From zero to fitness

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This post is a chronicle of my fitness journey that started back in 2013. I firmly believe that with anything, we all start at zero, and that is exactly where I started. I also believe that you have to do step one to get to step two. Exercise taught me that you don’t get to your goal without putting in the miles and the reps every single day (with a rest day!). Now, having started at zero several years ago, I do some form of physical activity six days a week without hesitation. It’s just a part of my daily schedule. In fact, most days, it’s priority number one.

When I was in high school, I was on three different swim teams: summer league, a year-round club team, and my high school team. I didn’t even have to think about fitness because I was just fit. College was different. I did a lot of walking around campus, but no physical activity except our required P.E. classes; I took ballet and spinning.

Fast forward to my years as a high school teacher, and I did absolutely nothing. I was at school before sunrise and when I got home in the afternoon, I collapsed on the sofa, wrapping myself in a blanket and sleeping through sunset. By the time I woke up, it took all the energy I could muster to drive myself to one of the many fast food restaurants nearby, order, come home and eat, and drag myself to bed (more on food in another post). I rarely cooked and never worked out. I told myself I didn’t have the time; I needed to grade whenever I could wake myself up from my depressive cocoons. But I just wasn’t making the time. I used to hate when people said that to me, but it’s very true. Exercise was the first way I took responsibility for my own choices.

Anyway, not exercising, I felt like crap all the time. I was sick with knockdown, drag-out colds every couple months, and I had no energy. Slowly, without even realizing it, I put on 25 pounds over the course of about three years. Every year, when I’d shop for new clothes for the new season, I’d notice that my usual size was a little snug, and I’d size up. I didn’t really think about what was happening; I just sort of accepted it as part of getting older. It was the narrative I’d been told, and I believed it. So even though I didn’t like the way I looked or felt, I saw no way out. I wasn’t that imaginative.

After the first year of my masters, I finally felt like I needed to deal with my body. I think I was just embarrassed at that point. For one, I had left suburban Maryland for DC, and I’m pretty sure everyone in DC in their 20s is insanely fit and impeccably dressed (more on my wardrobe journey in another post). I felt dumpy and frumpy as I rode the bus downtown to my internship at a think tank on Pennsylvania Avenue. And second, I had gone through a breakup with my longterm boyfriend, and I needed a release, some kind out outlet for my feelings.

Someone told me once that they had “run off” their ex, and in May 2013, this suddenly made a lot of sense to me. I decided to try running (more like jogging, friends, let’s be serious!). I lived in Georgetown and had access to a beautiful trail along the Potomac River. I didn’t have any running clothes or shoes, so I improvised until I could buy some. I just knew I needed to start. It was probably the first decision I made from my intuition ever.

At first, like I said, it was unimaginably difficult. It ravaged my lungs, every muscle burned, I could barely go a half mile without collapsing in a heap, and literally everyone on the trail passed me. But each day that I went out, I told myself to go a little farther than the last time. And each time I did. I just did. Running stopped being hard somewhere along the way and started feeling really good. My days started feeling incomplete without my morning run. And I did run off the breakup and all its baggage. All the anger, the tension, the frustration, the sadness…it all melted away with each foot pound on the pavement, each inhale and exhale, and each bead of sweat that rolled off my forehead. Some runs involved a lot of thinking, and others were pure action without thinking. I think both were helpful.

Ultimately, I found myself with more energy to take on my days. And I knew that I wanted more. I wanted to start strength training. A friend recommended Jillian Michaels’ 90 Day Body Revolution, so I started that in my bedroom. I bought hand weights, a mat, and a resistance band, and followed Jillian’s schedule.

  • Monday: Workout 1
  • Tuesday: Workout 2
  • Wednesday: run
  • Thursday: Workout 1
  • Friday: Workout 2
  • Saturday: run
  • Sunday: rest

There are 12 workouts, so I cycled through 3-4. 5-6, 7-8, 9-10, and 11-12. They were SO HARD. They’re circuits, so 4×4 back-to-back 30-second bursts of stuff like push-ups, weight lifting, planks, and plyometrics, interspersed with 60-second cardio. Only 30 minutes per workout, but I was dying in the first few weeks. You’re supposed to do each set (so Workouts 1-2, for instance) for two weeks and then move on to the next set, but I found I needed longer to work on each set. I could barely do a push-up at the beginning.

