I entered adulthood with an image of myself as someone who does not “do” sports. I figured there was a human divide and I was on the side with those who discussed books and foreign films, sipped frothy drinks, and had pale skin in the summer. In my mid-20s, after a few years at the computer, my body started to protest my lifestyle. Headaches and neck pain were frequent, and I sensed my metabolism slowing. I should mention that I wasn’t really inactive, but I was passive. I never grasped the idea that physical fitness was something I could take charge of for myself. As I got older, busier, and less active, I began to envision layers of fat overtaking me in the coming years, and yet I felt helpless to do anything about it.
We all know exercise is vital, but according to a recent report by the surgeon general, “more than 60 percent of adults do not achieve the recommended amount of regular physical activity. In fact, 25 percent of all adults are not active at all.” The report also says that inactivity increases with age.
How do we end up like this? I’ve begun to examine why I moved away from physical activity. And I think I can sum up my findings in four words: high school gym class. Do I hear others groaning? Designed to build our love of sport, for many of us high school gym class was more of an adolescent torture chamber–the awkwardness of our growing bodies, the unwelcome proximity in the change rooms, forced comparisons, and finally, the uniforms. Have you ever seen a flattering gym uniform? By my senior year I had gathered I was not to be a star athlete. I therefore became a columnist for the local newspaper and interviewed school athletes instead.
This story could have had a pretty grim ending except that I later discovered my nonathleticism was a myth. The fact is, even as adults we all have the ability to embrace athletics, and we can reinvent ourselves at virtually any age.
Meet 53-year-old Trish Hanush. A mother of two, pastor’s wife, and part-time accountant from Sunnyvale, California, Hanush is pleasant and candid, her comments peppered with girlish laughter. But until recently Hanush was an unlikely candidate for a fitness article.
While active as a child, Hanush–like so many of us–lost ground in adulthood as her sedentary job and various responsibilities took over. When she met with a personal trainer five months ago Hanush was a size 22, probably 100 pounds overweight, and avoided certain social situations because of her physical limitations. After months of regular weight training and aerobic workouts, Hanush has shed 50 pounds and is shopping for size 14 clothes. “I still have another 50 pounds to go,” she says, but it’s obvious that physical activity has become part of her life.
So how do adults–whether 33 or 53–transform themselves into athletes?
Joel Malone, of Nashville, Tennessee, is a personal trainer at the Maryland Farms YMCA and, with his family, also runs a fitness education program called ForeverFit in area churches. Malone says that invariably adults need a trigger.
“Men have to have some sort of crisis. They’ve gone to the doctor, who says, `You need to exercise or else,'” says Malone. Women are often “orientated to an event that’s coming up, whether it is a twenty-fifth reunion, summer is coming up . . . or it’s overwhelmed them that they’ve gained 20 pounds since they’ve been married.”
Hanush’s turning point came after her daughter lost 100 pounds. “I decided if it was good for her, it was good for me.”
Meanwhile, Caroline Steinhouse, 43, of Brentwood, Tennessee, went to her doctor a couple years ago complaining of fatigue, knee pain, and problems sleeping. Steinhouse laughs. “He said, `There’s nothing wrong with you. You just need to exercise.'” She has been working out with Malone ever since.
If you want to make a change, there is every reason to believe that you can have the same results. But see your doctor first. “I suggest they see their doctor, get a physical, and make sure they don’t have a condition like high blood pressure,” says Hanush’s personal trainer Christine Bybee, of San Jose, California. She adds that any preexisting condition must be discussed with a doctor to determine appropriate activities. If a person has high blood pressure, for example, they should maintain contact with their doctor.
Getting started is probably the hardest step, and it’s wise to recognize the emotions that you are stirring up. You may begin to think about past failures or be deluged with negative self-talk. Says Bybee, “I notice when I first start working out with people, they won’t look in the mirror.”
When she began with Bybee, Hanush says, “The one thing I had learned in the past was I set myself up for failure a lot.” Hanush and Bybee discussed this and crafted attainable goals. “If I just removed ice cream out of my diet and went to the gym and did half an hour of aerobics, that was so much more than I was doing before.”
Don’t make changes to please others. Bybee suggests saying, “I’m changing my lifestyle because my body needs it.” This approach will take time, but “when you lose the weight slowly, it stays off.”
And finally, you have to decide on a time and approach that suits you. If you’re self-employed like me, you could try working out at home and throwing in activities you enjoy. My husband reintroduced me to tennis a few years ago, so besides doing exercise videos in our living room, I play tennis all summer. For those who like more socializing or structure, a gym and some start-up sessions with a personal trainer are a good idea.
When you actually begin, take a deep breath and don’t let your high school experiences haunt you. “If you can afford one,” says Malone, “a personal trainer can bring a lot of comfort in the gym, shielding you until you gain some confidence.” But even if a trainer is not an option, take heart. “These days,” he says, “gyms are becoming more and more friendly and accessible.”
Once you’ve started, you need to stay motivated until your new activities become ingrained habits. Bybee encourages her clients to work out in groups and share their struggles. Again, a trainer can also help with motivation.
Once you’ve been active for a while, you’ll see the transformation begin. Malone says clients “find out this thing they’ve been dreading all these years is quite pleasant. . . . There is a realization that we were created physically to relate to the world in a certain way.” The physical benefits quickly become apparent. Malone was working with a woman in her 60s who said to him one day, “You know, Joel, it’s really convenient to be strong. . . . I can carry all my groceries in from the car in just a couple trips.”
But regular exercise spurs change throughout the human system, says Malone, not just our bodies. Hanush, for example, has experienced not only weight loss, improved sleep patterns, and gained energy, but also profound emotional and spiritual change. “Of course I have the compliments, but I’m proud of what I’m doing because I’m getting some discipline in my life. . . . It makes you feel so good about yourself. It gives you confidence in other areas.”
For Steinhouse, who felt out of shape after having two children and jokes that she “couldn’t sit up in the bathtub without holding on to the soap dish,” results are just as glowing. Besides reduced aches and greater strength, Steinhouse says, “I’m more confident about the way I look and more apt to do things with other people.” She has noticed effects in her marriage, too. “I think my husband is much more affectionate the better I look . . . although it might come from my being more self-confident too.”
In fact, exercise can be a revolutionary experience for new devotees. As Bybee says, “people start to look at other things in life besides being down on themselves. . . . You’ve been hearing all along you are fearfully and wonderfully made . . . and suddently you begin to realize that really, fully.”
Hanush adds a small but wonderful illustration. “One day I turned my wrist, and I saw this muscle show up on my forearm and I thought, Oh, that’s cool.”