How I Started to Feel Beautiful, Despite Believing the Contrary

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Everyone has insecurities. And for many people, especially so with appearance.

There are certain aspects of our lives we can readily control. Following a certain set of habits will get you a fit body. With practice, we can improve our mannerisms and social skills. Education will help shape and reshape our thinking. And to a degree, these changes can also shape how we are perceived by others.

But you cannot naturally change your eye color, hair structure, bone structure, facial proportions, skin color, or stature. Just like how you can’t convince someone who is firmly rooted to his or her set of beliefs, you won’t be magically growing another 4 inches or moving your cheekbones with sheer willpower. It doesn’t help that we’re constantly bombarded with all kinds of messages that our looks, especially for women, can trump other characteristics. Beautiful people often become defined based on their appearance – their underlying characteristics, good and bad, trumped by beauty. Ugly people receive a dose of sympathy and either are ignored by society or inspected closely for redeeming qualities.

It’s an uncomfortable topic. One that affects our interactions with those close to us and not so close to us. If we are ugly or feel ugly, the words “beauty is on the inside,” “You’re beautiful,” or “everyone is beautiful” don’t mean much. If that was true, wouldn’t we all be beauty contestants? If we feel ugly, it’s easy to dissect ourselves into wondering why we got so unlucky and why we can’t look like someone else. The reality is, beauty standards exist and we can’t help but notice them in others. Models and beautiful people market things well and they not going to go away. Methods like plastic surgery, makeup, and other such methods are out there, but they come with expenses, time, and doesn’t necessarily fix the problem of feeling ugly underneath all the artificiality.

The way someone looks can aid in diagnosing someone’s thoughts and feelings, but I think what much more valuable is how you feel. “Being” pretty and “feeling pretty” can really change someone’s approach to life. And even pretty people will feel ugly at times. For me, the one thing that has helped immensely is getting serious about fitness.

When you focus on a workout, you become so much less wrapped up in how you look. Being sweaty and gritting your teeth and wrinkling your face is all part of the ordeal, but being less focused on being “beautiful” and more focused on what you are capable of will get your mind off of things like how your hair looks. You’re very unlikely to be concerned with the shape of your eyebrows when you are on mile 10 of 20, rep 3 of 5, and so on. I’m not trying to say that getting your mind off your physical appearance will solve all your physical insecurities, or that not being fit means that you’re ugly (body dysmorphia is very real among fitness enthusiasts). But I truly believe that awakening the body to its fullest capabilities can truly make you appreciate the beauty that is the miraculous human body.

So we set tiny goals, like one pull-up, then perhaps two. One mile, then perhaps two. One inch lower in your split, perhaps two. Touching your toes, then touching the floor.

From then on, I slowly weaned myself off of overdoing my beauty routine and slowly got comfortable in my own skin. I released the envy I had of beautiful models and found peace with my appearance.

Minimalist Fitness: You Can’t Buy a Fit Body

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I had a FitBit once. The Flex, to be exact. It is the basic model that tracks how many steps you’re taking a day, and sets a 10,000 step goal, which on average should burn about 500 calories a day. Over one week, 500 calories translates to 3,500 calories, or one pound. For someone just starting out, it can be a significant change, and after all, humans were designed to walk. Walking is the simplest form of exercise we could be doing for ourselves, yet instead, we whine about far away parking spots, spending a little time outside in bad weather, and walking a bit further to get to a meeting. Really, for how busy my life already is, I’m always happy to get a little more walking time.

But I digress. I’ve tried the whole shebang of fitness equipment and wasted hundreds, probably thousands, on classes, memberships, equipment, programs…the whole nine yards, in the name of getting in shape. It kills me to see people spending thousands on stationary bikes, fancy treadmills and machines, and “diet shakes,” but get so little in return. The machines usually end up abandoned after maybe a few weeks of regular use. The subscriptions to specially formulated (read: expensive) powders and auto deductions for gym memberships continue draining bank accounts.

Getting a decent workout requires no equipment, really. Push-ups, planks, walking…there are so many aerobics and strength exercises out there that we could be doing with just our body weight and perhaps a YouTube video to follow. The fitness industry puts so much emphasis on buying success and getting it quickly with little effort, when the reality is, when our own hard work leads to results with little dependency on some external program or item, the reward is so much sweeter. We rely on the success of others who follow the same path, when the reality is that doing the same one hour routine as someone else can be easily upset by 5 minutes of bad eating habits (it’s scary how quickly we can hit our caloric limit with just a bag of chips or bowl of Cheesecake Factory pasta). The acting of buying our way into better health causes us to prematurely feel the reward of improving our health and in no way guarantees that we’ll actually get there. It makes no sense to spend more time buying and researching fitness products (clothes, electronics, etc.) than actually using them.

