I Bet Your Grandma Can Work Out Harder Than You: What I learned from the step aerobic generation

Monday, October 29, 2018 - 8:46pm

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Illustration by Molly Wu

A few days ago, I saw a man rollerblading while pushing a stroller with a golden retriever trailing behind on a leash. The spectacle looked like an American Ninja Warrior audition. As I watched the feat from across the street, I considered the skill of this man completing his Saturday morning to-do list while balancing on eight wheels.

In that moment, I came to two conclusions. First, his dedication to exercise seemingly convinced him that rollerblading while responsible for the livelihood of a baby and a dog was a good idea. And secondly, my own coordination will likely never surmount to the athleticism required to complete such an act. Not that I am disappointed, I can certainly think of a lot better things to do with my weekend than fall face first on a pothole-ridden road.

I have never categorized myself as naturally athletic. You know, one of those people who can effortlessly recall their days as a three-sport athlete and win Spikeball the first time they play. The one sport I played in high school was swimming, which I had grown up participating in. And like anything, once you spend 10 years practicing something, it is reasonable to expect your ability to hover around at least average.

The only biological evidence I have of my athletic ability was when a nurse told me that my low blood pressure suggested I spent a lot of time holding my breath. I guess swimming with your face in the water for a decade does something to your body beyond pruney fingertips.  

So I don’t have the blood of a track star. But I did not need a doctor to tell me that. The sheer number of times I have stubbed my toe while walking around the house or didn’t catch the beach ball during icebreakers is probably enough empirical proof.

My lack of natural athletic ability was confirmed in seventh-grade gym class — arguably, an experience specifically designed to test the resilience of fragile 13-year-old self-esteem. I dreaded having to don the cotton uniform and break a sweat to the Black Eyed Peas and Lady Gaga dance party anthems found on any middle schooler’s iPod Nano in 2012. The crown jewel of my gym teacher’s curriculum was the track and field unit. We were required to complete every event for a grade. I wish I was joking. We did everything from shotput to relays to high jump. The only event not on the agenda was pole vault. It apparently was a liability to catapult grossly untrained kids into the sky with the momentum of a pole.  

The capstone of the unit was the 100-meter hurdles. The big kahuna of middle school physical education. A true test of athleticism to see who could master the technique of leaping over a barrier after just a 15-minute demonstration. Have at it kids.

I panicked. My body did not like to leave the ground. The only time I caught air was diving into the pool. The prickly track did not qualify as a soft-landing surface. I braced myself and ran towards the first hurdle with no clue of how I was going to clear it. I lunged and somehow found myself on the other side unscathed. I was surprised, but this confidence quickly evaporated when I looked up and was reminded of the other hurdles ahead.  Mind you, the entire gym class is watching from the sidelines with my gym teacher holding a stopwatch ready to record my time. What happened next is one of those middle school moments locked in my mind with the same clarity as Rebecca Black’s “Friday” lyrics. I knocked down the next nine hurdles. Let’s just say, I did not try out for the track and field team.

After the hurdle incident, my relationship with athletics was reserved for the pool and morning practice weight room sessions where I would bring flashcards to “study” before school. That remained the extent of my relationship with exercise upon graduating high school.

However, when you go to college you realize just how many things you do not know how to do in life. For me, the top of the list was working out. I tried running, but my water raised joints could not handle the smashing on the pavement. Most runs I would find myself regretting not turning around earlier and end up with resorting to a run-walk that made me look like a limping kangaroo. I sometimes tried to power walk and listen to a podcast, which worked out well for a while until I got annoyed with the headphone cord and didn’t want to invest in Bluetooth.  I even briefly tried to establish a gym workout routine, but soon realized I had no clue how to organize a workout. I tried downloading apps, googling exercises, setting a timer, but it was all too complicated and I never pushed myself enough for my heart rate to go up.

It is still a mystery to me how all those people at the gym with their “in the zone” face and flawless transitions between exercises know what they are doing. Do they count in their head? How do they decide which exercise to do next? Have they just been doing the same workout since 10th grade? These are all questions I would like answers to.  

I soon realized that I was going to need a little more hand holding if I wanted to release endorphins.  This is how I found myself at a step aerobics class. Yep, a class of 55-year-old women taught me how to work out. I understand how ridiculous this sounds coming from a 19-year-old girl. We are supposed to be young and agile and do yoga four days a week in athleisure attire.  

At first, I truly was a fish out of water. The thing about gyms is no one ever tells you the protocol. It was trial and error until I learned the latest you could arrive to still snag a spot in the prime real estate of the back row and which weights I could sustain for the entire five minutes of the remixed version of Dolly Parton’s "9 to 5."  

The class was certainly not sexy like Soul Cycle. And I was definitely not part of the inner circle of regulars who would share recipes and save spots for each other. But there was something about awful America’s Top 40 music playlists. The instructors on their air traffic controller style headsets yelling during mountain climbers to “pretend there is a wine glass in front of you.” And the mutual judgement that would incur when the occasional male dropped into the class and put three risers under his step without realizing the class is an hour of nonstop cardio. I was there for the bad music and sweat. It was incredibly motivating. No wonder this echelon of suburban moms and grandmothers were so fit, they figured out something no one ever teaches you in gym class — athleticism isn’t always about proving yourself. It is enough to show up wearing an old T-shirt and mimic an instructor jump around a step for an hour.