Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change

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Exercise is one of those “good” things, like eating lots of leafy, green vegetables. It’s seen as virtuous and we are always exhorted to get off the couch and get moving. Those doing the exhortations, whether to eat broccoli and kale, or to do Kegel exercises in the car or knee bends while waiting for the bus never quite seem to look like us.

To a person they always seem to be young, fit and pious. They are preaching their own orthodoxy and like all converts, they are relentless.

The thinking is obvious: Would you buy organic carrots from someone who’s scarfing down chicken fingers? A healthy eating plan from someone who smokes? An exercise program from someone morbidly obese? Of course not. Yet there’s a downside to such presentations: Because none of the crowd of nutritionists, dieticians, kinesiologists, or physical fitness experts look like the rest of us, there’s a tendency to dismiss the advice. It’s a familiar story — if you don’t see yourself reflected back in the media you consume, it’s easy to dismiss any and all advice.

Those of us of a certain age remember the 60-year-old Swede who was more fit than the 30-year-old Canadian. We remember 5BX (for men) and 10BX (for women), the Royal Canadian Air Force exercise program that required no machinery, no equipment and no fancy room in which to follow the program.

Today, between the television ads for various machines, always being used by some man or woman whose abs can be counted and who doesn’t ever seem to sweat, and the relentlessly perky young bikini-clad women found on the covers of magazines, it’s enough to depress anyone.

Where to start? What to aim for? Why am I doing this?

The last is the easiest question to answer: I want my body to reflect how I feel about myself. I want to face my senior years fit and healthy.

Aging is insidious for women. We are judged more harshly than men on our appearance and our age, the double whammy. Men get “distinguished.” Women get “old.”

Yet we are not our grandmothers, even if we are, ourselves, grandmothers.

Cultural conditioning plays a huge role in the way society looks at women. It’s not surprising, writes Dianne Hales in Just Like A Woman: How Gender Science is Redefining What Makes Us Female, that after long years of cultural bias — women being dubbed the “weaker” sex — that so many women are sedentary.

Yet, she says, “no medication, no therapy, no diet, no quick fix can do more for the body of a woman than exercise. Regular workouts, whether they involve walking, jogging, swimming, cycling or weight training, lower a woman’s risk of heart disease, reduce the likelihood of cancer, strengthen her bones, improve circulation, help control weight and enhance mood.”

Ask any woman over the age of 50 the most significant change they have experienced as they aged from 30 to 50. It isn’t menopause or gray hair or the sudden shifting of your body mass as gravity becomes your enemy. All of this means little compared to the realization that somewhere between 30 and 50 you become invisible.

Not to yourself or your family of course. But to men. The ones who used to look at you. Now they don’t see you. For some, this is a godsend. I remember my mother, who as a young woman was blessed with looks and figure, telling me the best thing about turning 50 was that men left you alone. She said that to me shortly after I turned 50. She was right. As we age we get invisible.

Helen Gurley Brown, the long-time editor of Cosmopolitan, was reduced in 1993 to writing a pathetic and sad book entitled The Late Show: A Semi-Wild But Practical Survival Plan for Women over 50. It was sad because the then-70-year-old author somehow believed she would be young forever. In 1962 at age 40, she wrote Sex and the Single Girl which caused a ruckus in a pre-Summer of Love society. At the dawn of the feminist revolution, the idea that a single woman could have an active sex life, could pursue a career without apology, and could thumb her nose at convention was a shocker. Fans of Sex and the City can credit Helen Gurley Brown for the initial permission given women to step outside the world of the 1950s.

Brown didn’t accept aging well, she writes. “I never expected to be old. . . . I expected to go on forever . . ., always younger than others in the room, at least younger by far than somebody in the room.” Eventually, of course, she became the oldest in the room. She’s now 87. Maybe now she accepts the fact that it is likely her determination to stay young through diet and exercise that has allowed her to stay healthy well into what for most women are years of frailty and decline.

And that’s what is useful about Brown’s book — not her little-girl schtick, her obsessive dieting and exercise, or the cosmetic surgery and Botox she has tried, but her simple advice: The reasons to exercise after age 50 are the same reasons to exercise before age 50. “Your body looks better (and) exercise makes you feel better.” She adds: exercise helps keep weight down, it lifts one’s spirit, it gives you a feeling of control over your life. “And here’s the clincher,” she writes. “Exercise separates the women who have given up — sexually and emotionally — from the ones who haven’t.”

