Help me get my wreck of a body into some kind of shape, please
October 13, 2010 8:16 PM   Subscribe

I just started working out at my university's gym, but I have some difficulties and some questions...

I'm 43, female, 5'5" and about 195-ish pounds. That's about 90 pounds less than I used to weigh. I'm also out of shape because I haven't been able to walk as much as I'm used to because of the hellishly hot weather we had this summer and the still freakishly warm weather we're having now. So, I decided to bite the bullet and take advantage of the free gym they have here at the university.

Anyway, here are my issues with working out. I have arthritis in both of my knees. Bending them hurts! If I have to sit down and stand up too often, they will ache for hours, sometimes days, afterwards. I have a degenerative disc in my lower back, one false move can have me flat on my back for days. I have arthritis in my fingers and right thumb, and tendinitis in my right wrist, all of which gives me a loose grip at the very least. I also have a slight case of asthma (I've been hospitalized for it three times, but the last time was years ago so I think it's getting better), and to top it all off - I suffer from fibromyalgia.

Don't mention doctors - I've seen the ones I have access to - free clinic on campus - and they all advocate "exercise" but with so many things wrong (I haven't mentioned everything, just what will interfere with working out), none will tell me anything more than "exercise" more. I can't afford a physical therapist and or a personal trainer.

So far, I've been to the gym twice and what I figured out I can do without completely hurting myself is walk around the track and walk on the treadmill. They do have yoga classes and I would sign up for them, except they are during *my* class times so that won't work this semester. Can any veteran gym goers think of anything else I can do while I'm there aside from walking in circles or in place? I'd hate to stop going from boredom, especially since I've already rented a locker (as incentive you understand).

Also, this is the first time I've ever used public showers, and I'm not sure of the etiquette. I tried to look that up on google, but all I could find was a link to yahoo answers about men's showers, and I don't think the etiquette is the same. I don't want to walk around with my wobbly bits hanging out, and I'm sure that these fresh, young college girls aren't keen to see my stretch marks. So what's a woman to do? So far, I've been changing *in* the shower, but I've managed to get my clothes wet both times since there isn't a lot of room in there. Any help with that would be greatly appreciated.
posted by patheral to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (30 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
What's the shower layout? You won't be the only shy person at the gym, so whatever works for you is really fine. I've changed in the shower too, but generally when they have the 2-stall setup where there's a shower separated by a curtain from a dressing area with a bench.

Have you tried the elliptical? It's a better workout than walking the treadmill, and very low impact on the knees, less than walking, I feel.

I would also recommend the rowing machine except I'm not sure how your knees will like that. You're not doing as much weight-bearing on the knees, but you do need to do an explosive push that takes them from a bend to straight and back. It's worth a try to see if it aggravates your sensitivity. If not - wow, rowing is great exercise.
posted by Miko at 8:26 PM on October 13, 2010

Definitely stay away from the rowing machine if you have lower back problems. The elliptical is a very good idea. Swimming is another low impact option. Change where you feel comfortable. I change at my locker, but many people seem to change either in the shower area or in toilet stalls.
posted by sulaine at 8:39 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Swimming is my suggestion. There are also a number of other activities that take place in the water, such as water aerobics or aquajogging, that might be of interest to you.

As for the gym, I always get naked in front of the locker, wrap a towel around me and go to the shower, and then dry off at the shower before going back and changing. In my gym some people do similar things, but some people change in toilet stalls too. Do whatever makes you feel comfortable and you'll be peachy keen. And, as a "fresh, young college girl" I can confidently say that I would be totally comfortable with you changing/being naked near me in the locker room.
posted by lucy.jakobs at 8:48 PM on October 13, 2010

The problem with the elliptical is that it can aggravate some lower back problems by creating "shear." I am not a doctor or PT. I don't even really know what "shear" is. I do know what it is when I feel its effects. And I have been told by rehab med doctors and PTs that I can't use the elliptical for this reason. They tell me to stick to the bike and the treadmill. I have arachnoiditis, which is probably nothing like your problems.

