What Makes One an Athlete?

My favorite comedian, Mitch Hedberg, once joked that if he discovered he had athlete’s foot, he’d say, “That’s not my f***ing foot!”  I never considered myself an athlete as a kid.  I didn’t fit with that group of kids in school, despite playing some softball in middle school.  I am a bad team player and I much preferred doing Tae Kwon Do to playing a team sport.  As an only child, I learned early to rely on myself and I am too stuck in my own ways to work well with others.  I hated group projects in school.  I’m off-track, but, to my point, I was not an athlete before in my life.

Last month, I bought a Whoop fitness tracker.  The initial set up asked what kind of athlete I am for my profile.  I was annoyed that there was no option below casual athlete.  I marked this box, but it made me wonder.  Am I an athlete now?

I’ve been actively working out for over a year now, since February 2019.  I have lost over 60 pounds and gained muscles I didn’t know existed.  I can deadlift 200 pounds and run and do things I’d never dreamed were possible a few years ago.  I recently bought two knee sleeves for hyper extension issues and these are a game-changer.  I find myself pushing harder and longer.  After months of stagnation, my workouts have increased in intensity and frequency.  I find solace in my local gym, something that continues to baffle me.  I’ve made workouts routine.  But does all of this make me an athlete?

I’ve dwelled on this question and I’ve found an answer.  Although it may sound cliché, one is only an athlete if one has an athlete’s mindset.  I am still learning the limits of my body, but I have drive and commitment to be better every time I set in the gym.  I often think back to an embarrassing moment during my first day when my trainer was assessing my skills, or lack thereof.  I became stuck in an awkward position while attempting a bodyweight squat and had to fall over to get myself out of it.  I was deeply annoyed with my body and frustrated, but now I am not ashamed of that moment.  It was the start of my journey and now I can not only squat easily, I can deep squat with weight.  I’m learning so much about what my body can do.  I’m only limited by my mindset.  But with an athlete’s mindset, there are no limits.

My Journey to Loving My Body

In grad school, I took a seminar class focusing on the connection between the mind and the body while reading Victorian novels like Frankenstein and Dorian Gray.  (I know it sounds nerdy, but it was fun.)  This class, and the deep questions it provoked, has lingered in my brain since then.  One of my scholarly areas of interest before then was the body and gender, but I had never considered the links between the body and the mind, mostly because I saw these two facets as one and the same.  Late nights spent discussing the mind/body question led me to ponder my own mind and body.

Until very recently, I lived in my mind, and I neglected my body.  After gaining weight around 2011-2012, I escaped my physical discomfort by immersing myself in my studies and media, many books and television shows.  I made minimal effort in grad school when I began working out with a trainer at my university’s wellness center.  But I never pushed myself and often cancelled sessions when I was depressed or just not feeling up to it.  Many days were spent in my house or the local coffee shop, writing my thesis, studying for exams, or writing semester-end papers.  I would close myself off to the world with a pair of headphones and block out everything, including my own body.  I would dwell for hours in my brain as my hand moved across a notebook or keyboard.

To be frank, I hated my body.  I was never athletic as a kind, but I played tee ball and softball as well as gymnastics, dance, and my favorite sport, marital arts.  Then came the one-two punch of puberty and mental illness, which sidelined my physical activities as most days I struggled to merely get out of bed.  High school became college and I drifted from my body into my mind.  I became supremely self-aware of my mental states while my body suffered.  I wouldn’t say I had a bad diet or didn’t get off the couch; I was a typical American who ate large portions and wasn’t active.  But when everyone around you is the same way, you don’t notice it.

Then I gained a lot of weight and my indifference to my body grew into hate.  I gave up.  I ate tons of pasta and takeout.  My diet was terrible, and I sat in my recliner feeling miserable most days.  I didn’t know how to fix my situation.  I focused on school.  Meanwhile, I felt trapped in my body.

My first attempt to lose weight didn’t work.  Like I said, I skipped more workout sessions than I attended.  I didn’t commit and I continue to eat terribly, hoping the workouts I did attend would offset the calories.  I ignored my body except for the times my mom mentioned weight loss surgery.  This only made me feel worse.

My breaking point came in October 2018.  The following February, I moved to central Iowa and quickly inquired at my local gym about seeing a personal trainer.  I can’t explain what had changed for me, but I felt it was time to get out of my mind and into my long-neglected body.

The human body is capable of many extraordinary feats.  For so long I had lived with my body without pushing it to do more than walk and talk.  I saw exercise as something healthy people did or a short-term method of weight loss.  In America, exercise is not the norm.  Growing up, I was active and healthy, but I had lost that along the way.  I had forgotten what my body could do.

