June 18, 2018

Fit at midlife with Samantha Brennan and Tracy Isaacs

Fit at Mid-Life: A Feminist Fitness Journey by Samantha Brennan and Tracy Isaacs discusses an approach to fitness that does not require you to focus on your looks but more on the quality that being fit adds to your life.

Allan (3:16): Our guests today are both PhDs, academia and researchers on feminist issues. Together they created Fit Is a Feminist Issue – a popular blog offering feminist reflections on fitness, sport, and health. We will discuss their book Fit at Mid-Life: A Feminist Fitness Journey. They are Samantha Brennan and Tracy Isaacs. Samantha, Tracy, welcome to 40+ Fitness.

Tracy (3:41): Thank you.

Samantha (3:42): Thanks.

Allan (3:43): The title of your book, Fit at Midlife – of course, that’s going to attract me because I’m pretty much there. I hope I still have the other half coming up, because I’m 52 right now. Right now I’m targeting that probably being somewhere around the middle. And then I got into the subtitle, and it’s A Feminist Fitness Journey. I wasn’t sure where you were going to go with this, to be honest. And when I see “ist” or “ism” at the end of a word, it can get muddy. I typically try to stay away from those. But the way you approach this in the book I thought was actually very, very good. I didn’t understand where you were coming from just with the subtitle, but once I got into the book, it made a lot more sense to me.

Tracy (4:29): Good. That’s what most people seem to find.

Samantha (4:33): We’re really about inclusive fitness. We’re writing about our perspective as women in midlife approaching fitness, but lots of the lessons there, especially around starting out, when you’re not sure what level you’re at, or your concerns about body image – those might apply more to women, but I think they apply to everybody.

Allan (4:52): Yeah. Contextually, sometimes it’s very hard for me to connect with a client. I’m a man, obviously, and I’ll be talking to them and some of the words that they’re using, I have to sit back and wrap my head around, why are they particularly using that word? Does that mean anything in particular? And I think one of the words that gets used, but I don’t think most people have built a good context around it, is the word “fitness”. And you cover that in the book. You get into, fitness is not always just being able to run a mile in four minutes or just being able to deadlift 500 pounds. Fitness can mean something different for all of us.

Tracy (5:42): Right, because there are multiple measures.

Samantha (5:46): Actually, I think a lot of people do mean one thing by “fitness”, which is you look fit. So they say, “She looks really fit.” What do you mean by that? What it means really is that she looks lean, she looks thin, and I think for me getting beyond that message is pretty important.

Tracy (6:06): I would agree with that. We want to divorce the idea of fitness from the idea of thinness, because almost every single fitness plan or program is about weight loss.

Samantha (6:18): That’s one thing I think that’s different for men. There’s a lot of pressure on men to look muscular, and these days to look muscular and lean, but at least in the sports we recognize that there are a lot of awfully fit big guys. No one thinks football players aren’t fit, or no one thinks that some of the larger male athletes aren’t fit. They’re just big men. But we don’t really have that. Even though those women exist in, say, the Olympics, when we think about women in fitness, we tend to think about maybe the CrossFit ideal these days – the lean and muscular women, and that’s what fitness is about, is achieving that look. It’s not about doing things, it’s not about exercise and health. It’s about attaining a certain kind of appearance.

Tracy (7:05): In popular culture, but that’s not what we think fitness should be about it.

