In Diabetes and Me, RNZ’s Megan Whelan shares her journey of learning to live with type 2 diabetes.
Every morning for the past few weeks, I’ve laid in bed, lifted my leg high, and flexed my foot. I can see my shin bone clearly, the muscle running down the side of my calf is defined, and the ligaments in my feet stand out.
This is all new. The idea of having muscles, let alone muscles anyone can see, is as foreign to me as being able to sit in an airplane seat comfortably.
I started going to a gym and seeing a personal trainer in August. Our first few workouts – by Zoom, because it was lockdown – were pretty gentle pilates sessions. But in the last one we did at home, Nellie said, “Would you like to try a bit of a strength circuit?”
No, I wouldn’t was the real answer, but I did, and, quickly, I was hooked. Now, when asked what I do to combat work stress while leading a team through a pandemic, I say, “I lift heavy things”. The gym is my sanctuary. It’s the place I go to chill out. Once, after a particularly stressful day, I turned up and Nellie asked me what I would like to do, and I said, “Just make me work hard enough I can’t think”.
But it wasn’t always like this. Gyms are intimidating for many people, but for fat people they’re even more so. I remember going to a big box one in my twenties, and in the initial assessment, the assumption was that I wanted to lose weight. Not that I wanted to get stronger, be more flexible, have a healthier heart. Just be thin. No one even questioned that. To be fair, I probably didn’t either.
In an aerobics class at that gym, struggling to keep up, heavy bass blaring, I have a memory of the instructor yelling “Push push push. If it’s not hurting, you’re doing it wrong”. This bro-ey, “no pain no gain” attitude is what a lot of us associate with gyms, and therefore exercise in general. The assumption that fat people must only be there to lose weight, and that “real” exercise is the type were a person is pushed to their absolute physical limit turned me off for the longest time. And I’m mad as hell about it.
I feel robbed of the joy of moving my body. As I’ve gained strength over the past eight months, I’ve noticed so many little things that have changed. The cast iron pan in my kitchen that used to be too heavy to lift with one hand? Not a problem. Making my bed is easier. I can walk further and dance longer at weddings.
My bedroom is an awkward shape, necessitating stepping round the end of my bed every morning. One morning, about three months after I started exercising, I did the step, but I stepped wrong and felt myself falling. I braced for the impact, knowing I would land awkwardly on my foot and my ankle would probably be sore for days. But something new happened. My newly strengthened stomach muscles kicked in and I kept my balance. Maybe this shouldn’t have been a huge win, but it really was.
The aesthetic changes that are happening to my body are interesting, but they’re not the point. And the health benefits, particularly for my diabetes are obviously very important. Endocrinologist Dr Krebs told me that during exercise, muscles burn glucose inside the cell. “Glucose gets in the cells two ways. It either gets pushed in, by insulin, or it gets sucked in by the cells because it’s demanding glucose.” Here’s a great explainer.
So, he says, exercise helps to lower blood glucose levels, irrespective of what the insulin in the body is doing. So, it’s good for diabetes, because that glucose regulation is one of the keys. He also pointed out how good it is for mental health. Exercise activates “endorphins and other shit in the brain that makes you happy”.
But even with all that, that’s not why I wish the gym bros hadn’t turned me off for all those years. The extent to which you use your body, and the motivation for doing so is entirely personal. (Though God, no one ever has to “earn” food.) For someone who’s preached body positivity and self-love on Instagram and encouraged people to care for themselves, I didn’t appreciate the gift of actually using my body. Of how great feeling strong and flexible would be. I didn’t know that no longer feeling pain in my hip when I put on pants would bring me more joy than winning an award. I want to run now. Not for fitness or weight loss but just to see how it feels. The absolutely simple pleasure of trying a thing and realising my body can rise to that challenge is astonishing.
And that gives me complicated feelings – I might have diabetes, but I am physically able. I don’t know – and I intend to ask – how to have these conversations in a way that includes people with disabilities. Fat people are used to being told that their bodies are wrong, bad, a problem, by doctors and the weight loss industry and random dudes on the street. I can only imagine what that’s like for someone who uses mobility aids, for example. But one of the most empowering experiences of my life has been realising that the perception I had of my body’s capabilities, the perception shaped by all those people who told me my body wasn’t capable, was wrong. My body may have limitations, but those limitations aren’t what I, or any of the haters, thought they were.
Ironically, the gym was also one of the things that got me to the doctor and my diabetes diagnosis. I’d been working out for months and I still felt shit; run down and exhausted and weak. I finally decided to do something about it. And if I could learn to like squats, I could face whatever the doctor said.
My goals when I started were pretty simple. I wanted to find it easier to do downward dog and sit comfortably cross-legged on the floor. I never once mentioned weight loss, or even really health. I didn’t want to drink protein powder and show off my shredded abs. I still don’t (though in order to build muscle, I buy protein powder in bulk now. More on that next week). Now, I want to be able to deadlift my boyfriend and play with my nieces for longer.
There’s a machine at my gym, one of my favourites. When I first started going, I was lifting about one third of the weight stack. Now I am two from the heaviest weight. I asked my trainer what we would do when we got to the top weight, and she said, “That’s when you start doing pull ups.” I scoffed, a mental image of me, basically a round ball with legs and arms, trying to do a pull up, but you know what? I can definitely try. Because it turns out, I don’t know what my limits are.
– Diabetes and me is a weekly column on Wednesdays.