O Bendy Gymster: The Range of Motion

The younger student held up a rack of tubes. “So should I give these a quick spin in the centrifuge?” she asked.

I counted. Five tubes. “Nah. Just a quick vortex to mix them, and then just give them each a flick.”

She frowned. “A flick?”

“Yeah, like this.” I picked up a tube, and flicked it with my wrist twice until the liquid settled cleanly in the bottom. I do use the centrifuge for things that really need to be spun – i.e., separating out layers, separating out supernatant, pelleting DNA – but if I’ve just given something a quick rattle on the vortex and want to make sure no liquid has been flung up into the lid, I just flick the tube.

(NB for non-lab types: You need to make sure there’s no liquid in the lid before you open the tube, because otherwise you’ll lose your reagent/sample/whatever when you open it, and then you may cry. Also, flicking the tube does not work for the really titchy 200ul tubes)

The student, who was both a hard worker and a quick study, picked up another tube and attempted to replicate my movement. Her wrist moved very slowly, like she was waving a pom-pom. The liquid in the tube didn’t shift in any appreciable or useful way.

I blinked. “Maybe a quick spin in the centrifuge,” I agreed.

Later, I turned to a colleague. “Do you flick your tubes?” I asked, curious. “Like this?” I picked up one of my samples from the bench and demonstrated.

My colleague gave me a blank look for a second, and then laughed. “No. How do you even do that?”

It wasn’t until a year later when my first physiotherapist bent my feet inwards…

“Tell me when it hurts.” “Sure.” “…no, really, tell me.” “But it doesn’t hurt.” “Aha!”

…that I discovered I was hypermobile and that my joints exhibit an extraordinary range of motion.

For the most part, that’s a bad thing. Being hypermobile means a greatly increased risk of injury (all the local physios know me well). It means it’s easy to overstretch. It’s easy to accumulate connective tissue damage which means it’s more likely that you will strain, sprain, wear and tear at that point in future. It means you don’t move right, and things hurt more, and most activities are far more tiring than they are for most people. Sometimes it means orthostatic issues with blood pressure, gut cramps (because there’s collagen in your intestines too, and that has consequences), and other less predictable effects.

But it’s not all bad.

I just got back from an extremely excellent field trip. On the last day, my foot slipped while descending a step-ladder from the top deck of a boat. Ironically, I’d been about to brace myself so someone could pass me a drum.

My foot slid out from under me, but I gripped the handrail; my flailing shoulder popped forward a little bit (little subluxation, but not full dislocation), yanking at the tendons; my weight landed on my wrist, which was hyperextended; the shoulder snapped back in, aching like a bastard; and I held.

If I wasn’t hypermobile, I probably wouldn’t have been able to catch myself before going arse over tit down onto the mid deck, doing myself far worse injury.

If I wasn’t hypermobile, the shoulder probably wouldn’t have stretched enough to go out and in again the way it did. It’s bad – in a broad sense – that this happened, and it’s probably done some unseen damage to the complex bits and pieces that make up the shoulder joint; but my shoulder is fine. It was fine within about ten minutes, and that’s held.

The wrist, though, turned out to be an injury, and I won’t be flicking any tubes for a while. It’s a very minor injury, but it’s where the muscle attaches to the ulna, so it will take longer to heal than it would if it had torn near the belly of the muscle.

The moves I have to avoid in order to allow healing?

Hyperextension in the rotation of my wrist.

What I’m learning now – and what I didn’t know before this latest injury – is how much I deliberately hyperextend my wrist.

Flicking tubes is just one thing.

I also use wrist hyperextension to increase the leverage when I open jars (I work in a museum. I open a lot of specimen jars).

When I’m driving, I use wrist hyperextension to get the wheel to turn further in a single movement (especially when backing down our literally mountainous driveway).

When I put my backpack on, I swing it around my wrist to get it on my shoulder.

It turns out I use that extra wrist rotation to help fold fucking laundry.

So yes, this is all a bit of an adjustment for me. I’m not even kidding. I even have to be careful when doing cross stitch that I try to hold the needle with my wrist in a neutral position. In addition to all the recruitment exercises that target my hips, glutes, core, calves, arches, and shoulders, I now have exercises to target my wrists – all things designed to increase my proprioception and awarenss of my joint position so I can avoid over-extending.

There’s just one problem: over-extending my wrist is useful. I’m not sure it’s possible to teach myself not to do it. I’ve taught myself not to lock my joints, not to hunch all the time, to consciously engage my postural muscles – all difficult things – but they didn’t involve much sacrifice (although locking joints is useful when you have underdeveloped postural muscles).

