Beachbody workouts, Expensive Barre classes, and Aerial Acrobatics: A Tale of Sweat, Lies, and Bruises

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I was not a particularly athletic person growing up. I dabbled briefly in middle school volleyball and got pretty serious on my varsity badminton team in high school, but such athletic pursuits vanished when I went to college and was swiftly assaulted by an onslaught of exams, papers, problem sets, and minimal sleep. After two years of being overworked, I earned a classic freshman 15 in the form of a pinchable amount of belly fat, but managed to work up the diligence to play enough Dance Dance Revolution to shrink it down to slightly-less-pinchable size by graduation (yes, that actually happened, and oh yes, my downstairs neighbors were not happy).

My “workout” efforts through the first 22 years of my life are best described as half-hearted maintenance, but at the time, it kept me healthy enough to get through school without getting horrendously out of shape. I was never taught anything about cardio, lifting, or any other fitness fundamentals. Perhaps if I had stuck with physical education in high school instead of substituting it with badminton, I would have gotten familiar with such things, but I remember gym class to be something like a bubbling broth of  torture mixed with passive aggressive competition, so I was happy to do anything else.

The point is, it wasn’t until I got to working life that I started seriously taking fitness seriously, and this is only because in most cases, instead of being on a sports team, adults do something called “going to the gym.” I often joke that my fitness pursuit started as a result of being bored in the dying city of Buffalo, but it was my oldest brother who introduced Beachbody workouts to me, and as someone with a naturally competitive spirit (thanks, MarioKart), I thought I would give it a try. Little did I know that it would lead to completing all 90 days of the entire P90X program which snowballed into spending 2-3 hours a day at my amazing onsite corporate gym doing HIIT workouts and group exercise classes to spending $16 for an hour of barre class once a week, to finding a hidden passion in aerial acrobatics, to where I am now: happily learning and continuing to learn about the realities of fitness and the fitness industry in general. And now I get to share it all with you!

Beachbody’s P90X: My Foray into Fitness

P90X is awesome for beginners, though some might argue it’s more appropriate for people who are not in dire health (as in, you should probably start with something easier if you’re at risk for a heart attack). It has helped me get to know fitness jargon without going through the embarrassment of asking a guru. When I first started the program, I thought it would be a great way to get through long, lonely, and dark Buffalo winter. I wondered what it would be like, and I had a friendly co-worker doing the same program in parallel, so I thought I’d enjoy sharing stories about the workouts with him. I was pleased with the prospect of doing different workouts every day, and didn’t have to spend a penny on a gym membership. As the days turned into weeks, I was astounded at how quickly I was gaining flexibility through Yoga X and couldn’t believe I was starting to be able to lift more than ten pounds (I started with 5 and 10 pound weights). I quickly got addicted because I was getting visible, tangible results. Because I lived within walking distance of work and had no other obligations, the time commitment (about an hour per day) easy.

P90X was great. I thoroughly enjoyed the 90 day commitment. But it was just the beginning.

Joining the Gym and Doing InsanityLong Nights After Work Hours

I moved to Chicago after a year and a half in Buffalo. My new job was located at a suburban corporate campus in the Midwest and included an incredible onsite gym that offered group exercise classes, an assortment of machines, supportive and easygoing instructors, and fun events and challenges. It was a no-brainer to join and it would help me get to know coworkers. Hot off the P90X program, I signed up on my first or second day, excited for a new phase of my fitness journey.

Because I’m there so often, I get to witness all sorts of people of different ages getting stronger, not getting stronger, looking the same, and not looking the same over the three plus years I’ve been there. Since I started doing that adult thing we call “going to the gym,” I’ve lost between 7 and 9 percent of my body fat, gained ten pounds (yes you read that right!), and have never slept better or felt so strong and energetic in my entire adult life. See, everyone knows the benefits of exercise, but if everyone was able to FEEL what being strong is like, I’m sure they’d make it more of a priority. Knowing the benefits is just not enough to motivate people – we really need to feel them to understand them. And boy, I felt them after hearing about Insanity.

Somebody generously left a copy of the Insanity DVD’s at the fitness center. The workouts are between 35 and 60 minutes long and require no equipment. As a minimalist, I loved the idea of using my body as my equipment and eagerly decided to try the program. Insanity is technically a 60 day program, but I was doing all the DVD’s for at least a year, so I probably did the entire thing several times. After a few weeks, doing the workouts became a no-brainer. Oddly, I craved being sweaty. It made me feel accomplished. I didn’t follow a schedule, but I knew all the workouts by heart. I managed to get my resting heart rate below 60 BPM through all the cardio, and I was feeling amazing.