I have no idea whether the elliptical is good for you or not. But more often than one would think, good old-fashioned walking on a track or treadmill is the best exercise. In fact, if you are doing just that and it doesn't cause any pain, keep doing it. It is boring, sure, but bring a book or trashy magazine or watch a tv show while you walk.

The most important thing is not to hurt yourself.

As for shower etiquette, I've got nothing.
posted by vincele at 8:50 PM on October 13, 2010

Are you listening to anything while you exercise? Good music and sometimes audiobooks for me make the boredom thing a non-problem.

As far as etiquette goes, I found that once I got a large beach towel to wrap around myself to and from the shower (don't forget shower shoes, too) I felt much more comfortable. I am "naked" while changing in the main locker area for all of about 3 seconds if I get my clothing "mise en place" set first.

I'm an almost-40-year-old at a college gym and I figure it's probably just fine for those college girls to see a grown woman getting dressed in front of them. With luck, they'll be 40 one day too.
posted by pantarei70 at 8:58 PM on October 13, 2010

Best answer: Etiquette-wise, no one cares about your wobbly bits -- they are far more concerned about their own, even if theirs don't wobble. If people wander around the changeroom nude, it's fine for you to do that, too. It's also fine for you to wrap a towel around yourself, or wear a small robe.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:01 PM on October 13, 2010

Best answer: First off, good for you for wanting to get in shape!
I'll answer from male perspective, but to give you some back ground.
I also have degenerative disc disease, arthritis of the spine, and fibromyalgia/myofascial pain. Differences being I'm male, mid 20's and have always been pencil thin.

I just recently started working out this June as I've been concerned about my health and wanted to build muscle to hopefully prevent myself from the irrational fear that I'm going to be immobilized due to my damn back.
I've tried working out in the past, but gyms generally have left me feeling intimated as I'm scrawny so I didn't feel comfortable with myself surrounded by giant, muscular people while I'm crunch a 10lb dumbbell.
Anyways, my comfort level became irrelevant, as I really was determined to bulk up in fear of health.

I started off by trying different exercises and paid close attention to my body. I made a few mistakes along the way that left me in bed a couple of times (which can be avoid I'm sure as I'm quite overly ambition and limits-be-damned! at times, usually to my detriment).
Slowly, I've learned what works for me and I've made progress that has surpassed what I thought I could do.

Anyways, I know some people say the elliptical, but I can run a few miles. For the life of me, my knees can't tolerate 10 minutes on an elliptical. They ache, burn, grind and generally feel extremely inflamed on that contraption. I know running is more impact on my spine and joints in general, but I resign to the elliptical, and biking is out of the question as I can't sit for more than 10-15 minutes.
There is no one size fits all in terms of what you can and cannot do, only you can explore it.
I know some people really recommend water exercises and tai chi, neither of which I can vouch for.

Another thing is being in pain all.the.fucking.time! is not a giant motivator as you noted, to wanting to work out. I've had a few weeks where I went less than I usually do, but I resolve to go, and SCHEDULE IT as something I HAVE TO DO. Remember, this is for you, and you need to enforce yourself. Maybe if I'm having a bad day/week I will go easy and light on myself, but I still show up. Its nice as you begin to work out, all these positive, reinforcing endorphins/chemicals are released. I never in my life thought I'd be a gym rat, or a regular at that, but I know how good I feel after a work out. Seeing results and resolving a goal is also an awesome feeling.

Best of luck, and sorry for rambling.

*Can't help you on the shower thing, I work out and drive home to shower.
posted by handbanana at 9:07 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

*correction intimidated
posted by handbanana at 9:09 PM on October 13, 2010

Okay, nthing the elliptical. Try it and see if it works. Because of your back, you may want one that doesn't have the arms that go back and forth. Or if it does, maybe don't use the arms. (I have a nerve problem in one foot, and I find that I can do the elliptical for a lot longer than I can walk on a treadmill or track.)

How about the bicycle, especially if they have the recumbent style where you lean back? I would suggest trying it with very low tension, so your knees aren't working too hard. Keep it very light, and then just try to go faster as you gain cardio strength.

