Tuesday, August 03, 2010

My Journey to Crossfit

By Monica

I've been eating "paleo" for approximately 2 years now. While it works well at keeping my weight down without having to consciously think about the amounts of food I'm eating, I found that I wasn't achieving the body composition I wanted.

Last October, I went in for a routine checkup. My HDL and triglycerides were awesome, but my A1C was a little high at 5.8%. Sure, there's a range of healthy lab values for any given test, but I'd been eating paleo for a whole year! Why wasn't my A1C lower? It should at least be down near 5%! (A1C indicates the amount of sugars that are bound to your hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen around in your body. Higher values indicate that someone is on their way to Type II diabetes.)

I started to put the pieces of the puzzle together with others on the OEvolve list. A high fasting glucose (near 100 mg/dL) at noon after a low carb day indicated that my gluconeogenesis capability was high (yay! I'm a fat burner, not a sugar burner!), but my muscles were becoming insulin resistant in order to shunt enough glucose to my brain. I was a little concerned about that, since Type II diabetes runs in my family. I decided that I really needed to do a little high intensity resistance training and not only replicate the ancestral diet, but ancestral physical activity as well. This would get my insulin sensitivity in my muscles back up and I'd be able to lower my fasting glucose down to more reasonable levels.

I went to the community center gym 4-5 times to do Body By Science resistance training, and I definitely felt results, but I was bored. Maybe it was because I didn't have anyone to talk to. I stopped going to the gym in January.

I've always been an outdoor exerciser. Growing up on a northeastern lake, I can't even remember learning to swim. But as a kid, I wasn't very coordinated, and I was always the last one chosen to be on a team in gym class -- except for the one day during the schoolyear when we were in the pool!

After 10 years of education and summer fieldwork in a forestry school, I can wield a big chainsaw with no problem. Instead, I'm intimidated by the myriad fitness machines in gyms that I don't know how to operate that are probably far less dangerous. There were other issues, too, as Veronica Garza describes:


I have always had a fear of working out in public. I hated going to gyms because I worried that people would make fun of me if I couldn’t figure out how to use the complicated machines. Worse, I worried that they would think to themselves, “It’s a good thing she’s here. She really needs to be exercising more.” The truth is that nobody really thinks those things when you walk into a gym, but I had never found a place welcoming enough for me to feel otherwise.
I felt the same. After I started eating paleo, I even felt that way about CrossFit, too. I follow pretty much all the paleo blogs, and even though I moderate a forum of over 250 paleo eaters, when I read terms like "WOD", "clean and jerk", "burpee", and "snatch" (especially "snatch" -- can someone please rename that exercise?), my brain goes into freeze-up. CrossFit was an alien world with alien language and freaky-looking exercises I was confident I could never perform. I would never fit in that type of environment. People would laugh at me for sure. I knew I needed to do some sort of physical activity, but I was having a difficult time figuring out exactly what to do to get back in shape. I remained sedentary for six more months.

Then, tragedy struck on May 27, 2010. In an instant, my whole world changed. My 54 year old mom had a major stroke. After an enjoyable outing with my parents that day, we came home and 5 minutes after she stepped out of the driver's seat, I saw her lose the capacity to understand and create speech. Within a minute afterward, she'd also lost the ability to move anything on the right hand side of her body. I watched her become confused and try to fight the the paramedic and emergency hospital staff for several hours. I felt like my mother was gone. I could not be confident that she'd even recognized us in her last minutes awake, and I wondered if we'd ever get her back again. Additionally, my dad suffers from major health problems and was very dependent on my mom. She was a rock that held our whole family together. What was going to happen to the both of them now?

Before, when someone told me that their family member had a stroke, it was like they said that person had just eaten some strawberries. Sure, I knew what stroke was: that most strokes cut off oxygen supply to the brain, and that the person loses those particular functions that the oxygen-deprived area was responsible for. And I'd been around stroke victims, but I'd never known those people before their strokes. So, really, I had no concrete experience with a stroke.

That day, the experience of stroke was seared into my brain forever. When something like that happens that fast in front of your eyes to someone you never thought it could happen to, it changes your perspective on life completely. A few times since then, I've seen people get up from the table and walk funny because their foot is asleep, or make a funny face at me as if they've lost comprehension. My heart begins to pound. The emotional reaction is nearly automatic. Then... "Oh my god, they're having a stroke."

The doctors were baffled as to why my mom had had a stroke, because she didn't have a history of hypertension or "high cholesterol." I asked to see her bloodwork. Her HDL was in the 40s, her triglycerides were around 100. Not terrible. But not great, either. But within a few seconds of reading down the list, I realized exactly why she'd had a stroke.

1) Her A1C was 6.8%. No one knew that my mom was pre-diabetic. Diabetes is a risk factor for stroke.

2) Her CRP levels were off the charts. This indicates inflammation: inflammation is a sign of risk for all sorts of western diseases, including stroke.

3) She had inadequately treated hypothyroidism and a history of 2 cancers in her 20s. Both of these place an individual at a high risk for blood clots. My mom's stroke was an ischaemic stroke caused by a blood clot.


Over the course of a week, she worked very hard at recovery. She became able to move a bit on her right side, and she was learning to swallow again. She recognized all of us and was working valiantly to recover her speech, her understanding, and her movement.

