You’re not fat, so why do you exercise?

Paraguayans in my site love to comment on my weight periodically…you know just in case I’m not aware of the current state of my own body. And as much as they like to say I’ve gained or lost weight, I’ve stayed about the same since I got here. Well, until recently. I turn 26 this I year and I decided that because I’m now closer to 30 than 20 I should stop putting off my body goals. In July, I started to take steps to lose weight by my birthday in October. At the same time, a friend asked me to run a 10 km race with her for fun. The race brought back my running bug, which I lost sometime in 2012. The point being two fold. First, I’ve started controlling what I eat and how much. Second, rather than just exercising in my house—which I did consistently for most of my service—I started running. Now, everyone in my community can see me exercising.

I think most people know the basic math of weight: if you eat fewer calories than you burn you lose weight, if you eat the number of calories you burn you maintain your weight, and if you eat more calories than you burn you gain weight. Depending on what you are doing weight gain can be muscle or fat. That said, I think many people in Paraguay and the US overestimate the power of exercise in this equation. If you want to lose weight the most effective way to do it is to watch what you eat. Why? Because it is hard to do enough exercise to burn more calories than you consume if you are eating many high-calorie foods.

We are now in late August. I am a little skinner, and Paraguayans like to tell me so, and they attribute it to my exercise. Well, actually, first they say it is because I am in love. A common Paraguayan wives’ tale is that you lose weight when you’re in love (I always thought it was the opposite…). But, after I assure them that I am still single they turn to the exercise excuse. While I was visiting a señora the other day she asked, “You’re not fat, so why do you exercise?” The question struck me. I do link exercise and body image, but for me the connection is muscle tone rather than jiggle or skin-and-bones not exactly weight. And, I exercise more because I feel like crap if I don’t, not because I’m worried about muscle tone. The señora’s question made me think about exercise theoretically, and why so many people don’t do it.

Obviously, it takes effort and time to exercise, but after considering those things I think there is a greater force preventing people from being motivated to exercise. And I think that force relates to how society talks about exercise. Many people, in Paraguay and the US, regulate physical activity to the castigation of the overweight and the amusement of a special elite class of “fit” people. Just as my señora friend’s question suggested, exercise is considered by many to have the single purpose of helping one lose weight. I see this belief as dangerous.

If I had been quicker on my feet I would have explained the following to my señora friend: You don’t have to be fat to exercise. You don’t have to be special. Nor do you have to do a specific type of exercise; all exercise is not equal but most ways of exercising are better than not exercising. Exercising helps your heart, your bones, your brain…everything.

I can’t remember what I told that señora, but I see a greater opportunity, based on her question, for public health wonks. Maybe we should focus less on telling people to exercise and focus more on changing how people talk about physical activity. After all, exercise is for everyone not as a punishment or as a chore but because our bodies need to move to work correctly. Exercise should not be thought of as extra. It should be lumped in with things like vitamins, necessary and required.


Ghost Buildings

On the 2-hour bus ride from my home to the Peace Corps office are many sights that have come to symbolize Paraguay in my mind, but the most vivid is a vacant lot it which stands several incomplete apartment buildings. Those buildings don’t have roofs or windows and the walls are unfinished. The brick, mud, and cement skeleton of what might have been the home of generations of families grays with age. The grass grows tall and a sign that probably announced the development project when someone broke ground on the construction is too faded to read.

When I first saw the buildings I thought of a war-zone or a devastating fire. I wondered, “What happened here?” I still don’t know why that complex stands destitute until the rain washes the structures away, but I now know enough about Paraguay to be confident it wasn’t a tragedy that condemned the place. Most likely, the person funding the project ran out of money and walked away. Just as was the case with so many little houses I see scattered about when I travel—some with finished walls, some with partial roofs.

With little access to credit and varying access to good-paying jobs across the country improvement projects and development move slow. Paraguay is a place of dreams. A dreamland where the bridge between reality and aspiration is still being built. Some people are able to paddle across the gap, and some decide to dream on and live as they always have. Paraguay is a land of opportunity, but only the lucky and the determined make it big.

They Tell Me It Was Different Then

Paraguayans don’t usually talk about the dictatorship in Paraguay that ended in 1989. It’s a taboo subject. There are many reasons why one can’t talk about it, but one important reason is that Paraguayans are fiercely proud of their country and will not criticize themselves in an extreme way. Of course Paraguayans now, like all citizens of democracies, grumble about their new government, corruption among politicians, and what the government is not doing.

Despite the general silence, there is one way señoras talk about the dictatorship; it is usually in a positive light. It relates to security. Señoras are fearful of crime and degeneration of youth in their country—especially the older señoras. They think that women can not and should not walk around alone after dark. Regardless of whether it is late or not. Now, in some parts of Paraguay, like certain barrios in Asuncion, no one should walk around alone late at night. But, if one compares Paraguay to just about any other country in South America, Paraguay is pretty safe. I’m not suggesting that one should throw caution to the wind, but in the quiet towns of Paraguay usually señoras’ fear exaggerates the danger of nighttime. Darkness falls early in the winter months. It’s hard to be home by 5 pm even in  tranquil rural Paraguay.

