Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change

CHAPTER 6: SQUATS, LUNGES, BALANCING ACTS AND THE AMAZING HELEN

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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.

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Written by Catherine Ford

September 28, 2009 at 5:32 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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