In exactly four weeks I will turn 50 years old. Looking down the barrel of that mythic half-century mark, the one that comes with a humbling letter from the AARP, I find I’m less troubled by it than I am by another number—the one on my driver’s license, the one I haven’t weighed for at least a decade (or, to be honest, since college). That number is 135. On the rare occasions I get on the scale, my weight tends to hover around 150, which for a woman of five feet ten is hardly cause for alarm. Still, while I eat pretty clean, my belly’s no washboard; though I walk Runyon Canyon with regularity, I’ve got more “back” than I once had; I lift weights twice a week, or try to, but often the most strenuous workout my biceps get is lifting a glass of Sancerre. Suddenly it occurs to me that it’s now or never. An idea starts to take hold: Be ten pounds lighter by the Big 5-0. If 50 is the new 40, why not turn 150 into 140, too? I imagine a fitness blitz that will melt away my fat pads like Dorothy obliterated the Wicked Witch. We’re not talking Biggest Loser here but rather My Dream Body—the body I fantasize I can have if, like movie stars and athletes, I consider fitness part of my job. Maybe if I literally work my ass off for 28 straight days, I can attain the ideal that has eluded me. You can’t control the years, but can you control the pounds? I’m about to find out.
The measuring tape is lassoed around my thighs: 21 inches. Hips: 41.25. Biceps: 10.75. Shoulders: 39. “Don’t hold your breath,” says my trainer, Jay McLeod, as he reaches around my middle. “I’m not,” I say, lying. Clearly the first thing I must lose (and quickly!) is my dignity. Waist: 30.5. Then comes the body fat measuring device, which looks like something that could beam you to another galaxy. Gripping with both hands, I hold it in front of me for 30 seconds and am rewarded with this news: 28 percent of me—practically one pound out of three—is made up of fat. Ick. I’d go drown my sorrows in a box of See’s Candies, but that would be defeating the point—and I’m not feeling defeated. I’m feeling fired up.
Jay is logging these numbers on Day One of what some will rightly call a stunt. The goal: to walk into my 50th-birthday party a taut, 140-pound warrior-goddess—or as close to one as my genetics and the metabolic realities of middle age will allow. To get there I have resolved to work out at least six days a week (sometimes twice a day). Under the tutelage of my trainer, a five-foot-six mixed martial artist who at 25 is half the age I’m about to be, I will do whatever it takes, no exercise off-limits, from biking to bleachers to boxing to burpees. I will eat less and drink no alcohol. I will finally make crossing the divide between good enough and fantastic a top priority. With that kind of resolve, what could possibly go wrong?
First off, I must face those numbers. A 28 percent body fat ratio puts me smack in the middle of the American Council on Exercise’s “average” column for women. I don’t want to start my fifties as average, like a well-worn pair of slippers. I want to be the corporeal equivalent of stilettos. Jay says if I follow his cues, we’ll definitely be able to cut me down to “fitness” level (21 percent to 24 percent). From 28 percent to 24 percent—that doesn’t sound so hard. I feel thinner already.
Statistics are one thing, capacity another. How many push-ups can I do in one minute? The answer is 31, but 20 of those are on my knees. Similarly Jay gives me 60 seconds to do curl-ups, then leg raises, squats (both regular and jumping), and underhand pull-ups on a low bar. I won’t bore you with the numbers; let’s just say I didn’t post them to my Facebook profile. “This is hard,” I say as we repeat the circuit. To which Jay responds with four words that will soon ring in my ears like a mantra: “Give me five more.”
I already work out with Jay—he’s been spotting me as I lift weights (and chiding me to do more cardio) for two years now. To call Jay fit is like calling a Ferrari F12 Berlinetta fast. He pushes himself hard—boxing, lifting, running—and has the hard body to prove it. How hard? I’d say you could bounce a quarter off his abs, but really you could pick any spot on his compact frame. Frequently he’s encouraged me by saying that if I would just put in a little more effort, a sinewy bod would be within my reach, too. I’ve usually responded with a litany of reasons that boil down to a lack of time—deadlines, parenting, walking the dog. Now as I consign my body to him like a lump of clay to be sculpted, he looks pleased. He lays down one condition that will govern the next four weeks. “No starving yourself,” he says. Then he smiles in a way that suggests my fondness for him will soon be tested. “It will be a challenge for the both of us,” he says sweetly, “for me to work you this hard without killing you.” In the coming weeks we will exercise together for a total of 24 hours. And I’m barely ten minutes in.