Barre: A Fun, Expensive, & Misguided Pursuit

Wanting to expand my workout repertoire outside of work, I found a studio right in my hometown that taught barre classes. The philosophy of Pure Barre, Barre Code, and other such studios was basically do an hour of isometric, low-impact, low weight exercises to “fatigue” the muscles, “tone” specific parts of the body, and stretch the out at the end to achieve a “long and lean” muscles, just like that of a dancer. And who doesn’t want to look like a dancer?

After getting ripped apart by Beachbody, I fell in love with barre classes. I was already pretty fit when I started and quickly got addicted to feeling the burn. It was a safe space for me to workout, with so much positive feedback and no men around to watch. My instructors were incredible and I felt so supported.

The only problem was, it didn’t really make me stronger. At least, not in the way P90X did. It slowly became another workout of my week that wasn’t really helping me get anywhere physically. And the evidence was clear after I started circus, and realized that making my arms tired by pulsing with 2-3 pound weights was not helping me gain any muscle. Perhaps it helped me endure a lot of muscle fatigue, but I was not feeling stronger. I lamented my lack of progress in circus to my lack of strength to a good friend of mine, and he advised that if I was going to get any stronger, I needed to be lifting heavier weights. 2, 3, or 5 pound weights would not help me do pull-ups and inversions. I needed to stop wasting hours and dollars trying to “tone” my body.

I reflected on my experience in barre, and realized also that so much of the philosophy revolved around achieving physical beauty. Ultimately, despite its claims of supporting strong women, it was still a matter of how “toned” you looked and how “long and lean” your muscles were. This post basically sums it up a lot better than I ever could, but long story short, I spent my class cards and stopped buying them. How “toned” your muscles are and how “long and lean” you’re going to be is going to depend on your genetic makeup and your body fat percentage, both of which are going to be almost entirely dependent on your genes and your diet.

Women are different from men, but they shouldn’t need “specialized training” involving 2 pound weights that is supposed to make them fit a universal ideal.

Circus: A Magical Art Form that Showcases the Beauty of Strong Human Bodies

Circus arts combines gymnastics and dance and creates a form of entertainment through the manipulation of various apparatus or in some cases, nothing at all (partner acro).

I already have an entire post dedicated to the art form, so I won’t elaborate on it here. But I grew to love circus because unlike straight up sport, circus focuses on creating art with physical strength. As someone who cares more about what I am capable of doing than how I look, circus appeals to me – especially its acceptance of new and creative ideas. It’s a fun and supportive community that focuses less on competing and more on showcasing. It gives purpose to getting stronger.

Efficient, Effective Fitness

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Proven to get you stronger.

Everything I did was a part of the learning process, and I figured out what worked and what didn’t through trial and error. But for people who are just getting started, I can at least offer up a few bits of learning to prevent you from wasting your time and money.

  1. Free weights get me the most bang for your buck. Lifting heavy is the most efficient way of gaining muscle. I started with ten pound curls, and after a few years of gradual increases, I am working on curling 30 pound weights. My arms may be marginally bigger, but bulky? It is extremely difficult to bulk up and basically impossible if you’re a woman. You have to be taking steroids to look anything like an Arnold, and even then, it’s not possible. If you look at aerialists (see here and here) who are insanely strong, I really think bulking up should be the least of anyone’s concerns.
  2. Weight loss is predominantly diet, but if you’re trying to get stronger, you shouldn’t concern yourself with to the scale, and instead concern yourself with your body fat percentage. That aside, if you struggle with overeating, diet will probably end up being more difficult to adjust than dragging yourself to the gym. Plenty of people go to the gym and work hard but see no changes, but more likely than not, the lack of results is due to what they’re doing outside of the gym, and more specifically, how much they’re eating…especially when no one is watching. I’ve done it. I’ve done the chips in bed, the ice cream binges…you name it.
  3. Cardio feels great (afterwards, anyway), but after skipping strength training for a month, I promised myself I would never skip it ever again. Cardio is easy to get – any basic HIIT workout, cycling, running, or Stairmaster workout will do it. Strength will help you with your cardio, but it will also help you do useful things more easily. Like carrying groceries. Or a bag of rice. Or lifting kids.
  4. I became less concerned with how I look and more concerned with what my body can do. There is so much focus on how people look, and being thin, and being toned, and being fit but bulky…it drives me crazy.
  5. There is no “magic method” or magic “weight loss drink.” Fitness programs and gimmicks are expensive and hardly effective. And besides, if they actually worked, wouldn’t they go out of business? Put the work in, reap the benefits.

I’m still learning, as this is a lifelong pursuit, so I’d love to hear what you have to say.

On Owning Our Lives

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I’m quite positive that there is a relationship between our happiness and the amount of control we have over our lives.

