I’m bombarded with imagery that reminds me how I am not quite right for the world. And that hurts, it does. But I’m kinda used to it, too. It’s just one more thing for the list of my wrongs. Truth be told, though, it used to get to me a lot more than it does now. In recent months, as I’ve undertaken this journey to self(ish), I’ve grown to not get (as) angry at the mirror. To not turn away. To not balk and catalogue my failures. That, for me, is progress.

Progress enough, though? Well…

The doctor would disagree

I’ve written here before about how my lack of self-care extended to my health. About the litany of diseases I’ve picked up over the years, and how, as I get older, I’m at the crisis point of needing to take things seriously. That’s a big goal for this year of living selfishly - to get my health under control. But, like with most of these goals, I’m stuck in a loop. I start off with great ideas, go full steam ahead, then the slightest bump in the road has me give up and go back to the old ways. The not-at-all-good ways.

What happens on these bumps? I get space, that’s what. And in that space slips the chorus of critics. My self-talk tells me I’m too lazy to bother. My limiting beliefs tell me I can’t eat healthily, that I don’t exercise - it’s just not within my abilities. My lack of self-worth tells me I’m not worth the effort. And so it goes around and around and around.

This is where I’ve gotten to with the health track of this self(ish) journey: I’ve lost 6kg in the last few months. That’s good. The less good? I temporarily lost access to my Fast 800 website (they were upgrading the system) and I lost with it the will to track and plan. I lost the will to cook. I started sneaking the bad food and realised I wasn’t necessarily putting weight on - I just wasn’t losing it anymore. Where’s the incentive to keep going?

Then there’s the exercise thing… The non-existent exercise thing. I do not move. I have been housebound for 18 months because of the plague, and I don’t notice the days blending into one. I stick my ostrich head in the sand and I keep telling myself I’ll get around to it. Eventually. One day. Tomorrow, probably. Oh, but there’s that thing - so maybe the next day? 

Ostrich Lauren is my nemesis. 

Group exercise is my idea of hell

Last week, I decided it was time to pull that head out of the sand. I’ve had a book on my shelf for ages about the “Joy of Movement” - it was a Christmas present from someone trying subtly to get me exercising. I picked it up thinking (hoping?) it would spur me into action. That it would show me the way to get my lazy arse off the chair and off to the gym - it would teach me the magic trick to make me an exerciser. 

Dear reader, it did not start promisingly: the first chapter is about the runner’s high. The next few all focus on things like ultra-marathons and group exercise classes and just generally things that are like my worst fears brought into screaming technicolour. 

Here’s the thing: I am not a group exerciser. I do not want to go to a class and make friends. I feel like I’m being judged the entire time I’m out in public exercising - see earlier discussion re: not-ideal weight/shape - and the idea of doing that with people who then want to chat is excruciating. I’ve even had well-meaning friends offer to go for a walk with me or to go to the gym, and I refuse point blank: it will not work. That’s not me. 

I was about to give up on the book. My magic bullet - the book that would solve my exercise crisis and show me why it’s actually fun - was toothless. 

Discovering the “hope molecule”

And then I got to the final third and the lightbulbs switched on. There were fireworks. This is what I came here for: the reason why I have to exercise, why I have to get off my bum and get to the gym. Because the whole threat-of-imminent-death thing wasn’t enough, clearly.

In The Joy of Movement, Kelly McGonigal writes about “green exercise”, or the growing trend towards outdoor movement, and the impact it has on our brains. She writes:

“When you are absorbed in your natural surroundings, the brain shifts into a state called soft fascination. It is a state of heightened present-moment awareness. Brain systems linked to language and memory become less active, while regions that process sensory information become more engaged. The senses are heightened and inner chatter quiets. This shift can be a tremendous relief for people who struggle with anxiety, depression and rumination, for whom the default mode is relentlessly verbal, generating words and phrases that echo in their minds. By flooding the senses with pleasant stimulations, nature draws your attention outward and interrupts the linguistic assault. There is room for curiosity about and appreciation for the world around you.” 

