Fitness for Newbies

October 9, 2009

Will it be poutine or perseverance in the face of fear?

by Judy Smith

Fit WomenDon’t you just hate it when somebody tells you that you need to get more exercise? Worse yet, you’re just about to dig into a large serving of poutine with all the trimmings and a “friend” chooses that precise moment to suggest that you should take up jogging.

We don’t like it when someone tells us what to do, especially when it comes to exercising. This is my body, we seem to be saying. What I do with it is my business, not yours. Sometimes our reaction to advice is in direct proportion to the intensity of the advice: the more someone insists that we must exercise, the more we insist that we can’t – or won’t.

We are inundated by ads in the media, by advice from doctors and other health care workers, and by kindly intentioned hints from friends and family. We know that exercise is good for us. We know what we should be doing, and why. Each of us also has a myriad of reasons for not exercising, and no one can break down that resistance except ourselves. In other words, each of us, in our own way and in our own time, will make the decision to take care of our body, or not. No one else can do it for us.

I was a klutz as a child. In a culture which determined character by excellence in sports, I was a complete failure and lived with constant embarrassment. The lack of physical activity caught up with me in my mid-twenties, as I suffered from increasingly debilitating back pain which I coped with by taking too many pain killers. Many people tried to tell me what to do about it, but it wasn’t until my early thirties that I was more or less forced into activity.

My daughter was 9 years old when I decided that she would not suffer from the fear of water that I had, and enrolled her in swimming lessons. She cried all the way to the aquatic centre for her first lesson. Terrified, she shivered constantly and panicked when the instructor made her get into deep water. Forcing her out of the house for her second lesson, I thought, “Why am I doing this to her? I am making my daughter live my life for me. It should be me taking lessons.” I talked to my daughter’s instructor and had her assigned to a lower class level so she could ease into the water more slowly. While she relaxed into her new class, I enrolled in a class called “Scared-y Cats” for adults like myself. And I watched.

What were people wearing? What was the protocol in the change room? What did I need to bring with me? Just to make sure I was adequately prepared and would not feel embarrassed, I purchased an expensive and attractive swimming suit, a new make-up kit containing small plastic bottles of shampoo, conditioner and lotion, and a towel that matched my swimming suit. I was terrified to enter the water the first time, but the instructor was supportive and some of the other students were more terrified than I was. Gradually, I learned how to swim well enough so that I could enter water without fear. It wasn’t just the fear of water I had lost, however; I also lost the pain in my back and dependence on pain killers. Most importantly, I was having fun. Somewhere along the way, I lost the identity of being a klutz and I liked the new me.

Being forced into learning how to swim has helped me move more smoothly into other areas of fitness. The first time I walked into a fitness gym (I was over 50 at the time) and saw all those perfect, youthful bodies decked out in spandex, I almost turned tail and ran. Then I remembered what it was like when I first took swimming lessons: compared to that, I thought, learning how to lift weights would be a cinch.

The great poet Charles Olson once said that if we learn to do something well, we’ll never have to learn anything again. I think he meant that the process of learning is always the same, regardless of the skill or knowledge involved; we need only to learn one thing well and we can apply the same process to learning everything else. As seniors we have all been novices at something, some time, and we have (hopefully) learned at least one thing really well. Learning a new skill in the fitness arena is no different from learning a new job. Isn’t it better to be patient with ourselves while learning?

About the Author: Judy Smith is the author of Native Blood: Nursing on the Reservation (Oberon Press). Stay tuned for her monthly series designed for people who are entering a specific fitness program or exercising for the first time.

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