How I Got Into Shape After Quitting the Gym (Published in The Huffington Post)

Side plank yoga pose by three womenI’ve been a group fitness junkie for as long as I can remember. I seemed to need the competitiveness inherent in group exercise even in high school in order to keep me accountable and working hard. Group bootcamps, kickboxing and spin classes dictated my weekly schedule. By the time I reached my mid 30s, I sported several herniated discs, a knee that swelled from time to time and bursitis in my hip, which constantly threatened my kickboxing habit. Not only did I not listen to my body, but I didn’t listen to several orthopedic surgeons who unanimously put a damper on my love for plyometrics and heavy impact. How was I supposed to get a workout? I just didn’t know another way. Even when I embraced yoga and pilates, it was in addition to, and not instead of, my high impact antics.

In spite of maintaining a dedicated room in my house and accumulating enough equipment to start a small studio of my own, I continued to depend solely on group fitness. I was convinced that I would only put forth appropriate effort in a group setting under the watchful eye of an instructor. Yet it was under the watchful eye of an instructor that one too many explosive squats resulted in a gluteal tear. It was then that I learned that a small tear diagnosis in the radiology world, can be synonymous with a huge pain in the ass in real life. Literally. I took months to heal and then swiftly renewed my expired gym membership. I was officially a dumb ass with a pain in the ass.

When I returned to the gym, I tried to avoid that particular instructor’s classes. Although my injury was not her fault, I knew her style was just too intense for me. When we saw each other she often asked when I’d be returning to her class and when I explained the situation, she insisted that I could modify. I took a chance and attended, but soon realized I’d made a mistake when she called out to me, “C’mon Erris! I know you can do better than that!” At that moment I decided I could do better than that, but probably not in the way she expected. After putting in my time for more than thirty years in gyms, surely I could exercise safely and effectively on my own terms.

Fitness instructors are always telling us to listen to our bodies, but many times they have a built-in conflict of interest, which is potentially bad for our health. Instructors hope for well-attended classes to keep gym owners happy and their popularity and demand at its peak, and owners of fitness studios have an interest in packing in their studios and making money. And who can blame them? It’s THEIR BUSINESS. But your health and well-being is YOUR BUSINESS and only you know what’s good for your body.

I’m not suggesting that gyms or instructors are bad, and in fact I’m still a huge fan, just not right now. I’ve made my peace with living this particular cycle of my life sans-gym, and while I’m no fitness expert, I know my body and have managed to get myself fit again post-injury. By exercising on my own, I’m able to tailor my workouts around what ails me or motivates me on any given day. I choose cardio, weight and high intensity interval training or just a walk outdoors. I’m not dependent on anyone’s schedule and still attend gentle yoga and pilates to maintain flexibility and mindful awareness. My workouts are not less intense – just more targeted and safe for me.

An added bonus of working out at my own pace has been scheduling my workouts around my personal daily schedule. I normally reserve my mornings for writing and can squeeze in a workout when I naturally break, rather than around a class start time. Errands, carpools, chores and daily life are rarely compromised and I’ve actually gained an hour in my day by not prepping and driving to the gym and back. Most importantly, I’ve noticed that when I’m not in a group setting, I actually back off when something doesn’t feel right instead of pushing through because others are present. I always thought that with no one watching, I would slack off, but it turns out that I’m a pretty tough personal trainer and self-critic. While I may decide that a deep squat is not for me on any given day, I’ll make it up to myself with ten minutes of extra ab work. Shockingly, given my type triple-A personality, I have found the balance between working hard and working safely.

And with my writing for this morning behind me, I’m off to my yoga class.

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