I have been working with an awesome trainer for almost one year now and I am excited about the changes that have happe3ned to my body.  This month I have accomplished many firsts: running on a treadmill (without holding on), lifting crazy amounts of weights, to name just two.  In only one year, I have gone from unable to squat to deep squatting with a weighted bar.  I find myself literally dancing with joy and excitement at times.  On the mental health side, I have never felt so stable in my life.  My highs and lows have mellowed out incredibly.  I have made my workout session habitual, by which I mean I just get ready and go with few exceptions.  At first, I felt anxiety when walking into the gym.  Now I actually feel relaxed.  I am learning to cook at home and my diet is better.  I’ve learned so much about nutrition and the human body.  I don’t know if I wasn’t paying attention in school or if no one explained these facts to me.  Either way, I’m making up for it.  I was never great at science, but I now have a basic, functional understanding of anatomy, biology, and related chemistry.  (For reference, I barely passed with a C in high school chemistry.)

My trainer has told me that this change is not a short-term solution.  It is a lifestyle change.  It is a shift at the core of how I live my life.  I didn’t grasp the profoundness of that idea until recently.  Yes, I have changed a great deal.  No, this change is not temporary.  I don’t want to go back to hating my body.  I like how I fell and the way my clothes fit me now.  I even see the appeal of fashion where I once dressed functionally, to cover everything up.  I recently purged my closet of everything that is too big for me now.  It felt exhilarating.

I won’t go back because I know how miserable I was living in my head.  I hated my body.  I have more on my weight loss journey, but I am amazed at the progress I’ve already made, especially in one year. (For the record, I’ve lost 62 lbs. as of this week.)  I feel good, not just mentally, but also physically.  I’ve never said that as an adult.

I feel now that I am living in my mind and my body.

2014/2019/2024

2014

2014

Me in 2014 at Nigara Falls

I was directionless.  I’d graduated college last December but remained in the same small town.  On a manic whim, I wanted to buy a building on Main Street and start a bookstore.  Luckily, the bank said no.  I was generally depressed, especially with the long winter still ahead of me.  In October, my Mom and I had taken a road trip to the East Coast to see an area of the US we’d never seen.  We’d had fun in Boston, Niagara Falls, and Maine.  Vermont was beautiful.

On another whim, with no jobs open to me in my little town, I applied to the graduate program at my old university.  I don’t think I’d get an acceptance letter until the next month.

Most of my day was spent in a depressed stupor.  I napped most days.  I would watch television, Netflix, and read.  I was very inactive, and I survived on a diet of pasta.  I loved to make a pot of goulash and save the rest for lunches and dinners afterward.  I wasn’t interested in cooking.  I ordered takeout from the local Chinese restaurant or terrible Italian place.  Typically, I made my own breakfast: eggs, turkey bacon, and toast.  I drank too much Coke with vanilla or straight Coke.  This habit would become much worse when I’d have to power through hours of homework in grad school.

I didn’t exercise or even leave the house if I could help it.  Most days were spent at home with my two dogs, Lucy and Desi.

I weighed around 260-270 pounds after gaining over 50 pounds two years before.  I’d been put on a new medication, which made me ravenously hungry.  I didn’t realize that I was eating way too much, often filling myself with very unhealthy food.  The weight gain made my depression worse, as I felt bad mentally and physically.  I was never athletic but during my undergraduate years, I’d been active and somewhat healthy.  I ate better then and didn’t overindulge.  I was comfortable with my body size in 2012; I weighed a bit too much, but I wasn’t obese.

Two years had changed my body to a sluggish, inactive mess.  It would remain that way until 2019.

 

2019

2019

Me in 2019 (November) at Galaxy Con Minn

I’ve been working hard since February to change my body, when I walked into a gym and signed up with a trainer.  I’d moved to the area at the beginning of the month to be closer to my parents and extended family.  It took me nearly a month to follow up on my desire to change.

When I joined my local gym, I was 293 pounds and deeply unhappy.  Although I’d been working with a student-trainer from 2017-2018, I’d stopped for the winter and gained 15+ pounds.  The thought of being 300 pounds made me upset and extremely depressed.  I knew gaining weight back in 2012 hadn’t really been my fault but now I’d had to live with it.  I’d been living with it for 7 years.  I knew I needed a dramatic change.  My move was an opportunity to create a new start.

