Working Things Out

Decade N° 5: A Not-so-Average Blog on Middle Age

Month 4

COVID and turning fifty helped me let go of an exercise regimen that no longer fit.

By Carrie McConkey

“That’s the house where I was playing with my friends and climbed up on the roof and fell off. I was knocked out, but only for a second.”

My new husband John was orienting me to the neighborhood in which he had been born and raised, each block filled with stories of adventure with family and friends. After our nuptials in 1993, I was now a resident. As he introduced me to my surroundings, one of my first “inductions” into the community was to join John’s local gym, of which he’d been a charter member.

Though I’d never set foot in a health club, I had worked out since high school. My reason for exercising was an odd one: I was scared to death of childbirth. Despite the fact that I’d not had a boyfriend throughout all four years of high school, I had faith that SOMEDAY I would get married, and if I stayed healthy I would be in top shape to start a family. (I’ve always been a long-term planner.) So, I hit “play” on my VCR and did “Super Stomachs” in the living room with Denise Austin, the pretty, bubbly eighties icon of aerobics and my fitness role model. I loved her over-the-top, enthusiastic personality, randomly calling out “Whoo!” as she urged us to strive for a “rock-hard tummy!”.

I never had the opportunity to find out if the abs video aided with childbirth — John and I opted not to have kids. Nevertheless, I became a regular at his gym. John patiently taught me how to use the equipment, and the ins and outs of proper gym etiquette (don’t sit on the machines between sets. Let someone else work in if needed). Soon, I was gaining muscle tone and confidence, and when a college buddy who was a fellow club member asked me to attend a group fitness class with her I nervously accepted. But I fretted… would I be able to last an hour? Would I be capable of mastering the complex choreography?

The class served up just the right amount of challenge, and I fell in love with the camaraderie, connection, and friendly competition. I needed the accountability of arriving at a set time, the backdrop of thumping, eardrum-bursting music, and the minute-by-minute motivation from the instructors to push me farther than I would have ever ventured on my own. Each class felt like its own mini-party, and at its conclusion, our group of weary workout fiends would leave with sweat dripping from the ends of our hair, chatting and laughing while we caught up on critical gym goings-on.

I rotated between club locations according to the group fitness schedules, bobbing and weaving in the kickboxing class, popping and locking in the hip hop dance class, and jumping around like a crazed cheerleader in the plyometrics class. I worked my entire schedule around the sessions, turning down weeknight dinner dates and Saturday morning shopping trips to make sure I didn’t miss a single rep.

The lifestyle was at times difficult to maintain, and didn’t come without risks. Although the endorphins were high, so was the chronic pain in my lower back when I got out of bed in the morning. And as the decades passed and my classmates and I entered our forties, our after-class gossip turned to what areas of our bodies were injured, and whether a visit to the doctor was necessary.

One Saturday morning in March 2017 I took my regular spot in plyometrics class even though I’d worn uncomfortable dress shoes for hours the day before. Both of my feet hurt, but heck, my feet always hurt after wearing heels. Maybe the class would help work the soreness out. As I did split squat jumps my feet loudly protested, screaming “Warning! Warning! All is not well!” Stubbornly, I persisted, not willing to short myself the full 50-minute experience. Then pain shot through my left forefoot as I landed. With a pronounced limp, I resignedly left class feeling like a failure in front of my stalwart classmates. I soon found out I’d given myself a stress fracture.

I learned just how much I was addicted to my workouts, going through withdrawals during the 8-week recovery period. I was a mess emotionally… I depended so much upon the stress relief of the classes that real life without them seemed unbearable. And physically, I didn’t know what to do with myself — I felt restless, dormant, slothlike. I couldn’t stand being still. I fought my way back to my old schedule and in time recovered my stamina (and my jump height) while mourning the fact that I had missed an entire choreography rotation in my hip hop dance class (it had included a song by Janet Jackson, for heaven’s sake).

Nearly three years to the day of my foot injury, Coronavirus prompted the executive order to shut down health clubs. While I went into a state of shock, John managed to squeeze in one more workout before the doors closed. When he came home I grabbed a handful of his shirt and smelled it like a Gain commercial — searching for the familiar scent of my beloved gym, my escape, my safe space.

I texted my workout friends and we lamented the situation. In a frantic effort not to lose my routine I subscribed to the on-demand version of my fitness classes, grateful that they existed. I was back where I started, exercising alone in my living room. This time I wasn’t afraid of childbirth but of my impending 50s, the recurring pain in my knees, and falling behind in my level of health. But as I explored the online workout platform and noticed the variety of classes offered — many more than could humanly be held at the gym — I became intrigued.

At first, I stayed faithful to my current routine: kickboxing, plyometrics, dance. But I also took on a weight-lifting class that I had started at the gym less than a year before. I revisited a Core class I had fallen in love with but was no longer being offered at the club: a routine with planks, hovers, and a variety of creative movements that increased flexibility and focus (not to mention did wonders for my golf swing). And I tried a new-to-me ballet-inspired class, which immediately grabbed my attention. I could do leg lifts all day, but when they were performed from First Position, suddenly a much different type of balance was needed.

As I blended the new workouts with the old I noticed that I wasn’t looking forward to the action-heavy classes to which I’d been so dearly dedicated, but instead felt a sense of happy anticipation as I explored the quieter options. It was a different feeling — a more mindful experience.

I felt a thrill of accomplishment as I increased my plate sizes while weight-training, began doing pushups on my toes rather than my knees in the core class, and toppled over less and less while doing an arabesque in ballet. I marveled at how much I could sweat without jumping and running, and I could feel my vulnerable left foot getting stronger. The season for the noisy, high-energy, push-yourself-until-you’re-a-puddle workouts had passed. Now was the time for settling down and becoming grounded. My body was changing, my life was changing, and my values were changing, and that was just fine.

I met Denise Austin once at a book signing. I gave her credit for my strong abs, and invited her to poke my tummy as proof (which she took me up on). Denise is still going strong today, at 63. Her workouts have evolved, and I’m sure she’d be proud of my evolution as well. I used to worry that I hadn’t exercised enough if I didn’t feel like I’d been run over by a truck. Speed, height, and endurance were the name of the game. Now I’m striving for the same things I’m seeking in my 50th year: balance, flexibility, and inner strength. I know I need to listen to my body if it’s telling me, “Not today”, and to practice self-care outside the gym so that days off won’t cause an emotional tsunami.

The club is open again, and John has been working out regularly. I still smell his shirt when he comes home because I haven’t yet returned; I’m a grumpy mask-wearer, and I can’t bear the idea of staying socially distanced from the friends with whom I share such a physical connection. Perhaps I’m hesitating because I’m not sure yet how to integrate my new workout life with the old. But I know I’ll be back soon.

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