Imagine this nightmare: You’re back in high school phys ed class, outdoors at the track, and it’s seven a.m. You’re shivering and half awake. An extremely fit jock, someone who normally wouldn’t give you the time of day, measures your hips and upper arm flab, pinches your belly fat with evil-looking calipers, and orders you to run up and down the stadium bleachers. Next a trainer with a stopwatch demands that you do as many sit-ups as you can within a minute ("All the way up!") and as many push-ups ("Nose to the ground!") as you can before collapsing. Then one of the coaches times you running laps around and around the track with the rest of the class — and you finish dead last.
That was not a bad dream. It was my first day of the six-week outdoor fitness program Boot Camp SF (for San Francisco). I hated every moment of that morning. Ever since I was a pudgy kid, perpetually picked last for the team, I had disliked running and doing sit-ups, dips, squats, lunges, and most other types of rigorous physical exercise. I was more fit than I’d been as a kid — in fact, I was in pretty good shape — but I still liked mellow, noncompetitive activities: a nice stretching class, a stroll with a friend, a bicycle ride. I preferred to glow rather than sweat.
But it wasn’t enough. My doctor had told me in no uncertain terms that because I was in perimenopause, I needed to lift some weights and work up a good sweat regularly.
It turns out that all those miserable exercises the gym teachers foisted on us in high school are the very ones that can help keep us fit in our 40s and beyond. An occasional plank pose in yoga class won’t suffice: We need regular strength training to build and maintain muscle and keep our bones strong; both of these things can help keep osteoporosis at bay. And raising our heart rate by running helps burn calories and keeps us in good cardiovascular health.
After my doctor delivered the bad news, I did what most well-intentioned people would do: I signed up for a gym membership. For several weeks, I donned my iPod headphones and joined a row of anonymous people jogging, Spinning, and stepping to nowhere in front of a bank of TVs. I pushed a few weights around. Then I became one of those people who expends a few calories feeling guilty about buying a yearlong membership to a fitness club and never going. To the list of things I hate, exercise-wise, I added being indoors working out on machines under fluorescent lights.
So when I saw an eye-catching ad exhorting me to "train outdoors" and realized the sessions were in Golden Gate Park, only a few blocks from my house, I signed right up. I thought it would be, well, a walk in the park.
It was not. But astonishingly, after that first grueling morning of tests, I found myself again setting my alarm for 6:15 a.m. I pulled on my shiny new kicks and went back for the second day. (One trainer told me that although I had never actually run in my running shoes, they had lost their spring from the five years of walking around I’d done in them. So I had bought a new pair.) The trainers had divided the 30 of us into three groups, based on speed. No surprise, they put me in the "slow" group (I prefer not to call it "remedial") with mainly trim women who seemed pretty darned fast to me. I was happy I wasn’t in the gang of marathoners with the Scottish coach who had trained with British special forces and is an expert in jujitsu and boxing. Still, our trainer, Tracy Hicks — a blue-eyed 38-year-old with so little body fat I wondered how she managed to have dimples — didn’t cut us any slack. She ordered us to run hills and do countless push-ups and crunches in the grass. As we gasped for breath, she would remark cheerfully about how the glorious morning sun was streaming through the redwood trees.