Quite positive, anyway.

That’s why we slap ourselves when we let our emotions get the better of us. Or we hate ourselves when we overspend. Or why we berate ourselves for overeating. Make small but frequent bad decisions regularly, and they become habits.

So much around us threatens to live our lives for us. Commercials tell us that with certainty that the secret to a better life is to buy more services and products because somehow, our mere existence warrants another well-deserved thing that we must purchase.  Organizations, churches, random blog posts like this one, family members, friends, co-workers – they are all fighting for a spot in our lives, and if we don’t control the inflow, our dashboard will get easily hijacked by something or someone else. So we invent all sorts of tips and tricks to take control. We adopt coping strategies disguised as solutions. A diet shake to cure our overeating habits. A time management system to block time for certain activities. A drink to help overcome our social insecurities. And sometimes they work. Temporarily, at least. Only a handful make it through the entirety of our lives. Predictably, our controls get shaken, and we must recalibrate our systems over and over again to keep them intact.

Fundamentally, we are nothing of significance to the universe at large. We are born from the decisions of others and naturally wired to fulfill some basic needs – eat, sleep, reproduce. Outside of fulfilling needs, we structure the gaps with activities like hobbies, work, and relationships and create goals. Filling our lives with all sorts of busy help us avoid the heavy truth that our lives are essentially purposeless. We binge-buy, binge-eat, binge-collect, gamble – heck, some of us even binge-work-out – all in an effort to avoid facing that empty feeling. This commonly happens after bad experiences like breakups. But this is on a larger scale

Even with all that, I am certain that there are moments we all feel that we are moving forward towards…nothing in particular, really. We were given this chance to live, but we are all aware of the caveat that our time here is still entirely an unknown. The next storm that rounds the corner can destroy everything that was known to us. And what do we do then? What if minimalism is just another way of coping with that fact? We train ourselves to be happy with less, so that we are accustomed to having very little, and very little to take away. When we remove physical and mental clutter, we free ourselves from extra burdens and regain control.

You know what is closely related to control? Strength. Power. And there is safety in having strength. We gain strength by practicing weakness. How do we practice weakness? We create challenges for ourselves and then overcome them with utmost resolve. When we fortify our bodies and our minds to weather the storms of life, an amazing feeling of confidence emerges. The feelings of uncertainty, the sadness, the hopelessness…we practice them and learn to bathe in them and let them wash over us. The great thing is, we are already practicing weakness as we speak. Anytime you are tempted to buy something unnecessary, eat something you know you’ll regret later, or experience a bad moment with a close friend or partner, your ability to overcome it will add to your strength. Just like in the gym where you purposely fatigue yourself to get stronger.

Every moment you overcome an uncertain moment like this, you are gaining control. Every moment you stop and reflect before reacting to an external force, you are exercising your will. And that is the very essence of being. No, you silly ad, you will not break through my shell of self-confidence. I don’t need your product or service to be the awesome person I am. No, you random opinionated internet-stranger, your mean-spirited attitude is not going to make me feel hatred at the world. Even close friends and loved ones can shake your tower, but you know full well that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and you can judge for yourself what is worthwhile.

Own your life and build your fortress.

 

How to Stop Being Lazy, Stay Motivated, and Achieve your Long Term Goals

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Ahh, motivation. Motivation is the best. It’s that high we get when we lace up our running shoes, beat our chests, and declare, “I’m so pumped! Today is going to be awesome. I’m going to give it my all and I will stop at nothing.” Throw on a huge smile. Cue upbeat, happy music, sunshine, and blooming flowers. Don’t forget about the picturesque scene.

Motivation is trendy, sexy, and for some, dishing it out is even a career. Motivational speakers give talks about their life experiences to inspire students, employees, and other groups to make a career-defining leap, a life-changing decision, or behavioral shift towards success or happiness. Motivational speakers will tell you things like, “Everything is possible! Every day can be awesome – all you have to do is make a simple paradigm shift. Just will yourself to be this way by repeating to yourself [insert motivational phrase here]. There is no point in being hard on yourself. Make it a daily habit to always be positive!” You see motivation all over social media in the form of Instagram pictures, inspirational quotes in pretty lettering or flanked by an idol, and links to TED talks. They all claim that they have “THE” simple trick or technique that will “transform” the way you work and bring you closer to your dreams.

I am not going to deny that all the positive imagery does feel pretty good, and some of them can even be effective. After all, a world without any motivational propaganda would be pretty bleak. Yet, even after all the pretty photos and feel-good giddiness, I’m not convinced that we should simply aim to “stay motivated” if we want to reach our goals. I believe there is something we can pursue that is more reliable and dependable.

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