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.
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.
I flew east for my wedding, to my home state of New Hampshire. It was a perfect summer day. Of course, my friends told me I looked great (how could they not?). More noteworthy was the four-day hike in the White Mountains that Jim and I undertook for our honeymoon. We climbed five of the Presidential Peaks—the toughest physical endeavor of my life, second to childbirth. At the end of those days my muscles felt sore, but my knees, thanks to my workouts, had not given out on me as they would have six months earlier. Equally important: While six months before I would have been gasping for breath climbing those peaks, I could carry on a conversation with Jim as we made our way up the mountain. My cardio fitness had drastically improved.
The hike was followed by more time away from the gym: a book tour and a visit to the coast of Maine. Good meals, no workouts. I never took out the foam roller I’d placed in the trunk of our car. So it was hard getting back to the gym at the end of our travels. I could tell that after four weeks away, I wasn’t as strong as I’d been when I’d left. But there was good news, too: Whereas only a few months earlier I’d allowed my brain to flirt with the idea of missing a workout, I realized I was now craving one. Walking into the gym for the first time after the wedding felt like coming home.
And that’s a good thing. I now understand that at 25 and 35 (and maybe even 40 if great genes are part of the mix), a woman may manage to look and feel good with surprisingly little effort, but at 59 it takes a lot more. I know that if I want to stay fit, I need to remain active every day of my life. I can no more expect to stay in great condition without working hard than I can reach the far end of a pool without swimming.
This is bad news only if you view exercising as a chore. There have certainly been times when I felt that way, and at times I still do. That’s when I make myself focus not on how I feel working out but on how I feel walking out. I may be sore, but I’m always happy.
I had set myself the goal of recapturing something of my youth for various events. But of course the real event we show up for is life. That one’s ongoing, for a while anyway. A long while, I hope.
The other day I turned 60. Around the same time, Jim and I flew off to a film festival that was screening the movie adaptation of my novel. My dress for this event was sleeveless and formfitting. In front of the theater, the two of us walked the red carpet while cameras recorded our every step. The photographers were really waiting for the stars, but they apparently thought I was somebody, and to oblige them, I waved. Betty did, too, but only a little.
I can live with that, as a gentle reminder that nobody’s perfect, at least without the benefit of Photoshop.
JOYCE MAYNARD’s most recent novel is After Her. The film Labor Day is based on her 2009 novel of the same name.
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