Much to my parents’ chagrin I’m known for telling people I do not have good genetics. Intellectual genetics, sure. I’m the product of a super-smart women and a quite brainy male. I come from a family that values brains over brawn. Books over BOSUs. Music over muscles.

I coasted happily on my intellect and thought not much about physical appearance or exercise—until college. More specifically, my senior year of college when I realized the freshwoman 40 I’d gained prevented me from fitting into any of my interview suits. Sure, I’d noticed my jeans no longer fit, and my “diet” consisted more of late night pizza than early morning oatmeal—but I was having fun. I could wear my jeans unbuttoned, and opt for oatmeal for breakfast if cholesterol was ever a worry. Until then, I was content to eat, drink, and be pretty damn collegiate-merry.

And then senior year job interviews arrived. I owned suits but quickly realized none of them fit. I’d been able to live in a place of denial with my jeans and stretch pants, but that time was ending. It was time to do something about my extra pizza weight.

Finding My Way... To the Gym

I look back now and am still baffled the “something” I chose lead me to our school’s small, Division-3 weight room. It was dark, dirty, and rarely used by non-athletes, yet for some reason I felt called to venture in and see what it was like. I didn’t fall immediately in love. I stumbled into sorta-like. I had no clue what I was doing, but since I was a novice I still saw enough results to change my body shape. Thanks to my ability to mimic what I’d seen on television or skimmed in magazines I created a hodgepodge of a resistance training routine.

I used only machines I recognized (hello leg extensions!), and relied on bodyweight exercises (many, many push-ups). I fit dumbbells in where I could (bicep curls galore). After about six weeks (thankfully never injured myself with my ignorance), I was making visible progress—and could at the very least fit into my jackets and skirts again.

After graduation I found myself returning to my parents house along with my freshly minted English Literature degree. Unable to find a job, I joined a women-only fitness center to have something to do while I searched. It was the early 90s and, while some women were lifting weights (many of us inspired by Linda Hamilton’s ‘guns’ in Terminator 2), there were very few of us in the free weights area.

I still had thirty-ish pounds to lose, but my women-only choice was less about vanity or friend-finding, and more about wanting to lift weights with other women. I had no idea at the time I made this decision that it would change the rest of my life. Weight training in a female-only environment quickly moved my relationship with the iron from like to love. I felt completely comfortable to try new things without the fear of people laughing at the fact I was a novice or a newbie. I brought workout magazines to the gym and imitated their routines. I bought Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding, and lugged it everywhere I went.

Finding My Stride: A Balancing Act

I lifted every single day. I grew bigger and stronger and I felt amazing. Until I didn’t. After about six months, my love for the weights began to wane. I didn’t look forward to my workouts as I used to. My bulging biceps and svelte shoulders began to shrink. I started to grow skinny-soft. I lifted seven days a week and yet appeared as though I’d not ever hoisted a barbell before.

It took me a while (my personal blog isn’t a play on the word MISFIT for nothing!), but I finally deduced I’d been overtraining. I educated myself. I learned to listen to my body and heed the fact it demanded rest in order to grow. I began to eat intuitively and feed my muscles what they asked for. My plate took on a wide variety of colors. Fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins became what my body demanded. I consumed food as close to its original form as possible. I slowed down and grew more still—in all facets of my life—and it was then I realized most clearly I’d found my voice amidst the dumbbells and cables.

I had shed the extra pounds I’d been hauling around for a while, but, to my surprise, that was the least of the changes. I walked taller. I spoke up in all situations with a confidence I never knew I possessed. I sought out new and uncomfortable situations I had previously avoided. I felt capable, empowered, heard, and strong. And I’ve never looked back. I’ve maintained my weight loss for 19 years and I firmly believe it’s because weights, for me, are about far more than fat burning and body sculpting.

  • They’re the core of who I am.
  • They’re the reason I speak up and out.
  • They’re the reason I’m completely comfortable in my own skin and with who I am.

I’m still amazed how 20 minutes a day (Note: I’m consistent — not hardcore), year in and year out, has built the foundation for my life.

I even met my now-husband as a happy by-product of the muscles gained in the gym. He still tells me how he noticed the way I walked before anything else and decided he had to meet me. He told me then how he could see I was confident and self-assured by the way I carried myself. I credit all of that to the weight room.

Today, I’m still lifting weights consistently at age 43. I work full-time as a writer and have a six-year-old, so my weight training looks pretty different now than it did back then. My workouts are typically done at 4am when I can snag some ‘me’ time before ‘everyone else’ time begins. My weights now more take the form of resistance bands, bodyweight, or active play.

At 23, I never imagined I’d be able both to maintain my weight loss and be more fit two decades later. Looking ahead, I plan to be the old woman in the free weights area at 83. If you happen by and see me in there, please come over, snag a resistance band or dumbbell, bang out a few reps, and share your story.

Greatist Journeys explore amazing stories from extraordinary people. This guest post was written by Carla Birnberg, freelance writer and founder of the fitness blog MizFitOnline.com. The opinions expressed herein are hers and hers alone. To learn more about Carla, visit mizfitonline.com and follow her on Twitter at @mizfitonline.

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