On being ... surprisingly inspiring

By Ingrid Sapona

Growing up I wasn’t particularly physically active. I never participated in organized sports -- team or individual. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I realized the correlation between calories in and calories burned. Once the weight-control benefits of exercise dawned on me, however, I became dedicated to working out.

My approach to exercise has never been particularly exciting. For the longest time the best I could say of it was that it had risen to the level of habit, much like flossing, brushing, and making the bed in the morning. Indeed, whenever someone at the gym asked me what my fitness goals were, I was a loss. About the best response I could muster was that I just wanted to burn calories and generally strengthen muscles in hopes of preventing osteoporosis.

It wasn’t until Michelle Obama graced the world stage that I gave any thoughts about targeting specific muscles. Like many women, once I took note of her arms and shoulders, I began wondering what she does in the gym that I don’t do. When the First Lady’s personal trainer went public with details about her weight training routine, I don’t mind admitting that I added a few exercises to my own regime.

To my amazement, after some months of diligent, targeted lifting, I started noticing a difference. For the first time in my life, my arms had some definition. (You’ll have to trust me on this, as it’s unlikely you’ll ever catch me in a sleeveless shift – but let’s just chalk that up to living in a cold climate!) Anyway -- looking back at it -- I realize that aiming for arms like Michelle Obama was the first definitive fitness goal I’d ever set for myself.

Last year I developed knee problems and the sports medicine doctor I went to suggested I switch from Stairmaster to biking, as it would be easier on my knees. At about the same time a friend started going to a nearby spinning studio and she suggested I try it. I was reluctant for two reasons: the cost and the fact that I’ve never liked group activities. But, I tried it and found that my knees were much happier, so I decided to stick with it for awhile.

I realized fairly quickly that not all spinning instructors are created equal -- and it’s not just their choice in music that differs. Their personality and approach to the hour-long session make a huge difference to me. For example, I don’t like instructors who take the drill sergeant approach, nor do I like those who just wing it for 60 minutes with no plan.

A few months ago a new instructor (Darryl -- not his real name) joined the roster. Like most of the instructors there, he’s an avid cyclist and is in top shape. He likes to explain things, like what you gain from interval training, or what muscles you use when you climb, etc. Without being overly touchy-feely or too new age, he sometimes talks about using mental images and about bringing your awareness and focus to things like your breathing and heart rate. Another thing he sometimes says as we’re cooling down at the end of class is that we’re role models for people who aren’t as physically active. The first few times he said that, I thought it was pure hokum. More recently, however, I think I get where he’s coming from with that…

A couple Sundays ago I went to his class, fully expecting that someone would be subbing for him because he had mentioned that he was planning in doing a 50 mile charity run on Saturday (in other words, the day before). To my amazement, he was setting up his bike when I got there. As he carefully mounted the bike he apologized to us for the fact that he might not be riding full-out that morning, but he’d try to keep us motivated for the hour.

During the class, in response to questions, he talked a bit about how he pushed himself through the physical and psychological struggle over the course of the run. Given that I’ve never had any desire to run a mile, much less 50, I never imagined that I’d find such a feat inspiring -- but I did. Listening to his descriptions, for the first time in my life, I thought about what it’s like to physically challenge yourself. And, as I thought about it, I found myself pushing harder and harder -- trying to achieve a level of physical activity I hadn’t achieved before. It was quite exhilarating.

The high I had after that class was so heady, I knew I’d have to write about it. But, the fact that I never thought I could be inspired by someone’s physical appearance (in the case of Mrs. Obama) or physical achievement (in the case of Darryl) isn’t a particularly universal (or even common) theme, which is what I aspire to focus on with On being…

Finally, the universal theme behind all this came to me: the idea that inspiration is all around us, but to tap into its power, we have to open ourselves up in ways we haven’t before. I know, sounds hokey. But, if you keep an open mind, I’ll bet you’d be surprised …

© 2010 Ingrid Sapona


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