So the journey of the bendy gymster acquires another layer, another problem joint, and another exercise for maintenance.

Mostly what I learned from this is how much I actually use my hypermobility for extra leverage, without even being aware of it.

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O Bendy Gymster: Toxic Gym Tropes

It’s no secret at all that I love the gym. I am an unashamed gymster. I came to fitness later in life and have been blindsided by the sheer joy of building up the relationship with my body and the things we can get done when we really try.

There’s a lot that I really love about fitness culture. There’s a lot of encouragement, a lot of support, a lot of “I will totally be your spotter, complete stranger, because we share a love of the bench press and this binds us closer.” There’s a lot of numbers and nerdiness and biometric data (often really inaccurate with huge margins of error, but shhhh). The fitness community can be a really joyful and supportive environment.

It can also be really appalling and toxic, and as much as I don’t want to be completely negative, this post really is about the perpetuated ideas that I view with extraordinary distaste.

The trope: The New You! NOT LIKE THE OLD YOU WHICH WAS CRAP

The response: In a previous post, I made it clear that I dislike this whole concept of the “New you!”, but since that message was hidden down the bottom of the post after my account of the whirlwind training montage that has been the past six months, let me make it clear again:

I think it’s harmful. I think being unkind to the “Old You” is not going to get you far in the long term. Sometimes, when people start exercising and eating better, it’s a temporary health kick. Sometimes it’s a long-term “lifestyle change” (although I feel even that terminology has been semantically polluted, let’s just take it at face value and try not to roll our eyes). Nearly everyone who starts out on a health kick thinks it’s going to be a lifestyle change, so they declare the “New Them!” and quite often they start trash talking the “Old Them!”

The problem is that the “Old Them” has not gone anywhere. Firstly, while the improvement in quality of life is no small thing, getting active and eating healthier food does not change your identity. It is worth it to be kind to that identity, because your sense of self is going to stick with you for the rest of your life. I can certainly think of times in my life that I was less self-aware than I am now, and less considerate, and while I am not proud of those times (and take full responsibility for the consequences thereof), they are still a part of who I am now and the journey towards being a bit more self-aware and considerate. While I want to shy away from memories of myself being an absolute tosser, that would be ignoring the lessons I learnt.

The same goes for times when I was less logical and sensible (not that I’m a paragon now, but we’re talking relative comparisons here), and yes, certainly times when I have been less healthy. Trash-talking the Kate of Poor Lifestyle Choices Past will do me precisely no good now, and could lead me to dismiss the very real achievements I made in other areas at the time. The Kate of Poor Lifestyle Choices Past was, by the way, writing a thesis, and I think that this was a commendable and impressive achievement, and the fact that I wasn’t running three times a week, eating keto and lifting weights in no way diminishes the fact that I wrote a thesis.

This is getting a bit in depth and personal, but it really cuts to the heart of why I hate all this “New You!” bullshit: it encourages you to hate the current or the past self, to dismiss that self, and to emotionally kick the crap out of it, and it means that when you lapse in your current plan (which you will, regardless of whether you maintain it overall in the long term), you will feel like shit. You will feel like you are incapable of change. You will feel that you are trapped in that “Old You” that you have taught yourself to hate, and that will feel dreadful (particularly if you are prone to depression or anxiety).

If you don’t buy into the identity-change crap, when you lapse, you can say, “Oh well, shit happens, we can move forward.” And if you decide that the path you’ve chosen for your health kick is not sustainable, then you can say, “I didn’t mind myself before, and this didn’t work for me,” and, if you feel like it, find something else.

“New You” is a trap. And of course, yes, it’s a trap designed to sell things. No-one is surprised by this.

A better option: I’m thinking that maybe sitting down and thinking about the things you like about the current you or the “old you”. They can be physical things. They can be emotional things. Maybe it’s about being smart or talented or kind or funny, but maybe it’s about being strong or having good posture or being very flexible. Don’t reinvent yourself; instead, think about all those things you like and how you’re taking them with you for the ride. If you’re going to increase your health and fitness, instead of making a “New you”, you’re adding to a list of things you like about yourself.

The trope: PAIN IS WEAKNESS LEAVING YOUR BODY

The response: Oh, shut the fuck up. Pain is your body sending a message to your brain that the current situation is not good. Sometimes, the message is incorrect: maybe you have a pain processing disorder, or some neuropathic condition. Sometimes the message is overstating the case: yes, it feels like your arms will fall off if you do another bench press, but as long as you are maintaining form, you can do it and benefit from it. And sometimes the message is on point: your technique is bad, you’ve buckled your shoulder (me!) or sprained your ankle (me again) or broken your finger (oh wait… me), and you need to address the situation.

