Brain-in-a-jar, now with 300% more Charles Atlas factor
March 22, 2009 4:55 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to change my self-image from brain-in-a-vat to confident corporeal superhero, through getting properly fit. My efforts so far haven't been mind-blowingly successful.

My self-image has tended to rest on being smart and creative, with the physical side being more of a disaster. I can figure things out and make and solve and imagine, and while that's a joy, my total lack of physical confidence has tended to make me undersell those qualities. Right now, I can talk to anyone if I have a purpose, but at a party or a pub, I've developed an MO of making eyes at someone cute, seeing them approach, and either fleeing or turning to repulsive self-deprecation at the thought of them seeing me and being interested. Which is stupid.

I've been swimming regularly since last summer, and have (bar this winter) cycled for transportation for years. With both, I feel like I've gotten past my awful first efforts, but have never done anything more than average. I am definitely less unfit than I was before the regular swimming, and I'm stronger and more toned, but not remarkably so.

What I'd really like is to surprise myself. I don't know if that means being fit enough for a 10k, or taking up hill running or squash or something. Something that's markedly more than any 'arty nerd girl' stereotype, something that allows me to see myself as physically strong and capable, through stamina and increments rather than a stunt.

I have a bit over 5 months left before I go back to an architecture school schedule, and I'd like to be pretty fit by then so that it's part of my life and something I can maintain. This is going to take a change and I am willing to adapt my life, but there's a few caveats:

- I have wicked IBS that's a daily issue (I've seen many doctors), and sometimes it's a total obstacle for days, while other times, it just means I'll fail if the change is about being somewhere at 8pm every Tuesday.
- Also, vertigo. Treadmills make me motion-sick. My experience of gyms is one of feeling like I'm going to faint, but I don't know if that's the heat, the exercises or the anxiety. Not being in a gym is MASSIVELY preferable, for viability alone.
- I'm pretty broke. Right now, I have a pool (and, er, gym) membership, running shoes, a bike, and the countryside.
- I'm living in a town in the west of Ireland. So, no Krav Maga or Crossfit gym, etc.
- I really enjoy swimming because of the change of environment, the weightlessness, and the freedom to set my own pace, timetable and routine depending on my health and the pool's occupancy.
- I have a gammy knee [bruised knee self-link alert!] and am not sure if running is viable, although I did it as a teenager and really enjoyed it.
- While losing weight would be totally fine, it's not my focus and I'm much more interested in being fit and strong and confident, all of which I believe to be separate to thinness.

I'm 26, haven't weighed myself in ages but am roughly a UK size 16 and a bit over 5'10". I smoke (3-6 a day) and quit drinking about 4 years ago.


Sorry. Is it possible to turn this around, to become really, properly fit? Have you done it? What would you recommend? What do I need to change?
posted by carbide to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Stop smoking, obviously.
posted by Loto at 5:10 PM on March 22, 2009

Response by poster: Sorry, I just realised I overedited: swimming is 2-3x/week, up to 700-900m each session right now, mostly fast breaststroke but I've started this week trying seriously to introduce freestyle into the routine.
posted by carbide at 5:11 PM on March 22, 2009

1) Quit smoking

2) The getting "fit" you desire is going to be more about lifting weights rather than swmming/running. (think of pro marathoners versus female sprinters, which would you rather be?)

3) That being said, the perfect thing for feeling a sense of "accomplishment" would be something like a race- a 10k would be perfect for this. You can train for a 10k in a fairly short amount of time.

4) See if you can get the knee fixed/find a way to exercise/run without pain. Knee injuries are fickle things, but it'd suck to have a lifelong injury that's really exercise limiting.

5) The first step is do decide what you want your goals are, and write them down. A lot of this is very vague- you need to create goals, then plans you act upon. A lot of people want to get in shape, but just like anything else, it's going to require active work an daily commitment. Once you create goals, you can measure them- like weighing yourself - so you can monitor your progress.
posted by unexpected at 5:15 PM on March 22, 2009

You sound a bit like me. I have a bad knee due to years of figure skating falls as a teen and surgery, IBS, geeky, gym hater etc.

