Some days, especially in the beginning, I dreaded my hour with Susannah. Facing the reflections in the gym mirror—mine and all the twenty-somethings’—reminded me of the many ways my body had changed since I was their age. At Equinox, at least this branch, I was old enough to be the mother of most of my fellow gym rats. One day, warming up on the StairMaster, I found some comfort in seeing the older man on the next machine sweating profusely and looking ready to expire. He seemed dimly familiar, and then I placed him: a rock star from my youth. I may have been the only one in the room to remember him.
I also remembered how, at the gym in decades past, I’d occasionally attracted the attention of men. Once in a while, a guy would ask me to spot him when he was lifting weights or invite me to go for a smoothie after we finished working out. Now, at 59, I was invisible. More like the chaperone at the prom than one of the dancers. There was a certain momentary pang in recognizing this: I am not pickup material anymore.
Then came a reassuring realization: So what? The looks I used to get at my old gym 20 years ago never led to anything real. They were a distraction more than anything else. Beyond the bonds with Jim and my children, the relationships that mattered at this point in my life were the one I had with my trainer and, above all, the one I had with my own body.
As the weeks passed and I kept returning to work with Susannah, I started appreciating my body more, though in a different way. Whereas my younger self had focused on getting slimmer—looked for lower numbers on the scale, a narrower waistline, a smaller dress size—my 59-year-old self was registering muscle definition, strength and endurance. At the end of my workout, when Susannah laid me out on the table to stretch my muscles, almost to the point of pain, I could feel my joints loosening and my range of motion expanding. We talked about flexibility, not pounds. Susannah told me, “The time you put in here is time you won’t be spending getting a hip replacement or having knee surgery.”
My knees. Not the body parts I’d focused on when I thought about how I would look in my sleeveless wedding dress. But it was my knees Susannah was concerned about when she put me through my every-other-session lower-body workout. For a decade at least, I’d avoided straining them, knowing that one was very bad and the other not all that much better. Now I was learning to make my glutes and quads do the work to support my knees. For the first time in 15 years, I could do squats again.
Soon after I started my intensive fitness routine, I bought my wedding dress: Thai silk, cream colored, full length and, yes, sleeveless. But two months into my workout regimen, with just under two weeks to go before the wedding, I could still detect softness in my arms. At the gym, I gave Susannah a wave to demonstrate that there remained a certain looseness of skin. That old devil Betty may not have been as noticeable a presence as before, but she had not left the building either.
“You need a good six months or more to really change your body,” Susannah told me. “And genetics has a lot to do with how toned you can get.”
After hearing her words, I did not abandon my goal of firmer upper arms or let myself off the hook about staying with my workout routine. I think this was the moment when I recognized an important truth about exercise: that for most of us, perfection is an un-realistic and potentially destructive goal, achieved by few women of any age and even fewer who aren’t movie stars or pop-music legends. Michelle Obama is younger than I am, and no doubt she works out religiously, but I’m betting she has a lucky genetic history where her arms are concerned, and there is probably no substitute for that.