Pain is a message. It takes interpretation. Is it a throbbing pain, or a stabbing pain? Is it muscle pain or joint pain? Is it overuse pain? Is it a cramp? Do you need to stop what you’re doing or is it the kind of pain that just means you’ve pushed yourself a little and you’re building muscle or endurance? Learning to interpret pain is an important part of getting to know your body, and most of us start to figure these things out as we grow up.

As a hypermobile person and a redhead, I have some quirks in pain processing which actually mean that – for the most part – I don’t feel enough pain. I don’t get enough warnings from my body. That’s high pain tolerance, but to an extent, it’s also high pain threshold, which is a different thing. The former means I can push harder, but it also means I run a higher risk of injuring myself (it also means I am an absolute sook by the time I start to actually become aware of pain because I am not used to most of it being at the level that most people get).

The latter is the problem wherein the message of pain is not getting through, until it builds up to a sufficient threshold amount, and then – then, dear readers – it appears all at once. Then you go from thinking, “Something doesn’t feel right…” to “Oh god, I have to pass out and/or throw up, oh god”. This happened to me a couple of days ago. I have endometriosis, which has only recently returned after a surgical treatment kept it in abeyance for a couple of years. I also buckled my shoulder on bench (bendy gymster ladies: do not do higher weights when you have your period if you’re hypermobile. Progesterone makes your collagen even stretchier than it normally is. You think your form is great, and it is, but only for a person whose joints stay where they are damn well told… my wrist shifted, my shoulder buckled, my target region was then way off, and at this point the weight was moving).

The shoulder injury felt really mild. A twinge here, a bit of a stabbing or shooting pain there. Still, I know my body well enough to know that even a mild joint injury needs to be checked out, because I can’t trust a mild message of pain. So I took it to the physio, who drew certain conclusions, and started taping it.

Meanwhile, my endometriosis was bubbling away in the background (so to speak). While my physio was taping my shoulder, the endo-pain suddenly reached threshold and crashed over me. My blood pressure plummeted. My stomach rolled. “IamverysorryIneedtoliedownrightnowIamgoingtopassout.” The physio helped me out and, at my request, fetched some water and a barley sugar (yes, I’m on keto. Still, a quick hit of glucose will restore tanking blood pressure and help settle nausea. Needs must, etc.).

And at that point, my shoulder started hurting properly. “We’ve reached critical mass so now you get to feel everything,” says my pain processing system happily, and now my shoulder felt like a real injury and it’s a good thing I went to a physio instead of worrying that I was overreacting.

Now, the intentions of “Pain is weakness leaving your body!” as a trope are basically to drive you to keep pushing, keep working, keep building, even when it seems hard, and those are in many ways good impulses. In order to build muscle strength and fitness, you have to push your body to the point of mild damage (micro-tears in the muscle) to send the message to your central nervous system that you’d like to build more muscle, please. If you stop when it seems hard, you will not improve. Progressive overload is the way to go.

The problem is that not everyone is good at interpreting pain. I like to think I have become something of a connoisseur, because I have to pick apart some very quiet and subtle messages. I have friends with fibromyalgia who have the opposite problem, where their bodies are shouting at them all the time and they have to sift through all the noise to work out where the damage is and how much they have to listen to (if they wish to exercise).

My body’s pain message says things like, “Excuse me, I don’t mean to bother you, I mean, only if you’ve got a moment, but if you’re not busy, maybe I should tell you – I mean, is it important? Really? – but I should probably mention: the house is on fire.”

That’s until we get to critical mass, at which point my quiet and gently spoken system turns into a complete arsehole. “I TOLD YOU THE HOUSE WAS ON FIRE AND YOU DIDN’T LISTEN! ARE YOU STUPID OR SOMETHING?”

Many fibro sufferers get messages like, “OH MY FUCKING GOD WE SPILLED SOME MILK! WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE, DIE RIGHT NOW, OH THE DEATH!”

(please note, I am not implying that people with fibro are sooking; quite the opposite. They are experiencing extreme phenomenal pain. It just doesn’t mean that there is corresponding damage. The fact that many learn to ignore high levels of pain and go about their lives anyway is extraordinary. Some hypermobility sufferers also get to a point of chronic pain where they have to learn that pain does not always mean damage. I am not at that point yet. I consider myself very fortunate)

A better option: pain is a message you need to interpret. Sometimes you need to push a bit further. Sometimes you need to stop and hand out some TLC to your body so that you can push further next time – and maybe ask for advice on form or technique so that pain doesn’t happen next time.