If your schedule changes, definitely yoga. You may also check around with local yoga studios. Most studios have at least one class a week offered as a "community class," where you don't need to be a member, and may pay only by voluntary donation, in which case it's fine for you to leave $5 or even less if you can't afford it.
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:11 PM on October 13, 2010

Forgot to say -- MAJOR CONGRATULATIONS on what you have achieved so far. It's awesome.
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:12 PM on October 13, 2010

Best answer: I'll ditto the swimming suggestion if you can do it, and the elliptical. You might try doing a bit of basic weight lifting too if you have a trainer (I know you said you can't afford one regularly, but perhaps you can pay someone for one or two sessions, just enough to give you some advice and set up a workout plan?) there who can suggest what is safe with your potential for injury. Some strengthening would make doing other kinds of exercise less perilous, methinks.

Also, you have good shoes for your walking/treadmill etc. right? That may help a bit with the knees, although I dunno. Shoe stores for runners are great for getting competent sales staff who are able to evaluate stuff like if you pronate and whatnot so as to give you the right shoes.

vincele mentioned biking, do you have stationary bikes in the gym too? Spinning is really popular these days, and definitely easier on your knees than a lot of things, although maybe it's a lot of bending for you? Or, maybe the disk issue prevents this?

Rowing is awesome but if you are doing it right, as Miko said it is pretty explosive at the beginning of the stroke, and if you aren't doing it right, you probably shouldn't be rowing...but I won't get off on that personal pet peeve...

What about calisthenics, like push-ups and sit-ups, static holds, stuff like leg lifts? These can be really great exercise and very safe. There are many variations and ways to scale up too. A 20 minute low-impact calisthenic routine could be a great way to go for you, potentially. If you combined this with the walking and elliptical you're already doing, that's a pretty good amount of variation for you.

As far as the locker room, well, I'm a guy, but I use a university gym myself and no one really cares who looks like what; there are all kinds of guys in there of every age and shape. People have various levels of comfort and I've found everyone to be really respectful of each other's privacy. In most every gym I've been in as an adult that's been true, actually.

It's funny, I actually saw something the folks who run the place put up a week ago that was about locker room etiquette, and it stated something like it is best to always cover up with a towel because you might make others uncomfortable, but I don't really buy that...I think others' nakedness is something you get used to, and I've never been in a locker room in my LIFE where this was something people were concerned about (although, again, I'm a guy so I can't say if there is different protocol for the women's locker room, although from what lucy-jakobs says it sounds pretty much the same).

Anyways, my point is, I think if you're worried about what others think about you, you shouldn't be (it would be really weird for people to be critiquing your body in the locker room, and it would be really really weird for them to let you know somehow they were doing it)...but you should absolutely feel comfortable yourself and keep covered to the degree you want, however suits you.

Good for you for what you've been able to do and committing to regular exercise despite your challenges—you should be proud of yourself. Keep it up and don't get discouraged; keep asking for help and trying new things until you find something that works for you. Good luck!
posted by dubitable at 9:18 PM on October 13, 2010

nthing swimming. I am a runner with two busted achilles tendons, and it has been great! I'll be honest, it sucked really bad and I felt like I was drowning for about 2 weeks, but after learning to swim, It has been a good, sustainable cardio workout.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 9:20 PM on October 13, 2010

Er, sorry I guess the elliptical is probably a bad idea based on vincele's post...
posted by dubitable at 9:23 PM on October 13, 2010

Best answer: I'm an over-40 lady at the college gym. Most of the people who seem to be a little weird around the showers here are the college kids who often change in the toilet stalls and shower with their bathing suits on.

All the older women [and they're literally twice as old as me] walk around however they want to. Otherwise, what everyone else said. Big towel that hangs near you when you shower, you can cover up on your way back to the lockers. Okay to be naked near the lockers. Dry off, put on dry clothes, done. Generally people don't shave in the showers, though some of them do. Usually people bring all their own toiletries. If you wind up rinsing a lot of hair into the drain, it's polite to scrape it out. Please remove any of your old band-aids from the shower area. Don't use other people's toiletries.

