From Then to Now: My Personal Fitness Journey and Future Plans

I wrote this paper for a class assignment. The prompt, in brief, asked me to write about my personal fitness history and develop a personalized fitness plan addressing specific goals for a year from now and into my thirties and beyond. I’m sharing an edited and condensed version here to hold myself accountable as I transition into life after college. 

From Then to Now: My Personal Fitness Journey and Future Plans

This story starts when I’m eight years old. If I did the math correctly, it’s the summer of 2004. I’m wearing some kind of coordinated outfit from The Children’s Place. My hair is neatly brushed into a ponytail; several colorful clips keep the fly-aways in place. My pink, wire-framed glasses sit atop the bridge of my nose. I look put-together, in the way oldest children tend to. My mom wanted me to wear sneakers, but I insisted on Mary Janes with ruffled socks (this is a case where I wish I listened to my mother). I’m in Moonlight Cottages, a bungalow colony in Monticello, New York, that my family flocks to during the summer months to escape the Long Island heat. I’m familiar with the grounds; we’ve been coming here since I was four.

I’m running – actually, more like jogging, but I think I’m sprinting – because we’re playing Capture the Flag. It’s what all the kids in the colony do on Saturdays. I’m trying to track down the “flag” (a plastic fork taken from someone’s caddy during the potluck lunch a few hours before) so that I can bring it to my team’s side and claim the victory. 

Except it’s hot outside. The cooling effect of the ices I ate a few hours before has worn off, despite the blue coloring left on my teeth. Everyone is out-running me. My mind tells me to go faster, but my legs, though long, have reached their maximum speed. I somewhat enjoy playing the game (I think?), but I also feel defeated – subpar, even – for being unable to match the pace and stamina of my peers. I also don’t understand what the point of all this running is.

At 22 years old, aspects of this anecdote still echo true in my fitness life. I now wear let my wavy hair flow down my back instead of containing it in a ponytail; I wear ankle boots instead of Mary Janes, contacts instead of glasses (a necessary change). It would also be rare for me to be spotted with blue-stained teeth, since chocolate beats ices any day in my book, and I believe in only eating sweets that you enjoy. However, I still often feel like I’m running – literally and metaphorically – just to keep pace with everyone else.

Gym class was my lowest grade throughout high school, and whenever people would assume that I’m a star basketball player due to my tall stature, I’d have to bite my lip to keep from laughing uncontrollably. Myself and sports just don’t have the best of relationships, to put it nicely.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why sports and I never really hit it off. It’s natural to want to blame people, but it’s really not anyone’s fault. It’s definitely not my parents’ fault. For as long as I can remember, my mom and dad have made exercise a priority in their lives. My mom is part of a weight-lifting club, and my dad goes to the gym regularly. When I was younger, both of my parents (especially my dad) encouraged me to be active. “Play sports,” he would say. “Want to join the Little League baseball team?” he asked. I couldn’t think of anything that sounded less appealing. I would rather be doing homework (literally, because that’s what I did).

My lack of interest in sports could be due to the fact that I don’t like competition. Being an agreeable person, I’ve always dreaded color war in camp. Who cares that you’re on the red team and I’m on the yellow team? Why are we creating divisions that aren’t necessary? Why can’t we all just play together as a bunk? Winning, as a concept, isn’t satisfying to me, which in turn doesn’t motivate me to try when it comes to sports. I don’t enjoy the concept of defeating others, so why bother to begin with? The game quickly loses its appeal when its reward isn’t alluring. 

After learning about the benefits of exercise in my dietetics courses, however, I had a change in perspective. It terrified me that I was a perfect candidate for osteoporosis due to my tall, thin frame. I was scared of sarcopenia and its associated complications. I was scared of not being able to age healthfully and/or independently. Usually, people worry about things in the present, but being a planner, I’m always thinking (and worrying) ahead.

After my freshman year in college, I realized that fitness didn’t have to be about the game. Being physically fit and healthy didn’t have to have anything to do with competition if I didn’t want it to. The only competition that I needed to consider was the one against myself, which I would gladly tackle. I promised myself that I would push my own limits and set my own goals (and boundaries). I reminded myself that the best gains come from pushing your unique breaking points, which, by definition, vary between individuals. I told myself that if I was working hard, then it wouldn’t matter what those around me were doing. I would compare myself only to myself.

