We all start somewhere. For me, it was in 6th grade. My gym class had me perform my very first push-up set.
But that didn’t start a lifelong love of fitness. Instead, it was a mix of terror and anxiety. No joke! I exhausted myself push-upping. The next day, my arms felt all bulky, burnt out, and sluggish, and I thought to myself, “Did I break my body permanently?” As I like to say, perception without comprehension is a dangerous combination. Yes, I borrowed that quotation from a video game.
That was just my first experience with muscle burnout. I didn’t touch any exercise outside of running for another year… Until hormones kicked in, or I watched one too many cartoons featuring a hero training in a gravity chamber.
If you looked at me now, I doubt you could envision the nerdy, slightly anemic middle schooler I was when I first began to train.
The key is that we all start somewhere. At the time I began to workout, I thought everyone was laughing at me, judging me, thinking I would never get anywhere. This weighted me down when I worked out in front of people, so I never did. I was ashamed to sneak portions of my brother’s whey protein away to help me recover my muscle (I told him I “liked the taste”… hah!) I was scared that people would see me trying super hard, putting all this effort into the work outs and adding better foods to my diet, then laugh at my poor progress.
I tried to shake it off. I was a sensitive soul, but I wanted to be fitter – for anything life threw at me. So I decided I would work out secretly. For my very first workout, I downloaded Body by Fish Workout 1. No weights, no problem. Since I didn’t own a pull-up bar, I biked a mile and a half to my local park and trained there. Or, attempted to. I found that I couldn’t do a single pull-up. So that first workout day, I simply jumped up and pulled as hard as I could to get above the bar, but I didn’t really move much at all.
I went back 2 days later, and tried again. I inched just a little bit higher, but not enough… But I felt progress. I resolved to get this done.
Another 2 days later. I tried it again. Slowly, my muscles worked my gears, locking in progress, slowly driving me up, up, up…
And then, suddenly, my chin was above the bar. Pull-up rep: 1.
Every other day, I would (try to) wake up at 5 AM before school started. I spread out 5 to 7 whole wheat crackers, spread one can of tuna equally onto each, ate up, filled up a little bottle with whey protein and water, and would bike up to Osage Park and do my workout. Rain or shine, I felt compelled to go.
And every time I hit a setback, I noticed a change in perspective. When winds blew stronger or muscles worked weaker, I would call it out to myself as a better challenge. I didn’t degrade my self, call myself a failure, beat myself up and believe I was worthless. I started believing I could do great things if I set my mind to it. I no longer felt a victim. I felt like a hero.
Fitness, it turns out, become my keystone habit as Charles Dunhigg would proclaim. Keystone habits are those that create a positive chain reaction in all your other habits. The 3 characteristics: they make you feel “small victories”; they cause other habit changes to occur more easily; and they inspire you to do more in life.
Now, many years later, I’ve pursued fitness endeavors in both resistance training (aka, lifting weights and pull-ups) and cardiovascular training (aka, running and sprints). But even more, I find myself advocating fitness whenever I can, to my mom, my uncle, and my friends. I think everyone should at least take a brisk walk and do a few air squats every couple of days. Through fitness, even the smallest goals become celebrations.
In the spirit of finding exercises we can all do without judgment — anytime, anywhere —and experience incremental progress, I find myself returning to the humble push-up, and beginning the Hundred Pushups Challenge. This was the hallmark of my youth; trying to hit an unimaginable amount of push-ups done in a single set, just like I watched in Dragonball Z.
What types of fitness stories do you have? Did you ever feel judged about what you were doing, and what helped you overcome it?