Somewhere between our childhood years and adulthood, exercise ceases to be fun.
Instead it typically becomes another thing on our to-do list, something to get through, a means to an end.
I think of my six-year-old daughter on Monday mornings, the day of the week when she has P.E. She gets on her best sneakers and comfy clothes because she’s so excited for that one hour of her day. Meanwhile her mom is full of dread, staring down the elliptical machine, figuring out how to justify skipping a run.
I think back to my own childhood and how physical activity was all about play. That changes, doesn’t it? As an adult, I’ve always exercised – be it running, yoga, or working out a gym. And while I always felt great after I did these things (experiencing the runner’s high or yoga bliss), I rarely eagerly anticipated them.
When I left New York three years ago to move to Seattle, I figured I’d pick up where I’d left off and join some sort of class, or take up biking like so many others out here. Instead, my body was dormant. A demanding job, motherhood, and some just not-so-great things in my life at the time got in the way.
As anyone who’s ever been in a rut before knows: it’s hard to move your body when your mind isn’t in the right place.
In the evenings as I walked home to our apartment, I’d look in longingly at the dozen or so women dancing and sweating it out to Zumba in the studio next to my building. I’d heard of Zumba (who hadn’t?), but I’d never seen it live. The music blaring out onto the street was loud, vivacious – party music!
I desperately wanted to do it, but I’d never been much of a dancer. I was coordinated for sports but not dance steps. I figured I’d look like a fool, going left when everyone else was going right. But day after day, the music and the movements called out to me. Finally, I signed up for some classes.
My first night as people filed in – most of them chatting in a familiar way because they went to the class regularly – I noticed everyone grabbing a colorful silk scarf from a pile of them on the floor and tying them around their waist. I followed suit.
The teacher, a pretty woman with long dark hair, arrived with a huge smile and lots of hellos for her regulars. She caught my eye, winked, and said hi. And then the music started: those thumping, Latin-based beats that had driven me in there in the first place. The teacher ran through what we’d be doing. I took a deep breath and mimicked her. So far, so good.
Twenty minutes in I was getting two thirds of the steps right, and improvising the other third. My hot pink scarf was grazing my thighs, tickling my bare midriff.
I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and was shocked at what I saw. I saw someone who was dancing like she sort of knew what she was doing. I saw a face with a huge smile spread across it.
I hadn’t smiled like that in far too many months. I almost started crying. I realized how long it had been since my heart had felt so light, so full of happiness. How long my body had been hibernating.
After that, I was converted. I tried out different teachers, each with a unique style and a favorite mix of music. Some routines were easier for me, others made me look a little silly with their more advanced steps. But it didn’t matter. I kept choosing a different colored scarf, swinging my hips and stepping in time to the songs the best I could.
One day, totally engrossed in the class, I looked up and out the window. My husband had brought my daughter by to see me. They were waving enthusiastically outside the glass. My daughter was transfixed, the smile on her face nearly as big as mine. I waved back and kept on movin’.
I’d come through a bad time, and I was ready to reclaim my health. I was ready to play like a child again, smiling, laughing and loving every minute of my newfound “exercise.”
I’d found a way to stay in shape but, just as importantly, I’d found, within it, joy.