Helen Gurley Brown is a determined exerciser — an hour and a half every day. But if it’s advice I want about exercise, there’s a closer Helen than Brown.

Helen Mikuska teaches core fitness (with a healthy dose of yoga philosophy and respect) at Yoga Marda Loop in south Calgary. If it’s advice on exercising I want and need, that’s the Helen I’ll listen to. She has the training and the credentials needed to make her believable and the empathy to understand the differing needs in her packed Wednesday morning class.

Not for her the army boot camp philosophy of push, punish and persevere. She uses persuasion and personality laced with humour, even as we balance on exercise balls, “writing” the alphabet with each leg. There are the requisite lunges, the stretches and curls and, at the end of each class, a glorious few moments of total relaxation, savasana in yoga terms, “corpse pose” in English — a blissful experience of total letting go.

The class is composed of women who have varying degrees of fitness and ages and one man — my husband.

NEXT: How Ted found himself exercising in a class of women.


Written by Catherine Ford

September 28, 2009 at 5:32 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with 4 comments

The millstone I wore around my neck had nothing to do with the Biblical exhortations of Matthew, Mark and Luke. But mine was just as real, if only metaphorically. It was bright yellow and made of chiffon, not granite.

It wasn’t the yellow ribbon of the 1917 folk song or the 1949 John Wayne movie, it was a dress — a party dress with delicate ruching on the bodice. I was 12 years old and the dress was a present from my grandparents. I loved it. It was the most beautiful present I had ever received from anyone. It was enough to turn the tomboy into a girl or the ugly duckling into a swan.

I squirmed into it, holding my breath and praying, to no avail. It was at least a size too small and the pleating on the bodice made it the absolutely wrong style for a pubescent kid already wearing a bra. I looked like an overfed honey bee without the black stripes.

In my mind’s eye, that dress hung in the closet for years, a silent reminder that that even as a child I didn’t quite measure up to the expectations adults had of me.

I don’t know if my mother was too busy to return the dress to the store, or even if it could be returned. I have no idea where my grandparents bought it. There are all sorts of ready explanations for that dress to hang in the closet as a mute rebuke to the fat kid. I have managed to remove from my memory the fate of the dress, how long it hung in my bedroom closet, or what replaced it.

Psychologists would call that selective memory. University of Michigan psychology researcher and assistant professor Robin Edelstein wrote about avoidance and that happy habit (my words, not hers) of being able to shove unpleasant memories to the back of your mind and then conveniently forget.

Edelstein’s research into memories and emotions, published online two years ago in, led her to believe those who block out bad memories do have some short-term gain, “but emotionally detaching themselves causes long-term consequences.” Or, in the words of the American alternative rock band, The Eels, “I wish I could remember/ but my selective memory/ won’t let me.” It sounds more profound when sung in the guttural and raspy voice of lead singer Mark Oliver Everett, but the point’s made. The human brain is very efficient at blocking out that which we don’t want to remember.

And the long-term consequences? More than 50 years later, that dress still haunts my memories. My sister tells me to let go: it’s done, it’s over; it’s history. Move on.

Easy for her to say — it wasn’t her dress. It’s not her childhood memory. For whatever reason, and it would likely take a trained psychologist to puzzle this one out, I can’t forget how mortified I was — a fat pubescent kid with mouse-brown fly-away hair, an aggressive personality and too mouthy for her own good. That about covers it.

Why do I remember a sunshine yellow dress but can’t remember the colour of the walls in my teenage bedroom?

Why do I remember being taken to a movie by my father at age four, but can’t remember stopping up the bathroom sink and flooding my grandparents’ house?

I can still see, in my mind’s eye, the sweeping grand staircase of that theatre in downtown Calgary and the delight of being out with Daddy by myself. Yet the memory of a far-more traumatic event — actually flooding the two-storey house in Mount Royal — completely escapes me.

Both of these events happened before I was four years old: one is a cherished memory, the other has vanished into the eraser of time.

