I recently finished reading the excellent Fit At Mid-Life: A Feminist Fitness Journey by Samantha Brennan and Tracy Isaacs. Full disclosure, I had Samantha Brennan at a professor in a graduate seminar at Western University and, her class being one of the highlights of my university experience, my opinion on the book might be skewed slightly. That being said, one of the things I loved so much about Dr. Brennan’s class was the way that she seemed to make a conscious effort to buck some of academic philosophy’s most obnoxious trends. This class made an effort to pursue objective fact while at the same time not being presumptuous enough to think we can just fire up our armchairs and will ourselves beyond the vail of subjective experience. This trend is continued in the Fit at Mid Life, which talks data, trends and fact while telling the compelling story of two women on a personal journey to better themselves. I am happy to report that what works about Dr. Brennan’s classes also works in the book, which had me just as invested in whether or not Tracy would reach her goal of finishing an Olympic distance triathlon as I was in educating myself about the fitness facts.
Easily one of the most refreshing parts of reading this book was its emphasis on cultivating a new attitude towards fitness that’s all about function and health. For example, in one section of Fit at Mid-Life in which the authors put there philosopher’s hats on and go about defining fitness, mental health is not left out of the discussion. This inclusion may seem like a small thing but hearing people wise enough to include the other half of health in a fitness discussion read to me as nearly revelatory. This is just one of them many small delights of the book.
One other such delight was reading a discussion of health and fitness that didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. Fitness is interesting because as complex as it is, it is also simple. The never ending succession of people on the internet trying to tell you when/how/where/what to eat in ways that contradict the last thing you read by a seemingly equally qualified professional is unproductive and exhausting. You’ll find no claims like “make sure to only have sugar while standing on your head and juggling avocados, while also singing Shake it Off by Taylor Swift” in this book. Instead it approaches fitness discussion by sticking to what we know and know well, while busting some harmful myths about dieting and exercise in the process.
If I had one complaint, it would be that I wanted the philosopher’s hats to be put on a little bit more often and for slightly more lengthy durations. The fact that this doesn’t happen is by design and it’s not a flaw in the book by any means. I think I just crave a philosophical discussion of fitness and exercise that I can’t really seem to find anywhere right now. Still though, to demand that from Fit at Mid-Life would be to watch Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables and be mad that Hugh Jackman didn’t play Wolverine in it (I’m just kidding, you should never watch Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables). This book is about breaking down stereotypes about gender and age while also providing tangible, subjective stories that, on top of being compelling in their own right, ground the discussion in reality rather than pure theory.
The last thing I want to say about my experience reading the book is how much I enjoyed it despite the fact that it isn’t something many people would think of as being “for me”. I got more than a few quizzical remarks and questions about why I would read a book that seems specifically targeted at age and gender demographics that are very much not my own (male, 24). To that I say, reading books that aren’t “for you” is almost always educational and enjoyable in some way. At least, this holds true for me. There are obvious exceptions, such as movies or video games that populate their narratives with sexualized, two dimensional female characters. That’s the bad kind of “not for you” and women who avoid these stories are definitely not in the wrong. The good kind of “not for you”, however, can be transformative. This book gave me a lot of insight into what it’s like to be a woman in physical fitness spaces and this knowledge will almost surely affect how I conduct myself in these spaces in the future. I have certainly been guilty of presuming that older women in the gym are eagerly awaiting my instructions on how to properly lift weights. Hell, I bumped into at 70 year old woman in a Indigo store a couple of days ago and she was holding this book. I assumed she was hesitantly thinking about dipping a toe into the water of physical fitness but it turns out she was a marathon runner who could probably kick my ass in a great many physical activities.
Fit at Mid Life also gave me knowledge of what an active lifestyle looks like at age 50, which may not apply to me now but certainly will some day (unless scientist finally get off the couch and make putting human brains in robot bodies a reality). My assumption going into the book was that my body would slowly get slower, weaker and less effective every year after my 40th birthday. Research covered in the book that shows age isn’t the barrier to physical activity that many believe it to be was illuminating. I won’t go into the whole thing here but, suffice it to say, certain cultural preconceptions of what aging people can do end up creating a sort of feedback loop. “I know my body is going to get weaker so I’d better not run so much” is, as it turns out, something of a self fulfilling prophesy.
In a lot of ways, this book is appealing to me because of my attitude towards new and different perspectives. After all, Fit at Mid-Life is all about women doing things that aren’t deemed to be “for them” and, unlike my experience with picking up this book, this is actually an obstacle or at least a point of frustration for them. Still, I want to encourage anyone who would hesitate to read this book or any others like it because they don’t think of themselves as that book’s core demographic to check the book out anyway, as it might give you what this book gave me, a valuable new perspective and a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.