The first time I ran for four minutes I almost threw up. And cried. And planned to quit working out right then and there. It was September 2016. I was 29, wildly out of shape, and attempting to get fit for the first time in my entire life.
I made the decision to commit to exercising this summer at, yes, 29 years old. I own exactly one real sports bra, two pairs of athletic shorts, and one pair of expensive sneakers I bought a few years back when I attempted to complete a Couch to 5K Challenge. (Spoiler: I never made it to the 5K part of the challenge.) The only time I ever wore these items together was when I wanted to run errands and not be judged for looking like a mess. “Oh, she must’ve just come from the gym,” I imagined everyone in the grocery store line saying. “Why else would she be wearing sneakers?”
Now, in my defense, I’ve tried intermittently throughout my life to be the kind of person who enjoys fitness. After all, it seemed to come up again and again throughout my childhood in the form of “recess,” “gym class,” and “high-school graduation requirements.” Yet, without fail, I always quit as soon as possible.
Sure, I dabbled with the elliptical in college to offset my newly adopted diet of alcohol mixed with alcohol, but once I left campus, I decided that walking around New York City would be my only workout. In the spirit of full disclosure, I flew under the radar from societal pressures to “hit the gym” because I have a fast metabolism. Basically, I’m the epitome of skinny fat.
But this year, I started to notice my body changing in subtle ways. And I could see myself at 35, 40, 60, wishing I’d just started working out in my 20s when I had the time and energy. After all, no one wakes up on their 75th birthday and says, “Everything’s in the right place. Thank goodness I never wasted time doing those cardio classes!”
Even after acknowledging that, I continued to come up with reasons why it wasn’t a good time to start. It was too hot, too cold, too humid, or too nice to even think about wasting my day sweating. But underneath all of the excuses (and the above is truly just a small sampling) was the fact that I was scared. I’d missed the workout boat that everyone else seemed to jump on years ago, and realizing that that ship had sailed was terrifying.
Besides the elliptical, I wouldn’t even know what to do upon entering a gym. And I hate not knowing what to do. Just the thought of embarrassing myself at the weight machines made me break out in a cold sweat (excuse #45: I didn’t need to start exercising because merely thinking about it made me sweat).
Until one day, I just decided it was time. And before I could talk myself out of it, I signed up for a 10-session package with a personal trainer. How did I go from pondering joining a gym to this? Four reasons:
- The gym’s located in my apartment building, meaning that I couldn’t use the weather as an excuse not to go.
- Working with a trainer made me accountable to another person, and part of being a perfectionist means I hate disappointing people.
- The only thing I detest more than exercising is wasting money. By paying for 10 sessions in advance, I’d be holding myself to at least that many workouts.
- All of the above forced me to find time in my schedule to work out (invalidating excuse #3: I have no time) and make it a habit—a habit I hoped to keep up when the 10 sessions ended.
Before the first session, I got on the phone with my new trainer.
“So, what’s your routine like now?”
“Uh, I walk to work?”
“Walking isn’t exercise.”
“Then, um, nothing?”
“Nothing, so like... cardio machines?”
“OK, what did you used to do?”
“Is walking still a bad answer?”
“Let’s try this: What sports did you play in high school?”
“Benchwarming. One time my coach made another player stay on the field with a twisted ankle because that was less risky than putting me in.”
Needless to say, the bar was set low on day one. “I bet you can’t even do one push-up,” he said to me. I looked him right in the eyes and agreed that I probably couldn’t. After all, I have a two-year-old jar of tomato sauce that I’ve never used because I can’t open it—I’m not in any denial about my strength (or lack thereof).
So we started with the basics. And not the basics of working out, but the basics of human movement. For example, I did “stairs.” (“The stair climber?” my friends asked me when I told them how it went. “No,” I replied, “Literally, he had me walk up and down the stairs.”) We also did "sitting down and standing up," correct planking form, and my least favorite activity, jump rope.
