Finding strength, moving forward

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. ALS. Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Three names for one devastating, deadly disease. ALS is a neurodegenerative disease that attacks sufferers’ motor neurons, claiming victim’s lives in typically under three years. This disease affects tens of thousands of people throughout the US, including my own family. Though much progress has been made in understanding ALS, there is still no cure, and very limited treatment options. The ALS Association is among one of the many organizations involved in raising money and awareness about this disease. In order to help raise money for ALS research, I have made a fundraising page on the ALS Association’s web site, link below. My current goal is $500, and if I reach this goal, I will dump a big ol’ bucket of ice water on my head, and post a video of the event on Facebook and Youtube (I will also post the link here). For every $100 donated over $500, I will do it again. Please consider donating to this cause–every little bit helps!

Thank you!

Jamie

National Office Community of Hope: BeatALS – The ALS Association.

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Gratitude and Musing

Well…I haven’t posted in a while.  College will do that to you.  Life will do that to you.  I’ve been happy with what I’ve done in the meantime, though.  Though I love writing, sometimes it’s nice to stop writing about your life and just go out and live it.  I’ve come back because it’s spring break, I’m utterly bored, and I feel like I have some reflection to do (mostly the second one, though).

So the first big news is that I got the opportunity to travel with my college’s basketball team to their divisional championships last week!  We got to fly a charter plane there and back (with the team!!) stay in a hotel with the nicest staff ever, and explore the city.  I bonded with the rest of the band, went on adventures during our down time, and even made some friends in opposing bands.  I was nervous that the trip would cause me anxiety, due to greasy southern food/lack of exercise/a sticky relationship situation with one of the other pep band members.  However, of those three stressors, only one reared its ugly head (the relationship one, of course), and while I don’t think I dealt with it particularly well, that’s in the past.  What I will remember most about the trip is the incredibly helpful people, the city, the adventures, and, of course, the basketball!

On a related note, I also get to travel with the women’s basketball team to the regional round of the NCAA tournament.  I can’t wait!

Some not-so-good big news…ever since winter break, running has caused some pretty bad pain in my hip.  Recently, I found out that this pain is being caused by a tear in the hip’s cartilage, an injury that will require surgery to repair.  Unfortunately, this means that I can’t run until at least three months after the surgery.  In all, I will have been off running for around 9 months, a longer break than I’ve ever taken in my 4 years of running.  This is causing me some anxiety.  First, it’s a bit depressing that I got a bunch of running stuff for christmas that I now can’t use, but that’s a minor issue.  I’m more worried about how I’ll do when I eventually return to running.  I worked so hard–4 plus years of training–to get to the point I was at with my running.  I went from walking half the race and finishing dead last to a varsity athlete, point-scoring, half-marathon-doing, bona fide runner.  I don’t want to give that up.  I don’t want to go back to square one.  I worked so hard, and this was one of my huge accomplishments of the past four years.  I was so proud of myself, because I proved that I could work towards being good at something that didn’t come naturally.  School and music were never really a challenge, at least not at that level.  Running was.  And I don’t want to lose all that work.

And yet…

I have so much to be grateful for.  I am grateful that I can still do other exercises besides running.  Maybe this break will give me the opportunity to branch out into new things, like Krav Maga* or biking.  Maybe it will allow me to get in touch with old loves, like swimming.  I am thankful that, after the surgery, I will eventually be able to run.  I could have lost running altogether, but I didn’t.  I just have to take a break.  I just have to wait.  I am thankful for friends and family, who are so supportive, and in general for being amazing people, completely independent of my recent situation.  I am grateful for the pep band, and the UCMB, and the trumpet section (Trumpet pride!).  Joining the UCMB and the pep band was the best decision I made so far in college, and it has opened me up to a whole host of opportunities.  It has also taught me what it truly means to be part of something much larger than yourself, united with three hundred plus other people to do something extraordinary, that one person could never do on their own.  It has taught me about the good kind of pride, pride in hard work, dedication, and in the team.  The bands have taught me how to accept, forgive, and learn from failure–because everyone, everyone messes up.

I am grateful for Kaila Prins, aka Miss Skinny Genes, for the gratitude idea 🙂

 

That’s all for now, folks!

*Krav Maga is a form of martial art that literally means “contact combat.”  It was developed for the Israeli army, and is essentially constructive and self defensive street fighting.  Nothing is off-limits, but the main goal is to diffuse conflict, not create it.  Their motto is “The best fight is a fight averted.”  But then you do learn how to fight.  All else aside, sometimes it’s really great to just be able to go to Krav and punch/kick/elbow/knee/headbutt/wrestle someone or something.  Plus, now I know what to do if I am ever in a situation where I’m being attacked.  Or at least I think I do.  I need to go to more of the meetings to get better at this.

Counting Calories Out?