I have a goal to get fit this year, but to be fit for a purpose - and that is to take a week-long cycling tour through the Netherlands. So for me that involves continuing to commute by bike, riding longer distances on the weekends, and I plan to start riding with a CTC group when I move to London next month.

Would it help to define a goal more specific than being 'fit'? Do you know in your mind exactly what that would mean to you? You like cycling and swimming, is there an easy beginners triathlon you could train for? Or a inter-town cycling competition? Those are good markers of achievement.
posted by wingless_angel at 5:16 PM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I used to have terrible, daily IBS that sometimes incapacitated me. After I quit smoking and started eating healthy and drinking 8 cups of water/day it's hard to remember that I ever had IBS at all. My intestines are totally strong now - for 10 years I suffered.

Just food for thought...
posted by sickinthehead at 5:16 PM on March 22, 2009

I knew a girl who got seriously into cross-country biking. She loved it. It might be easier on your knees, and you can still enter an event with a name like "10K Ultra Grubby Difficult Macho Challenge".
posted by amtho at 5:17 PM on March 22, 2009

Yoga. Serious, committed, daily practice kind of yoga. Why? Because it fits your criteria perfectly:

- Its cheap - you can invest in a mat and a few classes to start with and, if you're disciplined, you can continue at home on your own time. No gym necessary.

- You can get a lot out of it without putting undue stress on your knees.

- It will help with your posture and body awareness, which will in turn help your confidence and the way you carry yourself.

- You can surprise yourself on a daily basis with your improvements in strength, stamina, and flexibility.

- It will help rather than hinder your efforts in any other physical activity you engage in.
posted by googly at 5:21 PM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: While I think that doing anything seriously* will help you, I personally found the thing that really took me from brain-in-a-jar to superhero was lifting weights. The good things about lifting weights are that it is fairly easy to do, unlikely to cause you injury (unlike running, especially if you already have a bum knee), and incredibly effective at both building fitness and body confidence. You have a gym membership so you must have access to at least some dumbbells, which is enough to get started. As always, Stumptuous is a great resource.

The fact that you like setting your own schedule and working out alone is another point in favor of weightlifting; it is a great loaner exercise routine. And really, no matter what you need to spend at least some time lifting. If you want to become a serious runner, cyclist or swimmer, you'll need time in the weight room to reduce your risk of injury and improve your performance.

* When I say seriously, I mean this: you need to monitor your performance, and set goals. If you actually want to become not only a person that exercises but a person that is actually in touch with her corporeal self, you should both know your limits and push them constantly. Going to the gym and going through the motions is not going to cut it.
posted by ch1x0r at 7:41 PM on March 22, 2009

I know where you are coming from with that architecture school schedule. I came out of high school a student athlete, kept fit while in college, and then transferred into architecture. I then put on about 30 pounds in five years.

I 100% agree with others suggesting writing down some simple goals, and considering Yoga or similar movement exercises. It sounds like your goal is more about feeling comfortable in your body and fit. You can do that with a few minutes of daily movement, and healthy eating habits.

Dropping the cigarettes is an obvious step as well, but don't hold your goals hostage to a first step you aren't ready to take. If you find you can't drop the cigarettes, then adjust elsewhere and come back to it. Dropping pounds you also say is not your goal, but is likewise more likely about eating habits than exercise.

As for movement, Yoga is a great though, but a martial art like Aikido may also work for you. Having a group to support your activity is very helpful, especially if you want to keep it up under the pressures of school.
posted by meinvt at 7:48 PM on March 22, 2009

Darling, I bet you look hot. Please keep in mind that the same goofy guys you were attracted to before are the same you will be attracted to now - don't dismiss them.
posted by Evangeline at 9:02 PM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

While there may be some kinds of Yoga that will make you buff, the Yoga I've been exposed to is more about flexibility and relaxation, maybe balance, and "breathe, just breathe." It's very approachable as an activity, but maybe not what you're looking for.
posted by amtho at 6:12 AM on March 23, 2009

Don't give up on Crossfit just because you can't buy a gym membership. They post all the exercises every day online, and even have videos of the techniques. Many of the exercises don't require any special equipment. You can buy pieces you want as you get the money for it, or even make it yourself.

