My (Reluctant) Fitness Makeover

Life was good! Nachos for lunch. Cocktails before dinner. Spinach dip at midnight. Exercise, never. Here's how my day of reckoning arrived—and a workout-phobe became a new woman.

by Judith Newman
judith newman picture
Photograph: Brian Finke

Here are the facts about me. I am 49 and had kids at 40. (Twins—better living through chemistry.) I am chronically sleep deprived. I never exercise. I am five foot eight and have always been 20 to 25 pounds overweight. Never mind what that number on the scale is; I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. But I’ve been a size 12, fluctuating to a 14 or even 16, my entire life.

Here’s the truth: I never really minded. Having my particular father helped. My skinny father was a chubby chaser; my mother was always fat, and he liked it that way. And you know that when it comes to body image, fathers matter. I was doted on and admired, and I never grew up with the sense that I’d be more appealing if I dropped a few. Undoubtedly there were plenty of men to whom I was invisible. But the world’s a big place; I found the ones who accepted, and perhaps even preferred, me the way I was.

But last February my father died, and with him the sense that being pudgy was fine. Maybe the problem was that I didn’t feel great. My blood pressure was high (140/90); my LDL cholesterol, while not terrible, was about 130, on the border of problematic. My blood sugar hovered around 105—a little high. Also, I drank too much, or too much for me: maybe 20 glasses of wine or cocktails a week. Nothing that should have sent me scurrying to AA. But the day I realized that my local Manhattan watering hole, Temple Bar, knew me by name—and knew to put a mojito in front of me before I said a word—was the day I began to feel like Norm from Cheers.

So I decided to give health a chance.

I didn’t have grandiose, Biggest Loser dreams. I figured if I could drop two dress sizes in five months and maybe improve a few of those sugar and blood pressure markers, I’d be ahead of the game. I was going to work out; I was going to . . . I refuse to use the word diet, but let’s say stop eating spinach dip and chips at midnight. And beyond actually going to the gym, I would find new ways to move. For five months, I’d make myself a veritable swag bag of self-improvement—with a big assist from some helpers More lined up to work with me gratis, so I could see what was possible when money was no object. Here’s a record of my adventure.

June 1   

Meeting with trainer at the Equinox gym in SoHo tomorrow. Eating M&M’s like I’m facing the guillotine.

June 2

My new trainer is Clark Kent. He has another name, Zachary Yurcisin, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s Clark. He’s six foot three, conventionally handsome, with a long, lean physique, a square jaw and a cape. OK, not really, but the cape is implied.

Clark knows exactly how much of a couch potato I’ve been. His goal is not only to help me slim and tone but also to increase my flexibility and mobility. I have lousy posture. I am stiff. So I will work with the Superhero for one hour, two or three times a week, an expensive arrangement made possible by Equinox, which kicked in a free six-month membership plus 50 Clark sessions.

Each time we’ll follow a similar pattern: mobility exercises (stretching), then aerobic conditioning and weight training. The last two activities are important, since everyone in my family dies of a stroke or heart attack related to high blood pressure. Besides my Zach time, I commit to doing cardio on my own at least once a week.

One problem. Not the soreness or fatigue, though there is that. But from the get-go, I am bored out of my mind by exercise. I have to think of a way to make this interesting.

June 5

When it comes to eating, the fewer choices I have to make, the better. My main problem is that I love to be ­hungry—and then I love to be a glutton. So I subsist on coffee until noon, then go out for a late business lunch, no holds barred. Or worse, I’ll eat nothing but a bagel all day, then have a glass of wine (or three) with my husband and nine-year-olds while they eat their dinners, then wait until everyone is asleep and Jon Stewart and I can dine together on a Cobb salad roughly the size of my head.

When I do sit down to a meal, I don’t so much cook as dial (for takeout), and I always overorder. So to jump-start my weight loss, I decide to try ­different home-delivered meal programs that are supposed to provide a day’s worth of meals within a certain calorie count (mine was 1,200 to 1,400 a day). I know that sooner or later I will need to take charge of my eating decisions, but I feel that the meal plans, in addition to being convenient, will train me to recognize what a reasonable portion is—something that I, with my “Everything is better when it’s supersized” philosophy, have never mastered.

I start with Freshology ( on the premise that if it’s good enough for J.Lo (as People has reported), then it’s good enough for me. Expensive? I’ll say. This national program, which comped me for a month because I’m writing this story, costs $30 to $50 a day, depending on the plan you pick. Here’s a typical menu from Freshology: Breakfast is baked eggs with herbs, Canadian bacon and fresh fruit (276 calories); lunch, Greek salad with grilled lamb (462); dinner, BBQ flatiron steak with vegetable medley and roasted sweet potato (504); dessert, pear square (164). The food is really tasty, there is incredible variety, and best of all, I am not hungry between meals. “These dishes contain lots of protein and fiber, a winning combo that keeps your stomach full and your blood sugar steady, fending off hunger,” says Nancy Kalish, a certified health coach in Brooklyn.

June 15

At the gym, doing step-ups.

Boring. Boring. Gotta do something. Gotta distract myself. “Hey, Zach . . . are you dating anyone?”

Ahhhhhhh. Pay dirt.

So here’s the thing. Zach broke up with his live-in girlfriend about six months ago. She moved to San Francisco. He loved her, but he didn’t want a long-distance relationship.

Now Zach has another girlfriend, L. But he has his doubts.

June 25

“Taxi! TAX-iiii!” my son Henry cries, frantically waving his little arm. I wrestle it down. He is indignant. Henry’s third word, after mama and dada, was cab, so naturally our sudden efforts to go everywhere on foot have not gone unnoticed. “Just because you want to be thin, we all have to suffer?” he asks, for the sixth time in a week.