Happy New Year all!  I hope your holidays were amazing, and that you hold onto a little bit of that magic as we transition back into our normal, boring, non-present-centered lives.  I know I am–recently, I decided to use some of my Christmas money to buy myself a GPS watch–specifically, a Garmin Forerunner 220.Image

This watch is pretty amazing–it tells you how long you’ve been running, how far you’ve run, your instantaneous pace, your average pace, all those metrics for each mile, heart rate (if you have a monitor), cadence (strides per minute), and…calories burned.  Calories.  Burned.  This little watch claims to be able to tell you how much energy you’ve expended, down to the very last calorie.  Now, I know this is pretty run-of-the-mill stuff–I mean, there are web sites galore dedicated to telling you how many calories you burned based on the duration and intensity of your workout, without knowing squat about you!  I should know, I use one–MapMyRun–and I love it, and not just for it’s calorie expenditure-calculating feature…

But that is one of the reasons why I love it, at least until now.  Though I long ago gave up counting up my calories in, saving myself a whole ton of stress and disordered thinking in the process, I have clung to the notion of tallying calories out, even though this is probably the less accurate of the two metrics.  Somehow, I believed that, given my height, weight, activity, duration, distance, and intensity, some computer program could tell me exactly how my body was using its energy.  Boy, does that sound ridiculous or what!  But I feel like a lot of us fall into this trap–we give up “calorie counting” in that we stop measuring our intake, and that’s great.  But we continue, or take up, the practice of counting “calories out,” probably to give our little mental calculators, and the control freak that runs them, something to do.  We think that as long as enough calories are leaving, it’s okay that we no longer count how many come in.  However, these little computer programs can’t tell us anything but a most general estimate, and a totally useless one at that.  They can’t tell how fast or slow our metabolisms are normally, whether the weather conditions affected how much energy we consumed, whether there was a really, REALLY damn steep hill at mile five, and goddammit, we ran the whole thing–the computer can’t tell us this.  It can try, but we shouldn’t listen.  This applies to wearable gadgets, too.  They trick us, they make us think that they know better because they’re attached to us, but really, it’s just another shot in the dark.  Don’t listen.  Turn that function off.  Give your mental calculator a break, or let it figure out a more important problem, like the exact mathematical value of the beauty of the view from the top of that damn steep hill at mile five.

And remember, as you look out over that horizon: your worth is not measured by how many calories you eat, or how many you burn.  You are so much more than a human calculator.

Rethinking “Exercise”

I recently did something you are never, ever supposed to do, especially if you are a chronic worry wart (which I am).  I looked up a condition online, and proceeded to scare myself sh*tless.  I was curious, and worried, that I have been eating well and gaining/maintaing a healthy weight, and yet I need birth control to get a period.  This lack of a cycle, or amenorrhea, has lasted for two years, despite my best efforts to gain weight and eat more fats in my diet.

So I stumbled upon an ED recovery website, which essentially said that those of us recovering from an eating disorder, even if we are well into recovery, should never do “formal exercise.”  Ever.  The author of the site went further–in responding to a post I made regarding amenorrhea, she said that exercise is not necessary to live a healthy life, that it is “silly.”  She also said that “Exercise is an activity that is planned exertion for the purpose of “improving fitness”, “burning calories”, “becoming toned”, blah, blah.”  And this is where I take issue.

Of course, exercise is not NECESSARY–plenty of people live perfectly healthy lives without ever going to a gym or running–but it does have health benefits.  This is besides the point.  My problem is with how she defines exercise–how we, too often, define exercise.  If that’s all we see an active lifestyle as: a way to get fit, lose weight, “blah, blah,” then we need to take a step back and rethink this thing we call exercise.

First, human beings are meant, designed, even, to move.  We are built to walk and run long distances, to jump, to climb, to crawl.  Our bodies come fully installed with all the tools we need to get from point A to point B, and to avoid obstacles along the way.  We are not built to sit on our butts.

Second, and more importantly, `I, along with my entire family and many of my friends, have been active my whole life.  My parents started signing me up for sports when I was four, and since then, I have spent season after season playing basketball, soccer, tennis, softball, swimming, and running.  But as a kid, that’s not “exercise,” that’s sports.  That’s fun.  That’s making friends and working as a team and setting goals and celebrating when you reach them.  That’s learning how to win and lose with grace.  That’s sticking with something, no matter how difficult, first because you made a commitment, and then because you find you love it.  That’s discovering a passion.  And that is what this so-called “exercise” is to me: not a way to get “fit” or lose weight or stay thin or whatever, but a love, a way of life.  It’s a part of me that reminds me of how much I’ve overcome, and how strong, mentally and physically, I can be.  It’s something that I do, that I truthfully enjoy, health benefits aside.  It’s the refreshing, healing power of water during an early morning swim, or the majesty of seeing nature firsthand, on foot.

