I started going to the gym in late 2018. At the time, I had a system: I did 10 to 15 minutes on a stair machine, 20 minutes on a bike, and 10 to 15 minutes on a rowing machine. I didn’t start going to achieve any particular goal; I didn’t want to lose weight, build muscle, or change my body in any way.
I don’t even think my body was part of the objective in the first place. At the time, I was mulling my relationship and the decision I knew I had to make, and going to the gym a few times a week helped me get there. Moving my body, even with no real rhyme or reason, gave me a mental break that opened up the space I needed to leave my marriage a year and a half later.
I stopped going to the gym in March 2020 and didn’t begin again until the summer of 2021. This time around, I had a clear goal: I just wanted to be stronger, mentally and physically. Period.
Between March 2020 and June 2021, my physical activity was more or less limited to weekly horseback riding lessons, walking the dogs around the neighborhood, and the occasional 20-minute yoga session on YouTube. I bought a stair stepper that I used every so often, but I couldn’t go to the gym, and I didn’t have a lot of stuff at home, plus I was happy enough with what I was doing. I was getting outside, right? That’s what counts.
My boyfriend was on his fitness journey at the time, and one day he asked me to join him in our building’s gym. The idea sounded fun, so I went for it. I didn’t expect to enjoy myself, but I thought we would have a good time together, so that was good enough for me.
Lo and behold, one visit quickly turned into going several times a week, which turned into going every day. I never did anything too major — I liked to use the jump box in the gym, and my boyfriend would add on a few easy squat exercises with exercise balls.
I started swimming 10 laps in the building’s pool every day and quickly became pretty enamored with the impact. Not the physical (to be honest, I didn’t see changes in my body for months) but the mental — as someone who struggles with anxiety, I started to notice that my anxious feelings were worse on the days that I didn’t move around that much. This is hardly groundbreaking news, as there are tons of reports out there that will tell you to exercise is good for your soul and mind, but sometimes seeing (or feeling) is believing.
In the fall of 2021, I got interested in changing up my game. This time around, I wanted to focus on getting stronger and building muscle. We had moved to a building near a park, and in October we began walking two laps around the loop (approximately 4½ miles total) twice a day.
I was pleasantly surprised by how easy the walk became, and by the effect just walking had on my body. My core became more defined and stronger, my legs began to grow, and I didn’t have to do anything besides walk for 1½ hours.
We tend to wake up at 6:30 or 7 a.m. most mornings and tackle our walk first thing. This has had a profound impact on our mental health and even our relationships.
The walk gives us time to talk about whatever we need to work on ideas, creative ideas, upcoming travel, our children, our relationship, and ourselves. We get a lot accomplished in this time, and that’s in addition to the very real impact just walking is having on our bodies.
As my friend Amanda put it recently, there’s something powerful that happens when you shift a fitness goal from what you think is wrong with you to what you can gain. The act of being at a gym or walking several miles a day takes on a new vibe completely. She told me that after avoiding gyms and fitness for years, one day it all clicked: “Gaining strength was a revelation.
Strength is the fountain of youth. But the greatest gain by far was an enormous confidence boost.”
When I saw Danielle Friedman’s Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World, I was excited. In the book, Danielle writes about how the health crisis has changed the way a lot of women feel about working out. Since public classes aren’t as easy or safe to access right now, many women are opting to try different workouts in the privacy of their own homes, or even just opening up to the power of taking a walk.
The results go beyond changing or not changing their bodies: Women are rediscovering strength.
Danielle also notes that women are redefining what “real exercise” is and shedding the idea that all fitness goals have to be focused on what makes a man happy, on looking good for Instagram, on gaining weight or losing it. Fitness brands have jumped on board the body-positive bandwagon and are changing their messaging to reflect it. That’s something we can get cynical about, but Danielle points out that this shift also indicates that, increasingly, we’re all becoming more aware of just what women’s fitness can be.
My exercise journey is always evolving. Lately, I’ve added some leg work and arm work to my week just to see what it feels like; so far, I love it. I like having the muscles that I have, and I like that they’re becoming more defined.
It feels good knowing I can walk for hours if I want to. Before I set out on this path, I had no idea just how much feeling and looking physically stronger would help my mind become the same, but now that I know, I don’t think I can ever step away.