Leading an active life is a focal point of my blog. I like being active and I like fitness. But like most people, I wasn’t always this way.
How did I get here? Why do I even work out?
Let’s take a little journey back in time.
Fitness before I knew what “fitness” was
Like a lot of kids, I took an interest in organized sports. It was the thing to do, so of course I wanted to do something fun and cool. After a brief foray into soccer as a totally dis-interested 5-year-old, I found my first love: gymnastics.
I started gymnastics shortly after the 1996 Olympics, just like probably 99% of other young girls in the 90s, but I really loved it. My dad built me a “balance beam” in our yard that I practiced on for hours at a time, trying to master a perfect cartwheel. I would frequently clear out the room that I shared with my two sisters so I had space to do basic tumbling and choreography. I would pick a random song on some cassette I found, then spend 6 or 8 hours at a time choreographing, memorizing, and practicing my own “floor routines”.
Even though I was happy to keep doing gymnastics indefinitely, my parents coaxed me into dropping out. At that point, they weren’t on board with me participating in any remotely challenging programming due to scheduling, cost, and injury risk. It was quickly turning into a dead end. Reluctantly, I agreed to quit.
Although I was too young to glean many life lessons from gymnastics, my early participation in the sport gifted me with lifelong flexibility and balance that I’ve never fully lost.
After gymnastics, I was a bit aimless for a while. I remember feeling sad that I didn’t have “a thing” anymore. Gymnastics was supposed to be my thing, and I didn’t have much interest in other sports.
Trading in my leotard for a gi
Next thing I knew, I found myself on pretty much the polar opposite end of the sports spectrum.
When I was 10, my mom came across a family-oriented martial arts studio and signed one of my brothers up. After a few months, another brother and I got curious and gave it a try, too. Soon, almost our entire family jumped on the bandwagon.
Even though gymnastics and karate seem radically different at the surface, they have lots of similarities. Both sports require the practitioner to have excellent body awareness and body control. You must be extremely precise and disciplined in your movements as you learn to execute a huge variety of specific skills. In that sense, martial arts filled some of the hole that quitting gymnastics left. I had found a new outlet that was both physically and mentally engaging.
We probably spent 10 hours a week at the dojo, if not more. I practiced for some of those hours, and spent the other hours helping and teaching newer students. My life pretty much revolved around the dojo, especially since it was my only social outlet. The body awareness I had developed in gymnastics made me better at karate; I was able to learn and refine my skills faster. Started to get somewhat good at karate just made me want to get even better, and I practiced often both at the dojo and at home.
I practiced martial arts for over 6 years, up until I moved away to college. Martial arts was an incredibly positive experience for me. Through it, I learned to get in touch with my own power. I learned that pain is bearable. I learned to be strong and push myself in times when I truly wanted to stop and walk off the mat.
Sport in high heels
Once I got to college, I was ready for something new. In my sophomore year, I stumbled across the ballroom dance club at an activities fair. On a whim, I went to an information session and a couple of lessons. It only took a few weeks before I fell down the rabbit hole. I attended my first competition, and there was no going back. There’s nothing like spending an entire sleepless weekend with a small group of fellow clueless dancers to forge the foundation of friendships. I spent the next 3 years dedicating virtually every spare moment to either dance or dance-related events.
Although ballroom dance might sound more like a social activity than working out, that wasn’t true in my experience. It turns out–and this was news to me–ballroom/latin dance is actually a competitive sport (usually called “dancesport” by those familiar with it). As you get deeper into the competitive world, dance gets physically taxing, too, as the routines and skills become more intricate and fast-paced.
Dance was another example of staying active in a way that felt natural and engaging rather than drudgery. It was also another example of how community kept me going. Just like my time in martial arts, the sport itself wasn’t necessarily something I would’ve expected to like, but it was actually awesome once I got into it. Adding to that, the friends I made and the joy in shared experience kept me coming back to practice day after day, week after week.
Fitness without sports
Like many people, young adulthood post-college brought about some transitions for how I viewed fitness. I never had to think about working out before. Being active was just something that had naturally woven its way into my life, even though it wasn’t “fitness” in the stereotypical sense. When the structure falls away and you find yourself out on your own, you start to think: now what?
I knew I “should” stay active and work out, but I didn’t have a sport or activity in mind. Up until this point, all the activities I’d done had more or less fallen into my lap. Thanks to the years I’d spent in organized sports and the communities surrounding them, physical activity had a strong positive association in my mind. After 4 stressful years of college left me completely out of whack, I felt like doing something active would be good for both my physical and mental health.
