The Woman I Am Today

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“The woman I was yesterday, introduced me to the woman I am today; which makes me very excited about meeting the woman I will become tomorrow.” Author Unknown

One of the things I have been enjoying these past few months is interviewing women of various ages and stages of life about fitness. It started out as simple interviews for my blog site but has come to mean so much more to me and many of my readers. I am learning something different from each and every story.  If you missed any of the former pieces on these incredible women, I encourage you to read through past blogs on this site. You won’t be disappointed.

One of the main things I ask the ladies to share is their personal fitness history- going back as far as they can remember. Were they active growing up? Did their parents encourage activity. How did their fitness interests change over the years and decades. What are their present views on exercise and nutrition? Has it changed? What are their fitness goals going forward? What personal struggles and health issues have they faced?

I recently asked one of my clients, 59 year old Ruth Schleifer to write her fitness story.  Ruth spent a good part of her life as a practicing Obstetrician Gynecologist and helped countless women deliver healthy babies. I absolutely love that Ruth gives candid, practical insights. During our sessions together, she often shares her ideas on health and fitness from the unique perspective of not only being a doctor but being a single woman doctor raising small children and balancing a challenging career. I gleaned 3 great lessons from Ruth. 

  1. Childhood experiences and feelings about fitness play a significant role in how we treat our bodies into adulthood. 
  2. You have to make a focused effort to make exercise a part of your daily life. It’s rarely convenient or easy.  
  3. It’s slowly changing but the time has come for western medicine to broaden it’s treatment approach and philosophy. 

Ruth’s first memory of any sort of exercise activity was when her Mom enrolled her in ballet and tap class at the age of 3. Ruth remembers how activity for children in the early 1960s was a normal part of life. “I had my first tricycle at age 3, and would perch my dog on the handlebars and ride off to the playground. My Dad got me my first real bicycle when I was 5 years old. Back in those days, school playgrounds still had actual swings, and 8 foot high monkey bars. The first time I was able to make it all the way across the monkey bars by myself (at age 5) was a momentous achievement that today’s children will not likely experience.”

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I absolutely love the last sentence describing a young girl having a life changing experience on the monkey bars. We tend to look back on past generations and assume that children and particularly young girls were very restricted. We are missing something.  The unabandoned, vigorous play of past generations has been replaced with rules, stipulations, controlled organized activities, and electronic devices of today.

Ruth was inspired when: “in the 1960s and 1970s, the Olympics began to slowly feature televised accounts of women’s gymnastics and figure skating…My (farfetched childhood) dream was to become an Olympic gymnast.”

She goes on to give an interesting perspective and criticism on physical education in the school during that period of time and how it potentially affected physical health:

“Back in those days, physical education and team sports played a prominent role in Elementary Education. I disliked all team sports at that age, and still do. Team sports do not position kids to take responsibility for their own fitness–someone else is telling them what to do. My observation is that former athletes are often in very poor physical health as they age, because they never gained mastery of those skills.”

At age 11, Ruth was “enjoying the solitary aspects of swimming and gymnastics. Even though many girls (and it was 100% girls back then) attended gymnastic practice several days each week, our school had no gymnastic team for competitive purposes. It felt so wonderful to gain mastery over standard gymnastic tumbling sequences. When I was 12 or 13, my Dad sent me to a summer gymnastic camp that was coached by a former PanAm gymnastic coach. That was such a memorable time.”

The stage for physical activity had been set, and Ruth carried these habits forward into her adult years with running, swimming, and aerobics classes. She even stayed active as an expectant mother in medical school taking 3 mile walks after leaving the hospital.

As I mentioned before, one of the things I respect about Ruth is her ability to cut through the noise and give some very clear insights. She openly shared quite a bit on the limitations of western medicine as it pertains to disease prevention and her own personal experience being the patient rather than the doctor.

“Medical school, residency and a small child presented many obstacles to maintaining a regular fitness schedule. Western medical education actually de-emphasizes self-care! Daily schedules with set sleep/wake times, regular meals and exercise are not a priority for medical students and residents. The obvious problem with allowing this culture to exist is that the providers can not model the foundations of proper health for their patients. Because Western medicine is focused on disease rather than wellness, the basis of health, and healthy living, has suffered under this culture.”

Over time Ruth was able to rebuild her fitness routine despite a demanding schedule and the lack of support from her peers.  She said, “The main challenges one faces in the practice of medicine is the institutional celebration of overwork, and self-neglect.” Again, I believe that the foundation she set for fitness in childhood was solid and was the catalyst to keep her on track through her adult years despite these obstacles. She understood the need to prioritize self care, physical exercise, and healthy eating; and wasn’t going to allow the ignorance of others or the demands of career to take that away from her.

In 2006, at the age of 48, Ruth had her first serious health scare. “A large mass was found in my right colon. This necessitated removal of my right colon and right ovary. While I was fortunate that the mass was not malignant, it was a big surgery with a long recovery time. After returning to activity too soon, I swiftly found myself with a large incisional hernia that required further surgery. After this surgery, it was very hard to select foods that I was able to digest…My surgeon was not at all helpful in recommending sound food choices. Again, the Western training does not emphasize diet and lifestyle as being preventative.”

Ruth continued to make exercise a priority throughout the years. However, as she entered her fifties she came to the realization that so many of us much face:

“By the time I reached my 50s, I was able to experience the limitations of the human musculoskeletal system. Injuries are very common at this time of life. My first injuries began to occur, and were mostly related to overtraining. After knee surgery in 2010, I stopped jogging entirely for several years. My concern about sustaining further injuries and ending up with more surgery, kept me from doing much of anything. This is likely a common phenomenon, but is definitely the wrong approach to take. Older individuals need regular activity to maintain mobility, aid in proper sleep, and maintain a proper body weight. The average adult American female gains roughly 2 pounds per year. This trend was aptly demonstrated in my patients.”

“Four years ago, I was diagnosed with a neuro-visual disorder that led me to discontinue all hospital services. Because there is no treatment or cure for my diagnosis, I was eager to explore other ways to optimize my health. After being drawn to Ayurveda, (a sanskrit word which means the “science of life”), I enrolled in formal classes to better understand this discipline. After graduating from the first year of studies, I was ready to close my practice and move West to continue Ayurvedic studies.”

Ruth goes on to explain the Ayurvedic approach. “Ayurveda emphasizes daily schedules with sleep/wake and meal times, and daily activity appropriate to one’s constitution, as the bedrock of health. After my life and career, this message resonated in a powerful way. Fitness schedules alone cannot create health when the diet and lifestyle choices are erratic and unpredictable.”

Through her Ayurvedic training, she learned to cook foods that worked well for her health. Ruth believes that while there are many “healthy foods”, not all of them are correct choices for each person. Ruth says, “This common misconception leads to the rampant popularity of food fads. Raw foods, juicing, the paleo diet are all examples of schemes that may be fine for some people, but actually can prove destructive for others. The notion of a person’s basic physical constitution, and how to manage the best dietary choices based on that, has not fully caught on in the West. But in Ayurveda, this concept is the mainstay of selecting the correct diet to optimize one’s health.”

This past summer, Ruth slowly returned to a running and training schedule but is much more diligent in making sure to listen to her body.

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“While my routines are shorter and far less intensive that the routines of my younger years, these are the routines that work with my constitution for this stage of my life.”

Ruth’s fitness goal going forward is one I think we can all embrace: “I certainly hope I can look back on being 59, and say to myself, Wow! I feel just as good at age _____ as I did at 59!”

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