My “remembrances” of that stunt — I presume I wanted a shower in a house that didn’t have one — are not memories, but are actually stories told to me by my parents and reprised years later when it happened again. This time it wasn’t me.

In the middle of a typical Alberta winter, when my grandparents were in Europe and my uncle left their house for his job up north, his last act was to flush the upstairs toilet and turn down the thermostat. The toilet overflowed, flooding the entire house. The temperature plummeted, and when the outside temperature went below the freezing point and stayed there for about a month, the water froze. All of it. In the ceiling, on the floors, on the staircase and in everything capable of holding water, including decorative vases. What couldn’t stand the pressure of the ice shattered. Including the vases.

My grandparents came home to an ice palace and, I am sure, the question why should they be the only people in Calgary whose relatives persisted in flooding their house.

But I digress.

Childhood memories, as any first-year psychology major will attest, are the strongest of all. But the reason some linger and the others don’t has been the subject of a myriad of learned papers and scholarly essays and research.

There must be a reason I grew up believing I was fat and ugly, although I am sure that Irish superstition played a large part. I’m content to put this corrupted image of myself down to my Irish mother’s upbringing on the west coast of Eire. There, folk stories and tales were as common as a turf fire. And one of the commonest superstitions is that praising your baby for her fairness or beauty was nothing short of an invitation to the fairies to come and snatch her from the crib and replace her with a demon child, a changeling.

It is to snort. How could any reasonably intelligent person believe any of this nonsense? But wait: Just ask yourself when was the last time you had 13 people at your dinner table? Or didn’t toss a pinch of salt over your shoulder when the salt shaker spilled? One doesn’t have to believe in superstitions to be affected by them.

It’s not that I haven’t intellectually tried to battle all of this with help. Such books as Fat is a Feminist Issue by Suzie Orbach, The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness by Kim Chernin, No Fat Chicks by Terry Poulton, have all sought to understand why women are so hard on themselves and the harsh standards by which the female form is judged by society. Dianne Hales’ 1999 book, Just Like A Woman: How Gender Science is Redefining What Makes Us Female dismisses what one researcher calls the “tits and ass” theory of evolution — that women’s bodies evolved to please men.

Rather, stored fat is an evolutionary necessity. “In all cultures and countries, women average twice as much body fat as men . . . Even young girls have more body fat than boys the same age,” writes Hales. The answer to why is fairly simple: The survival of the next generation may depend on the mother’s fat stores. Our “extra upholstery” as Hales puts it, not only helped keep prehistoric women alive “during harsh winters, but may have sustained their ability to conceive, carry and nourish a child.”

Yet there is something pervasive about the need to achieve some kind of acceptable level of fat. Right next to the aforementioned books sit the usual complement of diet books: The Complete Scarsdale Diet, The Fit or Fat Target Diet, The Fit or Fat Woman; Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution, The South Beach Diet and, of course, their companions in my kitchen — more Weight Watchers cookbooks than I can possibly count.

It’s not for lack of reading or lack of inspiration that I keep battling the bulge. And I don’t blame my childhood for my weight struggles. Being the victim has never been my strong suit.

But no one would deny that as the child goes, so does the adult.

Which, of course, brings us to the active child who played baseball, ran wild across the prairie grasses, chased down and tackled her best friend’s brother and rode her no-speed bike everywhere. She was shooed out of the house daily by her mother with the instruction: “Go outside and play.” How did she turn into a sedentary woman? Cultural conditioning, Dianne Hales writes. It has turned so many women into couch potatoes. “No medication, no therapy, no diet, no quick fix can do more or the body of a woman than exercise.”

NEXT: Squats, lunges, balancing acts and the amazing Helen

Written by Catherine Ford

September 23, 2009 at 2:19 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with 3 comments

Weight Watchers came to the Calgary Herald on April 15, 1998. I weighed 201 pounds. Loose jackets were my preferred cover. In the first week I lost six pounds.

One year later I weighed 145.

Was it easy? No, but it wasn’t difficult or oppressive or depressing. Women from all departments cheered each other on. The group camaraderie was a blessing in itself. That is the secret of Weight Watchers success. The downside is the incessant focus on what to eat, how much to eat, how to cook it, how to count the points awarded to each food group and how to make the changes that mean success.

