by Nancy Bjerring
I have always been a sucker for headlines that read “5 Exercises That Every Woman Must Do,” or “Stealth Exercises for the Office or Airplane,” or “Strong Legs = Strong Brain.” Even before I began running in my late forties, I was drawn to such aspirational articles in pursuit of my own version of “higher, faster, stronger.” Over the last few years, however, I have found the advice offered by this type of internet and newspaper articles increasingly irritating and, as the kids used to say, “very demotivational.” I think it is less because they overpromise—though that is certainly the case. It is because I underperform.
There are a couple of obvious reasons why. Even during my fittest years—my fifties—I had to acknowledge that I possess a knack, not to say gift, for doing exercises intuitively wrong. Believe me, if there is a way to do a squat incorrectly, I can find that one, and several more besides. What I am unlikely ever to intuit is the correct way to perform the movements, the “form” which determines whether you will accomplish the goals of the exercise. Indeed the goals are not always clear to me either—quad strength? knee flexibility? Seriously, I am far from sure what a squat will do for me.
And it is astonishing how little clear direction and actual information most of these exercise lists and motivational videos offer. It’s all very well to say “burpees are the indispensable exercise for all women,” but for someone who’s never done a burpee or seen one done “live” for that matter, (that would be me), it’s like asking me to recite from memory a poem I’ve read once. I would leave out most of the important stuff and fluff the rest.
Moreover, aging and a few knock-out punches to my health over the last few years have made many of these “must do” exercises literally dangerous to me. So this introduces a second problem—even if I somehow learned brilliant form for the burpee, I would be foolish to try one. It may be possible to do or to ratchet up the intensity of certain exercises when you’re fit and healthy already, but for me now, as for many women, serious injury could be the consequence of certain exercises at a certain intensity. Remember when we all we “going for the burn?” Remember sit-ups? Jane Fonda and my high-school gym teachers were merely the Early Cretaceous predecessors to today’s motivational fitness gurus exhorting you to just “eliminate the jump” at the end of a burpee if you’re not quite up to the real thing. And do more and try harder, would you?
On the bright side, I have finally reached the stage of life that I know that I read these articles for amusement or distraction (and perhaps to practice being judgy, as my daughter used to say), not for information or motivation. I see a wonderful physiotherapist from time to time, and she has given me access to online demonstration videos done slowly and carefully and several-times-over, as well as instruction sheets with detailed instructions on form and on how and when to breathe, so that I can repeat at home the moves she teaches me in her lab. Since I am likely to forget key elements even after being shown in person, believe me, I need those detailed instructional materials. I do watch the videos a lot, since my body forgets a lot, and I’m pretty happy with my exercise life at the moment.
But I am not terrifically strong any more, which bothers me. And I will not be able to get much stronger now, let alone “return to baseline,” which for me was about age 55. I cannot run anymore, but I do walk every day. Yet I still read “fitness infotainment” even though it irritates me as much as it amuses me. I still cannot resist the appeal of bright happy promises of strength and constant improvement. It seems I still harbour the hope that I can move forward, if only I could find the right set of five exercises that this woman can do. And do more and try harder.
Retired professor of English and Women’s Studies (Fanshawe College); former 5 km/day runner and fitness video devotée; current 10,000 steps a day walker and practitioner of mindful workouts.