The trope: KILL YOUR FAT SELF

The response: Do I really need to explain why this is toxic? Anything that teaches you to hate any part of your body is probably not going to be great for you in the long run, and our society’s horrendously unhealthy obsession with fat and the locations and amounts thereof is all about building a really shitty, self-loathing relationship with your body. I do not think there is anything redeeming in this message. If people want to lose fat and change up their body composition, that’s their personal choice (my body is doing those things at the moment); but doing it via hate is, in the long run, a problem. It also leads people to start hating on other fat people, some of whom have made different choices (and some who have made exactly the same choices), because they’ve learned to hate fat and they no longer seem to care exactly whose fat they are hating.

There’s an in-group/out-group phenomenon that cuts in, not to mention the “good fatty/bad fatty” dichotomy.

I do not believe that being fat is inherently unhealthy, or metabolically healthy obesity would not be a thing (and it is not even a particularly rare thing). Having said that, if someone decides that they want to give it a shot at changing up the system, they can do it without hating on their body.

To be a bit confessional, way back in the past I have hit the gym in an attempt to lose weight. I have, in the past, declared war on my body. I have certainly felt disgust at my squishy parts. The end result was that I didn’t enjoy working out. I didn’t enjoy moving my body as much because it was an act of aggression, and not one of achievement. I have pushed myself based on these impulses – and guess what! It didn’t work. In fact, not only did it not work, but it made me feel even worse about my body. It meant I started noticing and obsessing over my perceived flaws, and started wanting really quick results to justify all this adrenaline and frustration. When I was focusing on those results, I wasn’t focusing on getting fitter and stronger – the things that make me happy about gym – and even the endorphin high wasn’t as much fun.

This is, of course, just my experience.

A better option: Going keto means that I’ve actually increased the ability of my body to use stored fat as an energy source – something that it was very inefficient about before. So, if I think about the fact that my body fat percentage is going to decrease as a result of my exercise, I think of it mostly as using fat. Hurrah, my body has stored up energy and now I am using it to do things. It’s fuel. I actually don’t want to stash it, to be honest, because I’ve internalised the same conflicting body crap that most of us have, and I haven’t completely got past that; but thinking of it as “insulation” (because I do get colder without it), or “padding” (because goddamn my knees are bony now that I have lost some of it, I now sleep with a pillow between my knees), or “fuel” (because now I can run and use it to keep going and going and going) is about eight hundred times better than thinking of it as disgusting or repulsive or something dreadful.

I could also think of it as “buoyancy assistance”, but actually that irritates me in diving and is not a positive thing (divers will spot the pun there). If, however, you like to float, then it would be a good thing!

Summary

In the long run, I think these sorts of tropes are harmful, not just in terms of one’s relationship to one’s body, but in the way one thinks of health and fitness. I think they can lead to injury (ignoring pain), disordered relationships with food and your body (hating on your body fat) and difficulties with long-term planning and identity (new you/old you).

On top of that, though, I think it’s simply bad PR. People are turned off by gym culture for a lot of reasons, but these sorts of tropes have a lot to answer for. They don’t make gyms welcoming – they make them intimidating. They make them seem like temples to judgement and desperation, rather than potentially fun places to work out, and they absolutely can be the latter.

This is a real problem: while my gym has been very welcoming and friendly and judgement-free, not all gyms are so good. I’ve heard tales of women copping abuse in the weights room, newbies getting laughed at and fat people of any gender copping abuse in pretty much any part of the gym, no matter how experienced/fit/strong they are. How is this helpful?

I want more people in my gym. I want a mix of body types and genders and levels of experience. I want people to feel comfortable asking questions of the staff. Alright, yes, a packed gym can be a pain, but then the answer is for someone else to come along and open another gym. I don’t want people to think that everyone is staring at them for being fat or inexperienced or female. I don’t want them to think they have to ignore pain, or apologise for their fat bodies, or change their identities to enjoy the gym. I want people to feel welcome and enjoy this particular option for exercise.

So, next time, just to make things a bit more positive, I’m going to try and dig out the gym tropes I do like, and share those.

O Bendy Gymster: The Training Montage and the “New You” (or me?)

I look back at the last six months, and all I see is myself in a training montage (if you feel a sudden urge to listen to “Eye of the Tiger” now, that’s a feature, not a bug). I’m not new to gym, or fitness, by any stretch of the imagination – in fact, I think this year will mark about a decade of that sort of practice.

I am, however, new to doing it at this level of intensity, with this level of focus and research. I’m the sort of nerd who doesn’t do anything by halves. Every major decision or change in daily practice is constantly researched, discussed and considered. With the uncertainty in my scientific career setting me back mentally, I needed another way to progress and achieve goals.