In the end, I accumulated more than three years worth of food diaries, each accounting for every mouthful I ate, including the unfortunate day when a combination lunch and dinner consisted of liberal lashings of Scotch and three chicken wings and still came in under the points total for the day. I have kept them all — all 187 pieces of paper, one per week .

I have also kept the two pieces of advice offered by our group leaders that says it all:

“Nothing tastes as good as thin feels.”

“Don’t trade what you want most for what you want at the moment.”

So how does someone gain back all that weight? Surely that’s a failure of will. At the very least, it must be a failure of want. Maybe it’s a failure of won’t.

Whatever, there’s so much more to losing weight than losing the weight. Having lost the equivalent of a good-sized girls’ soccer team in the course of my life, I should know. Ah, but knowing and doing, doing and learning can be poles apart. At least that’s my reason for the down-again, up-again chart of my weight.

Until recently, I lived smugly with the comfortable thought I could rise to the challenge of losing the weight if I wanted to. I just didn’t want to, so there. (A slight moue at this point, plus a quick flounce out of the room was sufficient to let people know I couldn’t care less. Right, and all those comments about Omar the Tentmaker didn’t hurt, either.)

Recently, of course, age caught up to me. It actually caught up to my body, the real me still being 18 years old inside. In reality, I’m facing 65 in two weeks.

I know I’m not alone in this. I’m the whisper before the roar of the Baby Boomers as they screech into their senior years.

Gail Sheehy, author of the 1976 best-seller, Passages, argues in her 1995 follow-up, New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time, that aging well is a choice. “Experts in gerontology make a clear distinction between passive aging and successful aging,” Sheehy writes. The latter is a career choice, a conscious choice. “Your job is to revive your life energy to make the next passage. That life force is then ready to be applied to whatever current challenges you face or the life accidents that may occur up ahead,” she writes.

“Let’s don’t even call it aging anymore. The very word carries pejorative baggage.”

I’m all right with the word — aging is a fact of life, a statement of the brilliantly obvious I might add — but I’d rather do it without the suitcases under my eyes, the tote bag under my chin and the saddlebags that are a piece of luggage peculiar to women. That’s my personal baggage.

But Sheehy isn’t about to let us get away with sliding semi-conscious into that certain age. “Let’s be honest,” she writes, “change is one of those totems to which we pay lip service. In practice, most of my efforts and probably yours, as we slouch toward the third age, go into maximizing our control, trying to know it all, reducing the necessity to change and the inclination to risk.”

Our call to arm ourselves against aging comes with the blandishments of commercial creams and potions, lotion and pills, the lure of the quick fix and the promise of change without work. We will pay almost any amount to do what Sheehy refers to as “life prevention.”

And just in case you thought that was all we had to face, here comes the statistic: those of us women who get to age 65 can expect to live for at least another 20 years. Thanks for the extended lifespan, but I’d like to do it in a size 10 dress, as opposed to sweat pants or skirts with elasticized waists.

Let me be clear: If all it took was a desire to lose weight, most fat people would be thin and the rapacious diet industry would go bankrupt. There’s a lot more going on that just numbers on a scale.

If you have stayed with me this far, you might have noticed that actual numbers have been few and far between. Time to ‘fess up. And this is tough to write: I’m 5’ 6” and a bit, shrinking from the 5’7” I was 11 years ago when Weight Watchers measured me. The heaviest I have ever been as an adult was 205 pounds; the lightest, 137: I believe I weighed the latter for about five minutes between breakfast and lunch one summer’s day in 1977. It’s not that I remember weighing so little, but I have a picture somewhere to prove it.

Actually, at some point in my childhood I must have passed 137 going the other way, but I don’t remember.

If anyone wonders why I habitually wear high heels and lots of hair on top of my head, it’s simple: Taller means thinner. And let’s face it, your shoes always fit and so does your hair. Those $200 pumps don’t have to be buttoned at the waist or zipped up the back. They won’t desert you when last night’s grand marnier soufflé settles on your hips.

