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Wisdom of the Ages: How I Discovered the Value of a Good Workout

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What sweating with the oldies and alongside pretty young things taught me about the real value of a good workout.

Playing the Field

I am cheating on my gym. We've had some good times involving heavy breathing and sweating over the past 20 years or so. But people grow. They change. They want different things, and one gym might be insufficient to meet their needs. I didn't intend to stray from this long-term relationship, but now that I have, I will not stop. If frequenting my new gym is wrong, I don't want to be right.

There was nothing specific that caused me to stray. It was more of a feeling that I no longer quite belonged at my basic chain gym, with its smiley trainers, shiny new equipment, and young, fit junior-exec types, who arrive after work, exhaust as many large-muscle groups as they can in as little time as possible, and then reapply full makeup before meeting their friends for drinks and dinner. In other words, me 10 or 15 years ago. Sure, I would love rock-solid abs and a firmer butt. But these days I'm more intent on keeping my weight down and dejiggling my upper arms so they don't give me a black eye when I wave.

At my gym-on-the-side, located in a tiny converted storage room in my apartment complex, I am among the more ambitious exercisers, and -- if only because of my age -- among the fittest. I live in a neighborhood with many elderly people, and often I'm the youngest person working out by several decades. I joined this gym because it's cheap and convenient. In some ways it's similar to my chain gym: There are women huffing uphill on the treadmill, but in tan walking shoes, not neon-pink Nikes. The conversation on the recumbent bikes runs more toward how poorly behaved the grandchildren were during their last visit than to needy drama-queen friends and first dates with guys who kiss like fish. The Price Is Right is on the TVs, and there can be hell to pay if you try to change the channel. It's the kind of place where, if I forget my sneakers, I'll get on the elliptical in my running shorts and rain boots, because really, whom am I trying to impress? I would never do that at my chain gym, because then I'd be that weird older lady who works out in her rain boots.

The thing is, I don't fully fit in at my building's gym either. That's because I am an adult tween -- at age 45, not a young person, but not an old one either. That's not a bad thing: When I overhear younger women agonizing over how they've gained 2.3 pounds or how some guy texts but won't actually call, I feel so happy that I'm not their age. I have to hold myself back from saying, "Just wait. It gets so much better when you realize how cool you are."

There are pros and cons to each gym. I feel comfortable in my building because it's anything but a pickup scene. With two children, I just want to do my thing and get home to the people I care about, not make small talk with some dude with cartoonish biceps and chicken legs. There are no peacocks endlessly preening in front of the mirror. That said, seeing all those twentysomethings strap weights to their waists and do clearly painful squats across the floor does inspire me to push a little harder. At my building, some folks are there to kvetch, not stretch. I have to stay focused lest I yammer the day away, too.

Switching between the two gyms, I sometimes feel as if I'm visiting the Ghosts of Fitness Past and Fitness Future, each with its own cautionary tale. The last time I was at the chain gym, there was a young woman on the treadmill next to me wearing a tee clearly purchased not too long ago from her college bookstore. She looked awesome -- trim and fit, her body built for skinny jeans and tight ribbed tanks. She ran with relentless determination and then spent a good 20 minutes working on her abs with incredible precision and dedication. When I spotted her back in the locker room, though, she was standing grim-faced in front of the mirror, evaluating the inch or so of flesh that popped out over her waistband when she leaned over. She pinched it -- it had to be 50 percent skin! -- grunted with disgust and threw her top on as if to cover up a crime scene.

I hurt for her. She was like me at 21, when I tortured myself with endless self-improvement. Back then I said that I was working out for my health and striving for my personal best, but if I had been honest, I would have admitted it was mostly about how I looked. Nowadays there's still a bit of vanity, but exercise for me is much more about sanity. My runs lift my mood and give me the patience to handle my kids and job with humor and forbearance. I do crunches so I can pick stuff up without hurting my back. And sure, workouts give me a little leeway to finish off my kids' mac and cheese, but mainly I exercise so I can enjoy my life. My body is at my service, not the other way around. It's a relief to feel this way after so many years of self-criticism.

At my building's gym I get a glimpse of my possible fitness future. It's hard to miss how the body slows down with age; even at "only" 45, mine doesn't have quite the spring-back capability it used to. And it's clear that the 70-year-olds who work out in my building aren't as fit as they were decades ago. But the fact that they're there at all, walking on the treadmill if not running, means they're doing better than those who avoid exercise altogether.

While I'm grateful to be over the relentless perfectionism that led me to exercise without enjoyment and for all the wrong reasons, spending time in my new gym reminds me that I need to keep my workouts on the agenda no matter how busy I get or how many other people's needs scream louder than mine. For now I'm going to keep toggling between my two gyms, fitting in at both and at neither and trying to make the most of the motivation each has to offer. Because staying both fit and healthy means avoiding either extreme and continuing to work out regularly, even if it's in your rain boots.

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, April 2013.

 

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