I’d also become intensely aware of the fact that, if I want to stay mobile and functional into old age as a person with hypermobility syndrome (HMS), I needed to take charge of my core strength and balance. If I wanted to be fit as well, fit enough to run and lift weights (and go on cold-water shore dives without being wiped out afterwards), I needed to be informed and careful about how I managed my exercise for best effect: muscle gains, cardio fitness gains, and most importantly, offsetting the disadvantages (increased injury risk and prolonged recovery time) of hypermobility.

This meant that I ramped up my gym attendance and started clinical Pilates.

In July, I got an actual training program. I started really participating in the Fitocracy community – asking questions and reading articles – rather than just logging workouts. Since my brain works really well on dopamine rewards, I started to really “game” fitness, involving not just Fitocracy (a cartoon robot gives you points for exercising!), but also Zombies, Run! (story missions to motivate running), The Walk (the more you walk, the more episodes you unlock to listen to), and Fitbit (setting daily step and activity goals).

Points, story motivation, meeting daily goals: these things work for me. I started to see muscle definition in my shoulders.

Around September, I’d now read enough to realise I should probably be monitoring my protein intake to support all this exercise and muscle development, so I started using MyFitnessPal (MFP) to log food keep an eye on my macronutrient ratios and, well, to see how much I actually eat. Almost casually, this meant I started losing weight. I also found it very difficult to stay on top of protein targets and began to understand why protein powder was a thing (a horrible thing that tastes like slimy boiled arse, but I am told that it varies from brand to brand, and there are better ways to consume it than just adding it to water).

In November, I finished Couch-to-5K – wearing regular weight running shoes.

Around the same time, frustrated by my nauseous sugar response, I started eating a very low carbohydrate diet with the goal of getting into ketosis (the ketogenic diet). This was excellent for my general health and well-being, and didn’t noticeably affect my resistance training (although I plateaued for a while), but it set my running back enormously. By Xmas, it was starting to recover as I adapted to using ketone bodies and fat for energy. Meanwhile, I found it very easy to stay on top of protein targets while eating keto; in fact, the greater challenge was to avoid eating too much protein (excess protein gets converted into glucose. You do want a bit of this to help fuel your brain, but too much and it will lead to a rise in insulin, which switches off ketosis).

There were some struggles around Xmas and New Year’s. I fell off the keto wagon and set my adaptation way back. I was intensely frustrated, because it was also too hot to run and I started to feel as though I was never going to get on top of it all.

In the background, my balance had improved, as well as my core strength. I was able to stay upright with less difficulty, able to sit still without fidgeting for longer, and had less random back pain. My joints were more stable, able to work within a reasonable range of motion without subluxing (partial dislocation) or aching. I quit clinical Pilates for reasons of time and money, and picked up a bunch of extra physiotherapy exercises to compensate.

Meanwhile, my body composition continued to change. The scales were telling me some very surprising things.

On the tenth of January, I injured my calf muscle. The doctor suspected a tear, but an ultrasound happily revealed no such thing – merely a bad strain. I dropped leg work and running and wore a compression bandage everywhere I went, but a few days ago I started gently working it again.

On the seventeenth of January, I bowed to the inevitable, and reluctantly made my way down off the mountain to the shopping centre in search of a new sports bra, new t-shirt bras, and a pair of shorts that didn’t fall down. I stumbled onto some sales (and some things that were just always cheap – thank you, Target!), and was astonished to discover the current size bra I should actually be wearing (no wonder I was getting very, very uncomfortable… bordering on pain, honestly. Two cup sizes out will do that to a lass).

Then I did another running workout, which is what inspired me to write this post.

On the twentieth of January, I decided my calf was recovered enough to try a gentle training run. I was absolutely determined that I would stop at the first sign of any pain in the muscle – the last thing I wanted to do was take a stressed muscle that wasn’t torn and then tear it – so I decided on a Week Four workout from the Couch to 5K program (five minute warm-up walk; three minute run; ninety second walk; five minute run; two-and-a-half minute walk; repeat that last sequence again; five minute cooldown walk) on the treadmill (a much more forgiving surface than the trail I usually run on).

While keto-adapting, I’ve found I have a certain response. I get on the treadmill, and get through my warm-up walk, thinking “Whew, this is harder than I expected. It’s taking my body ages to warm up. Gah.” I thought this was just part of being on keto, and perhaps permanent. Everything eventually would kick in – but maybe it just took longer.

Then I start my running interval, and immediately my body starts crying, “ah crap! Oh god oh god – gah – three minutes of this? Okay, we can do this, we can do this…”

That’s… not what happened yesterday.