And hair? Did you ever wonder why so many fat women have elaborate hairdos? Simple: even when your weight is out of control, your hair will obey. Your hair can look beautiful even if you think you don’t look so hot about right now. You are in control even if everyone around you looks at your shape and thinks fat equals sloppy; fat equals no control, fat means no self esteem.

I know a lot of women think when they lose five or ten pounds — or 30 or 50 — that they’ll buy new clothes then. This is stupid. You don’t need expensive clothes when you’re thin, that’s why clothing for skinny teenagers is so shoddily made of cheap material — they’d look spectacular in anything.

But we need to work at feeling fabulous. That costs money. Being overweight doesn’t have to mean crappy clothing. You’re worth it right now.

The big secret is the more expensive the clothing, the smaller the size on the tag and the better the fit. And the better the fit, the better you look. And when you look good, you feel good.

Why is it that we women believe that our “reward” for losing weight is to fit back into a five-year-old dress? Some reward: old clothes. Go out right now and buy a single item of clothing that will make you feel special tomorrow.

NEXT: The yellow dress I try to forget, but can’t

Written by Catherine Ford

September 21, 2009 at 8:55 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with 5 comments

Eat meat and pee on a stick. Willingly put your body into ketosis and watch the pounds fade away.

Drink at least eight glasses of water a day — more if possible — and cancel all your social life that does not include immediate access to indoor plumbing. This diet of all protein and nothing else but water was amazing. The weight came off rapidly, not only because I stuck to it religiously, but because I had no life outside the diet.

There was a simple enough reason — if you eat nothing but meat you’ll a smell like the chief lioness of the pride with the breath to match. Thus I had little outside temptation, seeing that people were giving me a wide berth so as not to be knocked over should I talk to them. Fun.

Then there was the no-carbohydrates-diet: no bread, no pasta, no rice. Watch the pounds melt away until that fateful day when a maple-glazed Tim Horton’s cruller called my name right out loud as I was driving by.

Some diet theories will have you eating only food that takes more effort to consume than it adds to your ass — celery, carrots, cauliflower, cucumber. Pretend the gas explosions caused by this food group are coming from the person standing next to you in the mall. Better yet, don’t go to the mall.

Eat no food at all, just drink Metrecal. That was in 1979. (Does it even exist any more?)

Okay, eat one balanced meal a day and drink Slim-Fast, advertised to control the food cravings for up to four hours. Hah! There’s not a fat person in the world who couldn’t control a craving for four hours. But at four hours and five minutes, don’t get anywhere near the frig door.

One weight-loss method involved taking drugs (no longer prescribed by doctors) and waiting until you think hair is growing out from between your fingers. When that happens, eat your weight in chocolate.

Okay, so the last paragraph was mostly — but not completely — made up. The part about the drugs, about a million years before anyone figured out that speed was dangerous, wasn’t fiction. Neither was the part about the notion that hair was growing between my fingers. It wasn’t, but that experience cured me completely of the doctor-prescribed drug route.

Of course, today you could spend hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars on Jenny Craig or LA Weight Loss Clinic and pretend this regimen is possible for the rest of your life. I’ve yet to figure out, if you’re a woman feeding a family, what everyone else eats while you’re buying your mandated meals. And while I’ve never truckled with Jenny or Los Angeles, I’ve probably been on every diet ever invented.

They all work. Let me repeat that: They all work. Every one works. Of course, some could kill you. Most won’t because your body rebels against harsh treatment. And unless you have an eating disorder or more will power than the irresistible force of your metabolism, the same body you are trying to remake into some image you believe possible to maintain will force you to feed it what it lacks.

Naturally, chocolate and peanut butter are at the top of my personal list of foods my body craves and when Hershey’s Milk Chocolate met Harry Reese’s peanut butter, a little slice of heaven was created about 80 years ago. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups no longer cost a penny a piece, but neither does penny candy. (Even those wonderful licorice babies no longer cost a penny each.)

Dieting is a billion-dollar industry. (Google the word and within a seconds you can pull up more than eight million sites devoted to dieting.) Every gimmick has been promoted and I’ve likely tried most of them. Every single one was successful — as long as I was on the prescribed diet.

So, if every diet works, why is dieting still a billion-dollar industry? Certainly there are not millions more newly fat people around who want to shed the pounds to keep all these industries working overtime. Sadly, it’s all of us repeaters who keep coming back to try another tactic that keep the diet hucksters thriving.

