Friday, May 26, 2017

Exercise in the Peace Corps: It Isn't About You.

"Comparison is the thief of joy." Theodore Roosevelt 

          I was never going to write a post about exercise. I always took my health and enjoyment of exercise as a private affair. I carried that into my service by engaging with my students only as a referee or hosting soccer tournaments. I never lifted a finger around them. However, as time went on my village, and I, became more comfortable with me running around or into the mountains. It took me a while to accept but my journey of exercise in the Peace Corps has been to become comfortable sharing something I'd always done privately with my students, neighbors and at YMLP.
          Those same students that never saw me lift a finger in the village would catch me doing calisthensics in a rowboat or underwater rock lifts at the lake. So, of course, they asked about my shape and how to have it. It wasn't until my second YMLP camp that I finally realized I was doing them a massive disservice by not talking about the motivation to exercise, the proper technique for the exercises and what to eat.  Plus, they were always messing around in the trees or were doing pullups on the soccer goals. One day I finally accepted their challenge to do some pullups. Turned out I could only do 1.5 of them.  Needless to say that motivated me to improve.  
         Now, there are three important things to say before I share some of the workouts and exercises that I did. First, you can't be a Peace Corps volunteer and expect to be in shape the entire time. Things will ebb and flow and you've got to adapt. It took me about nine months to realize that I couldn't do the fourth set for each exercise or run faster than a personal best because I needed those extra calories to think, teach and study in Macedonian. I simply couldn't afford to buy enough protein to meet the caloric requirement my body and brain needed. Looking back I believe my language began to truly develop once I accepted that as a reality and adjusted accordingly.
         Secondly, you have to navigate the cultural associations with food. If someone spent a great deal of time cooking but you went to their house for a visit and refused to eat their food because it's not whole wheat then you're being incredibly rude. Bread and pasta is a staple here. I didn't have to eat it for every meal but would have one slice, or two, during dinner, making sure the family saw me eating it.  Similarly, during the winter everyone got together for lots of na gosti's. Everyone served their family's wine or rakia. I learned to let them pour a glass and than drank it slowly all night. Anytime someone tried to refill it I'd say in Macedonian, "How can I have your family's perfect cooking if I only drank your wine? I still need to eat dessert!"  A smile and a laugh later solved the problem. (To those of you who are vegetarian or have serious food allergies, I respect your difficulties and discipline. Collectively, Macedonian's don't really understand the former, and besides a nut allergy, don't get the latter). 
         Third, what's your motivation? Do you want to lose weight and have your joints not hurt so much? Do you want to run a 5k, 10k, half-marathon or full marathon? Do you want to be able to do more than one pullup? Whatever it is that is what you will remind yourself when you're too tired to get going or think you can't keep trying. Remember it takes four weeks for you to notice a difference, eight weeks for your friends or colleagues to notice and 12 weeks for everyone else to notice. Keep at it, it'll happen.

Ok my Peace Corps exercise routine:
  • Winter:  Jump rope, pushups, situps, squats, lunge jumps, chopped wood daily and lifted logs for shoulders/back. 3x per week. (250-300 reps total).  
  • Spring: Bike riding, light jogs (5k-24min), pullups, pushups, situps, squats, lunges, rock lifts and chopped wood daily. x3 per week for exercises, 1x or 2 jogs and 7x chopped wood. (250-300 reps total).
  • Summer: Ahhh the best time. Same exercises, biked everywhere daily, or in August ran, (to Ohrid and back is 10k/6.21 miles) swam minimum 100 meters, exercised in the rowboats, underwater rock carries/explosions. x5 per week. Heaven.  (Since I wasn't teaching I could use more calories for exercise while still being able to speak and study Macedonian). (400 reps total).
  • Fall:  Bike riding, light jogs again, pullups, pushups, situps, squats, lunges, rock lifts and chopped wood. x3 per week (250-300 reps total).
         Of course lots of stretching and joint exercises/stretches thanks to my many breaks, tears, sprains, etc. I also learned to enjoy walking around the village, chatting with neighbors versus doing a workout. It helped me feel more comfortable with everyone and it was excellent language practice.

          Eating was tough to figure out.  It took me months of trying different combinations before I finally balanced eating with my host family, going to na gosti's and getting healthy calories during my other meals.  The Balkans doesn't have fast food, excluding burek, and the food is the healthiest and most nutritious I've ever eaten. I will miss it immensely. 

 Personal bests:  

To Ohrid 5k-19:35. 
Mountain 5k- 22:00. (Elevation change was 450meters to top). 
Summer workout: Run to Ohrid/5k 20min. Stretch at lake spot. 3x sets of 10pullups. Swim 50 meters to rowboat. 60 squats, 100 situps, 100 side crunches, 60 pushups, 60 leglifts with no breaks. 10 deep breaths then dive 8 ft/2.4meters, grab 40lb/18kg rock and do a squat explosion, breaking the surface then going back down, 15x. Swim back. Total time: 60 minutes. 

(For this I could only afford to pay the extra money to double my protein intake for four weeks and barely ate any sweets.  After every workout I ate an entire chicken, lol. No seriously). 

Now do not compare yourself to this. I took advantage of what I had. I couldn't drive a car so I biked. The lake was close so I used it. I was in the mountains and found rocks and logs for weight resistance. I chopped, stacked and lifted firewood. Not every PCV can do that. The point is to find the balance of being healthy, enjoying your workouts but not overdoing them so you can't focus on everything else in life.

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