This, I explain, is good for all of us. Because I am trying to put into practice a concept I’ve been reading about lately: non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT. The idea is that up to half the calories we burn daily come from activities we don’t even think about: fidgeting, standing . . . or maybe going up three flights of stairs instead of taking the elevator to our third-floor apartment.

So, much to Henry’s consternation, we are walking to school every day instead of taking the train, and we are eschewing elevators for stairs.

July 15

A training breakthrough! Well, not training, exactly. Today there is this:

Zach confesses he has a big crush on someone he sees at the gym. He’s had feelings for her for a long time. They got to know each other while training for a running event, and now Zach is obsessing. M. is a tiny, pretty thing, but a little grim and tightly wound.

Despite looks that would make you assume he’s a player, Zach is anything but. Beneath that hunky exterior is a Sensitive New Age Guy. Zach and I begin to strategize. He wants to be very correct. We plan the right moment for him to end it with L. and then ask M. out. He is scared. He thinks M. doesn’t think of him That Way. Also, he hates to disappoint L. But. “I . . . I can’t help it,” he almost whispers to me. “It’s natural to be attracted to someone else, even if you have a girlfriend, right?”

Reps, schmeps. Now this is a reason to go to the gym.

Late July

Training is all very well, but let’s face it: I need a sport, something I can do that is actually fun and maybe even social. Here are a few of the activities I tried over the summer months.

Salsa dancing. Pros: You work up a sweat, and when you get good, you are 500 percent more attractive than you were beforehand. Cons: You have to touch strangers, yet you are not having sex with them. Result: Walked out.

Long-distance running: Please.

Ping-Pong: This is my new sport! And not just because Spin, the place I go, (a) is co-owned by Susan Sarandon and (b) serves drinks. OK, maybe those two things. But there’s more. First, for some reason, I’m naturally good at it. Second, Spin is in a dark basement that, I believe, both makes me feel unselfconscious and hides my wrinkles. Third, while ping-ponging, an average-size person burns roughly 273 calories an hour—at a game I can actually play for an hour, as compared with, say, running. The only con here is that I am a little light on friends who share my enthusiasm. Like, none. So anyone in the tristate area who enjoys beating the crap out of a tiny ball while guzzling overpriced cocktails, please contact me.


Size 10 pants I haven’t worn since I threw up every day for four months (beginning of twin pregnancy) now fit. Comfortably. This is really good. Husband notes: “Your bottom doesn’t jiggle so much.” This is good, too.

September 12

Zach takes my measurements. I know I’ve toned up and lost weight, but I feel I haven’t done enough. It’s three steps forward, two steps back. I stopped Freshology at the end of July, and after spending August eating and cooking for myself—and, predictably, slipping back into some of my old habits—I switched to the Fresh Diet (, another portion-controlled home-delivery system that I got to try for free for 30 days. Available in 15 cities nationwide, the Fresh Diet program costs $35 to $45 a day, about the same price as Freshology.

But despite being protected from my own eating decisions, I screw up on a regular basis. For one thing, I frequently go out for business lunches and dinners. And then there is my endless bargaining with alcohol. I have two grade-school-age boys; is there a mother out there who can’t comprehend the need for a gimlet at the end of the day? The problem with booze, for the moderate drinker, is not the booze. It is the lack of inhibition that booze inspires. So if the Brie and crackers are easy to forgo before the Chardonnay, they start singing a siren song the moment you begin sipping.

September 15

Zach did it. He asked M. to go out with him. And she said yes.

October 1

I buy a pair of size 8 DKNY jeans (Donna Karan understands hips) and put them on. As long as I don’t breathe, they fit. My husband congratulates me on having less of an ass. “Not that it matters to me,” he adds, just in time.

Drumroll, Please

All right, maybe a kazoo squeak would be more appropriate. Because this is a story of succeeding despite not rigorously sticking to a program. Even partial changes can give you good results.

After five months of exercising and controlling my food intake, I lost 15 pounds. (And I liked the meal plans so much, I ended up paying for a couple of months myself when the freebies ran out.) I went from a tight size 12 to a supertight (but breathable) size 8.

Aside from a week of illness, I worked out—cardio and/or weight training—two to four times a week. I could have done more, but I didn’t. Nonetheless, I lost eight inches around my waist, hips, thighs, arms and chest. I stand straighter, though I still have to think about it. I have much more energy, which is a very pleasant surprise; at night my children and I dance to Lady Gaga. At last count, my blood pressure was 120/70. My fasting glucose level has fallen to 91. My LDL cholesterol is now a healthy 102. My numbers weren’t terrible to begin with, but now they are clearly out of any you-gotta-be-careful zone.

Have I changed my habits? I think so. I am never, ever going to be cooking three balanced, small, tasty meals a day for myself, so the transition to eating on my own versus accepting deliveries is difficult. But I make a point of eating something with a little protein in it three times a day, whether it’s a bit of peanut butter in the morning or my current favorite, a shake containing Dr. Morrison’s Daily Benefit Daily Detox Powder, a 160-calorie rice-based cinnamony concoction. (For stores, go to daily? And I’m continuing with a trainer. Now that this is on my own nickel, I’ve strong-armed a friend into joining me for a group session, cutting costs and reducing my chances of being bored.

I think I can live like this. I am cautiously optimistic. But ask me in a year.

There was one goal, though, that I am very happy was attained. This weekend, Zach reported, he and M. told each other, “I love you.”

How The Numbers Changed
Waist: 33.5 in. -> 33 in.
Hips: 40 in. -> 38 in.
Thigh: 22 in. -> 19.5 in.
Weight Loss: -> 15 lb.

To see Judith's exercise routine click here.

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First Published Wed, 2010-12-29 12:15

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