This shift in perspective was incredibly freeing. It no longer mattered that the guy next to me was lifting my bodyweight while I was struggling to lift 15 pounds. It didn’t matter that I tired after running for 5 minutes on the treadmill. I was moving because it felt good and because it was healthy to be doing so, and that was all that was important. Plus, my personal fitness was improving at a pace that was comfortable and healthy for me. There were no winners or losers; it was just me, working alongside myself, to improve my health. 

Adopting this mindset has made exercise much more enjoyable. In the past, comparing myself to others posed a huge obstacle to working out; however, I now turn inward to see how I’m doing.

Before cranking up the speed on the treadmill, I ask myself if running faster would actually feel good on my legs. Before lifting heavier weights, I make sure that my body is in sync with my mind. If the rest of the group is doing a stretch that I don’t find comfortable, I modify it to suit what feels good to me in that moment. I no longer use others’ achievements as benchmarks for measuring my successes. I am comfortable taking things at my own pace – however slow it may be. I thank my body for what it can do instead of hating it for what it can’t.

Since my Mary Jane (and high school) days, my fitness has significantly improved. Though I still have a lot to learn, I am content with where I currently am on this journey. I am a strong believer that it’s okay to be proud of accomplishments while still striving for further changes. I currently exercise three to four times weekly, and I try to use my legs over my car whenever possible. Though I occasionally rode my bike outside throughout high school, I didn’t have a regular workout schedule like I do now, and I’m proud to have established one.

Aerobic exercise is one area that I could definitely still use improvement in. On average, I run a mile on the treadmill once weekly. I try to run as fast as I can, sometimes utilizing the fartlek approach. On “good” weeks, I run twice. I also spend a lot of time walking (or running) around campus to classes and (literally) chasing down assignments for journalism stories. Occasionally I go on the stationary bike in the gym in my building, though this is pretty rare. 

By fall 2020, I would like to create a system where I am doing intense aerobic workouts three times weekly for 20 minutes each so that I can meet the American College of Sports Medicine guidelines. To work my way up to this, I will start by increasing the frequency of my 1-mile runs to two times weekly and then to three times weekly. From there, I will increase the duration of these runs to 20 minutes each instead of the typical 10 minutes to 12 minutes that I’ve been doing. 

If all goes according to plan, I will be completing a dietetic internship next fall, which will involve a lot of standing/walking due to the nature of clinical rotations. This, combined with the fact that I live a fast-paced life, which comes with a lot of rushing, is what leaves me content with striving to meet the minimum aerobic exercise requirement as per the ACSM guidelines.

I am also trying to be as realistic as possible in setting this goal for myself. I know that between (hopefully!) completing a dietetic internship and taking classes toward a masters next year, I won’t have much time for lengthy workouts. Additionally, I find most aerobic workouts monotonous, so staying on a treadmill (or other aerobic machine) for longer than 20 minutes isn’t something reasonable to ask of myself. 

I do enjoy biking outdoors, however, and can do so for long periods of time without getting bored. I will likely be living in New York City next year, and I won’t be able to commute to somewhere safe to bike regularly. However, when the weather is nice and the opportunity presents itself, I will strive to bike outdoors to get my aerobic workout in. 

Likewise, when I am 30 years old (and older), I hope to continue doing intense aerobic workouts at least three times weekly for at least 20 minutes each. By age 30, I hope to be married with kids, which presents inherent challenges when it comes to exercising regularly. To maintain my goals, I will seek to involve my kids in my workouts whenever possible.

For example, I hope to purchase a wagon that can be hooked onto the back of my bike so that my kids can come along with me on my bike rides. My husband will be able to bike alongside me. I’m hoping to live in the suburbs by the time I have kids so that it will be safe to bike in the streets. In addition to this making the workout more challenging, fun and convenient for me (and saving money due to not having to hire a babysitter), biking my kids along in a wagon will also be exposing my kids to the importance of fitness at an early age, which is very important for their health. It will also be a nice way to spend time together as a family. There are so many “wins” here!

