Absolute Beginners: A Place For Workout Videos In My Heart

The more I do for Absolute Beginners — the more I try new things — the more I have to re-evaluate my past with sports and fitness. This week, for example, I had to admit to myself that actually, my fitness habit didn’t begin with a barbell in 2012, even if that’s when I met the love of my fitness life in the form of barbell lifting. No, if I had to pinpoint the absolute beginning, the seed was planted with the Rodney Yee yoga and Ana Caban pilates DVDs that I grazed against in high school and started using more intentionally a few years later, when I moved into my own apartment in the southwest suburbs of Chicago with my now-former spouse, my horrible relationship with whom I have written about pretty copiously elsewhere.

He had insisted upon getting a 52” TV and a great cable package so that we could watch WWE matches on ComCast’s On Demand section. I benefited from this mainly in that ComCast, at the time, also had an on-demand service called ExerciseTV, through which I could acquire some pretty high-quality 20-minute workouts. It was 2009-ish, I had cancelled my hardly-used Bally membership because I was broke (yes, the 52” TV and great cable package had something to do with that), I had put my undergraduate education on hold also because I was broke, and I was working my very first full-time job with a predictable paycheck and benefits. I was 20, I had no idea what the hell I was going to do with my life other than working for an industrial refrigeration supply manufacturer entering data and answering phones and, of course, perpetually attempting to make an inherently bad relationship work, for the rest of my life.

The time that I could carve out for myself between work, errands, and paying my requisite, co-dependent almost-constant attention to my then-partner was about 45 minutes at 4:30 AM. Getting up before the sun became a happy habit of mine, because it was the only time in my day when I could be alone with my body and my thoughts. I chose to spend it doing 20-minute ExerciseTV workouts and taking a long-ish shower before getting dressed for work, taking the dog out, eating breakfast, and begging my partner to get up and get ready for our two-man work carpool so that I could get to my job on time.

If getting yelled at by Jillian Michaels (“PAIN IS FEAR LEAVING THE BODY!”) while doing jump lunges doesn’t sound like a meditative time to you, eh, I understand that. Try to think of it as a higher-heart-rate version of Vinyasa yoga: You go through maybe three circuits of three sets of three exercises. It’s very circular and very repetitive, and it’s easy to lose yourself in the way you’re balancing, or in the way your muscles feel, or in the effort to keep pace with Jillian or whomever (mostly Jillian, over here). I learned a lot from those videos, too, that would stick with me when I moved into more intense forms of exercise. Seriously, I repeated the phrase “Pain is fear leaving the body!” to myself during marathon training, not because it’s something I necessarily believe — sometimes pain is injury entering the body, but I also learned the difference between soreness and injury through these videos — but because I had to figure out how to motivate myself to run for up to five hours at a time.

I learned that, unless I’m sick, I want to be active for even just a few minutes every day, no matter what. Back in 2009, I figured that no matter how busy or drained I was, I could at least do a 10-minute exercise video, even if I had to cram it in at the very end of the day. That was the beauty of that on-demand service: You could viably motivate yourself to exercise for at least a few minutes every day. Which meant that during a pretty rough time in my life when I was spending a lot of time on other people, and really needed to be taking care of myself, that I could spend a few minutes on myself every day.

ExerciseTV is gone now, of course, as are most of the On Demand services I knew and loved, because YouTube exists and has largely outmoded cable and TV. I hadn’t even thought about it much, because I haven’t had cable in a long time, until a few weeks ago, when I had a sudden craving for a very, very fit woman in a bra and capri pants barking orders at me for 20 minutes (I know how that sounds, and I’ll admit that the sort of Freudian implications are not totally inaccurate). I was pleased to find out that Lionsgate has had the good foresight to build an analog of what was once my morning meditation service in their BeFiT YouTube channel which even, blessedly, has a proliferation of Jillian Michaels programs.

I tried the BeFiT Transform program, since technically I am supposed to be trying something new. It’s a program of body weight-and-dumbbells workouts from 4-17 minutes each, cycling through a circuit or so each. As soon as I started doing the workout the first time, I realized how much I’d forgotten about workout videos, like that even though in lifting culture especially these sorts of videos are seen as ineffectual or wussy, they’re actually really hard. Workout videos are kind of a sport in and of themselves, and like any sport, they require practice and acclimation before they start feeling easy. Cycling through squats, push-ups, presses, burpees, ab twists, curls, over and over and over is exhausting, even over the course of just 17 minutes. I walked into it thinking, Cool, I’ll be done working out in less than 20 minutes! and by minute 12 I was thinking more like, Oh god, there are five more minutes?!

The thing is, these workouts are very accessible for really busy people who don’t have a lot of money and might just be dipping their toes into fitness — like the person I was in 2008, or parents of young children, students, people working in service jobs. I think the people behind BeFiT know, implicitly if not explicitly, that that’s a really big part of their audience, and the trainers who design the workouts do a good job of making a genuine workout happen in the precious and tiny amount of time that their audience can afford. I might be projecting, of course. But I also remembered what a lifesaver it was when I was broke and burning the candle at both ends to be able to look after my health within my actual, exhausting lifestyle.

I feel kind of sentimental over it, if you can’t tell. These days I go to the gym and curl 25-pound dumbbells, but I remember being 20, tired, worried, and kind of scared, not knowing where my life was going, not knowing how I was going to pay for everything, not knowing if I was ever going to be or do anything important, clutching rubber-padded 5-pound dumbbells and listening to Jillian Michaels tell me to keep going, keep pushing, don’t peter out at the end. To that end, it’s hard not to hold a special place in my heart for workout videos.

Find BeFiT on YouTube.

Send me a line at rebecca@thefrisky.com.