Stop Pretending Exercise is Easy

I’m not what the kids might call “athletic.”

Even as far back as elementary school, I failed at every athletic endeavor I tried. My hands were too small to hold a football. I didn’t have the strength to get a basketball up over my head and into a hoop. The only reason I got second-to-last place in the 5th grade Track Day race was that one girl sprained her ankle and couldn’t finish.

A rare image of me in high school (colorized)

By high school, I got winded just watching the football team warm up.

Sports hated me and I hated them right back. And believe me — I tried them all.

Running a mile? I averaged about 12 minutes.

Kickball? I’m pigeon-toed so the ball always took a sharp left turn.

Football? Straight to the face.

Weightlifting? I couldn’t do one pushup — on my knees.

Swimming? No joke, my high school gym teacher let me take my final test in the shallow end of the pool so that I wouldn’t drown and then gave me a C out of pity.

My one rare foray into any sort of sport. Look at that concentration.

My junior year of high school I took “Outdoor PE,” which involved things like lighting fires and fly fishing.

Ah, yes. The exercise one gets from striking a match is unparalleled.

I did pretty well in that class. Well, not on the exercise part. I was still pretty bad at most of the physical activities we did, but our final was a written exam of everything we’d learned in the class.

I got a 98%.

It’s the only reason I passed that damn class.

So, y’know. I’m not an idiot (well…). I’m just not coordinated, not fit, and I have an aversion to anything that resembles exercise.

Coming into adulthood, my refusal to get moving had an impact on everything I did. Body aches set in. My mental health took a hit. I woke up stiff and sore, hobbling around the house for a solid hour until my body got used to the foreign concept of “motion.”

And I’m only 20.

I was sick of feeling like shit. To be fair, I wonder if part of the problem was that I went to Chick-fil-A every day.

But I decided to tackle one problem at a time. January 1st came around and I did what every American does:

I resolved to hit the gym.

Luckily my apartment complex has a fitness center, so I figured I could just go there, and, y’know… Fitness. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had legitimately no idea how to exercise.

I could just go run, I guess, but that didn’t seem like a very well-rounded approach to fitness. I could pick up weights and set them down again, but knowing that I have a bad back, trying to lift weights with no supervision seemed like a terrible idea. I considered at-home fitness videos but ran into the same problem: How am I going to make sure I’m doing this exercise safely and effectively?

It’s not like I had a foundation to start on. I wasn’t a former athlete who could pick up their sport again or someone who just hadn’t been to the gym in years and wanted to go back. I didn’t even know enough to know what I didn’t know.

So I scheduled a meeting with a personal trainer.

“What are your fitness goals?” he asked me, scribbling things down on his little notepad.

“I have no idea how to exercise.”

“Alrighty then,” he nodded. “This is a good place to start.”

The next day, I took the 30-minute drive to his gym to do a “fitness evaluation.” I figured he’d ask me to do a pushup, I’d fail, and he’d do what every gym teacher had done before him:

Give me a big, fat F. You know what they say:

And don’t you forget it.

I waited awkwardly in one corner of the gym until I saw my trainer come in, carrying an assortment of 2X4s and some pieces of string. I had no clue what the hell it was and what the hell he was about to make me do.

Suddenly pushups didn’t seem so bad.

He set them up in different arrangements and had me do mobility exercises — how high could I lift my leg, how well did I move when stepping over a bar, how far could I stretch my arms behind my back to make them touch. The boards had tick marks and numbers on one side; presumably, they were measurements that would give him an idea of where I was at to compare with where I should be.

All the way through the assessment I made self-deprecating comments, hoping that if I did it first it’d soften the blow when he inevitably told me I was a disaster.

He didn’t.

“Well,” he said. “When lying on your back, you should be able to lift your leg straight at a 90 degree angle. You’re hitting about 25 degrees.”

“That sounds bad,” I told him.

“No,” he said. “You’re just tight. I noticed you have some hip mobility issues, too.”

“That sounds really bad,” I told him. I almost asked if I’d passed or if he was going to kick me out of the gym.