The truth is, we don’t really even need stuff to work out. Bodyweight fitness can get you strong. If you have to buy something, a gym membership gets you access to everything you need. In the end, it’s the discipline of committing to a fitness routine that will get you places. That FitBit may have told me I walked x number of steps a day, but it didn’t make me any stronger or lose any weight. Perhaps it encouraged me to compete against my peers, but that got old quickly and I didn’t notice any miracles. In the end, it was just a fancy pedometer, and I sold it on eBay for half the price I paid for it.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all about tracking results – but that is easily done as you put on your clothes in the morning in find out that they fit differently, or realizing an exercise is easier than before. Fitness doesn’t have to be so complicated. We can get fit with minimal equipment, but of course, put in maximum effort. More to come on the art of putting in maximum effort!

Beachbody workouts, Expensive Barre classes, and Aerial Acrobatics: A Tale of Sweat, Lies, and Bruises

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I was not a particularly athletic person growing up. I dabbled briefly in middle school volleyball and got pretty serious on my varsity badminton team in high school, but such athletic pursuits vanished when I went to college and was swiftly assaulted by an onslaught of exams, papers, problem sets, and minimal sleep. After two years of being overworked, I earned a classic freshman 15 in the form of a pinchable amount of belly fat, but managed to work up the diligence to play enough Dance Dance Revolution to shrink it down to slightly-less-pinchable size by graduation (yes, that actually happened, and oh yes, my downstairs neighbors were not happy).

My “workout” efforts through the first 22 years of my life are best described as half-hearted maintenance, but at the time, it kept me healthy enough to get through school without getting horrendously out of shape. I was never taught anything about cardio, lifting, or any other fitness fundamentals. Perhaps if I had stuck with physical education in high school instead of substituting it with badminton, I would have gotten familiar with such things, but I remember gym class to be something like a bubbling broth of  torture mixed with passive aggressive competition, so I was happy to do anything else.

The point is, it wasn’t until I got to working life that I started seriously taking fitness seriously, and this is only because in most cases, instead of being on a sports team, adults do something called “going to the gym.” I often joke that my fitness pursuit started as a result of being bored in the dying city of Buffalo, but it was my oldest brother who introduced Beachbody workouts to me, and as someone with a naturally competitive spirit (thanks, MarioKart), I thought I would give it a try. Little did I know that it would lead to completing all 90 days of the entire P90X program which snowballed into spending 2-3 hours a day at my amazing onsite corporate gym doing HIIT workouts and group exercise classes to spending $16 for an hour of barre class once a week, to finding a hidden passion in aerial acrobatics, to where I am now: happily learning and continuing to learn about the realities of fitness and the fitness industry in general. And now I get to share it all with you!

Beachbody’s P90X: My Foray into Fitness

P90X is awesome for beginners, though some might argue it’s more appropriate for people who are not in dire health (as in, you should probably start with something easier if you’re at risk for a heart attack). It has helped me get to know fitness jargon without going through the embarrassment of asking a guru. When I first started the program, I thought it would be a great way to get through long, lonely, and dark Buffalo winter. I wondered what it would be like, and I had a friendly co-worker doing the same program in parallel, so I thought I’d enjoy sharing stories about the workouts with him. I was pleased with the prospect of doing different workouts every day, and didn’t have to spend a penny on a gym membership. As the days turned into weeks, I was astounded at how quickly I was gaining flexibility through Yoga X and couldn’t believe I was starting to be able to lift more than ten pounds (I started with 5 and 10 pound weights). I quickly got addicted because I was getting visible, tangible results. Because I lived within walking distance of work and had no other obligations, the time commitment (about an hour per day) easy.

P90X was great. I thoroughly enjoyed the 90 day commitment. But it was just the beginning.

Joining the Gym and Doing InsanityLong Nights After Work Hours

I moved to Chicago after a year and a half in Buffalo. My new job was located at a suburban corporate campus in the Midwest and included an incredible onsite gym that offered group exercise classes, an assortment of machines, supportive and easygoing instructors, and fun events and challenges. It was a no-brainer to join and it would help me get to know coworkers. Hot off the P90X program, I signed up on my first or second day, excited for a new phase of my fitness journey.

Because I’m there so often, I get to witness all sorts of people of different ages getting stronger, not getting stronger, looking the same, and not looking the same over the three plus years I’ve been there. Since I started doing that adult thing we call “going to the gym,” I’ve lost between 7 and 9 percent of my body fat, gained ten pounds (yes you read that right!), and have never slept better or felt so strong and energetic in my entire adult life. See, everyone knows the benefits of exercise, but if everyone was able to FEEL what being strong is like, I’m sure they’d make it more of a priority. Knowing the benefits is just not enough to motivate people – we really need to feel them to understand them. And boy, I felt them after hearing about Insanity.

Somebody generously left a copy of the Insanity DVD’s at the fitness center. The workouts are between 35 and 60 minutes long and require no equipment. As a minimalist, I loved the idea of using my body as my equipment and eagerly decided to try the program. Insanity is technically a 60 day program, but I was doing all the DVD’s for at least a year, so I probably did the entire thing several times. After a few weeks, doing the workouts became a no-brainer. Oddly, I craved being sweaty. It made me feel accomplished. I didn’t follow a schedule, but I knew all the workouts by heart. I managed to get my resting heart rate below 60 BPM through all the cardio, and I was feeling amazing.