Ah, but that the secret to the industry’s success: something like 95 percent of the people who go on diets gain all the weight back and then some. (You may all now line up behind me and we’ll form a conga line long enough and large enough to circle the world. While we do so, would somebody please start the hearty laughter that should accompany us because we really, really need a good laugh at our own expense?)

It’s not that we weren’t trying — nobody, but nobody has the will that fat people can muster. Naturally slender people just don’t get it. They don’t understand and they will occasionally curl their lip if they see you daring to have a butterscotch sundae. It’s just that you can’t live on lettuce, just like you can’t live on love. You can’t live your life on most diets, particularly the fad ones, and the ones that characterize food as “good” or “bad” are fads.

Food is food. Food is fuel. And when the fuel you take in is more than the fuel you need right now, your body stores it up. Hides it away. Makes little fat pads under your arms and on your thighs. Dimples your butt. Stores the fuel away for a long winter’s night, just in case you were planning on going into hibernation for a few months.

And while you’re on a diet, the perfidy of the human body takes over: You’re doing nothing more exotic than trying to shed a few pounds and the alarms go off in your brain that there’s a famine happening. Sound the alarm! Cut the usage! Store the fuel!

Okay, so a nutritionist or a dietician, a doctor or a nurse would put it in more elegant language and give you the reasons all this happens. I am none of those things. But I have one significant advantage over them all — I’ve been there, and I’ve been there more than once. Actually, I’ve been there more than thrice.

There are excellent groups that are metaphorically right on your doorstep ready, willing and wanting to help. They are as close as an Internet search or thumbing through the Yellow Pages. There are groups such as TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly) and the University of Calgary’s Trym Gym. But the best of them all, in my opinion, is Weight Watchers.

When Weight Watchers came to the Calgary Herald and started a workplace group, I was the first in line. Not only did I work in the same company as all of these women, but all of us had the same goal. Best of all, Weight Watchers came to us, once a week. All we had to do was give up a lunch hour. Even then, we ate our way through the meetings laughing and sharing and succeeding.

I still have my goal weight pin and my lifetime membership.

And I gained all the weight back and then some.

NEXT: “Nothing tastes as good as thin feels.”

Written by Catherine Ford

September 18, 2009 at 4:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with 3 comments

Amazing what one learns in the mountains. The Pope is Catholic but the bear does not shit in the woods.

It does its business in the middle of our driveway. That fact is enough to stop me from nature/fitness walks in what people call God’s Country.

I would be content to spend my time in the mountains sitting on the deck, reading the newspapers and struggling with the National Post’s diabolical sudoku and the Globe and Mail’s Saturday cryptic crossword puzzle.

Up to now that has been the rhythm of time in the mountains, punctuated by looking up at the surrounding Rockies and dodging the ground squirrels’ frantic tossing of cones onto the deck from the large spruce trees surrounding the house. Our presence here on the weekends interrupts their hoarding and eating activities. We prevent them from using the deck railings as their table.

Winter is coming and if the activities of the local wildlife doesn’t prove that, the chilly nights do.

Bears are in their final stage of fattening up for a long winter’s hibernation and they haunt the riverbanks and snuffle into the berry-bearing bushes. Who knew our driveway was masquerading as the Ladies’? Or maybe the Gents’. One can’t determine the gender of the bear from its scat.

I ask you – would you be willing to go out in the chilly morning air for a brisk two-mile hike past the yellow sign with large black lettering: Caution: Bear In Area.

I thought not.

There are fewer if any natural settings to compete with the Bow Valley as one drives through it from Calgary to Banff. It rises from a sprawling jungle of single-family houses cocooning a city of one million people, through foothills bisected by the Trans-Canada Highway and protected from predation by developers because it is First Nations’ land, to the jewel of Canada’s national parks, so-called because it was the first, not because it is a diamond. Let’s say that the town of Banff, nestled among five identifiable mountains — Norquay, Cascade, Sulphur, Tunnel and Rundle — is more the grit in the oyster than the precious pearl. Sadly, but profitably, Banff is a small mountain town that has been smothered by tourist love and turned into a polyglot jungle of tourist traps and overpriced stores. This may explain why we spend our time in Canmore, just outside the park gates, raher than in Banff.

