I’m the Older Lady on the Treadmill Next to you in Fitness Class

I’m the Older Lady on the Treadmill Next to you in Fitness Class

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Yes, I’m old enough to be your mother. I realize that might be distracting. And my outfit isn’t in style. When did cotton become so uncool for women to work out in? 

You might be wondering why women over 50 become members of Orange Theory, SoulCycle, CrossFit, or pick-your-favorite yoga studio. Shouldn’t we be taking walks around the block for exercise and leaving hardcore fitness to the younger generation? Before I answer this, let me back up and trace the journey that eventually led me, well into my 50s, to sign up for Orange Theory. 

“Linda uses a backhand as she tries to stop her opponent from scoring the last winning point.” Eisenhower High Aquila 1977

“Linda uses a backhand as she tries to stop her opponent from scoring the last winning point.” Eisenhower High Aquila 1977

I came from a sports-oriented family and was a pretty serious athlete in high school. I played first singles on the varsity women’s tennis team and was the catcher on the varsity softball team. I wasn’t a jock at heart, though, and, truth be told, I wasn’t as good as these first-string roles sound. As soon as I got to college, I ditched organized sports, both as a player and fan. But I was motivated to stay in shape. So I switched from sports to fitness.

I happened to start college when “aerobics classes” were exploding in popularity. The term “aerobics” didn’t even enter the vernacular until the late 1960’s[1] (its successor, “cardio,” came much later). By the end of the 1970’s, you could sign up for an aerobics class almost anywhere, including universities. Our instructors, clad in leotards, tights, and leg warmers—so many of them were dancers—taught uncomplicated jumping steps to rows of new fitness junkies. We huffed and puffed to the beat of rock-n-roll playlists, which in those days were made on home stereo systems. Instructors had to tape each desired track in sequence from vinyl LPs onto long-running cassette tapes. 

I didn’t settle into any tried and true routine in my 20’s. I relocated a lot. I went to graduate school. I had a number of one-year teaching jobs. So fitness was catch-as-catch-can, and my body was forgiving. I used university gyms, played tennis if I could find a buddy, walked with my new Walkman, and started using taped workouts. Jane Fonda revolutionized aerobics in the early 1980’s with her famous “Jane Fonda Workout,” available on cassette, vinyl, and VHS videotape. This meant that you didn’t have to go to a class. You could do aerobics in your own home, just you and Jane.

My 30’s was a career-building decade, so I had to fit exercise around my busy work schedule. I lived 15 minutes from the nearest city, and it seemed like a waste of time to drive to a gym and back every day. I started buying more aerobics tapes (later DVDs) so I could finish in an hour before showering and leaving for the office. 

The problem with the tapes, though, is that they got to be boring. I ended up memorizing every move, every song, every word with the exact inflection the instructor used, every tiny mistake they left in. Going through the same workout over and over could be mind-numbing, and pretty soon I was strongly tempted to skip a day, and then another. Even in the 90’s after Gin Miller invented step aerobics, Billy Blanks created Tae Bo, and the number of DVDs ballooned, the only trick that worked for me was to buy a lot of DVDs so I could space out the repetitions of any one workout. 

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In my 40’s a lot of advice came out saying aerobic conditioning was not enough. Building muscle was critical for good health and a fiery metabolism. Ever the cheapskate, after the P90X craze took off in 2005 with its twelve DVDs of intense resistance and body-weight training, I bought a cheap knockoff. After a month, all the lunges and squats made my knees scream in pain. That was the first time it dawned on me that I might be getting too old for fitness. No matter what I did or how I tried to strengthen my legs, I couldn’t keep going. I had to put those DVDs aside. 

My restlessness for something new led to a year of tap-dance lessons, including a season-ending recital in which my class performed in full fig and fedora to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” The next year I decided to start running, mostly because I wanted to join work colleagues in my company’s annual 5K. I kept to tame distances (morning runs had to be fit in before work) and I didn’t run in the winter in New Jersey. I found running 3-4 miles quite agreeable—why had I never tried it before? I loved getting outdoors and enjoyed the “runner’s high.” During the cold months I went back to my DVDs and hammered them out as usual.

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My 50’s has been a decade of “need a change” in every direction. I left my job of 25 years. My husband, cat, and I moved across the country to Portland, Oregon. I down-shifted to part-time work in order to start my vegan website, cooking classes, and writing.

On the fitness front, during my first summer in Portland, my 20-year-old niece proposed that we train to run a marathon together. I warily committed to a half marathon, and we spent the next five months piling up the miles. Toe and sole blisters slowed me down until I learned that your running shoes should be at least one full size bigger than your street shoes. And I had some trouble with my IT (ilio-tibial) band until I learn to stretch it and knead it with a foam roller. I finished the Portland Half Marathon that fall and was full of plans to run a race every few months. 

But my niece went back to college, and Portland retreated into its seasonal affective winter. I needed something more to supplement my routine. I’d permanently had it with the DVDs. 

Orange Theory email feedback

Orange Theory email feedback

That same niece, when she was home for the winter holidays, took me to an Orange Theory class for high-intensity interval training. During that trial session I was pathetic on the rower and in the weight room. But, runner that I’d become, I crushed it on the treadmill. It took a few months to decide, but finally I signed up for the 2-times-per-week plan. It was the first time I’d joined a studio or gym. I’m going on two years at Orange Theory and just started using the 25-pound dumbbells for some of the lifts.

Before feeling sorry or embarrassed for the older lady on the treadmill next to you, remember that, like me, she may have pranced and twirled her way through the dawn of modern cardio. She has seen a lot of fitness fads and technology come and go.

We’re playing the long game. We know deeply that it’s about perseverance, not high speeds and too-heavy weights. It’s about health and quality of life, not the fountain of youth.

As long as the workouts don’t bore me, injure me, or require me to wear a spangled vest and black fedora, I’m in. 

[1]Cooper, Kenneth H., and Mildred Cooper. Aerobics. New York: Bantam Books, 1968.