In 2012, Tracy Isaacs and Samantha Brennan, philosophy professors and long-time friends, made an agreement: They would become their fittest ever by the time they turned 50, in two years. Both women had been fairly active throughout their lives, but wanted to start more structured routines. They wanted to feel stronger. And, being philosophers, Isaacs and Brennan thought this challenge could be a chance to think more deeply about a few topics they’d been discussing for some time (as philosopher friends do). They wanted to explore what it really meant to be “fit.” And as feminist philosophers, they also wondered how pursuing fitness and health, as women, might contribute to feelings of empowerment or oppression.
The pair started a blog to document their journey, and this past April, published their book Fit at Mid-Life: A Feminist Fitness Journey. In addition to detailing their experiences over the past two years, the book also discusses the role of feminism in fitness, and reinforces the message that fitness can and should be for everyone, no matter their age, size, gender, or ability.
SELF recently had the chance to chat with Isaacs and Brennan about their experiment, how it changed their ideas about fitness, and where they’re at now. Here’s what they had to say.
SELF: What first sparked this idea, that you’d try to get the fittest in your lives by 50?
Tracy Isaacs (TI): It all started with a Facebook post. Sam posted something like, “What would it mean to be the fittest in my life by the time I turned 50? What measure would I use?” We have all these philosopher friends, so we love that kind of question in our circles. Do you measure by speed, strength, weight loss, VO2max, flexibility, balance, resting heart rate? There are so many possible measures. So Sam said, “I’m going to take on that project.” Our birthdays are only a month apart, so we’ve always kind of celebrated our birthdays together, so I said I would like to do it too. And then we said, “Why don’t we document our challenge on a blog?” At first it was called “Fit, Feminist, and Almost 50.” And then we changed to “Fit is a Feminist Issue.”
Samantha Brennan (SB): At the time, I had some negative views about aging. I thought, “It’s going to do downhill from here, and I want ‘here’ to be a pretty high point.” When we get older, things change and we slow down in a bunch of ways so I wanted to start out really fit. And I wanted to be more well rounded. I was doing physical things I liked, like playing soccer with friends, riding my bike for fun, and occasionally lifting weights, but had no real plan or purpose to it.
TI: I had fallen into a rut myself. I’ve gone through times in life where I was very obsessive about my activities, so I tried to pull back and I had successfully for a few years. I learned to enjoy movement in a way that wasn’t very purpose-driven and was just more enjoyable. But I was starting to find groceries feeling heavy. I was feeling weak, and was like, “My goodness, I’m 48 and I can’t lug groceries from the car as effectively anymore!” I wanted to get back into weight training and Sam’s post came just around the time I was starting to get back into having some fitness goals so I thought was a good opportunity to pursue that in a more structured way. Plus, we like doing things together.
SELF: What types of workouts did you do during the experiment?
TI: We stepped it up quite a bit for those two years. I certainly got more focused. We tried different things but landed on things we were really focused on. Mine was triathlon, which I hadn’t done before. I signed up and then realized, “Oh my gosh, I just signed up for a triathlon!” I hadn’t been swimming in years, I didn’t really ride my bicycle, and I didn’t really like running. I did the first one on my commuting bike, and the water was so cold they turned it into a duathlon, just running and biking. I was a very weak runner at the time but a strong swimmer, so I just dreaded the idea of two runs.
Now, I love running, running is my thing. We used to blog as kind of a laboratory to test out different things and see how they worked for us, but the blog also forced us to reflect quite a bit on how that thing was evolving in our lives. It’s really weird for me to look back on early posts about running and then think about the place running has in my life today. Most people think of me as a runner.
Sam’s go-to was long-distance cycling, which she had done before but not like that—now she was doing big rides, like from Toronto to Montreal over five days.
SB: And the blog got us out there trying different stuff so we could write about it, so we both tried lots of things we didn’t normally do. Some worked and some didn’t—it was just trial and error for me.
TI: Like when you started tai chi…
SB: Yeah, my mom did it and it was so beautiful to watch her. But it just wasn’t for me. And I tried rowing, which I really loved, but I realized I couldn’t commit to being on a team with my work schedule. I plan to revisit rowing when I retire. Today, I’m excited because I have my road bike here and I can take the long way home.
SELF: So what does it mean, to you, to be fit? Did you end up answering that? And how did your idea of this change as you went along your journey?
TI: At the beginning I still kind of had the idea that getting lean was the measure. I had to tweak my mindset, let go of that, and focus. When I got into triathlon, just the idea of training enough to finish events became the focal point, and so that was a huge evolution for me. It became all about performance and I didn’t really give any more thought to how I looked or if I was losing weight. In fact, I put my scale away and stopped weighing myself completely.
I switched to intuitive eating, which is something I tried to do when I was younger but kept going back to dieting and disordered eating. So I committed myself to eating what I wanted when I wanted, what I needed when I needed it. Those were huge changes for me that pretty much stuck.