Here’s how the “before” me liked to eat: Morning dawned with coffee so strong, it could peel paint. Food could wait. Lunch would be minimal—a tuna sandwich, maybe, or a salad. Dinner was my reward—chicken and a baked potato with butter or a monster plate of spaghetti, salad laced with garbanzos and a little feta. Often there was dessert. And wine—not enough to drown in but not half a glass, either. Dinner signaled the end of the story writing, deadline meeting, chauffeuring, cooking, cleaning, and child rearing that had filled my day. It gave me permission to turn off my brain. It was, in a sense, my culinary duvet, a fat-and-carb-laden comforter that represented probably 75 percent of my daily calories.
I don’t need Jay to tell me that ship has sailed for the last time. Everyone agrees that to treat food as fuel and not as a banana split with all the fixin’s waiting at the finish line of your marathon day, you need to eat big in the morning to kick-start your metabolism, then eat small (and regularly) throughout your waking hours. So that first week I learn how to eat as if for the first time. When possible, as per Jay, breakfast contains three food groups: oatmeal and a boiled egg and a banana. Dinner is carb free: a piece of broiled salmon and some wilted spinach (no oil) is about as exciting as it gets. The key is the snacking. Jay wants me to eat five times a day, at least. Beef jerky. Oranges. Almonds. Rice cakes with peanut butter. By the end of Day One I’m psychically hungry—by which I mean I’m getting plenty of nutrition, but I miss my mondo-calorie reward structure. By Day Two of eating “light at night” I’m cranky. By Day Three I’m fantasizing about macaroni and cheese. To snack correctly involves so much planning, and when the vagaries of being a single working mom interrupt that planning, which is often, it can seem easier to not eat at all. Or to devour an entire box of Cheez-Its.
At first the sharp uptick in calorie burning makes me not only yearn for a nap, but it causes an all-over soreness that feels as if I’ve been trampled by a herd of horses. My 15-year-old son observes that I’m snippy at night (even as he enjoys having all the ice cream to himself). I miss the solace of an indulgent dinner, and especially on days when multiple deadlines converge and I’m jumping an unending series of hurdles (both real and metaphorical), I dearly miss the cocktail hour. But within a week I’m sleeping better, waking up more easily and feeling a surge of momentum.
Jay and I have become immediately joined (sometimes literally) at the hip. I see him every day for at least an hour, and we are in constant text touch. To keep things fresh, he varies my routine so that we never do the same thing twice. (On Day Seven I hit on a motto that I vow to print on Jay McLeod T-shirts: “Always Hard. Never Boring.”). Bench dips, bicep curls, chest presses, chin-ups, crunches, donkey cable-kicks, inchworms, jackknives, jumping jacks, kettle bell swings, lateral shuffle drills, leg raises, lunges, medicine ball hops, planks, preacher curls, resistance band runs, scissors, shoulder presses, sit-ups (V-seat and at an angle), skipping high knees, sprints, tricep press-downs, trunk twists, upright rows, and windmills. Just typing this list makes me tired. There are diamond push-ups and Spider-Man push-ups and push-ups done with one hand resting on an eight-pound rubber ball. There is duck walking, bear crawling, leap frogging, jump squatting, and rope jumping. There is stretching, sparring, running uphill, and whatever the motion is (gliding?) that you do on an elliptical machine. When I’m really struggling, there might be a lot of cursing. Soon Jay will begin to measure his effectiveness by counting my four-letter words.
By this point Jay knows what I weigh (two pounds less the first week!), how I sleep, what I eat. He knows more than I can bear to reveal here about my every bodily function because, he informs me, these details are relevant to my regimen and to my progress. Jay, it seems, knows more about me than anyone. Maybe even me.