In Banff, one is more likely to meet an elk than a bear. Around Canmore, when one sees a large yellow sign — Bear In Area — and when one is a fitness avoider, that’s as good an excuse as any to avoid walking through the woods and down to the river as any.

Not that I’ve ever met a bear face to face. But better safe than sorry, right? Then there was the scat on the gravel driveway at our second home in the mountains. How large was the deposit? Only slightly smaller than one of those squishy, messy and familiar cow patties. And the deposit was only smaller because it was firmer.

I never presumed that once I announced my intention to spend the next year trying to get fit and healthy that the first challenge would be avoiding wildlife.

It’s not that I don’t have fit people I admire to emulate. There’s my neighbour, the amazing Charlene Prickett, whose television show — It Figures — has encouraged generations of couch potatoes since 1976 to get up and get moving. Then there’s my friend Eva Newman whose idea of a fun afternoon is to hike up a mountain. Both Charlene and Eva, slender, taut and with upper arms the envy of women half their age are in their 60s. I have no excuse.

Still, I’m not holding my breath about outfits without sleeves. That might be too much to hope for without the aid of extensive plastic surgery and maybe a lobotomy. The latter operation would be necessary to remove from my childhood memories the voices of a phalanx of Ursuline nuns who decreed that the sight of a girl’s underarm flesh was enough to inflame the passions of passing men. It was, they would say in sonorous tones, An Occasion Of Sin.

To achieve my goal in one year may require more energy and commitment than is possible but it’s worth a try and I can dream.

Would walking around the deck qualify as exercise? Running up and down two sets of stairs would, but just thinking about that leads me to lie down with a cool cloth on my head.

Of course, there is a set of five-pound dumbbells in the basement of the cabin. Just because the treadmill and the dreaded Thighmaster is in Calgary is no excuse.

Maybe tomorrow.

These two words might explain more than anything else why I am in this dilemma as I face my 65th birthday. It has always been easier to avoid exercise than to do it. And even when I’ve been “good” it is still easier not to get out of bed in time to get in some sweat equity.

Full-time work was an excuse before I retired five years ago. Now there isn’t one, except as any retired person will tell you, retirement means more work, not less. The excuse of being “too busy at work” to accept a volunteer position or charity work no longer exists. And while my husband says I waste hours on the computer paying solitaire and thus have no excuse for not taking on some activity or another, the real truth is that there is always time to get in shape, to make those small changes that are necessary.

One really only needs the will. So this morning I took the stairs at the Banff Springs Hotel. Only one flight, but it’s a start, isn’t it?

And before we headed to a convention in Banff, I did spend three days in a row walking on my treadmill. A start, that’s all I promised myself. Forty-five minutes at a whack, until sweat took all the curl out of my hair. Not quite three miles (treadmill manufactured for Americans, hence the miles instead of kilometers). A “saving” of about 400 calories, or the equivalent of a small piece of lemon meringue pie or a normal serving of ice cream. (Who ever serves herself the half-cup which the ice-cream manufacturers say is a serving?) Who are they kidding?

Try the entire half-liter carton which should clock in at about a gazillion calories, all of which will flow right through your body if you eat the ice cream – French vanilla mixed with a dollop of peanut butter – standing at the kitchen sink. Well, that’s what I‘ve been told. It’s the same with cookies, isn’t it? If you break the chocolate chip cookie in half, all of the calories have been broken and have fallen out, right?

Much of this may explain why I have battled with my weight all of my life, either in reality or in my mind.

On at least four separate occasions in my lifetime, I’ve lost an average of 50 pounds. Even the innumerate can add that up to represent a 200-pound man.

Every single time but this one, I’ve gained it all back and then some. How does an intelligent person do that? How do you ignore the obvious until one morning you wake up and you’re 60 pounds heavier?

My first diet was at age 10, and I hope the doctor who told my mother to put me on a diet is roasting in hell. If you want to mess with a kid’s self-esteem, just pronounce her “fat” and make her deny herself when she should be learning the value of good food, not the side effects of eating too much of it.