“Jump—OK, but this time jump over the rope, don’t just jump...OK, jump with both feet...OK, jump again with both feet...that’s it...but this time jump with both feet over the rope...where is the rope? How did you even get it over there?”
I left the first session feeling very defeated, regretting buying that package, and truly wondering why I thought this was a good idea. It was too hard, I wasn’t good at it, and I did not under any circumstances enjoy myself.
But as I tried to justify never going again, I also heard a small voice in the back of my head that said it was never going to get easier than this. It sucked to do this at 29, but it would suck more to do it at 33, at 45, and so on. Not to mention that based on my life experience thus far, I wouldn’t ever become more athletic—therefore I’d never be in the mood to get in shape. And that would only put me more at risk for heart disease, diabetes, depression, and—according to internet headlines—um, 4 million other bad things.
So I returned to the gym for my next nine sessions. If this was a movie montage instead of an essay, the scenes would play out of me rapidly improving once I put my mind to it. And at the end of the experience, I'd sign up to run a full marathon, where my coach would be standing at the finish line and say, “When I met this girl, I had to teach her how to walk up the stairs, and now she’s finishing marathons in record time!”
But this isn’t a movie montage, and that’s not what happened. Sure, I evolved past “sitting and standing.” I moved onto “doing two stairs at a time,” and seven weeks in, I was finally allowed to touch actual weights. However, I don’t think anyone would’ve been impressed with my routine at the end of 10 weeks, nor with my before-and-after photos.
Except for me. I noted each and every improvement—no matter how small. I went from barely being able to do a plank to being able to actually hold it for a minute without wanting to die. I could jump rope for 60 seconds without tripping over myself, and I could run for four minutes without feeling the need to vomit (until that last 30 seconds).
About six weeks in, I looked at myself in the mirror and noticed a little more definition in my arms and legs. At eight weeks, a friend told me she thought I might have shoulders for the first time ever (I blushed), and at 10 weeks, a buddy threw a water bottle at me from across the room, and I caught it without flinching. She looked at me, shocked, and said, “You were never able to do that before you started working out.” And it was true. As sad as it is to type, I lacked the hand-eye coordination to pull that off.
And those little moments made waking up earlier in the morning worth it. They made the side-eye from other gym-goers who were watching me “stand and sit” worth it. They made the true discomfort I felt when exercising totally worth it.
Committing to getting in shape is by far the most challenging thing I’ve ever chosen to do. But because of that, the rewards have been so much greater than I expected. Don’t get me wrong, I still hate it. I don’t think I’ll ever be someone who wants to go to the gym. I’d estimate that I’m probably three years away from being able to go to a spin class (and infinity years away from running a full marathon).
However, pushing myself to do what I truly believed was impossible—in this case, getting in shape—taught me that I’m capable of more than I realized; that there is a different kind of satisfaction in pursuing a new skill I’d probably never excel at; and that if I only set goals for myself I know I can achieve before even starting, I'm selling myself short.
Just because something’s hard and just because it doesn’t come naturally to me doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. Because the feeling I have every time I wrap up a workout—which mind you, now consists of a trainer-free, 30-minute improvised routine in my living room—isn’t like anything I’ve felt before.
So, to all the unathletic people out there, to the people who are intimidated at the thought of even stepping foot in a gym, who got taunted by their own gym teacher in elementary school (true story), who got called Prancer by their eighth-grade soccer coach because of how they ran (again, true story), know that you have it in you to just start. Because if you don’t measure yourself against anyone but yourself, there’s only one direction you can go when you’re completely out of shape—and that’s up.
Corny? Of course. But I’m saying it because it’s true, and I wish someone would’ve told me this years ago when I resigned myself to just always being out of shape. You don’t have to be athletic to go to the gym, you don’t have to be coordinated (seriously, ask anyone who's seen me jump rope), and you don’t even have to want to be there. All you have to do is commit to improving yourself—and you will.Jenni Maier is an editor and writer living in New York City who never in a million years thought she'd have a byline on a health and fitness website. You can follow her on Twitter @MayorJenni.