Back in the days when I thought 40 sounded old, there were many body parts I wished to improve (bad knees, thick waist, a not-firm-enough rear end), but my arms never dismayed me. Then, sometime in my late forties, I noticed the first signs of new and unfortunate changes in my muscle tone and skin texture. By my fifties, a problem I’d noted in other women (my mother, for instance) had hit closer to home. Mine.
My friend Laurie calls the phenomenon “Hi, Betty”—referring to what happens when you catch sight of an old friend and, as you raise your arm to wave (“Hi, Betty!”), you discover to your horror that it’s not just your hand that’s moving back and forth. What’s also moving is the flesh of what used to be your triceps muscle, looking more and more like a sheet hung out to dry on a windy day. Hi, Betty. Good-bye, youth.
This has been happening lately to a lot of otherwise fit women I know. For many, the solution is to give up wearing sleeveless shirts and dresses.
I cooked up a different plan. Six months before my 60th birthday, with a couple of other milestones on the horizon, I decided to put myself on an intensive fitness regimen of working out with a personal trainer three days a week. You could call this a pretty extravagant concept, once you figured in the cost of the trainer as well as the cost of my time. But in addition to being on the verge of 60, I had a book tour coming up, as well as the premiere of a movie adapted from one of my novels, Labor Day, starring Kate Winslet. Nobody was going to confuse me with her, but this was a moment to look my best.
And one more thing: Twenty-four years after my divorce from my first husband, I was getting married. I wanted to wear a sleeveless dress at my wedding, but more than that, I wanted to move into this new phase of my life (my seventh decade and my first year of a new marriage) with energy and good health. It took Jim and me a while to find each other. Now that we had, I wanted to stick around as long as possible.
All my life, my priorities were family and work. Now I asked myself: Suppose I gave my body the kind of attention I’ve showered on the people I love? Suppose I took my health as seriously as I take my career?
When I started my program, I had not exercised regularly at a health club in 20 years. For my comeback, I’d chosen Equinox in downtown San Francisco, where the median age appeared to be 28 and nearly every Lululemon-clad body looked as if it had trained for a triathlon. “Don’t let all that get to you,” said my new trainer, Susannah Bergman, watching me assess the scene in my too-short yoga pants and grubby sneakers. “This isn’t a competition. I’m interested in seeing you reach your own fitness goals, not somebody else’s.”
That first day, Susannah measured me, established my body-fat percentage, noted my cardio fitness—weak—and introduced me to a piece of low-tech equipment called a foam roller, which hadn’t even existed when I last spent time in a gym. “Before you do anything else here,” she told me, “you’re going to roll out your muscles to loosen the kinks and break down scar tissue. Foam rolling is one thing you should do every day.”
This was not the only piece of equipment I found unfamiliar. Back in the old days, I’d followed a set circuit of machines, pumping my arms or legs in a series of reps that allowed me to zone out and just listen to the Bee Gees. With Susannah, my workout required not simply physical exertion but also mental effort.
Take, for instance, an exercise designed to strengthen my core and—given the concentration required—possibly delay dementia. In this variant of a side plank, I balanced my outstretched body sideways, held up by my arm, with the top leg resting lightly on the bottom leg while my opposite arm reached for the ceiling, then swooped down so my hand went under my midsection and up again.
“This is too hard. You’re forgetting that I’m 59 years old,” I told Susannah the day she taught me that one. “It won’t be quite so challenging next time,” she said, and she was right.