But, like the running, the burn felt SO GOOD. Seeing what my body was capable of became such a beautiful release of emotion. I wanted it so bad. I felt so incredibly powerful and energized after these workouts. I made them a priority each day out of habit, but I kept the habit because I felt so good. I wasn’t really paying attention to my weight (I didn’t own a scale), but by August, my pants wouldn’t stay on my hips anymore. I noticed that most of my clothes were getting loose. So I weighed myself. I had lost the 25 pounds. I hadn’t even planned on doing it; it just happened. I was only about halfway through the program.

I remember the thrill and the pride that swelled through me when I got to Workouts 11-12. Jillian makes a big deal about it in the video, and it felt like a big deal when I remember how I could barely do Workout 1. Until you try something like this, something measurable, it’s hard to understand the sense of yourself as having progressed so meaningfully.

I continued to cycle through the 12 Jillian workouts and run about 6-9 miles a week (I run 3 miles at a time at a pace of about 10 minutes per mile) until May 2016, when I realized I was plateauing and I wanted a new challenge. So I joined a gym! It’s about a half mile from my house, so it’s super convenient. I wanted to do group classes because Jillian taught me that I like having a trainer in my face telling me what to do, but I also know that I am someone who likes working out with others because we can encourage each other. I also have a bit of a competitive streak. I like to see other people in the class who can lift more or do better push-ups or jump higher so I have something to strive for. Also, I feel like other people are looking at me, so I need to perform at my best even if I don’t feel like it. (They might not be, but the thought works for me!)

I had to switch to evening classes because of my schedule, and I found that I like evening workouts most days because I like to shower at night to give myself more time in the morning. Right now, what’s working for my schedule is Body Pump on Monday evenings, a “total body conditioning” class on Wednesday nights, and then I mix it up on other days. Some weeks I do Body Attack for intense cardio; other weeks I want a second day of Pump. I used to do Pilates at the gym on Saturday mornings, but I realized I like saving my weekend mornings for runs. However, Pilates did teach me that I missed yoga. So now I do at-home yoga videos some mornings, and occasionally take a flow yoga class at a yoga studio.

Somewhere between zero and here, I became a person who “works out” every day (except Friday). It was never about weight for me, and I know that’s what cinched the habit. Weight was simply a symptom of something deeper. For me, it has always been about my emotional health and realizing how intimately connected our brains are to our bodies. We have to nourish both and each nourishes the other. Now, when I schedule my week, my physical health always takes priority. I will schedule all kinds of things around my workout schedule, with no apologies. It is amazing to me that I am this person, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

If anyone wants to talk more about running, yoga, or strength training, let me know. I think you have to find what works for you. Ask your body what it wants. Mine wants different things on different days, so that’s why I vary the type of exercise I’m doing. But you have to start somewhere. Maybe that one thing will lead to another thing. Sometimes I want the burn and power in my muscles from weights, sometimes I want the exhilaration in my lungs from finishing a good run, and other days, I need to breathe deeply through some poses.

A happy side effect of working out is that I am thrilled with my body. I like the way my clothes look on me. Getting dressed is fun again. Let me reiterate that this was not my goal. Of course, there are tiny things that bug me if I think too much about them (like how I might be getting cellulite on my thighs or my breasts aren’t as perky as they were in high school or the tiny gray hairs I find more and more on the back of my head), but these don’t affect the overall satisfaction I feel. Furthermore, it’s been at least a year since the last time I was sick, and I used to get sick all the time.

So. It’s not a myth. Exercise will change you. On so many levels! And yes, at first, you might feel like you’re forcing it. It will hurt a lot. You might feel stupid or weak. But when you find what works for you, and the changes in your brain start to creep up on you, and then one day you can zip up those jeans from three years ago with ease, you will recognize just how worth it your new routine has become.

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