The warm-up walk was fine, but I was itching to run. I hit my running interval and-

-everything just worked-

-it felt like I could run forever

-I had to really nag myself to stop after three minutes.

I got runner’s high in about thirty seconds. I just didn’t get tired.

Now, keto is great, but it’s quite obviously not everything. It’s been a long time since I was able to run continuously, so I’ve lost some of my cardio gains – I did start to fatigue towards the end of the workout. The last five minutes required concentration, but what’s important is that they weren’t hell. I wasn’t gasping and forcing myself to continue. In fact, I was so psyched by the whole business that I increased the treadmill speed for the last ninety seconds, because I had so much energy I wanted to dance on the treadmill, and as much as I am perfectly happy to look psyched and silly in the gym, that’s a good way to sprain an ankle.

I’ve still got a way to go to catch up with my pre-keto level of cardio, and Melbourne summer isn’t helping (my blood pressure tanks more than most people’s in the heat; I just bought a pair of compression socks, which seem to help with that). I still need to do an extraordinary amount of pre-run physio preparation to avoid injuring myself.

But as far as fitness goes, it feels like everything’s coming up Kate.

Having said all that, and told my tale of glory (with one or two setbacks), you’d think I’d be more sympathetic to all this advertising that references New Year’s resolutions for fitness and the promise of a “New You!” And, honestly, I have no problem at all with people deciding that 2015 will be their year for fitness. Everyone starts somewhere and a new year’s resolution is no worse a starting point than “I’d like to run for the train without getting out of breath.”

What I do have a problem with is this “New You” issue. I see a lot of people on my fitness forums proudly proclaiming “Bring on the new me!” and while they have every right to say that and use that to motivate them, it honestly makes me twitch – even flinch – because I am honestly not sure that this is the most helpful and healthy narrative with which to approach fitness.

I’ve got a photo of myself from about a year ago that staggered me when I saw it. Whatever you think about intentional weight loss (mine was – mostly – a side effect, but as much as it confuses me, I’m not unhappy about it. Just conflicted), you could use that as my “Before!” picture, take a picture of me now, eleven kgs lighter with Bonus! Muscle Definition, call that my “After!” picture and declare that I have found my “New Me.”

But that’s a load of bollocks. Horse puckey. Balls. Bullshit, to really descend into the vernacular and make it clear what I really think.

I’m not a “New Me”. I’m the same me I was before, except that now I’m two cup sizes down on bras and I had to put a new hole in my belt with my dissection kit (which I’ve done three times over the years, and I now think I have it down to a fine art and possibly my dissection kit is not in super fine maintained condition). I’m the same me, except now I can run further – and I can run for the train without getting out of breath, and I can stay balanced for longer, and sit still more comfortably. I’m the same me, except that now I can lift heavier things and walk further in full dive kit without getting fatigued. I’m the same me, but I have a bit more energy and a bit more pep. I’m the same me, but I trust my body a bit more, and that is probably the biggest difference.

Those things are all great, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t proud to add “total gymster” to be long list of identifying labels, but they’re not who I am. They’re not all completely superficial – having more energy means it’s easier to keep depression at bay, and that honestly makes me a much nicer person to be around – but I don’t have to reintroduce myself to my husband and friends.

The best change is that I have a better relationship with my body. I know that we can get things done when we work together, and even that’s an artificial plural; in many ways, I am my body. I’m my legs, my arms, my ribcage, and that funny looking mole in the middle of my back. And it’s still the same body.

When it really comes right down to it, we are constantly rebuilding ourselves: physically, mentally, emotionally. Every day can bring a New You, if that’s how you want to look at it. As I get older, my body will continue to change – I’m in my mid/early thirties now, but there middle age to be greeted, there’s menopause, there’s other changes in body shape, there’s a certain amount of frailty to be expected. My interests will change. Hobbies will come and go. Other identities will be added to those I already claim.

None of that will change who I am, or what I am, and I don’t think there was anything wrong with the so-called Old Me. I was a bit less fit, definitely fatter, and at a very similar state of emotional equilibrium. I had the same friends, the same opinions, the same interests. I mostly liked who I was then, and I mostly like who I am now.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the notion of trying to re-invent yourself, but what I am saying is that sometimes this “New You!” narrative can be unkind in the short term and self-defeating in the long term. I’m saying that, at least in my case, I found my pursuit of fitness and health a lot easier from the perspective of working with my body and self-image rather than against those things. It’s not that I haven’t tried the latter – I certainly have – but it wasn’t effective, and ultimately, it was psychologically harmful.