If you do decide to swim [and I recommend it] or work out in the pool [you can get these floaty belts and just sort of run in place which is a lot more work than you think, but not scary or bad for your joints] you can also get some of the somewhat spendy swimmer shampoo. I was skeptical but it's way worth it.
posted by jessamyn at 9:28 PM on October 13, 2010

Nthing the swimming if there's a pool. If not, could you get some good podcasts to listen to while you're on the track and maybe some good books for the treadmill?

As for the shower etiquette, here's what I do (I'm 30): After my workout I take my shoes off at my locker and change into my shower shoes. I take the rest of my clothes off in the shower stall. After my shower I wrap myself in my towel and carry my dirty clothes back to my locker. I wiggle into my panties under my towel. Then I drop the towel and get dressed normally (okay, maybe a little quicker.) If I absolutely have to do body lotion after my shower I do it in my bra and panties with my towel around me, but I usually try to do that kind of thing at home. Part of why I do what I do is because sometimes the gym is crowded and taking longer in a shower stall is kind of rude if somebody is waiting.
posted by TooFewShoes at 9:44 PM on October 13, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great advice! They do have a pool here, but I don't have a swimsuit, haven't been in the water for over ten years (since I was morbidly obese and just couldn't stand to see myself in a swimsuit), and have to get over this crushing depression that comes over me every time I think about swimming. I think I'll have it whipped by next semester... Not sure about getting a swimsuit though, they're pretty hard to find nowadays and I have $0 after the locker rental.
I did try the elliptical machine, and it wasn't too bad... I lasted a whole five minutes on it so i don't know if it did any good. Maybe I had it set wrong? As far as it could tell, it was at the lowest settings.
There haven't been many people *in* the locker room my two times there, which is why I wan't sure of how to proceed. This afternoon the place was full of schoolgirls (middle school, I think) on their way to the pool. I just didn't know what to do, so I took everything into the shower. There's a tiny dressing stall in front of the shower with a curtain, but it's not very private and the water from the shower sprays into it even with the separating curtain closed.
All I did was walk the track today and my knees hurt... Guess I'll try the treadmill and elliptical next time.
posted by patheral at 9:50 PM on October 13, 2010

Not sure about getting a swimsuit though, they're pretty hard to find nowadays and I have $0 after the locker rental.

Just an FYI on this one. Feel free to go at whatever pace you want to, but I wanted to say that I usually get suits at the local thrift store for $3 or so. At that price I just go in, grab three that look like my size and take them home to see if they fit. Maybe not in everyone's comfort zone, but okay for me. There are a lot of good looking swimsuits for people in your height/weight range and I found that the snugness often felt better on me than sort of loose droopy workout gear.

In any event, good on you for moving forward on this, if you've got more questions about fitness swimming, feel free to email me.
posted by jessamyn at 9:56 PM on October 13, 2010

As someone with a slew of similar problems, I recommend swimming and recumbent bike.
posted by disaster77 at 10:07 PM on October 13, 2010

I would try the bike (on the regular bike you don't have to put weight on your wrists so try that first) and see if they offer a class that is calisthenics based. My gym has a few, they are called weird things like "body sculpting" or whatever but are basically toning classes that are extremely flexible in terms of how hard each individual can make them. All ages and fitnesses take them and you'll see one person with big massive hand weights or doing one handed pushups while another has no handweights and is doing pushups on the wall. It's all in the good trainer and you'll know who they are because their classes fill up right away.

I'm going to go against the advice here and say don't take a yoga class at a regular gym unless you are sure that the instructor is experienced and careful. Gyms are notorious for hiring any old person to teach yoga. You can really mes up your back.

Finally if your gym has a set up like Curves with a bunch of machines that you go around in a cycle and lift weights consider that. Make an initial appointment with a trainer whenever you have the funds and get set up with a routine or see if the gym offers one or two free sessions. Light but regular weights pretty much cured my Mom's arthritis problems and she's much stronger now to boot. She was very weak beforehand (the 40lb dog could pull her over and she couldn't even push a vacumm cleaner because of wrist problems) and while she's not exactly muscle bound now she's able to garden and bake again and to walk the dogs and do all that stuff.

