My (new) life as an exerciser: reflections on working out regularly

Yesterday I was at the gym by myself running intervals and lifting weights. Today, I walked by myself and went to the pool to swim a mile, outside, at sunset. Tomorrow am, I hope to swim again, and tomorrow night, I am hoping to make it to Power Yoga at the Y. Tuesday morning, I will see my trainer for an hour and work very very hard doing hard exercise things.

The miracle here is that I was never a person who liked to work out. I was never athletic, and while I have gotten into periods of my life where I did aerobics 4 times a week, or ice-skated 4X a week, they were many years ago, before I had a kid (and my kid is long an adult, now). So, how did I become someone for whom exercise has started to become a necessary and desired habit? what were the triggers from that turned me from someone who thought about moving her body intensely a few times a week to someone who actually went out and did the work, even by herself?

The factors that made a difference for me:
Fear of dying
When you get into your mid/late 50s and beyond, the number of friends you have who’ve passed on all too young starts to feel like too many. The friend with the brain tumor, the friend who beat cancer till it came back, the friends who had tragic accidents—all those things happen and they are terrible.

Having friends and contemporaries die has made me very motivated to do all the things I can to keep myself in the kind of health that can encourage long life. I want to bring my heart rate above 154 several times a week, and make sure my balance is good, and leg press more than my body weight and get up from a sitting position with just one assist, and so on.

Fear of disability and illness
It’s not only the friends who die, it’s the people who had bad health habits their entire lives and now their systems are breaking down. It’s the 47 year olds who can’t bear their weight on their bad knees, and the 57 year olds who are 80-100 lbs overweight and have sleep apnea, and the 60+ folks who are on 40 meds and have their ability to hike and walk appear so constrained. I will do anything and everything possible to avoid being one of these people, so working on my strength, core fitness, weight loss, flexibility, balance, agility and you name it is VERY motivating to me.

Building the habit of getting started
At this point, working out has become a habit, and I know that if I can get myself to the gym and on a cardio warm up machine the rest of the workout—all 60-90 grueling minutes of it—will follow. And I will enjoy it once I am doing it.

Similarly, once I take that first low dive into the water, I’m launched into swimming, breathing and counting and breathing as I go back and forth across the lap lanes. (And if I can get myself on the bike (still not a habit), I’m happy to keep going as well, so long as I have a bike lane.)

But it’s take a ton of repetition, scheduling, persistence, and determination to get myself to this place—and it still sometimes feels fragile. But it’s a muscle I have to work because when I do, I feel so damn better.

Learning that I need this—and it feels good
It’s been a very long and slow process to create an internal need and desire to actually move my body intensively 4-6 times a week or more. When I get super busy with work, it can still feel very iffy and easy to skip working out. But after 18 months of seeing a trainer and being active 4-6 times a week, I’ve learned that I feel better and do better if I give myself exercise time.

When I work out regularly, I’m less stressed, less angry and calmer. I also feel pride and a sense of well-being when I complete a whole workout as I planned it, or when I reach my fitness goals for the week on schedule. Slowly, I am learning to choose exercise as the thing I do for myself instead of eating, instead of shopping, instead of a pedicure, or reading, or TV or…it has to come in the top 4 of what matters to me (my people, my work, and my dog claiming those other spaces…).

Feeling pride in being fitter and trimmer
When I do a core workout now, I routinely do 300 crunches, swimmies/ V-ups or other abdominal routines. I do planks, squats, lunges at least 3 times a week, and I lift weights 2-3 times a week as well. I have muscles in places I didn’t before, especially in my back, stomach, arms, legs and thighs, and my waist is 14 inches smaller than it was in February 2014.
Also, as I like to joke, I’ve gone from obese to overweight, from someone who was getting seriously tubby to someone who’s on her way to dropping the last 25 lbs of cookie weight. Given that I spent most of my life chubby, as opposed to fat, it feels great to roll my size back more closely to what it was in 2008–and I’m working to get back to the size I was in 2003.

Fat shaming is real—and I experienced it
Also, although I didn’t admit it before, it feels great to go back to being small enough to no longer feel so fat shamed.
No one in our culture wants to admit it, but the reaction to most people of size is aversion and disgust; the 3-5 years I spent at the top of my body size were enough to make me want to roll my shape back the other way if I had the opportunity.
For me, the point of getting into fitness was never to lose a lot of weight, but it’s been a total thrill to lose some weight—and turn so much of the fat into muscle. I also relish the feeling of fitting in more than I did, even as I cringe to admit it— being profiled as the fat chick isn’t really a fun thing–and it’s something broken about our culture.

Exercise has sets of skills I can master—and I’m competitive about them
18 months ago, I could barely spend 30 seconds holding myself up on the air bike aka Roman chair, before flopping like a fish out of water. Today, I can do three sets of demanding dips, 10 each set, on that piece of equipment. I can do 10 real pushups and I can lift all kinds of progressively heavier weight.

Oh yes—and I can run—not jog—run—for a minute and a half at a time before dropping back to my fast job (which I can do for 30 minutes without stopping, no problem.

And assisted pull ups? I’ve gone from lifting 20 lbs to lifting 50 and hope to one day do unassisted pull-ups (like maybe 30 lbs from now?)
I understand this isn’t the same as mastering a waltz jump or a sitz spin, or the other figures I worked on when I skated, but mentally, it feels a lot the same—and I like seeing myself improve.

I want to be really, really fit
My goals about my body have shifted, maybe even evolved, in the past 18 months. I’ve gone from someone who was getting really fat and winded to someone who’s trimmed down considerably.

I now understand that while I will never be a skinny person ( thanks, Russian Jewish peasant survivor genes!), I can become the fittest, most limber version of myself—the one who can touch her palms to the floor, get up from a sitting position on the floor in one movement, do a handstand (not yet), the one who can run—not jog—a mile without stopping—and so on.
And I love becoming this person. I love doing this for myself. And it feels really good.

I can claim something I never had—pride in my strong body and care for it
This week, my trainer told me that I was one of the strongest people he trained. That was as I pressed 105 lbs for my thigh abduction exercises. Given that I rebelled in my family by refusing to play sports and sat in the house defiantly reading instead, this connection to my body and my strength feels hard-won—and late.

And yet, this may be the first time I’m really putting my Russian Lady Wrestler frame and familial East European constitution to work on my own behalf in this particular way—building muscles and endurance for myself.

I want to run—and I am running—and I do sit ups, too
The two most unappealing exercises I could imagine for most of my life were running (too sweaty and hard on the knees) and sit ups—why bother?

Somehow, I’ve become someone who likes to run intervals and do 300 sit ups in one session. Both of these things, which I couldn’t imagine ever voluntarily doing, I do because they feel really good (and because they help change me in positive ways).

It’s the long haul and I’m in it
The downside to my entry into fitness that that progress can feel slow. I didn’t lose 65 lbs in 8 months, or drop 5 dress sizes in 10 weeks.

Instead, I slowly and consistently started to work out, building strength, capacity, flexibility, balance and endurance, reducing my waist by 14 inches, taking my pants down 3 sizes, and going down in bra size both at waistband and cup.

But as much as I wish I could slim faster, I remember that for me this is forever and that whatever happens, I am into working out for the long haul. And that perhaps, is the most astounding thing of all.