I think that’s what being active* should, and could, be for everyone.  Not a chore, but a passion, a natural high.  You’re version of active doesn’t have to be “conventional,” in fact, you never need to set foot in a gym.  You could get a group of people together and play pickup games of basketball, like my dad does almost every morning.  You could do this thing called primal play**, a natural way of getting your body moving.  You could try Zumba, Crossfit, or even just take your dog for a nice, scenic walk.  But whatever your active is, you should love it, and want to do it regardless of how many calories it burns or how much weight you’ll lose.  Because really, that’s not the point.  The point is enjoying life, and leading an active lifestyle is an amazing way to do just that.

*I am eschewing the words “exercise” and “working out” from my vocabulary.  The person from that web site has a point–those words evoke aesthetic goals as the primary motivation for being active.

**For more on primal play, see Kaila Prins’ blog, In My Skinny Genes.

This year, I headed off to college, along with millions of students across the United States.  For us, this transition marked the beginning of a unique period in our young lives.  We are no longer children, but we are not yet adults.  And yet, we are faced, daily, with very real, very serious issues, such as those related to food, weight, and body image.  While not unique to college, these dilemmas take on an entirely new scope in our years at school.  They are fueled by the novelty of living away from home, the stress of making decisions for ourselves, and a culture that values appearance to the point of obsession.  It is essential that we address these issues and their causes, as struggles with food and weight can not only harm our performance in school, but also affect us for the rest of our lives.

There are some incredibly disheartening statistics out there about the prevalence of eating issues on college campuses.  According to one study, 91% of female college students have used diets to control their weight, and 25% have binged and purged as a form of weight management (anad.org 2013).  Additionally, nearly half (43%) of eating disorders develop during the college years, more than during any other single period of life (anad.org 2013).  While we may never fully know why the rates of body image issues and related problems are so high in college-aged students, we can look to college structure and culture, both on and off campus, for clues about the major factors in this trend.  

One factor that makes college students more likely to struggle with diet and weight is the drastic increase in independence and personal responsibility.  For the first time, our activities are not governed by our parents or by a strict high school schedule.  Instead, we are free to make many decisions for ourselves, including choices about when and what we eat, as well as how much we exercise.  With food available at almost any hour, these choices can become daunting.  When combined with the stress of adjusting to a more rigorous academic curriculum, the stage is set for students to fall into unhealthy behaviors, such as using food to cope with stress, or neglecting to eat meals due to an overloaded schedule.

While almost all young adults have to deal with the stresses of growing up and taking on increased responsibility and independence, popular culture in the United States introduces additional pressures for young students.  From an early age, we see thin, pretty women and muscular men in magazines, on television, and in movies.  The ubiquity of this “perfect” image shapes our perception of beauty, and influences how we view our own bodies.  Our toys, especially Barbie dolls and action figures, give us a glimpse of our “ideal” adult selves, and reinforce gender norms by demonstrating what men and women “should” look like.  For men, this means a strong, handsome face, well defined muscles, and six-pack abs.  For women, it’s a perfectly made up face, large breasts, an impossibly tiny waist, flat stomach, and toothpick legs.  As we grow up, we see our role models–actors and actresses, singers, athletes, fashion models–looking like their childhood toys. These images reinforce the gender stereotypes that women can and should look like barbies, and men like Ken dolls or famous athletes.  

With a culture so fixated on aesthetic perfection, the next logical step is to alter our bodies to match our perception of what is desirable.  This transformation mentality has also become deeply engrained in American culture, with the diet, exercise, and weight loss industry in the United States valued at $60 billion (Adams 2005).  For every thin, pretty actress or buff man we see on TV or in magazines, there are several ads for diet programs, gym memberships, and weight loss products telling us how we too can achieve our aesthetic goals.  Often, these advertisements conflate thinness and beauty with happiness and success in order to sell their product, leading  us to believe that we will be happier if we hit a certain weight or look a certain way.  This cultural emphasis on attaining and maintaining unrealistic appearances creates a vicious cycle: we as consumers believe that we need to lose weight and therefore purchase diet and exercise products.  Consumer interest causes companies to shift their focus to marketing these products, which contributes to the cultural emphasis on aesthetic beauty over other internal traits.  After eighteen plus years of being exposed to media and advertisements that stress perfect physique, college students have internalized the underlying message: it’s important to look good, and acceptable to do whatever it takes to reach that goal.