But she died a week later, on June 3, of a saddle pulmonary embolism, which is a massive blood clot that fills up the pulmonary artery. I had never felt the power of death or darkness more strongly than I did in that moment, as I watched her hyperventilate to bring oxygen in that would never make it to the rest of her body, and her skin lose its pink color within seconds, with her hand continually reaching toward me as if to say, "This is the end. I'm sorry. I love you." She lost consciousness holding my hand.

In that moment I felt very strongly, and continue to believe, that humans are not meant to die in sudden, violent deaths through heart attack, stroke, pulmonary embolism, or by long, drawn out degenerative diseases like cancer. In hunter gatherer cultures, if people are able to reach old age, they decline for a few days and then die in their sleep. Everyone knows they are going to die, and the death is peaceful. Everyone has a chance to say goodbye.

For a month, I wondered how life could possibly continue without my mom. I struggled to get the horrible images out of my memory. (I'm still struggling with that.) A month after that, I resolved that I had to do something to improve my health to my personal best. I knew that simply eating right would probably never get me to where I wanted to be with regard to fitness, and my mother's experience scared the hell out of me. I didn't want to find myself in the same situation 20 or 30 years from now. Of course, no one can control their health destiny 100%. But I was going to try my best not to wind up in such an incapacitating situation.

So on July 17, I went in for an orientation class at my local CrossFit gym. For around 45 minutes, we did shoulder presses. Fun! I thought, "Well if this is it, I can definitely do this!" Then, we were assigned a mini workout, which consisted of three rounds of

running around the building
20 stick jumps
15 burpees

I was the last one to finish, and I thought I would die. Sure, you hear people say all the time, "I'm gonna die!" Uh, well, as I was struggling to complete the workout, I really did think I would die. I sat and coughed for 15 minutes after the workout.

As I sat there with searing lungs I reflected on my own personal history. Sure, I was never particularly coordinated or athletic, but I'd at least been in shape once. "I still hold an unbroken record for breaststroke at my high school! How on earth could I have let myself become this out of shape?" I wondered. The instructors said, "Good job" as I left. I thought, "Um... yeah, right!" I was totally embarrassed. How could I have allowed this to happen to myself?

I went in for five more sessions. These times, I didn't think I was going to die, but I dreaded each session before I went in. On the long ride in to town to CrossFit, I wondered what sort of weird new movement or superhuman feat was I going to have to perform this time? Yet here's what I found (in the words of Veronica Garza):

Although the workouts were testing and required a lot of effort, I was capable of completing them. My siblings helped me to start off at a level I was capable of achieving. This meant getting into a resistance band to complete pullups, doing pushups on my knees, and running shorter distances than what was prescribed. Everyone was very encouraging and I really felt like they wanted me to succeed.

I was astonished to find the same things. The people at the gym did want me to succeed. They were benevolent and patient. Hm, this was not what I'd experienced in high school gym class with impatient or indifferent gym teachers and classmates.

So last night, I signed up for a year of CrossFit. My goal is to go in 3 times weekly for 1 hour sessions each. (I'm not sure I'll be able to meet this goal right away, but surely I'll be able to do two sessions weekly).

Though I'm not sure I'll ever be able to deadlift 300 pounds, that doesn't matter. I'm on my way to experiencing this type of attitude, and it's a powerful thing:

Most importantly, I feel healthier, happier, fit, and more confident. Every day I am challenged with a new workout in the gym, but I know that every day I will get through it. This attitude now extends to every aspect of my life. I now realize that I am capable of achieving things that I never thought possible.

I'd like to extend a big thanks to those that have linked in blogs and Facebook about CrossFit, CrossFit folks everywhere, but particularly those at Flatirons CrossFit. My experience there has been nothing but positive. I'm a bit of an academic geek, so for my whole life I've shied away from the stereotypical "meathead." But I've been pleasantly surprised to find that the instructors there are patient and that I can learn a great deal from them. The gym patrons are nice, too. Sometimes people just walk up, shake my hand after their workout, and ask if I'm new.

Part of the point of this post is to encourage the unathletic, the overweight, or the out of shape people who may or may not be working out in an exercise program of their choice. If you are disappointed with your results over time from doing nothing (or... doing lots of "cardio", aerobics, or all manner of exercise machines), I encourage you to eat paleo, AND... check out CrossFit. I knew about CrossFit for two years, and I'm kicking myself for not trying it sooner. You won't be disappointed, and it will whip your ass into shape in very short order. And you CAN do it. At any fitness level, the instructors will work to scale the workouts for you.

I'll wrap it up with an inspiring video of Veronica Garza, who started CrossFit only a year ago. The video is totally amazing, and for CrossFit newbies, it will give you an idea of the types of exercises you will learn in short order, without a bunch of confusing terminology and symbols.

A year ago, it looks like she was doing overhead squats with approximately 30 lbs. Now she's deadlifting 300 pounds! Holy cow! (HT to Richard Nikoley of Free The Animal).


Can I stick with CrossFit for a year, too? I think I can. I certainly know that my mom would never want me to have to experience what she did.

Here's to you, Mom. This is how I want to remember you.



(Crossposted from Spark a Synapse).

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