That said, third the advice about having goals. Having fitness goals and friends to work toward them with are more important than any gym membership. Good luck!
posted by Shoggoth at 6:42 AM on March 23, 2009

Since you have a knee injury, sticking to the pool is probably a good idea. Incorporating free style and back stroke into your workout is also a good idea. I don't know about you, but breast stroke always exacerbated my knee problems. Also, mixing up different strokes will prevent one muscle group from building up too much.

Give water aerobics a shot; it's not just for old ladies. Do it in the deep end without a floaty.

Or bring an empty gallon milk jug to the pool. Dive down to the bottom, filling the jug up with water. When you get to the surface, tread water for 30 sec- 1 min intervals with the jug high above your head and your head above water. It's much harder than it sounds. You also can kick on your back with the jug held high.

Consider joining a masters (ie adult) swim club. You'll get a coach who will have pre-planned workouts and who can correct your stroke if it needs it. You can also train for competitions.
posted by mandapanda at 8:12 AM on March 23, 2009

regular yoga is a good suggestion. also, weight training, for sure. the book Lean, Long, and Strong is awesome. it feels sometimes like you're not doing enough, but then you're sore the next day -- and the program does work if you stick to it!
posted by penchant at 8:34 AM on March 23, 2009

While there may be some kinds of Yoga that will make you buff, the Yoga I've been exposed to is more about flexibility and relaxation, maybe balance, and "breathe, just breathe." It's very approachable as an activity, but maybe not what you're looking for.

True, a lot of yoga does focus on breathing, relaxation, and flexibility. That's why I specified "serious, committed, daily practice" kind of yoga. If you spend an hour a day doing it at your maximum capacity, it will improve your strength, flexibility, balance, and posture, without putting undue stress on a bad knee and without requiring a gym membership. About the only thing it isn't good for is sustained aerobic conditioning - which the OP can get from swimming. And its a great foundation for other kinds of physical activities.

A bit of googling turns up a few different resources that are (I think) in your area. Might be worth checking them out to explain your goals to them and see what they offer.
posted by googly at 8:38 AM on March 23, 2009

Fellow brain-in-a-vat here. I think maybe what you're missing is that satisfying sense of connection between your brain and body. For me, kickboxing has been really great for developing that, as has Pilates, but I think things like yoga and dance might work as well -- any sort of full-body, difficult-to-master-but-awesome-as-hell physical art form. It's really satisfying to put your brain to work on a physical problem, and realize that the same problem solving skills that make you good at say, drafting, can also be applied to improving your punching technique. You'll become more aware of how different muscle groups in your body feel, all while gaining that great "Holy crap, look what I can do!!!" feeling.
posted by TheLittlestRobot at 4:44 PM on March 23, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, there's lots here to think about! I have some thinking to do but really appreciate the suggestions, and the reality checks.

I need to set goals, absolutely. I've avoided doing it because I worry my health is going to make me fail, but smaller goals count too, and I can go gently/flexibly while also seriously monitoring and challenging myself. I need to do some honest thinking about this. My initial thought is a triathlon (if I can run, which I'm going to find out this week), as it's both un-me enough and also a combination of things I like taken a lot further, but I will give it further thought (and will aim to get to daily exercise - and yes, QUIT SMOKING - in the meantime).

TheLittlestRobot: any sort of full-body, difficult-to-master-but-awesome-as-hell physical art form.

Nicely put, it's a good way of approaching it, and you're right about the brain-body connection (which I get from swimming).

Evangeline: Thanks, heh. Planet Goofy has nothing to worry about, I'm there for life.

ch1x0r: * When I say seriously, I mean this: you need to monitor your performance, and set goals. If you actually want to become not only a person that exercises but a person that is actually in touch with her corporeal self, you should both know your limits and push them constantly. Going to the gym and going through the motions is not going to cut it.

Thank you. I'm listening, and I hadn't thought about it that clearly myself - if I accept that there's shifting in my limits rather than a steady upward curve (because of the IBS particularly), I do need to do this for it to be serious. Serious would be a change and that's what I want.
posted by carbide at 8:38 AM on March 24, 2009

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