The body-image obsessed American culture is amplified on college campuses, compounding the pressure on students to conform to aesthetic ideals.  The first college myth to affect students is the freshman fifteen.  Most students are exposed to this particular college story while still in high school, and vow to avoid the weight gain once they enter university.  Our worry about gaining weight causes us to be more susceptible to using diets and other, dangerous methods of controlling how much we weigh.  However, this fear is essentially unfounded, as the average weight gain among first year college students is well below the fabled fifteen pounds.  While unsubstantiated college legends set the stage for preoccupation with weight, students face additional pressure from peers to maintain a certain appearance.  Indirectly, and often unknowingly, students exert this pressure through negative comments about food and weight, or by treating food as a reward for exercise.  Remarks such as “I shouldn’t be eating this,” “I’m going to get so fat,” or “I earned this because I went to the gym” further the mentality that weight management should be our primary concern, above fueling our bodies or indulging in foods we enjoy.  The danger of such seemingly banal fragments of conversation is that they are ubiquitous to the point of being unavoidable.  In my own time at college, I have had very few meals devoid of negative comments concerning food consumption and weight gain.  When we hear these statements over and over again, we begin to internalize them, believe them, and repeat them ourselves.  We spread the very thoughts and stereotypes we try so hard to avoid.

Our cultural obsession with food and body image is truly troubling.  Far from promoting a healthy weight and good self esteem, this society-wide infatuation with being thin puts students at risk for a host of mental and physical health issues.  In the short term, preoccupation with appearance, upcoming meals, and exercise regimens can inhibit students’ ability to concentrate in school.  Additionally, students who under-eat in order to lose weight lack the energy necessary to pay attention in class, causing their academics to suffer.  In extreme cases, students with full-blown eating disorders may be completely removed from school in order to be treated, halting their academic progress.  In the long run, poor body image and unhealthy attitudes surrounding food and exercise can negatively impact the rest of a student’s life.  Dieting patterns, compulsive overexercise, or subclinical disordered eating can all affect our ability to actively participate in relationships and lead a full and meaningful life.  In addition, these issues can cause physical symptoms, such as overuse injuries from exercise, increased levels of stress hormones in the body, and disruption of vital bodily functions due to malnutrition.  Eventually, that “little” diet could turn into a much bigger problem, one that could linger for years to come.

It is imperative that we understand the ways in which American and college culture affect our body image, diet, and exercise, both during our years in school and after we leave.  The problems such an image obsessed culture create are too numerous and dangerous to ignore, especially with the health of millions of people on the line.  When we are aware of the forces in play, we are empowered to change the underlying paradigm, and pave the way for a healthier generation of students.

Philadelphia Half Marathon

Yesterday, I did something truly amazing–I ran in my first half marathon ever, in the amazing city of Philadelphia, PA.  The race was absolutely amazing; just being there with tens of thousands of other runners, rushing across the starting line to the cacophonous sound of cheers and music, seeing the city as I ran through it was an awe-inspiring experience.  I felt awesome, and crushed my goal of 2 hours, finishing in 1:54:31, which also placed me in the top 15% of girls 16-19 and the top 13% of all women.  But times and places, are, in a way, irrelevant.  What really mattered was the journey.  Not just the journey of specifically training for the half marathon, although that was important, and challenged my ability to balance school, exercise, band, and eating enough to compensate for all that, but also my journey as a runner and as a person.  Going into the race yesterday, I reflected a lot on how, just four and a half short years ago, I joined my high school’s cross country team, despite not being able to run a mile without stopping.  Since then, I’ve been through a lot: I’ve gotten lost (both metaphorically and literally), I’ve dropped nine minutes from my 5k time, I’ve made the varsity cross country team and ran in states, I’ve gotten injured, and I’ve developed, and subsequently entered recovery for an eating disorder.  The road through all these landmarks, all these highs and lows, has been a rough one, littered with potholes and detours and obstacles.  There have been steep, jagged hills and pleasant valleys, moments of trial and moments of triumph.  But through it all, I’ve kept moving, taking every day as it comes and (trying to) embrace what life has given me.  Of course, completing my first half marathon is not the end of this journey.  It is merely the culmination, up to this point, of all my training and hard work as a runner, and of the challenges I have faced as a person.

So for now, I am resting and recovering from an amazing marathon, and trying to live in the moment and appreciate an amazing fact: despite what I’ve done to my body, despite the negative thoughts I may occasionally have about it, this body just ran a half marathon.  And that is just simply amazing.

College and Body Image

Hey, so I know I haven’t posted in a while, but I have been incredibly busy with my first semester of college.  One of the things I have been working on is an essay for my anthropology class (that I will potentially turn into an article for the school newspaper) about the correlation between the culture on college campuses and body image issues, including eating disorders.

So, I thought this would be a little more interesting with a broader perspective.  If any of you want to share stories, observations, etc. about your college experience and eating issues (totally anonymously, of course) please feel free to send me a message or email me at backstrokerjc@aim.com!  I would love to hear you speak out about your experiences, what you think causes the outrageously large prevalence of disordered eating and body image issues on college campuses, and what we can do to help change that culture.  Again, this is all completely voluntary and anonymous.

Thank you!

P.S. This also includes related issues like exercise addiction, etc.

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