My initial efforts at the gym weren’t very impressive to say the least. In the evenings after work, I would meander to the gym and fire up the stairmaster for 15 or 20 minutes. Afterward, I would add in a few minutes of some basic strength work, like doing some simple dumbbell movements I had seen in magazines or fumbling around on the weight machines pretending I knew what I was doing. I didn’t follow any sort of programming. I didn’t even know that was a thing!
Despite my completely clueless, directionless approach, I started seeing results. Muscles took shape on my waify frame. The overwhelming anxiety I’d been dealing with started to subside. I was feeling better and better, both physically and mentally.
Encouraged to take it further, I signed up for a group fitness punch card. I took my first yoga class. (I walked onto my mat with my gym sneakers on. Awkward.) I found a zumba teacher I liked and went to a few of her classes. I tried a 10-week ballet class and a brief trial at a Bikram yoga studio. All the while, I kept up with my go-to routine of cardio and strength. One of my coworkers was a bonafide fitness junkie, so we would frequently talk about new workouts we were trying. Our shared interest and the conversations we had helped encourage me in my fitness pursuits.
Around this time, I had started dating my now-fiance, and he had a friend who taught at a local Ashtanga yoga studio. We tried it out, really liked it, and attended classes together a couple times a week for several months. That studio and the fabulous instructors there helped me learn so much about yoga.
Once I moved from Virginia to North Carolina, I had to re-establish a new routine. I started pursuing strength training with more purpose. My honey helped teach me some basic lifting skills, and I ditched cardio in favor of focusing on building strength. I still didn’t follow any sort of programming, but I was a little more focused. As I learned a few more moves and upped my weights, I got a lot stronger.
Around the same time, I discovered lululemon. Besides treating myself to my first couple of purchases off the markdown rack, I also learned they hosted weekly yoga classes. I wanted to continue the yoga practice I’d started in Virginia, but with my limited grad student budget, it wasn’t practical. Instead, I started shamelessly attending lulu’s weekly in-store yoga sessions whenever I could. I accidentally became a fixture of the weekly yoga sessions and most of the educators knew me by name. (None of this exactly diminished my desire to buy more lulu, either.)
Besides keeping my practice going, the sessions exposed me to a huge variety of teaching styles. I quickly learned what I do and don’t like in a yoga practice. As I added to my yoga toolbox, I started a simple home practice. Most nights, I would spend a few minutes right before bed doing some simple poses and stretches. Those few minutes were a huge help for my sleep quality and stress levels.
Although I continued strength training at the campus gym alongside yoga, I had a growing interest in trying out CrossFit. For a long time, I couldn’t justify the expense. When I had the means to make it work, I gave it a try. Sure enough, I loved it right away. The added intensity brought about another huge jump in my fitness levels. I’ve continued with CrossFit for the past 3 years, which I recently wrote about a little more in-depth here. And here we are today!
What I’ve learned
I never actually set out with some mission to be some super-fit person or to make fitness a huge part of my life. Instead, fitness has always been about naturally pursuing what I find interesting and fun. I was lucky enough to find a few key experiences that helped open my eyes to the benefits of fitness. Once I learned what I had to gain, it became even easier to continue along an active path. Here are a couple other themes of my story:
Friendships and communities make everything better. Even though I’m generally not at all a people-focused person, forming a small number of strong bonds goes a long way in motivating me to keep up what I’m doing. No matter how introverted you are, it feels good to see someone who’s happy to see you when you walk into the gym (or the dojo, or the ballroom).
Just about any sport/activity can be fun. Even though some things might seem like they wouldn’t be interesting, the right environment is really what matters. Sure, you might not like everything you try, but don’t knock it ’til you try it. You never know what will stick!
Variety is the spice of fitness. Even though I always had a core routine, I regularly tried out new classes, new styles, and new routines, never letting my routine get too repetitive or stale. Keeping things fresh helps stave off the “ugh, I guess I have to go to the gym” doldrums.
In writing this post, I’ve taken some notes from myself. I’ve noticed that I stopped adding variety to my routine, which is probably why I’ve felt a little uninspired lately. By looking back at what’s motivated me before, I can make a pretty good guess at what will make me happy and keep me engaged now, too. The answer for me right now? I need to do more that will help me find connection, and I need to be more bold about branching out and trying different things.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from accidentally becoming a fitness person, it’s that it is possible to find a way to stay fit while also doing something you love. Fitness doesn’t have to be a chore that you dread doing. All it takes is a little persistence and a little open-mindedness.