Relearning To Exercise At 40
When I was in my teens and 20s, I exercised only to try to get in shape. It was about my clothes fitting or the clothes in the stores I wanted to be fitting in. I was a runner, but a middling, plodding one—not fast, not at all. I didn’t particularly like running, but it was efficient enough, as working out went.
When I was in my 30s, I had three babies. I exercised to get in shape between babies, and sometimes I still ran a race or two to prove that I was as fit as I was before the babies. (I was, and I wasn’t. Just as I’d feel reasonably fit, I’d be pregnant again, it seemed.) Exercise became about more than fitting into my pants. After all, in my closet I had thinner pants, winter pants (one size up), early maternity pants, late maternity pants, and soft, stretchy postpartum pants. There were always pants that fit.
No, what was new was that after decades of exercise ambivalence, I actually looked forward to running. I was surprisingly drained by young stay-at-home motherhood—the physical demands, the sometimes-overwhelming closeness, and the relentlessness of being “on” 24/7. So I ran to give myself some space away from mothering to think and take care of myself, and I always came back from a 30-minute run markedly refreshed. The change became obvious enough that when my husband would see my furrowed brow and hear the tense edge in my voice, he would urge me, “Go for a run!”
Now, at 40, I don’t really run at all. What happened? Well, a few things. My kids got older—they’re now all school-age—and I don’t feel the jittery urge to “escape” anymore. My knees and joints got creakier, and I started to worry about long-terms effects of the thousands of miles I’d pounded on them over more than two decades. And there was something else—I’d somehow started working out with old people.
When I was still in my 30s, I joined a gym so I could have child care while exercised and ran on an indoor track in the long winter months here in Cleveland. With my stay-at-home mom hours, I wound up working out with the gray-haired retiree crowd. We shared that indoor track I’d come for, and I felt fast passing the elderly power walkers and the joggers who had 20 or 30 or 40 years on me.
Not so fast, as it turned out. With two C-sections under my belt—literally—I was embarrassed to find that I could barely even do a sit-up. Running, while good for pregnancy weight, wasn’t doing anything to fix that surgical damage to my abdomen.
So I turned to Pilates, which focuses on core strength, flexibility, and balance. Pilates class, like the rest of my gym, was mostly populated by old people. But I wasn’t passing them like I was on the track. Nope, this time they were completely kicking butt—mine. While I was exhausted by a simple warm-up ab exercise in my first class, the 70- and 80-year-olds around me were just getting started. They were flexible and strong and tough. It was crazy inspiring.
That’s when the obvious hit me: I was going to get old. And I could get old trying to do what I’d done in my 20s and 30s, slowly watching my body run ever slower and creakier, or I could copy these people, the kind of active, fit old people I someday wanted to be.
I can’t go back to my 20s and 30s again—there’s nowhere for my age to go but up. I don’t want to be a 65-year-old who has trouble with stairs and needs to move to a one-level home. I don’t want to be a 75-year-old who can’t get down on the floor with her grandkids. And I don’t want to be an 85-year-old who has poor balance and falls and breaks her hip.
For now, I want to be a fit-enough 40-year-old. I’m never running another marathon, and I may not run another race of any kind. It’s not quitting, though. It’s evolving and letting my fitness routines evolve along with me. My creaky bones don’t like running anymore, but they do like Pilates and biking and walking, and they’ve recently tried skiing and surfing too. Who knows what’s next? I’m excited to find out. Moving is always good with me, as long as I’m moving forward.
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