My shoes scuff the pavement as I head out. It’s a slow start this morning, my legs stiff and sore from an overzealous yoga class I took on the weekend. I prefer running to anything else, to yoga or strength training or even swimming. But it’s also the hardest, most challenging thing I’ve ever done. I’m no natural runner, no Tarahumara, and each step for me is a struggle.
Slightly faster now, my pace picks up as my legs warm. A dance tune pounds through my headphones, adding some much-needed momentum. My breathing is heavy but not labored. I will jog for at least 30 minutes today — my current goal. Thirty minutes seems like an eternity. I try to break it up into 10-minute sections, to make the time pass more easily. But I know I will get bored soon, that my run will slow to a cadenced jog and even fast walkers will pass me on the pavement. Movement, however slow and incremental, has become a necessity.
A few short months ago, I turned 45.
For many women, 40 is the dreaded start of a long, slow decline toward death and worse, invisibility. Much of American, global culture values women solely for their sexual appeal, and older, overweight women fit nowhere into that scenario. We tend to fare worse on every measure of life quality, from salaries and promotions to finding a partner.
My father died at 45, and now I’m the age he died. I’ve reached his deadline, literally.
These all concern me less, though, than something much more personal and immediate. My father died at 45, and now I’m the age he died. I’ve reached his deadline, literally.
The fact is that 45 is as arbitrary as any line in the sand or number on a dial. He could have died at 42 or 73. I can die at any time. I could get hit by a car or develop breast cancer or be eaten by a shark.
But I always felt an especial bond with him. I favor him, the same blue eyes, dark hair, and square build. We also shared similar tastes in food and a love of wandering. I’ve gone through periods of depression the same as him.
We also both gained weight fast and furiously in our early middle age. He ate nothing but fried foods, smoked two packs a day, and drank like a fish to battle constant stress and lifelong depression. I packed on the pounds after two babies in three years. Late-night junk food, overwork, and postpartum blues added to the problem.
A few years ago, I looked up from my life and realized I was facing similar health concerns.
It stares back at me from the bathroom mirror.
When a woman reaches 40 she has to start thinking about herself differently. Her body has changed (especially if she has had kids) and along with it, her metabolism, her chemistry. But more importantly, she has to start thinking differently about her health. Women are just as likely as men to suffer heart attacks. In fact, heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death for women, according to the American Heart Assocation. We don’t often realize it, but we are at risk for heart attacks, and our health and lifestyle are intricately linked.
So I started walking. Not every day, but at least three times a week. In the mornings, on weekends. I roped in my husband and sometimes a friend and hit the seaside paths near my home. I thought it would be easy. But a year later, I hadn’t shed a pound. Two years into it, and I had inculcated exercise as a regular part of our family lifestyle. I then began to change our diet, slowly introducing more fresh fruits and veggies and cutting out sodas, rice, heavy meals, and most junk food.
Today, I run 30 minutes. My legs are warm. My breathing controlled. And I am getting better at enjoying the process. I don’t even mind the sweat anymore.
Getting healthy is simple in theory: Eat real food (limit everything processed and packaged), limit sugars and fats, and get moving. Implementing this in real life, however, is a daily challenge. You can’t exercise off a bad diet, as they say.
But running, walking, swimming, and even yoga helps. You burn calories, clear your mind, and boost your metabolism. When I started running, three minutes seemed an eternity. Today, I run 30 minutes. My legs are warm. My breathing controlled. And I am getting better at enjoying the process. I don’t even mind the sweat anymore.
I also have started looking for other, better role models. My dad died at 45, but my mom is still going strong at 68. She still works full time and walks, on average 3 to 5 miles a day. On the Fitbit leaderboard, she’s always a rank or two above me. It’s almost funny in a way. Her quiet strength and determination shows me another way I can be, gives me another path to follow — one much more healthy and rewarding.
In turn, I’m paying it forward. Now on my walks or runs, I take my girls with me. They ride their bikes or Rollerblade or sometimes jog alongside me. I hope I am imprinting in them a love for sport and activity, a love of self that means taking care of your mind and body. Because I’m doing this for them too. I run around the park or along the seaside corniche. I run up a few hills and pathways and have even completed one 5k race — though mostly walking — and am planning on another for the spring.
I won’t ever be a professional runner or even a serious one.
I’m a very happy weekend jogger, mixing my runs with walks and enjoying not only the health benefits but the actual exercise itself. My goal is no longer to just lose weight or to get fit but to live a simple, healthy life and enjoy myself in the process.
I’m not there yet — or at least not fully. There’s an incline up ahead, a slight few feet that feel like a mountain and instead of veering off or turning around, I start to pace myself for the climb.