When I was in high school, we had an annual state-derived fitness test that amounted to running a mile. Coach Saint Lawrence, our gym teacher, would guide us out of the safety of the building that had all the books, chairs, and warmth I loved and march us down to the track, where we were expected to run four laps. The sports kids usually finished in lightning speed, then sat on the bleachers and talked about who was going to get drugs for that weekend’s party, and a good portion of people who were in shape finished about 15 minutes later.
I generally finished dead last, cruising around the track like a mall walker. I was six feet tall and probably weighed around 130 pounds. I looked like I should have been able to sprint like a gazelle, but I moved like a sloth. Coach Saint Lawrence would enthusiastically try to inspire me to go faster by yelling platitudes at me, only to have me respond, “I don’t like to run on purpose.”
It wasn’t just that I was a salty teenager (I was) — I had just always thought of exercise and working out as a punishment. I had nothing to prove, and gym classes were a special form of torture that I suffered through because they were mandatory. Because of the archaic social hierarchy, I knew that there was a fundamental discord between me and the preppy jocks who played a different sport every season and spent their summers in soccer camps. Basically, I grew up thinking that working out was not for nerds like me. It’s taken me all of my adult life so far to figure out how to become the kind of person who works out.
Listen — I never wanted to get to this point in my life. In fact, I’ve actively fought it by making sure my jobs, hobbies, and general lifestyle could have me in a sitting position all day. But back injuries, the amount of time it takes me to find clothes I like, and the fact that my gynecologist had the nerve to talk to me about “middle age weight gain” at my annual exam this year made me realize that the older I get, the harder it’s going to be to even maintain the mess of a body I have now. I want to roll into my 70s in style, not in an iron lung.
I’m not the kind of person to complain about things without taking action, so I thought I’d give working out a try. At first, I tried working out at home. Do you know what’s also in my home? My couch, my computer, my TV, and my refrigerator. I lasted about three weeks of moderate morning workouts this summer before I wrenched my back trying a move I had no business attempting and giving up entirely.
Since I don’t have the temperament to go it alone, I ignored all of my base instincts and joined a gym in October. I find gyms to be terrifying; not only do I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing, but I get to stand around like a dummy while surrounded by beautifully toned supermodels running top speed on treadmills without breaking a sweat and the kind of grunting weightlifters who have muscles ON TOP of their muscles. Do you know how old I was when I figured out that your hamstrings are part of your legs? Let’s just say that I’d already had my cholesterol checked by that point.
It took me about a week of mostly watching old episodes of “Black Books” on my phone and kind of meandering on a treadmill to realize that I was never going to reach a physical goal that way. The next week, I used the same approach I use for things I’m already confident and successful doing: I set reasonable goals and asked for help.
If you’re like me — the kind of person who would rather chew tinfoil than do a sit up —know that you’re not alone, but that there are also some things you can do to get moving.
Get a trainer
I’m putting this first, knowing that it is a tremendously expensive and seemingly frivolous thing to do, because it is legit the only thing that got me started and keeps me going. Before you shell out for something extreme, check and see if your gym has any options. Mine offered a free, one-time training session when I signed up, so I jumped on it. Before we even started moving, my trainer sat with me and helped me address my goals, injuries, and fears. I was very honest with him about being totally freaked out and worried that I’d die under a set of barbells or getting my legs crushed by a machine and bleeding out before anyone could get help. He was very honest about the fact that I am a total weirdo and also not alone. He put me at ease, then showed me some moves I could do to hit some targeted areas and build my overall strength, all while protecting my lower back. I went into the session wanting to learn how to feel accomplished when I showed up to the gym, and that’s exactly what I got. I liked it so much that I signed up to meet with him weekly. It’s a way to stay accountable, but also feel like I can work out without accidentally killing myself.
If you can’t afford a trainer, don’t worry! Most gyms offer some kind of introductory session (I mean, they’re paying for insurance but still don’t want you to crush your femur there, either), and there’s always someone qualified to show you how to work the equipment. If you don’t have any injuries you’re trying to work around, there are also a ton of apps that can help show you how to properly do certain moves or use certain machines.
Nobody cares about your body
There is nothing exciting to me about appearing in spandex in public, and I actively want to murder whoever thought it was a good idea to put see-through cut-outs in the latest crop of workout pants. Working out when you’re not thrilled with the way your body looks or feels can be immobilizing; we were all raised in a patriarchal culture, and we all know what’s at stake. But here’s the thing: Nobody at the gym gives a shit what you look like. Sure, some people might scope you out, but most gyms are not filled with lascivious creeps. If your gym IS filled with lascivious creeps, please call the cops on them immediately. Life is short and no one has time for lechery in the year of our lord 2018.
When I took on this endeavor I just decided that, hey, I’m paying to be here just like you, and if I don’t walk in already looking like the people in the inspirational posters in the locker room, that’s just tough titties. It helped me a lot to be simultaneously easy on myself while outwardly flexing the only muscle I’ve worked out over the past 20 years — my lack-of-give-a-shit muscle.
Every single person I’ve ever talked to about working out mentions their routine. I get it— having a stabilized schedule can be key to sticking with something you already don’t want to do. But rigid schedules don’t make room for family emergencies, staying late at work, or cramps. If you’re too locked into a routine, any minor inconvenience could throw you totally out of whack. Try to give yourself broad goals at first to avoid disappointment. Instead of saying, “I’m definitely working out at 6 PM on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday,” try to hit a goal of working out three times per week for a month. Sometimes I go in the morning, but there are plenty of days when I’m dragging myself to the gym at 9 PM and DVRing “Real Housewives” for when I get home. Set general goals, and, as you hit them, it will be easier for you to find a routine that works.
Do some brain work
Just in case you couldn’t already tell, I had to do some significant work to get over my fears and anxieties before I even picked up a kettlebell. Talk to your friends about it, try to find classes that are interesting to you, and maybe download a meditation app, too. I’m incredibly impatient; if I work out for a week and don’t lose two dress sizes I’m ready to throw up my hands and scream WHAT IS THE POINT, I ASK YOU. I’ve had to be very gentle with myself and very realistic about my goals in order to start to make working out a habit.
I’m not a jock by any stretch of the imagination, but I am definitely a person who is trying to get some control over my health. I had to get out of my own way a little, but after three months, I can say that I feel a little stronger, and a lot less scared.