Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Transitioning, Fitness and My Motivation Problems

My wife talks a lot about fitness. She has a whole awesome blog on it here
I don't talk about it much, because …
I'm embarrassed.
I listen to trans-people every day with far bigger problems than the ones I'm having.
I don't want to be a whiner, or to feel like I'm complaining about the wrong things.
But after I broke down crying in the gym last week, one of the things that really helped was reading a trans-lady marathoner's blog post of how transition impacted her fitness regime, so I guess I feel I ought to add my voice, if I can.

I'm looking at the race results of a little local 5K I ran in April. The top 10 runners are all male. The fastest man, beat the fastest woman by over 4 minutes (an both beat me by over 14m). And in general, the males ran a lot faster than the females. I haven't been to a local weightlifting competition yet, and I can't find a posting of results. But suffice it to say, again, the males lifted a lot more than the females. This is not an anomaly.
Testosterone gives people with male-style hormone profiles a HUGE advantage over folks with more female-style hormone profiles in the muscle building (and maintaining) category. And consequently in cardio-vascular endurance. And in running speed. And in lifting. And in lots of physical athletics issues. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of women who are strong, fast, fit, skilled etc. Far fitter than me. I have run zero marathons in my life. Like most things on gender there are two largely overlapping bell curves, and hard work, or smart work, can definitely effect where you are on them. But we very rarely have females directly compete with males, because that turns out not to go well for the women and girls. Unfortunately, when the “male” you are competing against is your own self a few months ago … well that can get tricky, psychologically...

A woman can lift weights and not need to worry about getting “bulky” because at female levels of testosterone it is very hard to get bulky. You'll build muscle, get fitter, get many health benefits, but you won't get “bulky” (unless you are very specifically trying to get bulky and work your ass off). But the down side is that if you are on a feminizing hormone regime, you are going to slowly, steadily lose muscle for a while, while your body is adjusting and that is going to have a lot of effects.

I knew all this, intellectually, before I started hormones. Frankly, several of the problems I'd worried about with transition, when I started, haven't really materialized. People have remained remarkably polite to me even while I've been visibly in transition, for instance, which is not the experience many trans people have. But I have been surprised how much the slow steady declines in my speed, strength, and endurance have ground me down. I think the issue is not the declines themselves, there is a sense in which I don't really care how fast or strong I am. I'm not really competitive, even at the local level. Rather, my slow steady declines have messed with my motivations for working out, and with the psychology segment of my fitness regime.

Ok background ...
I was a runner back in the day, sorta, barely eeking out my High School letter in cross-country. Running was a nice chance to think and be outdoors and push myself. I was always running against myself. I knew I had no hope of really competing against the other runners, but hey self-improvement was the whole point any way, right? Mens sana in corpore sano, and all that, right? When I was a professor, I walked several miles to and from work each day. I'd organize my thoughts, have some alone time, but I still got got a decent bit of exercise. But as a housewife, for the last several years, I rarely exercised much at all. In 2013 I tried to get back into running, and managed to jog occasionally, but irregularly and without any plan, and it got pre-empted more and more as my schedule got crunched.

I decided 2014 was going to be different. I asked for and got a new jogging jacket for my birthday in Feb 2014, so I could start jogging early in the season and get into good habits. I was actually kinda excited to get back into a real regime. I had joined Fitocracy and interacted with people far more serious than I, but also with regular Joes and Janes trying to get back into fitness like myself. I saw a lot of motivational memes. I exercised 3 hours a week mid Feb-May, and in June my wife convinced me to start in the gym too. From June until now I ran/walked 4 times a week for 45-60min in the park, and did 2 hour-longish sessions with weights at the YMCA. (OK the outdoor stuff got cut for cold weather a lot in the winter). It was by far the most exercise I'd had since high school. In several ways my diet improved too, and it was already not too shabby. Like my wife, I slowly steadily lost weight from Feb to August. I seem to have lost fat. My times and lifts were slowly improving. I was enjoying it, and optimistic. Things were looking up. I looked forward to working out, and was pretty well motivated in my average non-athlete sorta way.

Fairly typical Fitocracy motivational meme ...

Then from late August until early Jan 2014 it all reversed. I slowly began to put back all my weight. I put back on fat. My speeds slowed. My endurance declined. My strength deteriorated. I got slowly steadily weaker and slower and more ragged. Running and weightlifting became discouraging rather than uplifting. The fight to get dinner made after I was done my workouts became more and more awful. Pleasant exhaustion had been replaced by simple dog-tiredness. It seemed like I was eating more too. I was demoralized in the gym or park, and especially when I faced the scale. I'd gotten two new high-end workout outfits as gifts for Christmas from people who wanted to encourage me. I like wearing those and they certainly gave me something to look forward to in early Jan, but by mid Jan I was pretty down. Twice I gave up in the middle of routines I'd been OK with a few months earlier. And when a well-meaning gym patron tried to correct my form on a lift I'd only done a couple times, and I couldn't understand what I was doing wrong, I stiff upper-lipped it until she was gone, then went to a corner and lost it crying.
What the fuck happened?
I was doing so well …
My wife is chugging along, diligently making slow steady progress and I was too, until I wasn't and my continuing diligence in the gym and park wasn't making any difference.
Why was I bothering?
Why was I wasting my time with this crap?
I'll never have a body like these other folks in the gym … I can't even maintain the little progress I made in 2014 … this is already the longest I've maintained a real regime since high school ... give up … give up ...