Allan (7:10): When I sit down with a new client and we go through what I call basically “making a commitment” – it’s a vow that I want them to make – and the thing I talk to them about is, first I need to know why. Why you want to do what you want to do. And I have to say that invariably 95% of the clients that come to me want to lose weight. This is what they believe their goal should be. So they’re like, “I need to lose weight. I need to lose 10, I need to lose 15, I need to lose 50 pounds.” And I let them want that. I say, “Okay, I understand where you’re coming from, but we’re going to talk about health and we’re going to talk about fitness. It might not always be about weight, it might be about something else.” So the second part of the commitment piece is where I start getting into what I’d call “vision”. And I might need to change that word, because I don’t want it to be thought of as, this is how you look, because it encompasses a look and feel. It’s being comfortable, being confident, enjoying what you’re doing and knowing that you have the capacity. So mine is, I run, I’ve done some obstacle course races with my daughter – the Tough Mudder and Spartan and things like that. I’ll do those races. They’re extremely intense and difficult and not many people over the age of 50 are doing them, but I’ll go out and do them with my daughter. My commitment, my thought is, if my granddaughters or grandchildren are into that type of thing, I want to be able to compete with them. I want to be out there with my grandchildren. Not just my children, but my grandchildren when they come along.

Tracy (8:50): You want to age well. You want to experience vitality and energy and capacity, not just in your 50s, but in your 60s, 70s, 80s. I look at my dad, who is 80 and he’s told me on the weekend he’s playing the best tennis of his life. He’s played tennis ever since I can remember, and he’s always been a good tennis player. So I want to be like my dad.

Allan (9:18): That’s how I want to put it out there for folks, but it is so hard to get them away from the scale. And I think one of you said you put it in a box and put it in your closet.

Tracy (9:30): I put it back in its original packaging with the Styrofoam ends and everything. We put it way up high so it’d be a big conscious pain in the ass. If I took it down I have to really think about it, and I did not.

Allan (9:47): Yeah. So when I think of fitness – and it’s kind of where you’re going in the book – is you’ll do different things. It might be weightlifting or rowing or triathlon or anything like that, but what you’re doing is you’re fit for a task, fit to live the life you want to live, not fitness as a fitness model or a physique model would look. I’m not after six pack abs. If they happen as a function of what I’m doing to train – that’s great, but I’m not training specifically just for the look that my body would have.

Tracy (10:22): And then if you don’t achieve that look, you won’t abandon your activities, which have all kinds of other benefits. But if it’s only that you’re going for that look, or only going for the weight loss, not everybody’s going to achieve that. In fact, a lot of the data shows that not many people will achieve it in any lasting way, sadly.

Samantha (10:46): We have two groups of people who really lose out. Once the people who start physical activity and don’t lose weight and then say, “Well, it’s not working”, so they quit. So those people lose out. The other group are people – our physiotherapist was talking about his wife who the doctor never mentions to her that she works out, and no one ever suggests that she should exercise. People don’t suggest that because she’s really thin and they think she’s already in pretty good shape, but she’s not. She gets winded walking up a flight of stairs. I think lots of people in their own lives actually mistake being thin for, “There’s no real need for me to work out.”

Allan (11:25): I was talking to a therapist at a clinic, and they deal with people with kidney issues. There’s a term out there called TOFI, which is thin on the outside and fat in the inside. So there’s this whole population of people that are very fortunate that they don’t look heavy. They don’t gain a lot of weight, but they can have a huge amount of body fat and be unhealthy, because they’re not eating the right way. They’re not taking care of themselves. And so, as you’re defining fitness in the book, which you’re basically saying is you find those things to do. We’ll talk about your “Fittest by 50” mindset. This was a longer range thing that you were working towards as you got into your late 40s, and then you were trying to work towards a goal by the age of 50. But you weren’t thinking in terms of, “I’m going to do this till I’m 50 and then I’m going to quit.”

Samantha (12:22): No, not at all. We both continued right on ahead.

Tracy (12:26): Right. We were thinking of it as setting us up for the second half of life.

Allan (12:31): Perfect. And that’s why terms like “diet” and signing up and doing a program – and I know you guys were really negative on boot camps, but I think sometimes boot camps are good about getting people to show up because of the fact that you’re accountable and you’ve got some people there that you can actually connect with. So some of these things, even though they’re not always your favorite exercise – like, who likes burpees – but they are exercises that get you moving. And if it’s a boot camp that gets you started, but you’re not trying to define yourself as the next CrossFit queen and you’re not looking to get on a magazine cover – at that point you now have a more balanced aspect of what your life can be like and what this exercise can do for you. We did a burpee challenge. It’s not a boot camp thing, but there’s a lot of burpees.