Nthing that the young college girls are the ones who are self conscious. When I was a grad student quite a lot of them would work out and not shower because we had communal showers which was a bit gross. The older women (age 25 and up) may have been a bit more wobbly but at least we were clean when we left the gym.
posted by fshgrl at 10:55 PM on October 13, 2010

In addition to the good responses so far, I would suggest that you find a way to safely introduce strength training into your workouts. Strength training, perhaps surprisingly, is a good strategy for long term fat loss. Given the restrictions on certain types of movements, I'm not sure which exercises to recommend. For example, it sounds like squats and lunges may be out of the question, but how about bench press? Whatever you do, start small to avoid injury, but then methodically work up. Don't just keep lifting 20lb forever.

Also, have you tried adding glucosamine to your diet in some form?
posted by knave at 11:01 PM on October 13, 2010

Swimming is great- I am not a strong swimmer, but when I had a foot injury it became my sole source of exercise- I was intimidated when I started so I went at odd hours when the pool wouldn't be crowded but eventually gained confidence. The stationary bike and elliptical may also be good options for you. You might want to talk to the gym staff and see if they have any suggestions for you. As for the showers, personally, I put on my bra and undies in the mini-change room in front of the shower, wrap myself in a towel, and then put on my clothes in the locker area. I was offended at all by the naked ladies but that's just not my style- plus, it was a university gym where I worked so I occasionally ran into both my students and supervisors in the change room.
best of luck with the fitness- sounds like you're on the right track.
posted by emd3737 at 5:34 AM on October 14, 2010

Response by poster: I'm not thread-sitting (I promise!)

I guess I'm gonna have to get over this thing with swimming and find a swimsuit... maybe. ^_^ I really do have some strong emotional issues attached to swimming.

I did look at the gym's website, and they do have personal trainers there for a fairly reasonable price, I guess, I've never priced them out before... $20 for an assessment and to set up a routine or $50 for the same plus three session. I'm going to see if I can charge that to my student account. If so, then I can afford it 'cause my next round of student loans will pay for it.

Thanks again, everyone, for the advice.
posted by patheral at 6:46 AM on October 14, 2010

haven't been in the water for over ten years (since I was morbidly obese and just couldn't stand to see myself in a swimsuit)

I am 5 pounds heavier and 5 years older than you; in my water aerobics class, I am one of the thin, young girls! Every size is out there and nobody cares what they look like. Some of the ladies wear a sports bra covered with a tight-ish t-shirt (too loose gets all baggy in the water) and some elastic shorts. My suit is size 16, if that helps you at a cheap store. I found mine at the end of last season for $10 at Sears.

I'm really glad you asked this question. I have a lot of the same problems and I'm finding that the hardest part for me is the commitment to JUST DO IT, regardless of what IT is. I keep using my pain and the weather as an excuse. But I have found that I really do feel better afterward, so I'm trying to think to the end of the session rather than procrastinating the beginning. I like the idea of setting an appointment and sticking to it; using headphones to relieve boredom, and mix up a bit with walking, biking, elliptical, swimming, classes, and lifting weights.

I'm not an expert, and I get intimidated when I read sites about weight lifting, but here are some articles about starting out with weights and exercising with pain:
WeightLifting 101
Best exercises for back pain
Another article about exercise for back pain
posted by CathyG at 6:55 AM on October 14, 2010

Best answer: There's no rule that says women's swimsuits have to be like going out in public in your underwear (although most are like that). Men get to cover up when they swim. Try to find some swim shorts for women, a tankini top, a rashguard top, or like CathyG suggests, a sports bra and a fitted t-shirt.

