That Time You Were Next Level--When strength training goes beyond the gym
I’ve started working out again.
I don’t like it. I don’t enjoy it. I don’t look forward to it. Nor do I miss it on my off days. I altogether hate it, but I have no choice. That fast metabolism I used as an excuse before is slowly dissipating, and I’ve reached “that age” where I need to consider things like my heart, cholesterol, sodium, and bone mass. I mean, I probably should have had my attention on such important details of longevity years ago, but they didn’t seem to matter until I was confronted by my waistline, which has slowly thickened without any change in eating or lifestyle habits. In fact, the only change has been the length of time since 1978. So, begrudgingly, I put down my paperback and moved my ass.
This isn’t my first time at the exercise rodeo. In my early twenties I had terrible migraines and the pain blockers for them packed the pounds on me. I’m sure beer was also a contributor. I lost the weight by waiting tables, walking everywhere in Manhattan, and via the StairMaster--one of man’s more wicked creations. Later, breastfeeding peeled off baby weight like magic. Seriously, after my second child, I ended up the same size I was on my Sweet 16. And a couple of years ago, paranoia convinced me to dance along with a vintage Paula Abdul workout video to avoid added weight while taking Yaz for adult acne. None of these routines lasted more than a few months because they were linked to phases. But this time is different because this phase is the remainder of my life. Just writing that makes me instantly exhausted.
Can’t I just drink to my health with rosé instead? Not so much.
So I’ve turned to the elliptical, a gentler alternative to the stair slayer. Initially, I kept up a comfy Level One for thirty minutes and tricked myself into hopping on by saving binge-worthy television for workouts only. But soon, I wasn’t breaking a sweat and knew that I needed to up the difficulty level. Thus, week by week, I’ve amped it up until now I find myself at a butt-busting Level Ten. I sweat like a mother, my heart rate hits a healthy target, and all my favorite clothes continue to fit. That’s all I need. That, and to live to blow out 100 candles in 2078.
However, as with any strength training, I am sore. I feel it in my hips and right in the tuck of my backside where I may even see the slightest lift taking shape. This soreness is now a regular accessory I don’t go anywhere without, sort of like my Roberto Cavalli sunglasses. I earned those shades and wearing them is a point of pride. I literally worked my ass off for my soreness, so I’m not leaving home without it either. And even though I hate the means to the soreness, I crave it because I feel through it that my work isn’t for nothing. I can feel my progress, and I know for a fact that I’m stronger today than I was yesterday.
So there you have it. Nagging discomfort is ultimately the piece to the healthy lifestyle puzzle I find most compelling. If everything felt normal, I wouldn’t have anything to push past to get stronger. It’s this ongoing delicate balance to keep the pressure present while watching for signals that the pressure is too much. The last thing I want is to hurt myself and start completely over.
And I wonder if this is just a sick side to my personality or something greater found in all of us. Is pain a necessary requirement for strength, not just in our workouts, but within all of our endeavors?
This time last year, my father had just been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. It was mercilessly aggressive on his body, and in no time he went from strong and independent to weak and completely reliant. But his disease had the opposite effect on me. Something about his pain energized me. I was present and focused, drilling and questioning his medical team, seeking remedies of my own, studying his medicine, dispensing medicine, wiping and cleaning him, holding him, and loving him endlessly. I was like a faithful guard dog-- a yappy, little terrier. Anyone coming within ten feet of Pop would need to get through me first. Somehow, I managed to hide my fear and agony from him. It became entirely natural to be the strength he, himself, couldn’t find many days.
I read once that to be good, one must be kind, and to be kind, one must suffer, the crux of the point being that what makes someone good is empathy. At the same time, we all have our limitations. I don’t possess the same strength of someone who can push thirty minutes at the highest level of the StairMaster, but I can still empathize with their workout because, to me, level 10 on an elliptical is like the top level of a StairMaster. And so maybe strength is not only a product of pain, but also stamina. Taking hit after hit without crumbling may seem almighty, but the struggle to not give up is still a struggle. That creates empathy, and yet all of it--pain, stamina, strength, and the empathy they accumulate-- is entirely subjective.
One of my sisters couldn’t do what I did for Pop during some of the darkest moments of last year. The pain was too great for her to bear. I remember countless times she would say, “I don’t know how you all do it nonstop. I simply can’t. It hurts too much.” She wasn’t weak or unsympathetic to the cause. If anything, her pain made her empathize all too much. Yet her struggle to keep going was a reminder that I couldn’t stop. Like the muscle soreness of a workout, the escalating pain of my family was all the motivation I needed. I was stronger than before, and I could be Pop’s terrier for the long haul.
But here’s the irony.
That same sister is now the strongest one in the aftermath following Pop’s passing. She is the one barking out orders to keep traditions going in Pop’s honor. She’s the one hounding us to embrace Pop’s legacy and live life to the fullest. And, she is the one determined to get our family through this latest struggle for as long as it takes. It seems much of my fight left me when Pop lost his fight. So my sister is the new terrier, and I now say to her many times, “I don’t know how you do it. I just can’t. It hurts too much.”
We aren’t built the same. We could compare ourselves and focus on our weaknesses. Or, we could see that when placed precisely where our individual strengths shine brightest, we are equally strong. Some of us are able to push ourselves harder in some situations than others, and sometimes we don’t push ourselves enough. Perhaps knowing when to push and when to pause is what makes us ultimately strongest in the end.
I know enough to know that pain signals more than discomfort. Sometimes it’s a signal to stop and other times it's a signal to keep going. Relief is coming and no matter what, we will be stronger than we were yesterday because we’re learning our limitations. I may never be the kind of person who enjoys working out, and it may take me longer than I had hoped to find my inner terrier again. But I know I have the stamina to stay healthy, just as I know the little terrier is inside me, waiting for my command.
And maybe, if I remember that discomfort is ultimately a sign of a new challenge coming, the next time I feel soreness beyond my muscles, I’ll advance to the next level in those areas of my life too.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.