“So,” he started. “Here’s the plan. We’ll do lots of hamstring stretching to loosen up your hips. We’ll do exercises to strengthen your core to help alleviate your back pain. And we’ll work on getting you stronger overall. How does that sound?”

I just sorta nodded. No one had ever actually told me what I needed to improve. I always knew from my results on any sort of PE test that I was weak — just generally, all-around weak. I didn’t know which muscles I needed to focus on or which exercises would get me there.

He didn’t judge me. He just told me how to fix it.

“Sounds good,” I said. “When can we start?”

My first workout kicked my ass.

We did a short, relatively light circuit of exercises that were nothing short of bizarre. I thought, y’know, go in, do some cardio, lift a weight. Since there are only about 5 muscles in the body, it shouldn’t take too many different exercises to work on them all.

I was wrong. I was very wrong.

“This works out these specific muscles,” he’d say, gesturing to the space between my shoulder blades or a certain spot on my arm or different parts of my leg. Each exercise hit multiple muscle groups, but even so those muscles groups weren’t just “the arm.” It was so focused, so precise. He knew exactly what I was accomplishing with every motion I made.

So I held weights while standing like a flamingo with its nose in a pond. I flopped around some ropes. At some point I found myself lying on an exercise ball doing God-knows-what.

I can promise you that I did not look nearly this graceful.

While bizarre, I thought most of the exercises looked pretty straightforward when he demonstrated them. How could you mess this up? I wondered.

Then I’d try it.

“Straighten your back. Lower your shoulders. Stick your hips out,” I’d hear him say.

No less than 10 times that session did he correct me. Most of it wasn’t just “if you move this way, it’ll strengthen more muscles.” It was “Do this or you could majorly injure yourself.” Honestly, it surprised me just how easy it is to do basic exercises wrong. I couldn’t even do squats without adjustments to my form.

The whole workout was tailored to hit all of my weakest spots. When I left I felt sore in places I didn’t even know you could make sore. My shoulders hurt. My abs hurt. My ass hurt. I went home afterward and took a big, long nap.

Did I love it? No. I still hated working out.

But for the first time in my life, I felt empowered by working out. I felt like I could do it — even if I was struggling to lift a 5-pound weight. Having someone evaluate what I was capable of and choose exercises that were doable but still a challenge was a whole new experience for me. Suddenly I wasn’t up against pushups I’d never be able to do or sports I’d never be good at.

Suddenly I could do. And that was a lot more than I could’ve ever imagined.

And there’s no way I could’ve done it without his help. Exercise is a skill like any other. Looking up exercises online and trying to do them myself would have resulted in a slipped disc, damaged shoulder and hurt ego, I’m sure of it.

I’ve been working with him for a month now and I already feel stronger. Yeah, I’m still not good at working out by any means and I still don’t enjoy it. But maybe I don’t have to like working out to keep at it. Maybe I can keep going for the results — for how I feel more capable, more comfortable in my own body.

I can promise you that I would not feel the same way if I tried to do this on my own. I would’ve hit a wall fast — trying to do exercises I wasn’t ready for, lifting more weight than I should’ve, using poor form and getting discouraged.

I hear it all the time: If you want to get healthy, eat better and exercise. People say it like both of those things are intuitive, like everyone should just know how to do those things. I felt that way, too — just get up and move, I thought while sitting on the couch stuffing my face with Doritos. How hard can it be?

Truth is, exercise is difficult and risky. Sure, there are exercises you can try without coaching — walking, running, biking (though even that assumes you know how to ride one).

But if you want a full-body workout and you want to do it safely?

That takes a little extra support. Whether that’s through personal training or group fitness classes, I think everyone could use a pro to help them succeed — or, at the very least, give them the foundation to take their fitness into their own hands. Telling people to “hit the gym” when they don’t know the techniques or their own abilities is a recipe for disaster.

My next session is in just a few days. Am I excited?

No, not really.

But I’m excited that I finally know what I’m capable of.

And for the first time, I know exactly how I can grow.

Mental Health Advocate | Writer | Aspiring Cat Lady |

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