Barre: A Fun, Expensive, & Misguided Pursuit

Wanting to expand my workout repertoire outside of work, I found a studio right in my hometown that taught barre classes. The philosophy of Pure Barre, Barre Code, and other such studios was basically do an hour of isometric, low-impact, low weight exercises to “fatigue” the muscles, “tone” specific parts of the body, and stretch the out at the end to achieve a “long and lean” muscles, just like that of a dancer. And who doesn’t want to look like a dancer?

After getting ripped apart by Beachbody, I fell in love with barre classes. I was already pretty fit when I started and quickly got addicted to feeling the burn. It was a safe space for me to workout, with so much positive feedback and no men around to watch. My instructors were incredible and I felt so supported.

The only problem was, it didn’t really make me stronger. At least, not in the way P90X did. It slowly became another workout of my week that wasn’t really helping me get anywhere physically. And the evidence was clear after I started circus, and realized that making my arms tired by pulsing with 2-3 pound weights was not helping me gain any muscle. Perhaps it helped me endure a lot of muscle fatigue, but I was not feeling stronger. I lamented my lack of progress in circus to my lack of strength to a good friend of mine, and he advised that if I was going to get any stronger, I needed to be lifting heavier weights. 2, 3, or 5 pound weights would not help me do pull-ups and inversions. I needed to stop wasting hours and dollars trying to “tone” my body.

I reflected on my experience in barre, and realized also that so much of the philosophy revolved around achieving physical beauty. Ultimately, despite its claims of supporting strong women, it was still a matter of how “toned” you looked and how “long and lean” your muscles were. This post basically sums it up a lot better than I ever could, but long story short, I spent my class cards and stopped buying them. How “toned” your muscles are and how “long and lean” you’re going to be is going to depend on your genetic makeup and your body fat percentage, both of which are going to be almost entirely dependent on your genes and your diet.

Women are different from men, but they shouldn’t need “specialized training” involving 2 pound weights that is supposed to make them fit a universal ideal.

Circus: A Magical Art Form that Showcases the Beauty of Strong Human Bodies

Circus arts combines gymnastics and dance and creates a form of entertainment through the manipulation of various apparatus or in some cases, nothing at all (partner acro).

I already have an entire post dedicated to the art form, so I won’t elaborate on it here. But I grew to love circus because unlike straight up sport, circus focuses on creating art with physical strength. As someone who cares more about what I am capable of doing than how I look, circus appeals to me – especially its acceptance of new and creative ideas. It’s a fun and supportive community that focuses less on competing and more on showcasing. It gives purpose to getting stronger.

Efficient, Effective Fitness

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Proven to get you stronger.

Everything I did was a part of the learning process, and I figured out what worked and what didn’t through trial and error. But for people who are just getting started, I can at least offer up a few bits of learning to prevent you from wasting your time and money.

  1. Free weights get me the most bang for your buck. Lifting heavy is the most efficient way of gaining muscle. I started with ten pound curls, and after a few years of gradual increases, I am working on curling 30 pound weights. My arms may be marginally bigger, but bulky? It is extremely difficult to bulk up and basically impossible if you’re a woman. You have to be taking steroids to look anything like an Arnold, and even then, it’s not possible. If you look at aerialists (see here and here) who are insanely strong, I really think bulking up should be the least of anyone’s concerns.
  2. Weight loss is predominantly diet, but if you’re trying to get stronger, you shouldn’t concern yourself with to the scale, and instead concern yourself with your body fat percentage. That aside, if you struggle with overeating, diet will probably end up being more difficult to adjust than dragging yourself to the gym. Plenty of people go to the gym and work hard but see no changes, but more likely than not, the lack of results is due to what they’re doing outside of the gym, and more specifically, how much they’re eating…especially when no one is watching. I’ve done it. I’ve done the chips in bed, the ice cream binges…you name it.
  3. Cardio feels great (afterwards, anyway), but after skipping strength training for a month, I promised myself I would never skip it ever again. Cardio is easy to get – any basic HIIT workout, cycling, running, or Stairmaster workout will do it. Strength will help you with your cardio, but it will also help you do useful things more easily. Like carrying groceries. Or a bag of rice. Or lifting kids.
  4. I became less concerned with how I look and more concerned with what my body can do. There is so much focus on how people look, and being thin, and being toned, and being fit but bulky…it drives me crazy.
  5. There is no “magic method” or magic “weight loss drink.” Fitness programs and gimmicks are expensive and hardly effective. And besides, if they actually worked, wouldn’t they go out of business? Put the work in, reap the benefits.

I’m still learning, as this is a lifelong pursuit, so I’d love to hear what you have to say.