When señoras talk to me about their concerns for security and the development of youth sometimes they reference the dictatorship. They tell me that things were different then. They tell me there was hardly any crime. They tell me that it was safer and the government was in control. I imagine they are right, but I am not well informed and I wasn’t here to know. Among the few pre-1989 Paraguayan history facts I know is that there was a curfew. I also read that people died if they criticized the government during that time. I will leave judgement of the government before Paraguayan democracy to history experts. However, every time a señora tells me “It was different then” in a hushed voice that is not critical or supportive my mind stirs with questions. Some questions can not be asked. And sometimes after I’ve narrowly avoided being walked home unnecessarily just after the sun sets, I wonder what it was like in Paraguay “then.”


Conversations With My 2-Year-Old Neighbor

Sometimes my 2-year-old neighbor decides to pop over for a visit. She’s in that wonderful stage where she asks questions about everything…usually more than many times.

Our conversations usually start with my bed. I live in a one-room apartment and my bed takes up more space than any other thing I own. It also has a mosquito net, thanks to Peace Corps’ effort to limit my chance of getting dengue.

Here’s one particularly memorable visit, boiled down:

“Is this your bed?” the little girl asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Do you sleep here?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. She then asked about the mosquito net, which we’d talked about close to 10 times before, and I answered.

“Do you sleep here alone?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, starting to smile because I know what the next question will be.

“Why?” the little girl asked.

I don’t really answer. She asked about where my father and mother are…Where do they live? Why aren’t they here?

We then move on to the things on my table. She asked about a chap stick, the pens, some jars. After I explain each thing she exclaimed, “How pretty!”

On that visit I was in the middle of making lunch, which was salad and beet juice. I already knew from previous conversations that she doesn’t like veggies and most fruit. I knew she wouldn’t want my food, so I didn’t offer to share. I pulled out my dejected blender. My blender is held together by duck tape because there are huge cracks in the plastic. Surprisingly (wink), despite my half-hearted washing of the blender after every use, the base is grubby. It takes a special trick to make the top click into the base. I like to think it only works for people who love it.

“My mother has a blender like that,” my little neighbor said.

“Really? That’s great,” I said. I started to make juice.

“How pretty!” she said about the blender.

I look at her with fake surprise. I glance at the blender. “It’s a little ugly, isn’t it?” I asked.

A smirk like those kids wear after doing something they were told not to do in front of the person who told them not to spread across my neighbor’s face. Her little baby cheeks bulged and her eyes sparkled. “Yes,” she said and giggled.

The conversation ended there; she started repeating questions and then her mother called her for lunch. Now, every time I use or look at my blender I see her little smirk and it makes me smile. I learned that even an old, rundown kitchen appliance can add a little happiness to life if you let it.

Crosses in the Sand

One day as I was walking up to one of my favorite señora’s house I saw her out in her yard chopping at the ground with a machete. Now, machetes are perhaps the most used tool in Paraguay, and it’s quite normal to see people just casually walking around with them. I was not particularly surprised she was using one. I thought she was weeding or mowing her patio…a common use of machetes. But as I got closer, I realized her motion she was not right for weed control. Finally, as I stood next to her I saw a zillion little crosses that she’d etched in the sand.

“What are you doing?” I asked, not hiding my confusion. Paraguayans are nice about explaining things, and by this point the people with whom I hang out most in my community are quite used to my questions, which I’m sure seem ridiculous to them.

“I’m drawing crosses,” she said.

“I see that, why?” I said.

“Ants. They were all over. You know they come out with the rain. I didn’t see them and they bit me when I walked to the sink!” she said. Her clothes washing sink is outside. The patio, like most in my community, is sand.

“Oh, I see them. Wow, there are a lot,” I said. The mean biting ants covered part of her patio, moving around like electrons. Between the rains the ants come out in droves. They can turn your whole floor or wall black or brown with a moving army of little six-legged devils waiting to bite you. Some Paraguayans call them a free cleaning service. After the rain they will pass through your house, or whatever path they choose, and eat all the dead bugs and delicious refuse in their path. “What do the crosses do?”

“They stop the ants,” she said.

“How?” I asked.

“The ants won’t cross the line of the crosses. Once you draw the crosses they leave quickly. Look, they are already leaving,” she said.

“Why?” I asked. I knew I sounded like a toddler in that questioning stage of life, but there is always a deeper answer to why my Paraguayan friends do things I don’t understand.

The señora straightened her back and looked at her handy work. She squinted at me. “Ants are creatures of Satan. The crosses send them away,” she said. The conversation about ants ended there as we prepared to drink terere.

The ants moved. Within twenty minutes of drawing the crosses not an ant wandered the area where they had once swarmed. I told myself that the x’s must disturb their communications signals—I read or heard somewhere that ants use their antennae to communicate to each other. I’m not sure if that’s the right explanation either, however.

The lore of señoras has given Paraguay a special place in my heart. I love stories. Often the ends that señoras predict come to pass even if their reasoning and science have different explanations. Of course, some beliefs create obstacles for health and equality to reign, especially when it relates to sexual health, but Paraguayans have a trick for everything. I’m surprised how often ideas I think are ridiculous at first work.