Fat Girl Fitness; In Which My Very Blood Rebels

Pro tip: there’s a right time to go back to the gym and it isn’t when you don’t have any hemoglobin.

Jul 23, 2012 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

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Every time I take my iron pills, I think about that scene in X-Men where Magneto pulls the iron out of the guard's blood.

So, fitness. It's easy to make with the tunnel vision and think of fitness only in terms of going to the gym. But sometimes, fitness starts before we even get around to talking about food and movement.

When I injured my knee (inflamed patellar tendons are the business) and saw a doctor (after an accidental two-year hiatus in medical care), the doctor asked if we could run some blood work. He was treating my knee without trying to blame it on my weight, so even though I wasn’t sure how I felt about him, I agreed and showed up the next day to offer up three fresh vials of the red stuff.

I hadn’t been feeling great. I’ll be honest -- because honesty is important -- and tell you that I figured part of it was because I wasn’t as active as I had been in the past. My day job and my freelance work mean a lot of time in front of the computer; trying to maintain relationships in person eats up the rest of my less-than-ample spare time. While I love the gym, I love spending a little time in the evenings with my dog and my husband more.

It took longer than expected for my knee to start feeling better. But the blood work results came back fast -- and I found myself back in the doctor’s office. 

The results: a busted thyroid, severe anemia and a B-12 deficiency.

No wonder I hadn’t been feeling great. I just thought I was tired. I mean, I do a lot of stuff. Instead, I had what my great-grandmother would have called puny blood.

The doctor wrote me some prescriptions -- synthetic thyroid hormone and B-12 shots once a week for six weeks -- and then sold me some iron pills to go with them.

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Taking synthetic thyroid hormone makes me feel like I should be getting superpowers any day now.

It’s very easy, when you’re fat, to chalk everything up to being fat. Fitness and fatness are not mutually exclusive, but my first reaction to not feeling good was to blame myself and ignore it. My first response was to figure I just needed to get back to the gym.

Pro tip: There’s a right time to go back to the gym and it isn’t when you don’t have any hemoglobin.

If you aren’t familiar, hemoglobin is the awesome red protein responsible for transporting oxygen throughout your body. If you have low hemoglobin levels, you might have a faster-than-normal heartbeat during activity. You might be fatigued. You might feel short of breath and generally lack energy.

Yep, those are similar to the things you might feel if you’re just out of shape.

This sort of thing is why doctors want people to come in and get a check up before they start any sort of intense workout. I’ve always, well, not exactly scoffed at that in the past, but figured it for a safety precaution I didn’t really need to take. But if I had gone back to the gym this time, I could have done myself some damage.

Health At Every Size (HAES) is the idea that every individual can make choices that improve their individual health regardless of body size -- and regardless of chronic illness or disability. It’s a very personal approach to health, and it means being very active in taking care of yourself, in doing things that are good for you specifically. It's very much not about weight loss which, as a person who goes entirely off the rails when discussions turn to the caloric count of a Starburst, I just can't deal with from a mental health perspective.

I like HAES, because it means I can focus on actual markers of health instead of on things like weight. It means my friends with chronic illnesses can make the choices that make them feel better. And our choices may not look the same, but that doesn’t make them wrong.

It’s been eight weeks since that initial diagnosis. I’ve faithfully taken my prescriptions, shown up every Wednesday morning for my B-12 shot. I took it a little easier, was kinder to myself -- and I felt a lot better for most of those eight weeks. 

Better enough that I’ve actually been looking forward to getting back to the gym. I’ve always had respiratory issues, so cardio is extra exhilarating. Just being able to do it is a victory over asthma and allergies.

I’ve even, because a friend of mine is so excited about it, considered checking out one of the local CrossFit gyms. CrossFit seems like one of those things that could kill a person without a whole lot of trouble. But it’s also scalable. But it’s also one of those things people get creepily invested in. But it also looks like a lot of fun.

You see my conflict, right?

It’s super easy to get focused on the part of HAES that says, hey, fat people, you, too can be active in ways that feel good for your body. It’s super easy to get distracted from the part that says, hey, anemic person, you need to take your iron pills with orange juice and give it a rest before you hurt yourself at the gym.

I had some more blood work recently. Disappointingly, my iron and thyroid levels haven’t changed much. My B-12 is better, so I don’t have to keep track of which arm they stuck me in last time so we can alternate injection sites any more. That’s a start. And I’ve been cleared to get back to exercising because, while I am still anemic, my hemoglobin is rising; I’ll be able to move not only my body but also oxygen around said body.

This is exciting, not least of all because passing out at the gym is so not on my list of ways to win friends and influence people.

Fitness doesn’t have to look the same for every individual. For me, fitness goals have nothing to do with weight loss because my weight has nothing to do with my actual fitness. I want to be able to concentrate on performance, on strength and endurance benchmarks. 

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It's not like I have gym clothes right now.

I also want to find some cute workout clothes, but I’m not sure that’s going to be an easy quest.

My dosages have all been doubled. My puny blood is gearing up for a workout.

Let’s call it Fat Girl Fitness and talk about the things we do to stay fit -- without centering weight loss as some kind of end-all be-all (because, seriously, boring). What do you do? What makes you feel strong? And, come on, this CrossFit thing -- just how bad an idea is this, anyway?