Make the new year an exercise in how to get fit rationally

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I taught exercise classes for a number of years in my middle to late-middle life. I loved it.

I never felt or looked better, and the endorphins that exercise releases did their work: I was happier. More important, my students, women of all ages, were happier, too.

I brought my love of music and dance to my teaching, programming a mix of Latin, jazz, rock, soul and tango music to dance, pilates and yoga-based routines. My classes were fun -- challenging but not torturously so -- and we developed a great camaraderie.

My core group of exercisers were at the club on the day after Thanksgiving and throughout the holidays. Around the edges of my classes, though, were what I came to think of as the Resolution Group, the women who signed up on Jan. 2, ready for boot camp. They would do it all, and they would do it right now. Some of the Resolution Group tried my classes and found them lacking -- not enough high-impact moves, not enough sweat.

It's not hard to see what's coming here: The Resolution exercisers didn't last.

Some were undone by their protesting bodies. They hit the machines, the weights, the step classes, the kickboxing and all the rest of it with bodies that simply could not take the sudden demands. Feet, knees, elbows, shoulders, necks -- the parts were sprained, twisted, even cracked. Result: no more exercise, at all.

For others, it wasn't so much the physical as the mental and emotional barriers that stopped them in their tracks. Getting into a fitness routine, given the many demands on our time, requires a lot of changes, and many of those changes have to be eased into.

We all know some people who are committed to super-high-performance exercise, and we admire them and maybe fear them a little. Somewhere along the line they signed up for boot camp and have been re-upping ever since.

My brother and one of my friends run punishing routes, in the dark, in the cold, in the heat, year after year. They practically ran past their 60th birthdays without noticing. Admirable, but they're not my role models.

My role model, especially for teaching, was a personal trainer at a seminar on exercise for seniors who told us about a grouchy man ordered to the gym by his cardiologist -- a typical scenario. The man did not want to be there, and he made it plain. The trainer asked him if he would do just one thing: turn on the treadmill.

"What do you mean, turn on the treadmill?"

"Just what I said, turn it on."

The man harrumphed and did it. "What now?" he grumbled.

The trainer said, "Nothing. That's all I asked you to do. Come back tomorrow if you want and we can have you get up on the treadmill for maybe a minute."

The man showed up the next day and began a long-term program of moderate exercise.

I borrowed that savvy trainer's strategy many times, in reverse. When I taught, I often advised people to put the brakes on, to do less on a given day, in a given week. I always demonstrated modifications for senior participants or newer participants. I advised members of our club not to do challenging weight classes or routines on consecutive days.

And, as I aged and faced a couple of health issues, I gave myself permission to modify my own routines.

I'm no longer teaching, but I still find myself giving advice to people who know that I was a certified fitness instructor. During the year, and especially during the holidays, I mostly just listen to confessions of wrongdoing and penance.

As the new year comes into view, I steel myself for hearing the yearly round of resolutions. I try not to be impatient as the plans are unfolded and my endorsement sought. But each year my advice for beginners gets a little terser: "The best gym or class is the one closest to your house, because it's the one you'll actually go to."

And, "If it isn't fun, you won't stick to it."

Because I'm older and, yes, wiser, I say, finally, "Do something good for yourself today. Go to the gym, take a walk with a friend, do some stretches while you watch TV. Afterward, choose your food carefully, with appreciation."

Do your best today. Today is what we have, and it's sufficient.

Rebecca Taksel of Edgewood, who teaches at Point Park University, can be reached at

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