For the first part of my life, I was a couch potato and a wuss. Then I said “yes” to an invitation that took me way beyond my comfort zone and my whole life changed.
Being A Wuss Was Really Comfortable
As a child, I walked a lot, mainly because my family didn’t own a car. But it never occurred to me to play on a sports team. In fact, I spent grade school recess hiding from dodge ball.
In high school, I found dozens of reasons to skip gym class. We were learning the rudiments of basketball; since I would run every time the ball came my way, I had little to contribute to the team effort.
Choosing teams? I wasn’t chosen last. I wasn’t chosen, period. I never left the sidelines.
Years later, at a reunion, a female classmate told me she’d played intramural volleyball. I had no idea we even had intramurals, let alone volleyball.
Somewhere along the way, I picked up the idea that I was doomed to fail in all things physical. I took for granted that I couldn’t hit a softball. “Uncoordinated” was part of my identity.
“There’s no way I’m gonna be able to do this.”
As an adult, I was thrilled to be free from the required Physical Education classes. I walked a lot and did some yoga on my own. We didn’t have videos: we had “how-to” books. Try propping up a book while attempting a tree pose. My posture improved but my attitude didn’t.
One day I was visiting a friend in New York City. We were supposed to meet for brunch. But when we met, she wanted to work out before brunch and she insisted I come along. She even brought a plastic bag with an extra leotard and tights — “just washed,” she assured me, as if that were the biggest obstacle on my mind.
The class was a combination of yoga and ballet. We didn’t use any equipment. We didn’t sweat. We just moved in a well-choreographed pattern. I couldn’t follow. I was lost. I wasn’t sure I had muscles, let alone how to isolate them.
Years later, a gym owner would point to the entrance and tell me, “The toughest part of your workout is opening that door.”
I’m not sure why I went back. At the time I had a job with extensive travel, returning to New York on weekends. So every Saturday I’d make my way to the studio. The teachers were supportive. I began to get better. My body felt different. And somewhere along the way, I even got hooked.
“Yes…I’m ready to leave the sidelines behind!”
Eventually, I left the New York area. The exercise program folded soon after, a pattern that would become familiar over the years. Jazz dance and aerobics were big. I found classes in different cities where I lived.
For the next few years, I totally accepted my role in the back of the room as one of the misfits. I learned to ignore the pitying looks of my classmates who’d been tossing softballs and running races since they were six. It never occurred to me to expect anything else.
I tuned everybody out and just moved to the music. It was fun. And ever so slowly, my body got firmer.
Then one day a light went on. As a visiting professor at a large university, I signed up for an aerobics class for faculty and staff. The people were great. And then one day in the shower room (I’d also gotten used to group showers) one of the tall, younger, athletic professors was talking about how easy the class was. And then she looked at me and said, “You know, you and Camille and I are the three best in the class.”
I was stunned. I hadn’t been paying attention. Mentally I was still hiding in the back, struggling to follow. My whole image changed and now I entered classes with confidence.
“Now I’m ready for the big guys in the weight room!”
A few years later, in another city, my gym noticed that guys hung out in the weight room, while women stayed with aerobics. Determined to mix things up, they offered a women-only weight-lifting class.
Weights were scary. The whole weight room thing was scary. Big guys lived there. They might as well have a sign “No women here.”
But just as I’d said yes to that first exercise class, I signed up. Fortunately, they chose a warm, fuzzy male instructor who taught us the basics. The first thing he said was, “Don’t listen to any of the big guys in the gym. They’re all stupid.”
“An identity shift: from wuss to gym rat”
Today, I tell people that I work out purely for vanity. I’m showing up the little girl who stayed on the sidelines, trying to convince herself sports were for other people.
On my rare visits to doctors, I brush off their requests for weight checks and ignore their “at your age” finger-wagging. I point out that I’m more fit than half the people in their office. (One doctor sheepishly asked, “Only half?”)
“Feeling the burn means feeling the power”
“Empowerment” has become overused in the world of life coaches and self-improvement.
Being into fitness brings new power. But for me, a lot of the feeling of power has come from conquering a domain where I never expected to belong, let alone stand out and get compliments.
When you feel strong physically, you gain toughness mentally.
That’s why I’m so excited about the WNBA and began supporting them from Day 1 (yes, I am now officially a sports fan as well as fitness fanatic). I held season tickets to the Seattle Storm for five years.
A woman who plays basketball — who can take a charge and keep her game face — will hold her own in the boardroom. She won’t tolerate boorish behavior. She’ll find a way to get past the defenders to reach the basket.
Ultimately, saying yes means taking risks. In my case, saying yes to exercise classes opened up a new world.
Good-by, comfort zone. Hello, new world.
When you can walk confidently into the weight room, you can walk confidently into all kinds of places where you aren’t sure you belong. You gain the thrill of morphing from outsider to insider, even when it takes time.
Of course, no one can — or should — say yes to everything they’re offered. Some opportunities deserve to be ignored. But there’s something magic about saying yes to something that takes you beyond your comfort zone and gives you a whole new identity.