On days when biking outdoors is not realistic due to the weather, I will get my aerobic exercise in by running on a treadmill or biking on a stationary bike. It would be best if I could purchase one of these to have in my home so that I will be able to exercise while the kids are napping or after they go to sleep. If this is not an option, then I will utilize the machines at a local gym at a time that’s convenient for my family.

I am definitely in a better place with strength training than I am with aerobic exercise. Currently, I attend barre class (a combination of strength training, yoga and ballet) at least three times weekly, sometimes even four times weekly. Barre involves a lot of stretching. I have been doing this group fitness class for about two years now, and I’ve noticed significant changes in my posture, form, strength and balance as a result.

I also really enjoy barre class. I like that barre is a low-impact workout that still targets many major muscle groups. As someone with low blood pressure, cardio-heavy classes, such as zumba and kickboxing, though fun, often leave me feeling dizzy and lightheaded due to all the jumping and up-down motions involved. I am happy that I found a class that has been working for me.

I think that to really make sure I’m hitting the ACSM guidelines for strength training, I need to start training the muscles that I’m not working in barre class on my own in the gym. On weeks when I focus on strength training in the gym – even if it’s just for one day – I feel so much more energized. Specifically, I would like to do more arm and shoulder exercises in the gym, as well as back exercises. I currently have more strength in my lower body and abdominal muscles than in these areas, and I’d like to even things out.

I hope to continue taking barre classes next fall. A quick search on MINDBODY, an app that displays different workout classes by location, shows that plenty of barre classes are offered in New York City at various times, so finding classes that work with my schedule next year shouldn’t be a problem. Because I love barre, I can see myself waking up early to attend a barre class before starting rotations if necessary. Doing so would be a great way to refresh my mind and start the day.

When searching for an apartment for next year, it will also be a priority for me to be close to a gym. This will make it a lot easier to keep up the aerobic workouts and strength-training regimen that I have planned.

I’m also hoping to continue doing barre regularly (3 to 4 times weekly) and strength training at the gym (at least once weekly) into my thirties and beyond. I will find classes that are offered during times that my kids are in school. Additionally, as a dietitian, I will seek to partner with a local gym that offers barre classes so that I will be able to attend classes and strength-train at a reduced cost. It is also possible that the gym will let me attend classes for free if I rent office space in the gym.

Since barre involves stretching, it allows me to focus on the flexibility component of exercise that is often neglected. However, not all of the major muscle groups are stretched in barre class. To make sure I meet this guideline, I will try to do a quick stretch for each of the major muscle groups in my apartment, after returning from barre class.

Most stretching does not require any equipment or much time, so I should be able to easily find time to continue this regimen next fall and into my thirties (and beyond). If I am home taking care of my kids, or even at work, it seems reasonable to be able to take a few minutes to stretch. I will seek to meet the ACSM guidelines for flexibility by stretching all major muscle groups for at least 2 days weekly. I will hold the stretches for 10 seconds to 30 seconds each and repeat the routine two to four times.

My goal for this stretching is to be able to maintain my flexibility. As discussed in class, I agree that being able to perform the Activities of Daily Living during older adulthood is extremely important when it comes to maintaining independence and quality of life. By sticking to a stretching routine, I hope to be able to perform the ADLs as I age. 

Each stage of life poses unique challenges when it comes to moving in a health-promoting way, but there’s also tremendous beauty in that. We plan, we struggle, we achieve – and consequently come out stronger, healthier and livelier. I’m going to commit to exercising because it feels good to do so; because after hours of sitting at a desk, I’m going to want to stretch my limbs, roll back my shoulders, stretch and allow myself the time to work on my physical form. Whenever I’m not exercising as much as I would like to be, I will remind myself of these ideas so that I can easily get back to where I’d like to be.

When I run, I still contain my long hair in a ponytail, as I did when I was eight. Except I now look within, not toward others. I compete against myself, seeking to beat the sliding limits I’ve set as my own potential. I’ll be able to race myself at 22 or 80 years old, and it doesn’t matter if others are also playing the game. 

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