Im kindasorta pinching myself to be sure it’s REAL she agree to guest post for me again.
Once upon a time I wrote a guest blog for MizFit called “An Exercise Hater Finds Love”. You might have remembered me confessing that:
I’ll never be one of those sleek, adrenaline-pumped people in a commercial for high-tech sneakers or sports drinks, grimacing in steely determination with a toe poised on the edge of a starting line, grabbing life by the humid balls one steep mountain-bike path at a time, sweating electrolyte-blue droplets with glorious abandon.
Impossible. Because I hate exercise.
That guest blog for MizFit later morphed into a chapter of my memoir, Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting, and Live Large (May 2011, Random House).
I wrote other things, in other parts of my book and on the web, expressing the unlikelihood that you’d ever find me sweating all over a piece of stagnant metal gym equipment. I was far more likely, I argued, to engage in physical activity that was distinctly fun – like biking, swimming, playing tennis. Even just plain walking. These kinds of movement were enjoyable to me – unlike classic gym-style “working out” which I viewed as drudgery.
Well, maybe now is a good time, and MizFit’s blog a good place, to explain why, over the past ten months, I’ve been seen entering a local gym three days a week, and leaving 45 minutes later – smiling.
Once upon a time, I got completely turned off by gyms. There are two big reasons why.
First, I’d had several bad experiences with personal trainers – one in particular who made a cameo appearance in my earlier MizFit guest blog, and reappeared in Read My Hips. (“This bald and beefy little black man in linen with a Buddha collection, who’d left behind Wall Street to bring people into better balance with their bodies, completely sucked ass.”)
He pushed me too hard from the beginning. He was unwilling to hear me when I stated my needs – specifically, to start very slowly and build gradually. I hadn’t exactly signed up for training because I wanted to hurt and sweat. I was doing it because I felt I should. For strength. Improved energy. Overall wellbeing and crap like that. Believe me, there were plenty of other things I’d rather have been doing, and preferably, while seated on my abundant behind.
All my bad trainers had set minimums in mind, and if I wasn’t willing to meet that minimum with a Stepford Wives smile, they wrote me off. They weren’t willing to meet me at the bottom of the barrel and coax me out. It was icky down there.
I didn’t quite understand it. Did these fitness enthusiasts get into personal training so they could train people who were already reasonably fit? Lazy!
The second reason I came to hate gyms had to do with my motivation from an earlier time. When I was in my 20s, the only reason I ever walked into a gym – the only reason I ever huffed and puffed in front of a work-out video or stumbled helplessly over my own feet in a step aerobics class – was because I wanted to be more attractive. And by attractive, I mean thin.
I’ve come a long way since then. These days, thinness doesn’t even make my top ten list of life goals. (And for a decade-and-a-half, it was always the first thing on my list of new year’s resolutions – carried over, unachieved, year after year.)
I’m more interested in my experience of life now, rather than how other people experience me – appearance-wise, at least. And an exhilarating, rich and full life experience is largely dependent on feeling strong and well.
That’s where today’s gym comes in.
My motivation to feel good is so much more gratifying than my former goal – thinness – because when it comes to quality of life, exercise pays off quickly and consistently. There’s no looking ahead two or three years to a day when I might squeeze my thighs into a certain size jeans.
I get rewarded now. Exercise pays off immediately.
The turning point had everything to do with a pair of old white rollerskates with red glittery disco laces and red wheels.
Late last year, my friend Jeffrey and I discovered a roller rink within a half-hour’s drive from where we live. I hadn’t been skating in over 20 years, but as a child and teen, I spent many weekends circling the glossy wooden floor of my neighborhood rink in a torn Flashdance-style sweatshirt, stopping only to beg the high-haired dude in the DJ booth to play some obscure Flock of Seagulls B-side.
I was excited to recreate the New Wave-on-wheels of my youth. Jeffrey and I laced up and I leapt enthusiastically from a melamine bench, making my way haltingly across a faded expanse of carpet to the rink entrance. I stepped in.
My legs. My legs wouldn’t move.
Sure, my body retained all the necessary muscle memory needed for skating. It’s one of those things that settles into the fiber of you, like riding a bike. But my thighs, my calves, my ankles shrieked as only I could hear them. With every attempt to glide a leg forward or push a foot back, I felt the frightening limitations of my body.
For the first time, I truly felt just how much my body had aged. I was in disbelief – I really wasn’t nineteen anymore! When did that happen? When did my leg muscles wither around my bones like soggy corn husks? When did my lower back start to feel like the rusty insides of a wind-up clock? And as long as we’re asking questions, when did Double Trouble go off the air?
Shortly after that fateful night at the rink, I joined a gym. Not because I want to sculpt myself into a certain shape. No. Because I want to be capable and strong, for as long as that’s possible. And I want to be able to focus on building strength in certain areas that are clearly much weaker than others. And I want to be able to track my progress.
So yes, I am a gym rat.
I know I am, because I see new faces come and go all the time. I’m part of a small core group of members who keep coming back, week after week after week.
We don’t linger too long on any one machine, we remember to wipe the equipment when we’re done. We don’t talk too loud or pose conspicuously before the mirrored walls or make theatrical barbaric yawps to prove how hard we’re working. It’s routine. It’s a commitment.
I never thought I’d see the day.
But it’s different now, see. First of all, I don’t allow anyone (including me) to push me too hard, too soon. The way I set my pace is very simple. I stop doing any given exercise before I begin to hate it.
You know that threshold.
That place where you’re willing to die young if it means you’ll never have to do this shit again. That place where you actually start thinking, I’ll bet they have really cool designer wheelchairs nowadays.
Some fitness professionals don’t agree with this approach – they see it as dangerously safe. They want to convince you that your work-out isn’t effective unless it equals medieval torture. I beg to differ. My approach hasn’t prevented me from making progress – in fact, it’s allowed me to progress more quickly than I ever dreamed.
Because I keep coming back. And that threshold of God-I-hate-this comes later and later as I get stronger.
Also, this time around, I don’t gauge my progress by the number on the scale. I know that number is meaningless. The scale can tell you nothing about how strong you are, how flexible you are, how healthy or beautiful or young. It doesn’t tell you you’re dateable or successful or smart or hip. And it indicates absolutely nothing about sexual prowess, so…what good is it?
Instead, I measure my success two ways. On strength machines, I work towards more consecutive reps. Yesterday maybe I could do six reps. Maybe next week I’ll do eight. My goal is 30. On cardio equipment, I challenge myself to sustain my maximum target heart rate for longer periods of time. My goal used to be simply to get to my maximum target heart rate (144 beats per minute). Now, I do about seven out of 20 total minutes at 144.
I keep improving.
Having motivation that really matters has been key (that is, quality of life rather than a random number). So has committing to a gentle and manageable pace.
Just think. I used to get queasy driving past a gym. Now, I’m actually disappointed when I can’t get there. I still don’t expect to wind up in an ad for sneakers or electrolyte punch, but hey – anything’s possible. You can take it from me.