The Fast Track to Getting Fitter

If there’s a sport you loved in the past, take it up again! Yes, you can still do it—and the health and fitness benefits will pile on fast. Here’s why.

By Stacey Colino
fit weight loss swimming swim exercise
Thirty-two years after throwing in the towel, Terry Hastings Powers took up swimming again.
Photograph: Meredith Jenks

People start having memory problems as they age, but a new study shows that muscles don’t. According to animal research reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, muscles appear to retain a memory of their former strength. It seems that nuclei in muscle cells created in response to workouts remain inside some muscle fibers, sticking around even if the muscles they’re part of are withering from lack of use. “Muscle memory might last in humans for decades or forever,” speculates study coauthor Kristian Gundersen, PhD, professor of molecular biology and physiology at the University of Norway in Oslo. So when you want to build up muscles you’ve worked out in the past, they become strong faster than they would if you had never exercised them—which gives you a big head start in achieving fitness again. Here, in their own words, are the stories of five women who found that love of a sport can be better the second time around.

Terry Hastings Powers | 48
Novato, California
Director of development, independent K–8 school

Having always been slender, I was upset and frustrated when I had my second child at 43 and couldn’t lose the 15 to 20 pounds of pregnancy weight. On our family’s annual summer trip to Lake Tahoe, I was so self-conscious, I covered up my bathing suit with a T-shirt and shorts whenever I was out of the water. Luckily, during that same vacation two years ago, I ran into some friends from home who presented a possible solution. They had just joined a new masters swim team in our area called the Marin Pirates Masters. They said the coach was amazing, kind and so supportive, and they encouraged me to check out the team.

I’ve always loved being in the water. At the age of two and a half, I dog-paddled the entire length of the big (adult) pool at the community swim club, which meant I could swim there whenever I wanted. For years I spent my free time at swim-team practices and swim meets and just hanging out in pools with girlfriends. My best strokes were freestyle and butterfly. But by 14, I felt burned out by competitive swimming. I was tired of hearing whistles blow all the time. Plus, I could do other sports like tennis and field hockey on school grounds and not have to be schlepped around.

Thirty-two years after I quit the swim team, I ventured out of my comfort zone and paid a visit to the Marin Pirates practices. I watched a couple of sessions before getting wet—but once I jumped in, I never looked back. I soon began attending swim practice from 5:30 to 6:45 am four days a week. Within a month of starting, I was comfortable with all my strokes again. In the beginning, my biceps and shoulders were very sore, and I grew tired at work by midmorning. But all that passed after about six months.

Meanwhile, my body was changing noticeably. I dropped 15 pounds after the first three months. My pants buttoned more easily, there was space between my thighs, the dimples on the front of my legs were going away, and the front and back of my torso became firmer and more muscular. Upper-arm definition came next.

But the transformation of my figure was the least of my accomplishments. After practicing for six months, I entered my first meet as a Pirate. Now my times are better than they were when I was a teen. Sometimes I even win ribbons, which at my age makes me giggle.

My coach helped improve my performance by teaching me some techniques that have been developed since I was young. With freestyle, I learned how to glide and skim the surface with my hands before pulling under. For the butterfly, I mastered undulating slightly and pressing my chest against the water, a modification that makes you more efficient and gives you greater stamina.

Swim practice has become my sanctuary. I don’t think about my troubles. The water is quiet, monochromatic and soothing—it makes me feel hugged. The fun I have, the laughter I share with my lane mates and the strength I’ve gained both physically and mentally are gifts—and they are all mine.

Susan Grady | 35
New Orleans
Performer (theater, tv, dance)

First Published April 5, 2011

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