So yes, I still see the last six months or so as a training montage, because that entertains me. I am vain as the proverbial peacock, and sometimes shallow as the equally proverbial puddle, and I’ve internalised the same body image bullshit as everyone else, and yes, I’m happier with how I look now.

But I am not fooling myself. This is not a New Me. This is the same Me, who does different things and is currently having a good time doing it.

I hope, if you’re pursuing a similar idea, that you have a good time doing it, and that you embrace the so-called Old You and take it along for the journey.

Post. “O Bendy Gymster” is the name I give to posts on fitness and gym and exercise as a hypermobile person. I’m a gymster, and I’m very bendy, and there really isn’t a story behind that title; but knowing that I have a particular biomechanial issue means that it’s easier for me to work out effectively, and I find that really empowering, so here we are.

Why I love the gym since this often confuses people… (Hypermobility, episode 1)

My love of the gym is weird to many. Here is my explanation (no, it’s not just endorphins)

When I was a kid, it didn’t take me too long to work out that most of the other kids were a bit different from me. It wasn’t the reading or the red hair or the good marks that really set me apart, at least not as far as I was concerned. It was the fact that other kids appeared to be able to do magical, superhero things with their bodies.

My first ever P.E. report (tender age of five) read, “Kate is unco-ordinated.” This meant nothing to me at the time. Looking back, it’s just a concise summary of how I felt.

I felt like, when all the other kids were receiving normal human kid-bodies that leapt and ran like fleet-footed bipedal gazelles and tumbled and swung like unusually tall spider monkeys, I had somehow been given a weird, lumpy, alien flesh-machine. Where others raced and flew, I bounced and flopped. I was out of breath. I was chubby. I couldn’t cross the monkey bars. Nothing seemed to quite work the way it should. There was nothing in particular wrong with me (this is true. I have always been able-bodied and am in no way trying to claim a disability here. This is just the story of how I live in my body). It all just felt wrong.

This didn’t stop me doing some things. I rode my bike (slowly). I swam (badly). I jumped rope (differently from how other people do it, which is relevant to this story – I never actually jumped, I just kind of stepped quickly and kicked my legs back). I liked stretching and doing forward somersaults on the big gym mats. These were my limits, though.

Some of the lack of co-ordination was down to undiagnosed short-sightedness. After I got laser eye surgery a few years back, it turns out that I can (at least sometimes) catch things thrown to me, rather than simply squeaking, ducking and trying to blindly bat them away from my head. That helped.

I felt like I could never quite explain why some things were so hard. I knew I was unfit, but that wasn’t the whole story. Things hurt. Joints hurt. Not in an arthritic way, not in a broken-bone way, and not in a “your muscles are just weak and will get stronger as you go” way.

Several years ago, I was having knee problems. My doctor explained that my patella was, and I quote: “rather like the surface of the moon.” Great. I’d started going to gym and doing high impact exercise, and this is what my freaking body does to me; it breaks its goddamn knees. Nice work, cartilage. Thanks a bunch.

A few years later, in the hope of running without knee pain, I started running barefoot, and discovered that I quite enjoyed it, but ultimately this lead to other problems.

Enter the physio and the podiatrist, and my current epiphany, which explains everything right down to why I never jumped rope the same way the other kids did.

The flailing. The bouncing. The hurting. The lack of control and co-ordination. It all comes down to range of motion. Since my joints are too mobile, I can’t control where they go – or rather, I can, but only if I am doing things very slowly and concentrating rather fiercely. This explains why I can’t run (at present) but why I can, in fact, swim without too much trouble (the water pressure contains the excess motion and it’s easier for me to be in charge of where all my limbs go). Swimming is glorious because it is, for me, almost pure cardio – the muscles work and build but they are not frantically working to keep my hips and ankles and knees where they should be. I’ll concede that it does get a bit trickier with a tank, 10+kgs of dive weights, and a current, and that there’s a reason I went with split fins for scuba diving.

My friend Nadia convinced me to try gym classes and I finally plucked up the courage to walk into a BodyPump class (this is back before the your-knee-is-full-of-craters conversation). If it sounds strange that one needs courage, most of my previous experiences of exercise with other people around tended to result in at least embarrassment on my part, if not downright humiliation.

I was a convert.

People look at me strangely for treating a trip to the gym as a reward for a job well done, and that’s fine. Not everyone likes gym. Weight training is gym training, essentially, and I will always love gym because of weight training (also stretching, but that’s another story).