Ten months later, I’ve lost 50 pounds after a great deal of work and some setbacks.  Since February, I’ve been going to the gym three times a week, with a few exceptions like travel.  I’ve scaled back my pasta habit considerably.  Instead, I enjoy cooking meals at home or eating a Chipotle chicken bowl.  I now monitor my diet, logging every meal and snack.  I don’t drink Coke anymore.  Occasionally, I’ll have one can of Zevia cola mixed with water to take away it’s sweetness.  Otherwise, I drink water or sugar-free Powerade.  My diet is limited to 1700 calories per day.  I don’t eat candy or inhale pasta like I once did.  I walk an average of 7000 steps per days.  I can lift 140 pounds.  When I first started, I couldn’t squat without getting stuck in an awkward position.  Now I can do back squats with weight.  I’m physically the strongest I’ve probably ever been.

My mental health has been stable for months with only a few mild bouts of depression.  My lows are small and brief.  My highs are limited and manageable.  In my adult life, I’ve never been this mentally healthy.  After a workout, I feel an incredible boost both mentally and physically that I’ve never known before.  A natural high.  I’m the most active I’ve been since I was a preteen.  I never played sports in high school.  In middle school, I played softball.  Before middle school, I ranked up to red belt (just below black belt).  I deeply enjoyed marital arts, but I stopped when I couldn’t level up to senior red belt.  As a child, I was wild and playful, staying outside from morning until dinner.  I spent most days roaming our family farm.  I watched Saturday morning cartoons and Aladdin and Hook (both on repeat) after I’d spent the day outside.  Otherwise, I didn’t spend much time in front of a screen.

 

 

2024

I see myself happily active and weighing between 170-180 pounds, a healthy place from my frame.  I cook at home and actually enjoy doing it.  I go to the gym 4-5 days a week, in the mornings.  I work on writing afterwards, when I’m mentally alert.

I like to jog around my neighborhood or on local trails.  Maybe I’ve taken up hiking.

I can do back squats well and deadlift 200 pounds.

I continue to be mentally stable, but I check in with my therapist monthly.  I’m comfortable in my body.  I own nice gym clothes that I’ve invested in.  My wardrobe of clothes fit well.

I’m strong physically and mentally.  I let myself enjoy cheat meals without feeling guilty.  I don’t overindulge.  I like protein powder.  Maybe I can make smoothies at home.

I generally feel calm and content, at peace.

I don’t gain weight, especially during the winter.  I like looking in the mirror.

I’ve become what I always pictured when I imagined myself as an adult.

 

Self-Talk and Mental Health

Over the past year (2019), I’ve been working hard to change how I talk to myself mentally.  My biggest hurdle was my inner voice.  It often tells me to give up and let it go.  But during the last few months, I’ve noticed a change of tone and dialogue.  Instead of “Give up; it’s okay,” I hear, “I’ve got this; you can do it!”  This makes me push myself for one more rep, one more minute, one more whatever.

This change has altered my mindset completely.  I don’t just give up and quit when faced with a challenge; I try to keep going until I’m satisfied, or I can go no more physically.  It has created new mental discipline I’ve never had before in my life.  The only time I remember pushing myself physically is when I did Tae Kwon Do as a preteen, almost two decades ago.

My new mindset has had such a positive effect on my mental health.  I tend to be acutely aware of my mood and mental wellbeing, since I’ve dealt with bipolar disorder and anxiety since I was 15 years old.  Over the past few months, I’ve noticed a general smoothing out of the swings I typically experience.  My highs are less severe, and my lows are less devastating.  My bounce-back time has also become shorter, from depressed to stable in only a day or two.  That’s not to say that my mental illness is gone; it is just less intense.

I crave the mental boost brought on by a good workout.  It helps carry me through my day, especially during long dark winter days.  That said, I know winter and January in particular will test my newfound mental stability.  The holidays make early winter more palatable, but after New Year’s Day, it is one long laborious wait until spring.  It usually takes an immense toll on my mental and physical health.

I need to keep telling myself, “You’ve got this!”

Routines

“Routine” is a catch phrase for my therapist.  She has been telling me to develop and stick to a routine for 15+ years.  I have created several routines over the years, often based on college schedules and deadlines.  Now that I’m out of grad school, I have found my lack of routine to be a huge problem.  I have not written much in the time since I graduated in May of 2018.  I need to change this situation and the key is routine.

I have amazing freedom when it comes to how I spend my time.  My day is a blank page, and, as a writer, that makes it my enemy.  I can’t focus on a task, so I have to use an app like Freedom to block sites and apps that distract me easily.  I basically need to make my laptop into a typewriter to accomplish any work, especially without a looming deadline.  My routine is also easily thrown off by sickness or travel.  I always have to rebuild my routine after such occasions.  But life is filled with trial and error and, well, life.  Shit happens.