Walking is underrated as an exercise. Keep doing it. Even moderate exercise is good for you and better than hurting yourself and being unable to exercise at all for a few weeks or months.
posted by Mavri at 8:03 AM on October 14, 2010

Good point by CathyG, water aerobics is one of the most inclusive classes I've ever been to. The sessions I've been to or seen taking place have all been dominated by older women, all ranges of ability, size, shape, dress etc, and with a gentle, welcoming atmosphere. If you want to overcome your fear of getting into the pool, that would be a great way to start. Chat to the teacher about your health limits, tell them if you'd prefer to stay in the shallow end, and they'll offer up alternate moves for things that might be difficult for you. Go, patheral!
posted by penguin pie at 8:10 AM on October 14, 2010

I forgot to ask - You've already lost 90 pounds? Yay! What have you been doing so far that has worked so well?

I also wanted to recommend keeping track of what you are doing, especially with weights. If you keep track of each exercise along with the number of reps and the weight, it makes it easier to build a progression.
posted by CathyG at 10:37 AM on October 14, 2010

Response by poster: I lost the first 90 pounds about three years ago, and it took me about two years to do it - and it was plain, old fashioned, "eat less, move more." In my case "eat less" meant adhering to the "serving size" that's listed on everything here in the USofA. If I want a cookie, I can have a cookie - two if that's what the serving size is. If I go out to eat then at least half the meal goes in a take home container to eat for breakfast or lunch (or another meal), or I eat off of the kid's menu.

And the "move more" up to now, has been walking, walking, and more walking. When I lived in VA I walked in the mall during the hot months of summer, but here in this tiny town I find myself in there are no malls and the summer months are brutal, which is why I've gotten so far out of shape - it's just awful. Hence breaking down and joining the gym.

It still make take a while to get into the pool. It took me months to talk myself into walking through the gym doors.
posted by patheral at 11:30 AM on October 14, 2010

Best answer: Regarding locker room etiquette:

A few friends and I (all 25ish and female) were talking about locker rooms and how age seems to determine etiquette. Toddlers are going to be running around screaming naked (probably with a mom trying to get them in a swimsuit running behind), teens will be terrified and covered up, 20-30 will probably be more covered but care slightly less, and then there are the older ladies. The older ladies get to rock it. They couldn't give a care if anyone sees them naked. Hell, they'll sit around and have conversations naked. I can see their sags and flabs, and you know what? It is awesome. This is the natural order of the public locker room. I can only presume that at some age I earn some stamp on my locker room privilege card that grants me the confidence that these women have. And when that time comes I'll get to show those covered up younger gals what real bodies look like. Maybe the middle and high schoolers won't understand it, and are conditioned to think that older bodies are to be ridiculed or that naked = vulnerable. Maybe the 20-30 crowd will be polite and look away or think they're fortunate to be younger or thinner. But know there will be at least one among them that wants to give that older lady a high five for rockin' it. Naked older ladies are the top of the hierarchy of the public locker room, and I personally hope to achieve that rank one day.
posted by fontophilic at 9:34 AM on October 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

Not that it's particularly relevant to your question, patheral, but what fontophilic said (and great comment, btw fontophilic) about the "natural order" of locker rooms seems to be exactly the same for guys, across time and space (i.e. all the locker rooms I've been in since first getting taken to the Y as a kid with my grandpa), so maybe there is some sort of universal law to locker room etiquette.
posted by dubitable at 9:47 AM on October 15, 2010

Response by poster: I know I've marked this as answered but I just wanted to follow up. I've checked out the water aerobics classes and the "water jogging" times and they are both during my class times. So it looks like anything water related will have to wait until next semester (maybe - it's hit and miss when it comes to classes).

I've worked out a system for showering and it seems to be working okay. The first locker they gave me was directly in front of the door for the pool, so I asked them to switch and now I'm in the middle of the locker room -- not in anyone's line of sight so it works much better for me.

I had and assessment with the personal trainers yesterday and they said I was in "fair" shape aerobically but needed to work on strength and flexibility... I have three actual sessions with them starting next week, so we'll see how that goes.

Thanks again everyone for your advice and support.
posted by patheral at 11:21 AM on October 20, 2010

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