* * *
So what happened? - Lots of spironolactone (a testosterone-blocker), that's what happened.
I started HRT in April, and loved it right from the first. My doc started me on low doses which helped my dysphoria, but body changes were slower. He slowly upped the doses, and my spiro dose went way up in late August. And that means my testosterone went way down. My tests this month show I have on the low side of female normal levels of testosterone now, although my body is still adjusting. I like my breast growth. I like being on HRT pretty much all the time, except that a little part of me is beginning to resent it when running or lifting. Like many people, my appetite went up a bit, as my estrogen levels went up. Not hugely but noticeably. (I've also totally craved and eaten a LOT more pickles than ever before in my life, too, I don't know if that's hormonal or not, not that pickles are high calorie). So I have to fight against my appetite often now, to stay within my macros, whereas before, my appetite rarely bade me to eat more than I should. Similarly the estrogen/testosterone balance shifting probably means my BMI is going up (I have a the calipers, but they're actually pretty hard to get accurate readings with, at least for us, similarly the online body fat estimator calculation results seem to vary erratically from month to month for me). As I lose muscle and gain fat my body spends fewer calories on daily activity apart from workouts.

Continuing to work out regularly probably IS good for me on many fronts, even during transition. Its probably helping delay my pre-diabetes from converting to full blown diabetes. Working out is probably slowing my muscle loss. I'd probably gain even more weight, and lose even more endurance, if I wasn't keeping up with my workouts. I know that intellectually.

But at the level of daily motivation …

I'm sure that part of what helps Robyn keep being so awesome in the gym and at the table, is the regular feedback of progress. We were taught, and agree, that you should measure in lots of different ways, so we weigh ourselves a fair bit (here's R's discussion of that), and measure our bodies with tape measures once a month. And track our lifts and run times. That way if you plateau for a while in one dimension, maybe you'll see progress in a different dimension. If you don't make much progress on weight this month, well, maybe you PRed on deadlifts, or your waist improved a little, or … And as she agrees, one of the psychologically transformative things about weightlifting for her, has been that for the first time her mind is focused on being “more”(stronger), rather than being “less” (in weight) while working out. And for her, like many women, that makes all the difference.

But notice the refrain, “progress” “personal record” “competing against yourself” “being more” …
For the last 6 months I've seen slow steady regress, personal decline on almost all the metrics I'm tracking, despite lots of diligent work. I just can't compete with myself from a few months ago. When my wife has to try to decide whether or not to add 5lb to this lift, or 10lb to that lift, I have to decide whether or not to go down. And I resist going down, which means I get more and more exhausted even with routines that I could do a month ago, and my form gets more and more ragged …

Eventually, I will “bottom out,” my body will be adjusted to having a female hormone profile and I'll probably start making gains again. There are plenty of women with comparable hormone profiles in far better shape than me.  Then I can compete only against my own female-hormoned self, and try to ignore my PRs from the days of testosterone.  If I can stick with it that long. The trick is just finding ways to motivate myself until then. It may well be another full year of no progress.  As Dick Talens argues, even 2 months without perceived progress often causes someone to quit, if they don't already have a lot of faith in the process they are using.

The hard truth is that psychology is one of the most important part of your fitness regime. Your diet and exercise are not going to be good consistently or long-term without a lot of psychological back up. And many, many things in our culture undermine good psychology of fitness. I've seen many people undermined on the diet and exercise front by stupid theories about how willpower works that our culture keeps trying to promote for example. And like diet and exercise, your fitness psychology strategies need to be tailored to you, there is no one-size-fits-all psychology of fitness that is going to work well for everyone.

I don't really know how I am going to craft a good psychological regime for fitness for myself yet. A lot of the standard advice just doesn't seem to work for me, or to be actively counter-productive. There are definitely things I like. My body IS looking better. My fat is shifting in ways I like. It is hard to know how much is the hormones and how much is the gym work. And there aren't good metrics here. Similarly, maybe my gym work means I'm losing less muscle than I otherwise would, but we don't have good estimates for “normal” muscle loss during feminizing transition, except that it definitely seems to happen, and theoretically ought to happen. Again I don't know how to craft a metric there. I don't know good ways to give myself little psychological bennies for when I do well in the gym. It's hard even to know what counts as doing well for me. Everyone ages, and learning not to compete against your younger self is a lesson many folks have to learn in their 40s. It's just usually not learning not compete against yourself from a few months ago. I'm sure people on chemo, or other extreme health interventions often face similar declines, but I haven't talked with any to see how they coped with staying motivated in the gym through those sorts of issues.

So I don't really have answers, and I don't really want to whinge. But I want other folks going through feminizing hormone transition to know that they aren't alone, if this kind of thing is frustrating or demoralizing them too. It is difficult to keep working hard long term with consistent negative feedback. It just is.
Also, a fairly typical Fitocracy meme ...

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