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)

I moved to New York City in the fall of 1998 to try to find work as a dancer and started kickboxing as a way to stay physically active and boost my confidence. I picked it up quickly because years of ballet, tap and jazz dance training had taught me how to analyze and execute different movements. For about two years, I kickboxed four to six times a week. I stopped when I moved to the Midwest to teach dance. I couldn’t find a place to study.

Over the next 10 years, I lost some of my love for dance because it made me feel bad about my body. That culture places great emphasis on thinness, and I have always been a bit curvy. As a dancer, you must appear very confident onstage, but your belief in yourself gets chipped away by constant rejection. Try standing in a leotard next to a bunch of very slender girls in audition after audition, and tell me how your confidence fares!

I always come back to New York, and when I returned last summer, I started kickboxing classes again because I needed something to help me get out of my career and life funk. (I hadn’t danced professionally for over a year.) From the first class, my instructor recognized that I had experience. I quickly became enamored again because working hard makes me feel good about myself. And after just a month of taking classes three to five days a week, I began making fast progress.

I’ve always had very good kinesthetic awareness—a sense of how my body moves in space—and I can look at someone doing a particular movement and easily figure out how to make my body do it. With kickboxing, I had an additional advantage: My muscles actually remembered the correct positioning for a defensive stance and the basic punches and kicks. My curves were not an issue, and all I had to do was simply trust my body to move quickly. In three months, I was further along than many people who had put in a lot more time than I had, and I attribute that to all my previous experience.

I had no idea how profoundly I’d be transformed by rediscovering kickboxing. Of course, I’m enjoying increased strength and stamina, but I am most excited by deeper changes—wanting to take better care of myself and finally feeling like I am judging my body less and appreciating it more. My self-confidence has increased enormously, and I am more grounded than I’ve ever been. I recently moved away from New York again, this time to New Orleans, but I won’t make the same mistake I did before. This time I will definitely keep kickboxing.

Val Firestein | 43
Larchmont, New York
Stay-at-home mom

I love the camaraderie of being on a team. When I was a teenager, I went to a girls’ boarding school in Massachusetts, and I discovered lacrosse there. It’s such a fast-moving sport—that’s what I found so exciting. I also appreciate that lacrosse isn’t a game where just one person becomes the star; for a goal to be scored, everyone has to work together. All through high school I played midfield, which involved a lot of running, and when I found out my college didn’t have a women’s lacrosse team, I started one. Afterward, there was no place where I could play, so I ended up quitting the sport for almost two decades.

Then, a few years ago, I decided to coach my son’s lacrosse team, and one of the parents I met was a 45-year-old guy who played on a men’s team. There was no women’s team that I could find, but I was inspired, and in the spring of 2007 my friend Kate Verni and I founded a women’s team called the Re-LAXers. Our idea was to create a venue for seasoned female players who wanted to return to the game we all loved so much in school. My friend got the equipment while I rounded up the people. To find players, I put up flyers, posted my e-mail address on the U.S. Lacrosse website and talked to parents and coaches at the youth lacrosse games. The team started out with just seven women, ages 35 to 52, scrimmaging on Saturday mornings before our kids woke up. (For a real team, we’d have needed at least 12 people on the field and eight or so on the bench.)

The game was surprisingly easy to pick up again. My skills were weaker but still there—for instance, I remembered how to catch and release the ball, but at first I couldn’t do it quickly enough. There was also a technical change in the game that took me a while to get the hang of. In the past, we would toss the stick into our nondominant hand to catch a ball on that side, but now, in a cool move that’s difficult to describe, you slide the stick into the nondominant hand.

My biggest challenges were the sprinting and endurance. In lacrosse you’re constantly racing up and down the field. The need to keep up with other players during a scrimmage motivated me to keep moving even when I thought I couldn’t do it any longer. Within a season, I had made great progress. Now I have much more speed and stamina when I’m in a game.

The team component is more vital for me at this age than it has ever been before. Discussions on the field about child rearing, job decisions, marriage and so on are priceless. But most of all, being on a team like this proves that when you’re in your forties, it’s not all over. Playing lacrosse now makes me feel powerful, not just on the field but in my life.

Allison Kimmich | 42
Montclair, New Jersey
Executive director of a women’s nonprofit

I really enjoy the challenge of setting a goal and achieving it. So last year, when I was trying to get more exercise and be a healthy role model for my children, I decided to run a fairly long race, something I had not done for about 12 years. I managed to find the right training program online (from marathon guru Hal Higdon, The goal was to gradually build up from three miles to 9.3 miles over eight weeks—and I really stuck to it.

I was amazed at how easy it was to train. The endorphin release definitely helped—it made me feel alive and exhilarated. And it was nice to operate in a different kind of mind-set than I do at my job. My work is very abstract, but when I’m running, concentration is required—focus on the next mile, then the one after that—and I’m not so concerned with the long term. I’ve been doing Pilates for the past three years, so I’m generally stronger, particularly in my core, than I was when I was younger. And because of the Pilates work, I think much more about my running form now. I concentrate on keeping my shoulders down and pulled back so my lungs can get the maximum oxygen.

Last November I completed a 15-Krace. Finishing those 9.3 miles in a better time than I had done while training gave me a terrific sense of accomplishment. I’d like to do a half-marathon in the spring—maybe the More/Fitness half-marathon—and to train for that, I’ll focus a little more on improving my speed. One of the unexpected pleasures of all this is that my 10-year-old daughter did a 5-K in early January. Now I know I’m being a healthy role model!

Jane Ward | 59
Washington, D.C.
Part-time ophthalmologist, graduate student

When I was a student at Wellesley College, I loved rowing with the MIT team on the Charles River in Boston. I continued the sport during my advanced studies at the University of California, Berkeley. But after that, I didn’t have time for the activity. Still, I always missed being on the water and the push of training hard for races.

Last spring, 34 years after I last rowed, I met a woman who encouraged me to come back to the sport by joining the Potomac Boat Club, a rowing club in Washington, D.C. Despite some hesitation over scheduling and the 5 am training, I gave it a try. I was a bit anxious about keeping up during the practices for the first week or two. And after the workouts I was pretty tired because I hadn’t been exercising that hard on my own. But I soon felt at home again in the boat. I love being out on the water in the early -morning—it’s both peaceful and energizing. I also enjoy the challenge of several women working together as a crew to coordinate each stroke.

I started out with some good skills: I tend to be very balanced in the boat, and my timing is good. But this time around, I discovered that I’d had a lot of bad rowing habits in my college days, and thanks to my muscle memory, I fell right back into them. For example, I was using my back too soon in the stroke—you want to push with your legs first and brace yourself with your back—and my hands would pause unnecessarily at the end of each stroke. So those were things I remembered but had to unlearn. And although that’s taken some time, I have really appreciated the coaching that has helped me master the new millennium’s improved techniques.

My team won its very first race last summer, at the Diamond State Regatta in Delaware. A few weeks later, we came in second at the Masters Nationals in Camden, New Jersey. Competitions bring out the best in me. When the boat truly flows, it’s a real high that you want to experience over and over—I’m always seeking the elusive perfect row.

Yeah, I think I’m hooked again.

Originally published in the April 2011 issue of More.

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First Published Tue, 2011-03-01 16:32

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