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Confessions of a lapsed exerciser

/ Source: Self

Twenty-five years ago, my ass was round and high, like the cotton they sing about in Porgy and Bess. I worked out back then, vigorously. I turned down invitations to picnic in Central Park, missed seeing Kurosawa films at art houses and denied myself dates with cute drummers all because I would never skip the gym. It was my opinion that anyone who did not exercise for at least two hours a day was a jerk. Then again, I was 19. What did I know?

I don't work out anymore. At all. It's quite possible that if the exerciser I was back then met the slacker I am now, I would kick my own ass. But my daughter is only at school until 2:45 p.m. during the week, which means I have 6 hours and 15 minutes each day to fill the cupboards with groceries, cook, clean, shower, do laundry, tidy up, earn a living and exercise. It turns out that I'm the jerk who can't get it all done.

The first thing I gave up was exercise, but I was still overwhelmed and behind schedule. I needed more time, so I carefully examined my life: Obviously, we could not forgo food or clean underwear; my bathing routine was down to the bare minimum as it was; and I did the least amount of housework possible. I looked at my days from every possible angle. I agonized. And then, suddenly, it was clear — the only thing to cut back on was being nice to my husband. We have a good relationship, so I didn't keep my decision from him. I said, "Honey, I have so many things on my list. I have to stop being nice to you. It simply takes too much time and effort right now."

At first, not being nice to my husband was relatively easy. I was out of shape and pudgy anyway, and, in the pursuit of efficiency, my showering and shaving had dwindled to the point of my feeling furry all over. I didn't want him to touch me, and I didn't want to touch him, lest he get any ideas. I rationalized that the trade-off for our lack of physical intimacy would be getting more done. But the situation was depressing. And depression, I knew, would eventually cut into my productivity. Plus, I started to feel bad for my husband. A friend said, "I think you should start exercising."

It shouldn't have been hard. After all, my husband, daughter, two cats and I share our apartment with a 7-foot-long, blond-wood machine known as a pilates reformer. I lived with it when I was single; at one time, it was my best friend. My husband has never been crazy about the thing — something about it taking up half our square footage. Even I admit that it resembles a modern Danish version of a medieval torture device, complete with ropes and pulleys. Worse, I haven't climbed aboard for five years, except to dust something behind it.

I discover I don't like the gym. It's beyond me how I could have spent so much time in one when I was younger. Thanks to the glories of modern living, I am running in place on a machine that simulates outdoor activities, while listening to assaultive music, under unflattering lighting, beside all the mothers from the park I usually avoid. Still, I try to make polite conversation, usually along the lines of "Hi! How are you? How's Ethan? Really? You bought another apartment? No kidding! Yup, we still rent. I know, we should buy, but we can't afford a place big enough for the pilates machine." It's enough to make me wish I lived in a time when people got their exercise by farming and churning butter.

I am intrigued by a beret-wearing man at my gym who, every morning, tells his trainer all the foods he introduced into his diet the day before. Plus, I think his lunges are divine. I decide to hire his trainer for a session.

As it happens, his trainer, whose name is Ted, is also buying an apartment; the graceful lunger is giving him tips on up-and-coming neighborhoods. Maybe I would like some tips, too? Ted asks. "No, thanks," I say. "I can't afford to buy right now."

"That's too bad," Ted says. "It's a very good investment."

"So I hear," I say, and then, finally, Ted shows me how to lunge. After that, he shows me five different types of sit-ups. He has me using weight machines, an ab bench for crunches, the mat. He teaches me tricks with a big silver ball. Even though I feel like a trained seal, Ted promises these maneuvers will tone my butt. He shows me chest presses and some side bends that will get rid of my love handles. As I work out, I can see my muscles responding under my stretched-out tent of a midriff. The hour flies by. When I get home, I bound upstairs in record time. I shower. I shave. I put on clean clothes. I feel great. I want my husband to touch me.

I return to the gym the next day. While stealing a glimpse of my ass in the mirror, I fall off the elliptical trainer and nearly land on the treadmill to my left. I could've been run over by a speed walker and gotten killed. Frightened and ashamed, I slink over to the mat room to continue the work Ted began. I mount the sit-up machine. I can't remember what to do. I dismount and begin my work with the big silver ball, which I do remember, while waiting for someone to use the sit-up machine so I can copy. I work on my chest, my abs, then do some lunges and make my way home.

My body feels sore in a wonderful way. I move different limbs throughout the day just to feel my muscles. I shower. Again! I'm certain my jeans look better already. The exercising thing is going so well, I decide to write about it for work. Funnily enough, during the three weeks I spend writing the article, I don't make it to the gym once. I don't have time. Laundry piles up. We eat takeout. I desperately need to vacuum (and shower). I do squeeze in some at-home sessions on the pilates machine, which I am now strong enough to maneuver. It's an improvement.

My life, it seems, is a balancing act perpetually on the verge of tipping over. Exercise is one of the items on the scale, along with work, chores, eating and making contact with other humans; all of these things threaten to throw everything off kilter. What's changed is that now I accept this idea. My foray back to the gym has made me more flexible, physically and mentally. My two-hour workout sessions may be over, but getting a reasonable amount of exercise now and then feels doable. On the days I do go to the gym, I can't write as much, and we may well run out of toilet paper. But everything has to give a little, even muscle tone. What's important is that exercising here and there has made me feel stronger and more energetic. I'm also nicer to my husband, if you know what I mean.