Could this be *the thing* to cure all of my ills? I just needed to go for a walk in the forest this whole time?

Later, McGonigal looks at the neuroscience of movement:

“One of the first scientific papers to write about exercise-induced myokines labeled them “hope molecules”... Hope can begin in your muscles. Every time you take a single step, you contract over two hundred myokine-releasing muscles. The very same muscles that propel your body forward also send proteins to your brain that stimulate the neurochemistry of resilience. Importantly, you don’t need to run an ultramarathon across the Arctic to infuse your bloodstream with these chemicals. Any movement that involves muscular contract - which is to say, all movement - releases beneficial myokines.”

Aha, I thought. There it is, the final push. The first thing anyone tells you when you suffer from chronic depression and anxiety is to exercise, but there’s actually a reason: “hope can begin in your muscles.” And, dear reader, I could do with a massive dose of hope right now, as well as a massive kick up the ol’ behind to get it to the gym. I guess I need to exercise.

A trip to my happy place

You know what I did? I went for a swim. It was just the once, but I didn’t think about everyone looking at me and my giant non-conforming body and judging my pandemic (lack of) beauty upkeep, and I went for a swim. That is my happy place. I love the water and, sure enough, when I was moving through it my inner monologue slowed down to a gentle hum. I was too busy counting the laps and the strokes to let my inner critic go wild. OK, so it started up again as soon as I got out of the water, but for those 40-odd minutes I was blissfully silent. 

I need more of this, and less of not going because it will be busy or because people will be looking at me. They’re not looking at me - and if they are, they should be proud of me for making the effort. Because me making an effort is me looking after myself. And me looking after myself is the very point to my journey to self(ish).

Dear reader, I don’t want to see you at the pool for all of the reasons described above… but maybe we can check in with each other to make sure we’ve done it separately, together? No need to be there every day, pushing and sweating and going too hard too fast. Slow and steady. Let’s be tortoises together.

Until next time, seek those hope molecules.

PS: Basking in those hope molecules, I signed up for the Diabetes UK One Million Steps Challenge. You can join in too, if you fancy it, and you’ll be raising much-needed funds for diabetes research.

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The week ahead 🗓

  • Writing: I sent a story to an anthology and got a rejection - but, it was a lovely rejection and apparently I was right down to the wire. Yay?

  • Work: I start my coaching training tomorrow!

  • Health: One swim. That’s it: one swim. I can do this.

  • Routine: The routine is moving to a (flexible) schedule! Plus,join me and hundreds of others at the LWS Writers’ Hour every weekday: 8am London, New York, California and NZ. I go to at least one of those a day. Side note: I’m now hosting Kiwi hour several times a week! (That’s 9pm UK/4pm EST/1pm PST/6am AEST for those playing at home.)


On the stereo 🎧

Daddy’s Home, by St Vincent

I was late to the St Vincent party, only really discovering her brilliance with Masseducation. If you like ‘70s rock in the vein of Bowie et al, give this a listen. It’s great for warm summer days outside enjoying the sun.

Off the shelf 📚

The Joy of Movement, by Kelly McGonigal PhD

I’ve already dedicated half a newsletter to this so I won’t go into it much more. Needless to say, it’s no magic wand, and if you’re not already an exerciser it might frustrate the f*** out of you by showcasing success stories that are not you. Still… maybe pick it up at the library?

“Perhaps the context we find ourselves in determines which default state the mind reverts to. Humans who find themselves disengaged from natural environments may come to know primarily the self-focused default state. Spending time not just indoors, but also on social media, pushes us toward social cognition and, often, rumination. Without regular time spent outdoors, we can lose touch with the default state of open awareness. By reconnecting with nature, we refamiliarise ourselves with this other aspect of what it means to be human. This is a big part of what draws people to green exercise. Outdoors, it is possible to rediscover a self that is not solely defined by your roles and relationships with others, or by your past. You are free to be a self that is in motion, attuned to the present moment, and open to what the world has to offer.”

Visual confirmation 📷

Proof I did the swimming thing!

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