Tracy (13:25): We did a burpee challenge too.

Samantha (13:27): I loved it. I had fun with the burpee challenge.

Tracy (13:29): I couldn’t handle it after about 50.

Allan (13:35): I had them over the course of 28 days. The beginners did 1,000 burpees in 28 days, and the advanced ones did 5,000. So you can see it’s a lot of burpees. But I had a woman tell me after she did the burpees, she wasn’t even thinking about it, but her boyfriend came over and they were going to go somewhere and she says, “What vehicle did you bring?” And he has a Navigator and a Corvette. He said, “I brought the Corvette.” And she said, “I hate getting in and out of that Corvette because it’s so low and I struggle to get in and out.” But she said she walked up, she sat down and she got in. It was perfectly fine. And then she got back out. He was even commenting, “You’re not having problems with the Corvette.” She’s like, “No, I guess the squats that I was doing basically have now strengthened me to a point where I can get in and out of your Corvette with no problem.” To me that’s a huge fitness win, in that she can now live the lifestyle and do the things she wants to do without having to be worried about what car he’s going to bring over, or how her inability to do something is going to affect her life. So, I really do like how you guys have gone on to fitness to say, this is about your ability to live the life you want to live.

Samantha (14:47): I think we both have realizations in the book where there’s something like that that we’re able to do, that it was nothing we were aiming at, but at the end of the challenge we were able to do. I’m trying to think of examples, but I think for both of us there are moments like getting in and out of the car, that, “Wow, this is something I used to find difficult, but now seems pretty easy.”

Tracy (15:07): For me, one of the things that really motivated me to get back into it – because I had done resistance training in my younger years, but I had let it go – was my groceries were starting to feel heavy. I thought, “I’m 48 years old and my groceries are starting to feel heavier than they used to.” Now I find I can practically lift them up over my head.

Allan (15:33): I’d say buy more vegetables.

Tracy (15:35): I’m vegan, I buy plenty of vegetables.


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Allan (15:55): The next topic I wanted to get into – and I know that women struggle with this because you hear it on a daily basis – is body image. But I’d offer to share to you, men have the same kind of concern; we’re just not as vocal about it.

Samantha (16:16): I’ve got two sons, so I know watching my sons go through this, so it’s an issue for them too. I just think it’s less of an issue and not the entire thing on which they think they’re judged in the world. Whereas I think for women it just occupies a bigger part of our mental space and a bigger part of how we’re treated in the world and the assumptions people make about us. If you’re a larger person, people assuming that you’re lazy. There’s all sorts of research that shows we have a lot of bad attitudes towards people who carry extra weight.

Allan (16:50): Yeah. And like I said, I think there’s a little of that with men; not as much. I have a neighbor, he’s 55 and he has one of those one-wheeled skateboards, with a big wheel in the middle. He rides all over the place on that thing, and I’m thinking that’s pretty decent balance. He also wind surfs and does these other things that you’re like, “That’s not normal behavior for a 55-year-old”, but he’s doing it. I think one of the big challenges that men have, as well as women, is we just seem to want to compare ourselves to something we see as a peer group. And the magazines don’t help because they’ll sit there and show Robert Downey Jr. I know he didn’t live a really good lifestyle when he was in his 20s, because I read about it a lot. But he’s in his 50s and he’s fitter than he’s ever been, and posing for muscle and fitness magazines and things like that. I guess knowing it’s possible makes you want something for yourself. But to me, I just don’t know that the body part is what’s going to really keep you involved, particularly, like you said earlier, if we’re not seeing the results.

Samantha (18:15): No. I think for most people you don’t get the kind of results you want unless you’re going to make it your full-time job, and most of us can’t do that.

Tracy (18:24): We’re not celebrities like Robert Downey Jr. He has a team, a personal trainer that’s dedicated to him and maybe he works out every day with that trainer. He might have a chef. What I like about our book is that we’re ordinary women with big careers and families and we’ve done this. And we don’t have six packs, but we’re in pretty good shape.

Allan (18:52): I want to talk a little bit about your experiences, because you both got into this together, and throughout the book you take us on a journey, which was basically two years for both of you. Could you each take a little bit of time to talk about your reasons for wanting to do this? It was a two-year journey, so it was not something you just said, “I’m going to do this in six months and do this thing.” This was a targeted approach, long-term approach. And then some things that you learned along the way.

Samantha (19:25): Sure. So I was already pretty active, but I found the things I like to do and just did those things. So, I was a cyclist, I was still riding my bike lots, but I was no longer riding as far or as fast as I like to ride. I was doing aikido, but at that point I wasn’t testing for any belts. I was just doing the things that were easy and made me happy, but I wasn’t really challenging myself. So what I wanted to do going into the Fittest by 50 challenge was up the ante on both of those things. So I wanted to up the ante on cycling, to ride further and faster. I wanted to try some new things, to kind of break out of a rut. So I tried CrossFit, rowing, I tried lots of different things during the course of the challenge. I added a lot more weight training. Then I wanted to do some belt testing in aikido and move up a few levels. And by the end of the challenge, I’d ridden my bike from Toronto to Montreal, which is about 400 miles, 660 kilometers. And I’ve gotten a lot stronger. I’d been faster maybe as a cyclist before, but never as strong at the same time. I used to just weight train during the winter offseason, and I started weight training year round. I tried a bunch of new things, so I think I’ve met my goals. I was pretty happy, and it was a fun challenge for me.

Tracy (20:54): When Samantha proposed being the fittest we’d ever been in our lives by the time we turned 50, I said that’s a project I can get behind because I had also sort of stagnated. I was walking a lot and doing yoga, and I had just started back into some weight training, but I was feeling pretty green at it actually. I very much had associated fitness with thinness, even though I knew that that was not right. We’d been having this conversation about feminism and fitness for many, many years, like 25 years. So I knew that it wasn’t right, but I couldn’t let go of the body image as the main driver of all the things that I did. And so one of my goals in the challenge was this mental shift. I wanted to lose that sense of having to look a certain way and that that’s the reason why I would do these activities. I really wanted to lose that.

Allan (22:00): Can you tell us a little bit about that? It sounds like you were trying to reprogram.

Tracy (22:08): Yeah, I was. So one of the first big things that I did – you mentioned it already – I put my scale away. So about three months into the challenge, I had tried sport, nutrition counselling, and finally, I just said, “Forget it, I’m going to do intuitive eating.” Everything in the sports literature would argue against it, but basically, you eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full or when you’re satisfied, you eat what you want and you don’t weigh yourself. That is what I had to do to let go of that obsession.

And then the other thing that I did was I signed up for a triathlon, which was extremely out of my comfort zone. I didn’t run very well, I certainly didn’t know how to ride a bike with clipless pedals or any kind of racing road bike, and I hadn’t been swimming in years. So, all of a sudden I had this daunting thing to train for that how my body looked was the last thing on my mind. It was more like, how the heck am I going to finish this event? So I re-oriented my focus in a way on the performance side. And you know what? It was transformative. I shifted my Fittest by 50 goals after that first summer. My goal was to do an Olympic-distance triathlon in the second half of the challenge. The one year I did four triathlons of different distances, and my entire focus was on the performance. Through the training I stopped weighing myself, putting the scale away. I did reprogram myself and I really am still there today. It was incredible actually.

Allan (24:11): Good. And so, Tracy, what I’m hearing is that you’ve basically put something out in front of you that was going to effectively force you to address your training.

Tracy (24:24): Yes, to focus on something else.

Allan (24:26): Yeah, with passion and knowing that it’s really going to be about the performance: “How can I be comfortable swimming a distance, spiking a distance, running a distance? And then I’m going to put them all together. I’ve got to have the fitness level to be able to perform and do those things.”

Tracy (24:42): Yeah. And it’s a learning curve. In triathlon, the transitions even are things you need to train for, like how do you transition? How do you get your wetsuit off but your bike shoes on?

Allan (24:55): Yeah, I’ve never actually done anything like that. Like I said, I’ve done the mud runs, but you wear what you wear and if it comes off while you’re running, you just leave it. I could see that being one of my huge challenges – if I didn’t just drown in my race really early, then it would be, “Now I come out of the water. How do I get on this bike and not kill myself?” And you’re up there in Canada, so it’s cooler. You are wearing a wetsuit, so definitely.

Tracy (25:30): My first event – the swim got cancelled because it was too cold. They turned it into a duathlon – a run, bike, run. And I hadn’t really prepared for that, because I still wasn’t a very strong runner. It’s like, “Oh my God, we have to do two runs?”

Allan (25:49): That’s good, it mixed it up. And I think that’s where I want to go with Samantha, is that you tried a lot of different things that were going to tax you in ways that you had not been taxed before, and you probably learned a lot about yourself as a result.

Samantha (26:02): Yeah, I did. There were things I loved that I realized just did not fit into my life or my lifestyle. So, I’d always wanted to try rowing. I know lots of cyclists who are good rowers and they’re often thought of as complementary sports. They place demands on the body; you’ve got to be super strong and aerobically fit. And so I joined a master's women’s rowing team and loved it. But I discovered that they have a kind of dedication to schedule that I just can’t have, given my job, how much I travel for work and given family demands. So they have certain times where if you are going to be on the water at 7:00 PM, you have to be there and on the water at 7:00 PM. And if you have a certain spot on a boat, you train for that position. And if you can’t make it because you’re away at a conference giving a paper, you have to find someone who can come in and take that spot in the boat who’s also trained for that spot. It’s tricky.

And so I thought in the end probably rowing for me is going to be a retirement sport. It’s going to be a thing I can do one time somewhere near a lake and I can just say I’m going to be there two or three days a week, mornings or evenings, and make that commitment. It’s also a lot of traveling for racing. So rowing involves derigging all the boats, loading the trailer with all the boats, driving hours. And then some of the races are five minutes long. So it’s a lot of derigging and carrying. It’s a sprint effort, so it’s a lot of derigging, carrying boats, loading trailers, driving, re-rigging, carrying boats to the water, and then it’s over. The comradery is great. I love going to rowing events, but I would rather be on my bike for three or four hours, which simply I throw on cycling clothes, I put some air in my tires and off I go. A lot less coordination, organization. So I found it was interesting to try different things and see what worked and what didn’t. I loved rowing and I loved being on the water, but I’m going to have to wait till I have a less big job and a different kind of schedule, I think.

Allan (28:16): I can see that. Team sports are great for that comradery, for getting you out there and keeping you out there, particularly if they’re counting on you to be a particular function on the team week in and week out – then yes, you’re there. But that is a commitment of time and effort that you have to be able to fulfill. But I think it’s awesome that you guys put this together for yourselves and you went through and followed through with it. You have a blog, and now the book. If someone wanted to learn more about you or the book or the blog, where would you like for me to send them?

Tracy (28:52): For the blog they would go to FitIsAFeministIssue.com. That’s our WordPress blog. We blog seven days a week there, at least once a day. Samantha blogs every Monday and Wednesday and I blog every Tuesday and Thursday, and then we have regular contributors and occasional guests. So that’s the blog. And the book, Fit at Mid-Life: A Feminist Fitness Journey, is published by Greystone Books out of Vancouver and it’s available on Amazon. And we would love it if you read the book and want to write a review on Amazon.com. That would be great too.

Allan (29:29): Cool. This is going to be episode 324, so you can go to 40PlusFitnessPodcast.com/324 and I’ll have the links to the book, to their blog and all of that right there. So, Samantha and Tracy, thank you so much for being a part of 40+ Fitness.

Tracy (29:46): Thanks, Allan. It was nice chatting with you.

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