Convincing my muscles not to let me grow old gracefully

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:48

    There are those very predictable times of each and every year when getting in shape is on everyone's mind: Getting ready for the holidays, New Year's resolution, vacations, and the one that always sneaks up on me; bathing suit season. For me, the biggest weight issue, aside from those, was after having my children. With each pregnancy I gained over 60 lbs. Obviously, I had a lot of baby fat to lose. I soon discovered that merely wishing the pounds away wasn't enough. So, with each new baby came a new sport. After my oldest was born I began walking everyday. Eventually I returned to my normal weight. Next baby: volleyball. By this time with two babies at home I needed what I thought would be a ladies night out and joined a local volleyball team. I thought we ladies would chat, exchange baby stories, and yes, play a little volleyball. I was wrong. No chatting. These women were serious about volleyball and they came to play. They reminded me of those big, intimidating, athletic girls in high school. They wore knee pads and sweat bands. I, on the other hand did my hair and make-up for this. I envisioned more a "mommies' support and social group. No support here, just heavy hitters. I was way out of my league. By the time I got home, I had a Don King hairdo and the make-up smeared face of Tammy Faye Baker. My arm pits were so sore for the next week that I needed help getting my shirt over my head each morning. I was pathetic. But I stayed with it and the pounds fell off. With my last child I began to rollerblade. Now it was my turn to wear the knee pads. As ridiculous as I'm sure I looked, I loved it. I skated around the cul-de-sac while my baby napped in the pram and my three- and five-year-olds played with their toys. I also took up tennis and joined a league. I met the greatest women playing tennis and finally did get those friendships I was hoping for, and again lost the baby weight. And now, although there are no more babies in my future, after years of regular walking and exercise, I still keep an eye open for something new or different in addition to the cardiovascular exercise of walking. A change of scenery, so to say, keeps me from getting bored. I, like a lot of people, need to pull in the reigns a little and sporadically re-evaluate how effective my work-out plan is, am I working to my full potential, am I in the "zone"? Oh, who am I kidding, I sat on my butt this winter and now I'm paying the price. Yes, that was me sobbing in the fitting room of Macy's while trying on swim suits. And now, I need to get my act together. For years now I've heard about Pilates. Whether it's from a friend who swears that it changed her body, making her look taller, or the countless celebrities who endorse it, claiming it tones the body, it certainly has caught my attention. I took my first class at the Sparta Athletic Club with instructor Robyn Francisco, and about 30 other women (and one brave man!). Hmm, I guess this is popular. It's floor exercises, I assume that's why it draws a crowd, how hard can it be? Very hard it turns out, at least for a beginner like me. This class has been meeting every Thursday at 9:30 a.m., but anyone can begin at any time. Other classes are also available on various days. It is suggested that Pilates should be done two to three times per week. I get my mat and a few other foreign looking, hand held Pilates accessories. I soon learn that these seemingly innocent items are torture tools designed to reshape my body. As I look around this class I'm amazed at the great shape so many of these women are in. Did they come in with these great, toned bodies? Or are they a byproduct of this particular fitness craze? Could this be me in a few months? Hmm, interesting. Maybe I've found a new home. As the class begins I soon feel warm and begin to shed some excess clothing. While on my back, in some Pilates position, with my shoeless, and now also sock-less hot feet pointed straight above my head, I'm so glad that I got that much needed pedicure. While I admire my freshly painted toes, I can't help but notice how short my legs are. I hope Pilates lives up to its reputation of stretching and streamlining me because I could really use that illusion of looking taller. The background music is soothing, not at all loud or with a steady beat like in aerobics or spin classes. However, later the music is completely drowned out by all the huffing and puffing, moaning and groaning…mine! This is no walk in the park. My muscles are screaming and I'm in positions that I haven't been in since … well, let's just leave it at that. I'm keeping up with the class though, the whole time telling myself that if Oprah can do this, darn it, so can I! I'm determined. I'm also worn out, hot and shaky, and its only been 20 minutes! I am feeling this big time in the abs. It seems that stomach muscles are involved in almost all the movements. I'm working and stretching muscles in other places I didn't know had muscles. And, it's all done with very smooth and painfully s-l-o-w movements. Not at all like the quick pain of having body parts waxed. The instructor continually reminds the class to focus and pull in on our core muscles, which I learn are the abs. The core is where your strength and balance should come from. The next day, I by no means look taller, in fact, I swear I'm shorter, due to hunching over in pain. No pain, no gain. Now, I get it … but even sneezing causes me to wince in pain. My stomach muscles are killing me. I understand why these exercises would work; your muscles have no choice but to shape up. Francisco, my instructor, assures me that it's normal to feel this way because muscles hurt after being stretched. I inform my editor that any work I do today must be done via phone. His sympathetic response is to "write the article about Pilates now, while in pain, you'll get the best results"… I'm thinking, he doesn't get it, even my fingers hurt (do fingers have muscles?) I'm dialing the phone with a pen! But, I keep going back to the class, I guess I'm a glutton for punishment. And frankly, I'm vain and have no intentions of growing old gracefully. But truthfully, it did seem to get a bit easier as time went on. The next few weeks though I actually begin to see some definition. And I like what I see. And, I no longer look like Quasimodo. I think I'm getting hooked on this. Alright, so what actually is Pilates? According to the Pilates Method Alliance, it was around 1914 that Joseph Pilates began to devise his system of original exercises performed on a floor mat. Later he created resistance equipment, which was to act as a complement to the challenging floor exercises. The equipment is basically the same today. And gyms with Pilates equipment are getting easier to find. The STOTT Pilates Web site describes the exercise as an emphasis on breath, core conditioning and body awareness. A highly effective way to stretch, strengthen and streamline your body without bulking up or stressing your joints, leaving you looking toned and moving with ease. All I know is what I see and feel. In, closing, I'll again quote my editor, who from the comfort and safety of his desk chair, bestows upon me great words of wisdom; he says, "Keep remembering all the benefits you'll get from all that pain: good looking abs, toned extremities, and a nice … well, you know what I mean". Yeah, I do, and I agree. I have found a new home. Robyn Francisco can be reached at the Sparta Athletic Club 115