When I train with weights, I am isolating muscle groups. I am working on one thing at a time. I am planting my feet or seated on a machine and I only have to worry about one set of joints. Usually the exercise is done in such a way that it braces joints anyway, although bench press gives me trouble because of my wrists (they don’t hurt, I’m just constantly rotating them to make sure they don’t tip back too far, because they really want to). Tricep kickbacks. Bicep curls.

One thing at a goddamn time, and it actually works and I can actually feel it. It feels right. It feels how I imagine most other people’s bodies feel most of the time. It doesn’t bounce and flop and hurt.

I can control my range of motion when I do weight training.

When I do other things that move too fast – aerobics classes, for example – I have to keep too many things in line at once. The hips will shift or the knees or the ankles or the wrists – something will go. While I am trying to keep those where they are supposed to be, that will overload the supporting muscles, so meanwhile the other muscles will try to compensate and get overloaded themselves, and it becomes a vortex of hypermobile disaster. I can do combat classes and step classes and so on, but I do them in a slow, low impact style because otherwise I’ll probably do my ankle.

The feeling of being in charge of how my body is moving has been so foreign to me, so unachievable, that doing a set of weights feels like I’m triumphantly flipping off the universe. I’m not amazing at weights. My technique is not perfect. All the same, when I do a clean-and-press, I might as well be dancing Swan Lake for how good I feel.

Learning how to run barefoot was like that, but multipled by hundreds, thousands, because I could never ever ever run before that. Running barefoot gave me more control over how my feet landed. Running in shoes makes me feel like I have weights glued to the end of my ankles. Remember how my ankles are hypermobile, and it’s hard enough to control where they go? Adding stiff, unbending weights to them multiplies the problem.

But running barefoot, unfortunately, means that, even though I am finally in charge of my feet to a marvellous and empowering degree, I am less in charge of my legs (at least, the right leg, which is the really stupid one). Not being in charge of my legs means I end up overloading my feet anyway (but at least not my knees. For once) (note: when I was starting out very slowly and working up to 5k barefoot, my legs actually survived the experience very well – but I did have to concentrate fiercely to keep my right leg landing straight on. Recently I started running again after a break and overdid it and now I have zero power to keep my leg straight).

At the moment the compromise is to have a very light, flexible shoe with orthotics in it. In combination with my physio strengthening exercises, it’s actually working quite well – the other day I completely forgot to change to my light shoes for the treadmill work and managed a good run without even noticing (very slight shin pain, so I’ve taken a few days off from running and will get back to it tomorrow).

In recent times I’ve investigated hypermobility more closely. It very much appears that I may have Ehlers-Danlo Syndrome / Hyper mobility type (or hypermobility syndrome, or joint hypermobility – names and classifications vary). I have the stretchy skin, the myopia (at least prior to the laser eye surgery), the sensitisation, the painful gut involvement, the (juvenile) asthma, the poor proprioception (exacerbated in the presence of progesterone. Yay?).

I also score 7/9 on the Beighton test – the only thing I can’t do is bend my thumbs back onto my arms, and apparently if you score 4 or more that fulfills a major criteria. The minor criteria include dislocations and subluxations (hell yes), myopia (yes), stretchy skin (yes, although I only worked this out recently when I realised that not everyone can pinch the skin on the back of their hand that way) and a bunch of other things.

In terms of classic hypermobility, it all does explain why I can’t do shoulder presses (my ligaments hurt) and even when I do the shoulders never get stronger, why I developed RSI from pipetting (Gilson pipettes – heavy spring action; I’m fine with Eppendorf and more lightweight and ergonomic pipettes) when no-one else seems to do so, and why stretching feels so amazing at the time and later on starts to hurt in a suspicious and sneaky way. It explains why I fell over at least once every day in primary school, why I could never cross the monkey bars, why it took me two years to learn to ride my bike without training wheels, why I can’t do cartwheels but I can put my hands flat on the ground without bending my legs, why I walk funny

I’ll be writing more on this as I am currently fascinated and it falls into my category of biomedical obsessions (with an intriguing genetic slant). The down side is that, since it is genetic, there’s no cure or treatment (so I’m stuck with the occasional agonising gut cramps that make me pass out but hey, codeine still works). The up side is that, if I know what’s going on, I have a much better chance of avoiding injury. I’ve already worked out some alternative weight training that will build muscles without overextending around the joint (i.e., no more shoulder presses or tricep presses. Assisted chin-ups and tricep pull-overs or kickbacks are much better).

I will also be visiting the local clinical pilates business and seeing if they can help me. Watch this space.

[This was originally posted on my private blog a few months ago, and the last few paragraphs were added in response to some reading I’ve been doing over the last few days. I feel as though I may have opened a biomechanical can of worms, here. – KN]