Absolute Beginners: Quitters Win

Hi there! Welcome to Absolute Beginners, our new fitness column. I’d tell you to sit down and make yourself comfortable, but that’d really go against the whole modus operandi of what I’m trying to do, here. Instead, I don’t know, go do some jumping jacks, then come back and read this.

So, I write about fitness a lot, and I spend an awful lot of my time doing a range of physical activities. But if you rewound time to 1997 and asked my parents if they thought that one day, their daughter would be writing a fitness column professionally, they would’ve either laughed their asses off or looked at you with deep, deep concern in their eyes, wondering whether or not they’d need to get you to a hospital. They put me in every sports program my Chicago suburb had to offer — AYSO, after-school basketball, gymnastics, tennis, ballet and swimming at the Y. And they just could not make any of it stick. The biggest problem was that the sports-related propaganda I received was about teamwork! and pride after a win! and shit like that, and I just didn’t find that tremendously motivational. I was in a vicious cycle with my teammates, wherein we didn’t like each other all that much to begin with (they were the “popular” girls and I was, predictably, not), and to start I wasn’t naturally athletic or talented, and then they started resenting me because I fucked up a lot, and then I started resenting them for resenting me, and then I started caring less, working less, and ultimately, actively trying to spite them. I walked off the field in the middle of games because I just didn’t feel like playing anymore, and whether we won or lost made absolutely no difference to me.

But then there was the fact, too, that I was sort of freakishly tall for my age, chubby, and not at all graceful, and when you’re learning how to do new things with your body and you’re a little girl, that all gets embarrassing really quickly. So ice skating was out the window, too; as was running, at which I failed miserably, and ultimately, skateboarding as well. I was a habitual fitness quitter, and a chubby kid, a chubby teenager, and a less-than-chubby but definitely-not-thin adult (is that “average”?).

Everything I’ve done fitness-wise, in adulthood, I’ve done on my own for exactly the two, connected reasons above: 1) I hate teams, so exercise I can do by myself is ideal, and 2) I don’t really want anyone watching me until I’m good at what I’m doing. Or, in other words, I don’t want to feel embarrassed when I’m trying to do something good for myself. That’s precisely the reason that I get to the gym when it opens, before dawn, and that’s precisely the reason I don’t do running groups, and I run with my sunglasses on, in the hopes that if other people can’t see my eyes, they won’t bother to address me at all.

What I’m saying is, fitness newbies, I get it. I get how hard it is to start. I get why there are so many people who would really like to be active, but who are scared that they won’t be good at it, that they’ll fail or embarrass themselves. Despite the fact that I’ve run a marathon, and despite the fact that I love lifting, I’m still an absolute beginner at this stuff, myself. I have an earned low confidence in my physical abilities.

What I also have, though, is a willingness to try and fail. I credit lifting and running with that, more than anything, because I’ve been lifting for over two years and have only just this week worked up to a 155-pound squat for the first time (that’s low, for lifting). But I find lifting soothing and fun, and it accommodates my emotional proclivities surrounding fitness, so even if I’m embarrassing myself by barely adding weight to the bar every week, I don’t care. And as for running: I quit when I need to quit. I’m still working on finding out how much pain and discomfort I can tolerate when I’m running. I go slow, I train into it, I keep practicing. But even if I’m not very good at running, I can say more than my uber-athletic fiancé and his uber-athletic brother: I ran a fucking marathon. I ran it on the courage it took me to bother even trying to learn how to run in the first place. Training was just an issue of learning how to keep up that courage for five and a half hours.

Just so you know: I still quit. This January, I was still recovering from a toe injury I got during the marathon, so I figured I’d start taking swimming classes to make up for my lack of cardio. The first session was all right — we covered freestyle, backstroke, and started to work on breaststroke. We sank to the bottom of the deep end, we did a kneeling dive. Perfect. Fine. The second week, we did width-wise laps of freestyle, backstroke, and breaststroke, then we learned butterfly. Totally fine! Week three, we did practiced width-wide laps of the four strokes, then we did width-wide medleys at the deep end, and then tread water for several minutes. Harder, but fine. The fourth week was what killed my motivation: I came into the class in a bad state of mind, and we jumped right on learning flip turns, then started doing full-length laps. I started having panic attacks toward the deep end, left class five minutes early, and swore to the teacher I’d be back the next week; then, like every week, I walked home in the Chicago cold.

I didn’t go back the next week. It occurred to me that the class was adding anxiety to my life — it’s a mile-and-a-half walk in the cold both ways, it was taking up time that I wanted to spend writing or going to readings; I hated working out at night; and, more than anything, the instructor was going too fast for me. I wound up feeling like I was going to drown. And I wanted to swim, and I wanted to be at least decently good at it — but something about the way the class was paced and structured was just too much for me. So I quit. When the pool down the street from me opens up in the spring, I’ll start going there during lap hours, and I’ll figure out what my limits are, and I’ll work on getting better. My firm belief is that if my fitness schedule is de-motivating me from exercising, I have to change it, so that it remains a part of my day and week that I look forward to.

It’s OK to be scared and it’s OK to quit. What isn’t OK, to me, is to let fear stop you from living a full life, and knowing your body, and making it as capable as it can be, is part of that fullness. Movement is fun, and fear shouldn’t keep you from having that fun. What I want to accomplish with this new column is to help all of you absolute beginners to embrace your fear, embrace your fitness ignorance, tolerate it, and try new things anyway. Believe me, I’ll fail in the process right along with you.

Coming up in Absolute Beginners:

  • What The Hell Do You Do With A Foam Roller Anyway?
  • Oh My God, Stretching Is Death
  • Adventures With Fitness Apps
  • Posts about rock climbing, ballet, and slacklining

What activity do you want this Absolute Beginner to make an attempt at doing? What fitness topics are you curious about? Send me a line at [email protected].