I imagine trying to explain the concept of a personal trainer to a nomad. Where would I start? How would I explain that if I don’t make time for exercise, I don’t get any to someone who spends most of their day on their feet? Then, how would I convince them that it makes perfect sense to pay someone to appoint a time and place for us to meet so s/he can tell me what to do? How crazy would it seem that I am so far removed from the physical activity of my ancestors that I have to learn how to stay fit? As crazy as it may seem to our ancestors, the reality of mainstream life is that many of us spend most of our waking hours sitting at a computer. For me, while I manage to work walking, biking, and yoga into my routine, I have a harder time with strength training. So, I embrace my mainstream-self and sign up for a three month personal training package.
It’s a funny thing about working out. When I first worked out with a trainer, it was all about the weights. Then, circa 2002, more holistic body movements came into fashion, returning us to childhood gym classes with medicine balls, balancing balls, pulleys, and a wide assortment of other torture devices. Today, trainers seem to have shifted even more towards using your own body weight and have added bursts of cardio into each workout.
Here in Chattanooga, the trainer took me out to do hill runs between strength exercises. I’ve never actually done hill runs. Maybe because I grew up in Columbus, OH? Thankfully, it was a short hill. He prodded me to “sprint” up the hill. I was breathing too hard to explain that I was sprinting; I flashed back to playing co-rec softball and running for first base with my teammates yelling encouragements like, “Drop the piano!” And that was on a flat surface. I can run fast, actually. Even very fast for short distances. What I can’t do is accelerate from a stop. I’m a slow accelerator. This is a mystery to me. It’s like my legs are too long and my brain loses track of where they went. If I get into a rhythm for a while, something in my brain clicks and it knows where my feet are again and knows how to tell them to move faster. Of course, getting into a rhythm and running are not two things that occur in the same sentence for me very often–I would far rather get my cardio with a set of wheels taking all the abuse.
But, today, I run. The heat and gravity push against me like a wall. I keep pushing back, knowing the hill will end soon. My breath accelerates faster than my legs. I reach the top before I give out. I take a moment to breathe deeply, trying to restore my heart rate to something that simulates normal. I look at my trainer who laughs at me. I ponder briefly why I am spending money to have someone make me do things I don’t want to do. Then, I bounce awkwardly back down the hill backwards (another twist of modern training), giggling to myself as I experience a flash of the childhood silliness that goes with skipping backwards down a hill. I realize this is fun. Then I do push ups at the bottom and feel pride that I am strong enough to do them well.
Fitness is a funny thing. I’ve learned over many years of vacillating between couch-potatoeness and obsessive (if clumsy) althetic-ness that black-and-white thinking does not allow me to sustain fitness. Killing myself in the gym leads to pain and exhaustion, which leads to sitting on the couch for stretches that can reach months. Working exercise into my life sustainably has now given me a lot of years of moderate fitness. Realizing that I will never be a good athlete was a break-through moment for me. Accepting my limitations (which I am grateful are just a lack of coordination and desire) and allowing just a little regular exercise to be enough maintains my health. Ultimately, health is my goal–I accept that I will never again look like I did when I was 25 or 28 or 32 . . .
In moments (of which there were recently many) when I can do things like lift a heavy box and carry it confidently, I congratulate myself for finding this balance. There is something empowering about knowing I can do something. It opens doors to taking on tasks that would otherwise seem daunting. It allows for possibilities like hang gliding, bike tours, backpacking, and even just taking the stairs. This precarious balance between stressing myself and reducing stress creates a daily experience of can-do versus wish-I-could-do. I run that hill not because I want to but because I want to know that possibility is open to me, too.
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