The biggest rule of building a routine is to start simply.  Block out chunks of time on a calendar to know what your day looks like in a clear and quick format.  Always plan more time than you think you’ll need to achieve a task.  Humans are terrible about estimating time.  Use colors and labels to create distinct areas of your life, i.e. blue is personal, red is work, etc.  (For more advice on this topic and many others, I recommend checking out Thomas Frank.)

Set out a single task to do at one time and do it fully.  Emerge yourself in your work.  Learn to focus.  Don’t over-crowd your day (if possible) when you first begin; start small.

I begin with one key habit to build a routine.  Then I add to my schedule each week.  But this is my method.  My key habit is exercise.  I see my trainer three times a week.  Then I add a chunk of time in the afternoon for writing, when I have found I am most productive and mentally clear.  Then other habits and tasks fall in place.  I leave one day a week for household chores, like cleaning, and that tends to fall on Saturday.

Although this may seem really simple when I lay it out here, it takes time and effort to build and maintain a good routine.  I have one general rule that I stole from Matt D’Avella: never miss two days in a row.  If you flub one day, that’s fine.  But don’t let it become a pattern.  Don’t let it happen two days in a row.

My Breaking Point – Health and Fitness

Brief context: Harry Potter as a series of books has always been important to me since they entered my life at age 11.  But I never expected how they would affect my life when it came to my weight.

During October 2018, I flew with a few friends to Orlando to go to Universal Studios and see the Wizarding World in person.  I’d been to the version on the west coast in California and didn’t deeply enjoy myself because of the heat and having a toddler in tow.  So I was excited to say the least.

IMG_0801.jpeg

Diagon Alley, Gringott’s Dragon

The first day we headed straight through the main park at Universal and all the way to the back to enter Diagon Alley.  I was pumped.  I had a butter beer and was amazed at the detailed world around me.  Then I went to sit in a test seat for one of the rides.  I didn’t fit.  I was too big.  I was pissed and super sad.  I hadn’t thought about it, but my weight had gotten out of hand and now I couldn’t enjoy myself on vacation.

When I got home, I knew I needed to make a change.  I’d been seeing a trainer for over a year and nothing had come of it.  I didn’t push myself and he didn’t insist that I push myself.  I had started working out when I was in grad school, but I still ate a ton of garbage food.  I didn’t watch my diet and I didn’t exercise outside of our sessions.  I wasn’t taking care of my body while I enlarged the scope of my brain.  I didn’t feel like the workouts were helping and often cancelled when I just didn’t feel like leaving the house.

I was deeply depressed and isolated myself after I graduated in May 2018.  I would go days without leaving the house.  So I had been looking forward to my Orlando trip.  But I came back depressed and sad again.

I ended up looking for a new house in a new town four hours away.  I saw this move as a chance to make a dramatic change.  I looked into local gyms with professional trainers nearby.  After another bout of depression post-move, I sought out a new trainer in my new town.

I met Joel when I was 293 pounds and very out of shape.  During our first training session, I squatted into position and found myself stuck in an odd crouch.  I couldn’t get myself up and was left to sort of roll/fall to my side to get out the position.  This deeply embarrassed me, and I thought about giving up.  Joel asked me about my goals, and I told him about being upset in Orlando because I couldn’t fit on the rides.  He understood and set me up for 3 workout sessions per week.  I had only done 2 per week max before.  But I knew I had to get serious and I took him up on the challenge.

The first month or so was the worst, mainly because I didn’t to build the habit of driving myself to the gym.  My anxiety was often high, and I postponed or outright cancelled a few sessions.  But eventually I made it a habit, which helped dampen the anxiety.  I began losing a few pounds and I grew strong.  I saw actual progress, the kind I had never had before.

I was told long ago that I would not lose weight because of the medications I was on.  I resigned myself to be unhappy in my body forever.  I worked on my brain and didn’t look in a mirror.  I felt uncomfortable in my own flesh and I deep hated myself physically.

But then I lost 10 pounds.  Then 20.  And so on.

As of writing, I have lost a little over 40 pounds.  My first weight goal is to be 200 pounds.  My ultimate goal is around 175-180.  For the record, I am 5’9” tall.

Although it felt like shit in the moment and for months after, I have Harry Potter to thank for kicking my ass into gear and starting my weight loss journey.

And yes, I bought a cloak.

IMG_1392.jpg

Oct 2018, 293 lbs

 

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_240a.jpg

Sept 2019, 40 lbs lighter