Hitting the gym after five years wasn’t easy — for body or ego
For someone eligible to collect Medicare, I consider myself to be in decent physical condition. I do t'ai chi every morning and take my frisky pup, Lucky, for two invigorating walks a day. I also chase my 3-year-old grandson, Mason, around the house, yard and, on one particularly memorable occasion, Chuck E. Cheese.
But when I recently passed a milestone birthday — and found myself struggling to lift Mason out of the tub — I started to worry about my body’s future. For the first time ever, I didn’t feel connected to the vitality of my youth, and I knew it was time to kick my exercise regimen up a notch.
So I bought a snappy new outfit, joined the Y and looked for any aerobics class on the schedule besides “senior cardio.” I also skipped over every listing containing the words “silver,” “gold,” “mature” and “active adult.”
There’s a good reason I didn't see myself as the "senior exercise class" type. In my late 30s I earned a brown belt in karate. By my 40s, I was a Jazzercise veteran, and I was already doing Nia and Zumba when they were the hot new kids on the block.
And just five years ago, even if I wasn’t the one in the front row mirroring the aerobic instructor’s every move, I could still throw in a decent booty shake. But one particularly rainy autumn I stopped going to classes — not because I couldn’t keep up but because I got busy with other things. I dropped my Nia, added in a few morning t'ai chi stretches and told myself that even if I wasn’t “advancing,” I was at least “maintaining.”
(MORE: The Fiftysomething Workout: Why You Need to Mix It Up)
Back to Gym Class
And so it was that last month I strode into my local Y for the first time, and with head held high, breezed past a group of older people in the hall waiting for their class to begin. I observed that some of these people were probably around my age, but mentally noted that I wasn’t “old” the same way they were. One elderly woman was in a wheelchair, and a man with sparse gray hair was leaning heavily on his wife’s arm for support.
I made a further judgment that even the fitter-looking people, simply by virtue of their participation in something called senior cardio, were in a, shall we say, different class from me. I didn’t need extended warm-ups and cool-downs. No clinging to a chair for me. And I had no interest in modified, gentle aerobics. So I marched proudly past the group, to a room that promised to deliver an advanced-level blast.
(MORE: The Fiftysomething Workout: What Your Gym Can Do for You Now)
Short story shorter: In that room, it became immediately apparent that my assumption that I’d “maintained” my former level of fitness was a woeful miscalculation. Just five minutes into the workout, during the so-called “warm-up,” I was silently cursing out the young instructor who was showing off how high and fast she could kick while chirping incessantly. Ten minutes in I saw that not only was I not going to be the woman in front mirroring the teacher’s every move, but that I was the old woman in the back hugging the wall while the youngsters were dancing circles in front of me.
At the quarter-hour mark, as I was slinking out the door, the only thing I was proud of was that I had managed to get out of there having wounded nothing more than my ego.
(MORE: Can't Do Certain Exercises Anymore? Then Swap 'Em!)
Senior Cardio, Anyone?
For what it’s worth, I would have quit the Y on the spot had I not peeked in on the classroom full of people I’d spotted on my way in. From all appearances, they were having a grand old time. I watched them tossing fitness balls into the air, step-touching and grape-vining across the floor — broad smiles on everyone’s face.
I’m the first to admit that I have not made the most gracious transition from my overachieving youth to the outer reaches of midlife. But when I looked around that room, I saw that even though it was packed, there was one open space front and center — and it seemed to have my name on it.
I’d like to say that my “downgrade” into senior cardio (with all the required mental adjustments) that morning was easy, but this old ego wasn’t about to give up without a fight. For the weightlifting segment, for instance, I reflexively grabbed the heaviest free weights off the rack. After a minute of biceps curls, my arms were hanging limp at my side — and I was mortified to see the woman in the wheelchair pumping merrily away.
What happened next blew me away. She wheeled over and handed me a pair of pink two-pound weights and smiled. Her name is Kathleen, by the way.
By the end of the hour, I had my first-ever experience of being in an exercise class where competition was not part of the equation. It was absolute joy, and it occurred to me that we were all in this together, each of us trying to make the most of what we have.
I don’t know what my fitness future is going to look like. But I do know that instead of feeling superior to the oldest person struggling to get through the class, I will feel nothing but awe for her willingness to make her best effort. She probably won’t judge me, and I certainly won’t judge her. I’ll be too busy feeling gratitude for having found a class I’ll never “age out of."
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