Next: Every single diet in the world works, no matter how strange or dangerous.

Written by Catherine Ford

September 14, 2009 at 9:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with 4 comments

It all started with a $2 Thighmaster, a newspaper advertisement and a looming birthday.

Call it a cosmic intersection. Better still, call this a new year’s resolution, for as most of us realize, it isn’t January 1 that marks the beginning of a “real” new year, it’s the arrival of September, the opening of the school year and the turning of the leaves. Regardless of the weather, it’s fall, it’s a new year, and I have only one year to achieve something I’ve never tried before, or never tried before in public — the challenge for change.

For my entire 40-year career as a journalist, others’ lives were open to my inspection and interpretation. Now I’m going to try – with your help, should you choose – to turn the tables on myself.
This blog will be intensely personal, but I hope not exclusive.

My goals are simple: To spend the next year, until October, 2010, trying to reconcile the 65-year-od body with the 18-year-old who still looks out through my eyes, amazed at what she sees. When did my skin forget where it belonged? Who owns that turkey neck? Where did that cellulite come from? And, most importantly, why on earth does any of this matter?

Why should I even care? It is certainly not that I am a senior cougar competing with other women for the attention of a dwindling number of men our own age. Like many happily married women, I am blessed with a husband who has selective sight: the woman he sees is the woman he fell in love with years ago. Occasionally, he’ll notice a new hairstyle, or a new outfit, but his love isn’t based on my appearance, but on the person inside. All of us should be that lucky.

The second-wave feminism that characterized my path through my entire career in newspapers — a feminism I am still proud to wear — told us that what really mattered was a woman’s interior beauty. I have no problem with that. What I do have difficulty with is accepting there is nothing I can do about the wrapping.

I’ll never know the answer to that until I try.

So, when I encountered a bright pink Thighmaster this past summer, at a thrift shop for $2 – GST not included – I snapped it up. It has now sat unused in the kitchen broom closet for a month.

My treadmill gathers dust in the downstairs office.

Meanwhile, last week brought full-page advertisements in the Calgary Herald for a brand-new so-called Health Club sponsored by the paper. And, while my previous employer (I retired early, in 2004) is seeking entrants for a “win your own team of mean personal health experts,” readers are being encouraged to join in when the fitness regimen begins Oct. 1.

The three daily newspapers coming into our house each day (the Herald, the National Post and the Globe and Mail) all feature daily horoscopes and all last week there were exhortations for Libra to get up, get out and make changes, or words to that effect.

If one believed in the stars, the message was becoming clear. It’s not that I hadn’t been aware of the fact that my waist had somehow disappeared when I wasn’t paying it any attention, but I just hadn’t gotten around to worrying about it. That was until I tried to do up the waistband of a couple of pairs of shorts only to discover that everything had shifted in the wrong direction. Gravity wasn’t doing me any favours.

But the most embarrassing part of not being in shape — literally or figuratively — is the realization that I cannot walk more than nine holes on a golf course without being exhausted, and this summer, when the temperature went above +25C, I couldn’t do that, either,

Why should any of this be interesting to anyone else? Simple: I’m part of the pre-Baby Boomer wave. Born in 1944, part of the cohort of war babies, I turn 65 this October. There are a lot of us out there and many, many more to come.

In their definitive 1996 demographic study, Boom Bust & Echo, David Foot with Daniel Stoffman described those born from 1940 to 1946 as not having as much “peer-group competition as those born in the following decade.” We numbered 2.2 million in 1996 and, write Foot and Stoffman, we’ve done extremely well. By comparison, like the pig passing through the python (the words of author Landon Y. Jones) there were 9.8 million Baby Boomers in 1996 and as they age, they will follow me into the ranks of being senior citizens starting two years from now.

My goals are not outrageous. I do not expect to be 30 or 40 again. I do not expect to look 30 or 40, merely to be as healthy and fit as possible as I enter a new phase of my life. I won’t be alone: men and women my age now expect to remain vigorous and useful long past the traditional retirement age. Indeed, we are expected to stay vital.

To that end, I will chart my progress throughout the year.

Next: How I spent my summer vacation eating my way up to this.

Written by Catherine Ford

September 8, 2009 at 11:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized