Wake-Up! Wake Up!
Four years ago I found myself unable to stand up after kneeling to weed the garden. For me it was a major wake-up call. I realized with total clarity that at 70 I had allowed myself to slip into aging without even paying attention. Although still healthy, I was overweight. My bone density was not good. I had osteopenia, had broken an arm, and my back was stooped like an old woman. I’d been experiencing balance problems for about five years, to the point of being nervous about carrying a laundry basket down the basement stairs. My coordination wasn’t what it used to be and I was losing muscle strength. Now this lower extremity weakness. I didn’t know what this was.
The Past 50 Years
Overweight had been a problem for me since my teenage years. My father was heavy and died of a heart attack at sixty-four. I didn’t want that fate but I couldn’t seem to get rid of the extra thirty pounds which had dogged my best efforts to date.
I’d tried every diet and weight-loss program that came out over the last fifty years. I’d have some success and then the weight would come creeping back, the yo-yo effect. I had pretty much given up on the idea that I could ever maintain a normal weight.
I looked at my situation honestly. I had two choices. The first: I could continue to deteriorate and lose different physical capabilities. I flashed on an even older woman in her eighties who fell in the shower and lay there for hours unable to get up. I shuddered.
Or, the second: I could reverse my physical decline. I had started different exercise programs in the past, gone for a while and then stopped. I also had a history of paying a monthly fee for a gym membership and not using it for three years. Consistency was not my strong point.
I had a great deal of work to do for my Buddhist group, as well as writing a book to introduce new people to the practice. If I allowed myself to go downhill I wouldn’t be able to accomplish these goals.
The Practice: Changing Karma
I had a flash of insight. I had my Buddhist practice which existed to change karma. I had something to help me, something I hadn’t had in other weight loss attempts. The practice would be a secret weapon in the weight wars. I resolved to use the practice to change my negative patterns, to turn this around.
A Determination – the First Step
I made a determination in front of my Gohonzon beginning with my old nemesis, the weight. I set a goal to lose thirty pounds and keep it off, and committed myself to take whatever action was necessary. I wasn’t going to let this decline continue.
I knew that if I tried losing weight on my own, I would probably repeat the same cycle as before. The longest I’d maintained a normal weight was at age 42 when I kept it off for a year. That year I ran almost every day, so I knew that exercise could make a difference. I decided, reluctantly, to go a gym.
Its Possible, If You’re Serious
At the gym, the young man who interviewed me was depressingly fit, defined muscles everywhere, and a slender waist. At least he’d done it, I thought. He assured me that it was entirely possible, even at my age, to become fit and maintain a normal weight. He was a good salesman. I didn’t really believe him, but didn’t know what else to do. He advised me to sign up for a trainer. I knew I needed to make myself accountable somehow, so this seemed to be a good idea. I decided to pay in advance for the training. That would reinforce my commitment.
The Program – Taking Action Steps
The trainer told me that if I was serious about this I would need to work with him for an hour three times a week, focusing on cardio, weights, core work, balance work and stretching. He instructed me to do cardio for a half an hour before the actual workout with him. “If you really want to get the weight off, you should do aerobics on the days in between sessions,” he told me. Oh, brother, I thought. This is going to be a major commitment of time and effort.
Then I remembered the teaching about achieving goals in Buddhism – taking action. I couldn’t expect anything to be different, if I didn’t do something different.
Then I ran across a book called Younger Next Year written by Chris Crowley and Henry S. Lodge, M.D. Basically the message was that if at age 50 you don’t start exercising six days a week you gradually will lose strength balance and aerobic capacity. This confirmed was on the right path. I was galvanized. I had to do this.
My trainer put me on ‘a way of eating’. It wasn’t a ‘diet’ as we weren’t counting calories. On the contrary, he had me eating far more than I had in years. One week in, I told him it was far too much food. “You have to eat to give your body the nutrition it needs to build muscle,” he responded. “It’s the muscle that is going to allow you to lose weight.” He looked at me critically. “You don’t have much muscle mass. That is the problem with dieting. It cannibalizes the muscles and then it’s even harder to lose weight. You’ll be hungry before long.” Boy I was too. Two months in on the cardio and weight lifting regime, I was starving on the same diet that had seemed too much before. Wonder of wonders, eating all that food, I was losing weight. Amazed, I realized that I was going to be able to eat normally and still lose weight. Hope bloomed.
Change Brings Resistance: The Battle
These changes brought major resistance. Every morning I had to sit in front of my Gohonzon and chant to be willing to go to the gym. Each day I had to force myself to open the door and do the exercise. Changing my diet further increased my resistance. Every day I had to chant for the determination to have the will to stay on the diet. I was facing well entrenched habits. This internal battle went on day after day for the first year and a half. Some days I would slip but knowing I had to face my trainer, I would climb back on the wagon.
I studied the Buddhist writings. Buddhism was win or lose. Chanting for willingness every morning renewed my determination. I didn’t want to be a failure.
I was embarrassed by sweating as I lifted weights. In my generation, women didn’t sweat. When I said as much to my trainer, he laughed and said, “This is sweat city.” That comment actually freed me. So, sweat was a sign of hard work, I thought. I stopped being embarrassed.
The role of trainer is to set exercises that challenge the muscles and the heart in a graduated fashion. He would find weaknesses and we would work on them. He was a taskmaster and would track my weight loss. I found he was a cheerleader. He knew when I was trying hard and applauded my efforts. I was encouraged and began to think I could do this.
When I arrived on “off” days to do cardio, other more experienced members of the gym began to notice I was still hanging in there and encouraged me. The recognition made me feel good about myself. They understood and respected my efforts. Apparently the gym was a community of people with similar goals who supported one another.
Doing My Human Revolution
The first year I lost 15 pounds. Not a lot, but a good beginning. Starting at three months, I saw my body was changing. My ability to do cardio had improved and I was firming up. I was losing size if not a lot of weight. People noticed that I was changing and made comments. All these things encouraged me.
One day in as I was struggling to do an exercise to strengthen my core I muttered grimly to my trainer, “There is a concept in Buddhism called human revolution. That’s what I’m doing right now.” My human revolution in this context mean’t conquering this lifelong negative and destructive tendency of being overweight, as well as my lack of consistency in follow through. With the beginnings of pride I realized I was succeeding in taking one step at a time to overcome my lifelong issues.
Then I injured my knee. It hurt climbing stairs and on occasions tried to collapse. My trainer told me I couldn’t do cardio. Half of me was relieved but the other half wanted to continue. I knew I would have to eat less and this brought my rebellious nature to the fore. I did not want to diet! At one level I was tempted to give up. I was sick of working this hard. But…I had come so far. If I gave up now I would be ashamed of myself forever.
I sat in front of the Gohonzon and chanted about this new development. While chanting I remembered the Buddhist concept, consistency from beginning to end. I just couldn’t give up now; I had come too far. I had to continue to be consistent in both the workouts at the gym and the way of eating. My trainer and I worked out ways to strengthen the knee after taking six weeks off cardio to heal.
The second year I lost another 10 pounds. By then my cardio had improved to the point that I could run up two flights of stairs. I had become much stronger. People in their early forties told me I was their inspiration. They couldn’t do what I was doing. One person commented, “When I first met you, you were bent over and had to look up at me under your eyebrows. Now you are standing straight and looking at me square in the eye.”
First time people coming into the gym would look at me once, then twice, and ask my trainer how old I was. He’d call me over to talk to people in their sixties, who didn’t believe change was really possible. With great satisfaction, my trainer said, “When you came in I thought you would be dead by 80. Now I’m sure you will be healthy into your 90’s.
Having trouble climbing up off the ground is a thing of the past. That was weak hamstrings. I can move around on ladders with the same confidence I had many years ago. My balance and coordination have returned and my body feels as though I am in my late forties again. My energy levels are high and I have noticed that I seem much younger than other people my age.
Consistency From Beginning to End
I continue to remind myself that to be successful I will have to be consistent from beginning to end. I have come to understand that working out is not something I can just stop doing. If I stop I will go downhill again. That’s what happens at 74. So consistency from beginning to end has assumed real meaning for me in the fitness wars.
Fortunately my resistance ended after a two years, when working out became a way of life. My body likes the exercise and complains if I skip a day. I’m very curious to see how far I can go at my age, and thus far there is no end in sight. Thank goodness for the practice and my Buddhist training. I never would have achieved this victory without it.
Now I’m hearing of people in their 90’s who are still in the gym. I think I’m going to be one of them, maybe even longer, who knows.