SB: I think I’ve always had that performance view, but what changed for me was having this more well-rounded idea of fitness. Working on flexibility and balance. Thinking of it as all these different activities supporting one another rather than just what will help me in my performance in cycling. It’s now more about living my life, not just about athletic performance but about what sorts of things help me get through my day. It’s this idea of being fit for life rather than fit for a particular sport or activity. I now feel like I can try all sorts of new things because I have this base level of fitness and confidence, and it’s really nice. I race small sailboats and one day I was getting the boat out of the water onto a trailer and immediately these guys start yelling, “Do you need help?” It felt great to say, “Well, you can help if you want, but I’m fine, I got this.”
TI: I’ve experienced the same thing, just this general level of fitness is really serving me well and making me more confident to try things, too.
SB: You no longer worry so much about trying something new and whether or not you can do it.
SELF: Was there anything you tried that you were surprised you enjoyed?
TI: Triathlon. By the end of it, I was really into it. I had two bikes, and road bike and a triathlon bike. I love that it is multisport, I really like the energy of the transition zone—coming out of the lake and ripping the wetsuit off, and getting on the bike. I love cycling but I developed a phobia of training on the road that basically took me out of triathlons. I didn’t want to go on an indoor trainer just to be able to keep up. But sometimes I think about later when I retire, will I ever get back to it? Because I haven’t really experienced anything quite as energizing as a triathlon. It surprised me at the beginning of our challenge that tri would become my focal point.
SB: The thing that was completely new to me was rowing. I really loved it, but also realized it was too much of a commitment for how much I travel and what my work schedule is like. I loved it, but it didn’t fit with my life. I think later on things might change and I would go back to it because I really loved it.
I was also surprised I liked CrossFit as much as I did. I really liked the community aspect. I’m not doing it anymore, though. There were lots of things I tried and liked, and in general, I enjoyed the experience of trying new things and discovering I was good at them. I went axe-throwing with friends and I won. I was shocked.
SELF: Almost six years later, are you still keeping at it? What has changed since you started this experiment?
SB: It helped for both of us that we had sabbatical time leading up to the challenge, that flexibility in our schedule was key. During the challenge, the one thing that was hard for me was dealing with deaths in my family and caring for my elderly parents. I have been way more busy with family things than I imagined, and I’ve since moved up from regular faculty to dean, so now I have very scheduled, long days—I can’t just dip out on my road bike anymore. I have to make more of an effort. This weekend, a group of bloggers is going bike riding. And that’s just booked in my calendar, so that’s what I’m doing. I have to be more deliberate about planning now.
TI: During the challenge, I had one year of leave and was regular faculty, but now I’m associate dean. I’m much more scheduled and it’s become harder to keep up with some things, like swim training. I used to go at 6 A.M. and it just started to feel impossible at a certain point, so I gave that up. I feel like I’ve hit a comfortable rhythm with workouts now, though. I do weight training in the late afternoon, mostly do running early in the morning, and I meet people for long runs on Sunday mornings. I find it to be a really beautiful, unexpected addition to my life, to have this regular group of people I run with and then go for breakfast with. We sometimes do events together or road trip to do a half-marathon or 10K. During the challenge I joined a triathlon club, and I learned I really like the group aspect of workouts.
SELF: Did this experiment help you answer your questions about fitness as a feminist issue?
SB: The hard part is that fitness often puts an emphasis on women’s appearance. But when you set [the focus on appearance] aside and think about the other benefits of working out, there are lots of ways it impacts how we live our lives, our relationships, and how we get along in the world, that are really really important and that feminists have sometimes ignored, in a way.
One of the things I think is really interesting is the connection between athletic achievement or participation and other kinds of achievement for women. There’s a huge payback. Sports adds well-being and fun to life, but there’s also this spillover effect of this physical confidence and way of being in the world that I think people notice and respond to.
TI: We’ve been trying to change the convo so that people realize that there are all kinds of reasons to get active. Participation in fitness activities and sports generates confidence, and confidence helps you on the track to success. That quality alone (confidence) can take you so far in life. For me, I really felt myself owning my physicality, learning that it truly belongs to me. I do these workouts for me. If I never run another day in my life, nobody else is going to care. I do it for me. And how many things in our lives do we do just for us? Not many. I remember feeling sometimes selfish in fitting my workouts into my schedule because it meant I had to tell my husband, “I’m leaving at 5:30 A.M. and going to work straight from there, catch you at the the end of the day.” But that changed things in a way that I feel good about.
SELF: What sort of feedback have you gotten from both the blog and the book?
TI: We get tons of feedback regularly from the blog. The overwhelming majority is positive, with women reaching out to Sam and me regularly. Almost every blog post (we post new content daily) receives comments, and there is lively interaction on the Facebook page as well.
SB: I think we've both been touched by a lot of the feedback that we've received. We've heard from a lot of women who say that our book gave them the confidence and the push that they needed to start doing something that they've always want to do but never really felt belonged to them. I like the idea that we've given women permission to go out there and find and enjoy their physical selves.