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.
“Come on, strong lady,” Jay says, nodding toward the chin-up bar. I stifle a whimper. “I can’t do that,” I reply, adding (and not for the first time), “You’re crazy.” But when Jay nods again, I reach up and take my grip.
Chin-ups are especially taxing for women. It has been proved scientifically—something about the way our weight tends to gather in our lower halves and about our general lack of upper-body strength. That doesn’t make it any easier for me, psychologically speaking, to utterly suck at them. As Jay grabs my waist and hoists me up, it feels as if he’s doing most of the work. I’m humiliated to be so weak. Jay doesn’t look at it that way. “This is 50/50 right here,” he says, unfazed. I shrug glumly.
When I was a kid, I tumbled. Inspired by Olga Korbut, the spritelike Russian gymnast, my friends and I worked tirelessly to master the balance beam, the parallel bars, and the floor exercises. I remember how powerful it felt to have such a command of my physicality—to use my limber body to accomplish feats of strength. I’m grateful for that memory, though I hadn’t summoned it in years. But now I notice it is starting to resurface. As is my competitiveness. While I could run around my neighborhood to get my daily dose of cardio, I find myself going to the gym instead. Even when Jay isn’t there to spur me on, having people to pace myself against makes me go farther, faster.
This is probably a good time to say that attempting to lose ten pounds in four weeks is sort of insane. Weight Watchers, which preaches the wisdom of slow and steady weight loss, suggests that dropping one-and-a-half pounds a week is a reasonable goal. And I fully admit that in setting my two-and-a-half-pounds-per-week target, I’d been driven more by the gimmick of a round number (Ten pounds! Four weeks! 50 years old!) than by nutritional science.
Even though I know all this, I’m fighting it. It seems I am working incredibly hard, and yet my bathroom scale remains an unforgiving mistress. As for that scale: Having it in the house at all is something I’d long resisted. In college I’d gone through a dieting phase so regimented, it made me painfully aware of how women, especially, equate their value with their weight. I wasn’t anorexic in those days, but I was uncompromising in a way that took over my life my entire sophomore year. Every day I swam a mile. Every day I ate nothing but salad and yogurt and fruit. Every day I stepped on the scale and was only as happy as the number that stared back at me. I have not forgotten that period—how what I’d eaten and not eaten each day seemed the only measure of my worth. I know the obsessiveness I’m capable of. Looking back, I see that this phase was motivated less by athleticism and more by my desire to assert a modicum of control during a chaotic time. For decades I have protected myself from that manic impulse by not allowing a device that measures human poundage to cross my threshold.
Notably I’ve gained some weight since. But as I continue to fight my way back down to 140, I realize that perhaps I’ve framed my goal too simply. I’ve made it about what my friend Val has dubbed “The Number.”
In Los Angeles you don’t have to be approaching a milestone to be nagged by The Number. Almost everyone in this city has a personal optimal weight, an ideal three-digit figure that nags at their psyches like a forever put-off errand. Here in a town filled with young, skinny beauties (male and female both) whose livelihoods depend on their looks, The Number is endowed with extra power. Most of the time The Number merely raises its eyebrows when you get fries with that or munch an extra holiday cookie at work. But other times it rushes to the foreground—in a dressing room, say, or when you’re about to disrobe for the first time with someone you like. “Hey,” The Number taunts. “This is your body. When did you completely forget about me—and by extension, yourself?”
Now, however, I think my relationship to The Number may need to change. As I gain muscle (and yes, folks, it’s true—muscle weighs more than fat), it occurs to me that much more than my weight is in flux. What if I could recommit to my childhood definition of physical success: performance? What if I could recapture that feeling of potential that comes only when you’re dedicated to mastering your event and sticking your landing? Would that, could that, loosen The Number’s grip?
I keep pushing. I’ve lost four pounds but have plateaued. I look better—my jeans are roomier, my stomach is flatter—and I’m getting stronger, yet I’m not dropping any more weight. Jay asks me to write down what I am eating and finds that my snacking needs work. “You have to eat,” Jay will say more than once, explaining things I vaguely understand about maintaining my calorie burning and making my workouts more productive. “If you don’t eat, it’s going to stop your progress.” Plus, he says, I need to get more rest.
Then an out-of-town reporting trip derails me. While I hit the hotel gym the first night, the next 48 hours I fall off the fitness wagon entirely (bread and butter are involved and not enough REM sleep). I’m weary, to be frank. I’ve been so unrelenting, with nary a lapse, that perhaps it was destined to happen. I skip the gym and revel in a bagel schmear and then some. The fact is, though I’m trying to put my musculature first, getting fit isn’t the only thing on my plate. The press of life has decreased my commitment to cardio.
Once I’m back in the saddle in L.A., Jay keeps me going by explaining that everyone needs a “cheat day.” So I had just taken two. It’s OK. Time to get back to it. “Listen to your glutes. They’re trying to tell you something,” says Jay. Obediently I listen. My glutes are screaming so loudly, it’s hard to make out the words, but I think they’re saying something like, “We will not forget this. We are going to make you pay.”
In these moments, not to mention those in which I am heaving so hard, I truly believe that I may lose my (well-balanced) breakfast, I survive on a steady diet of Jay’s banter. When we box, he admonishes, “No more girly punches. No more pitty-pat. Put some stank on it.” When he wants me to get the most out of my stomach crunches, he suggests going “VCR slow.” Always he’s making me laugh, like the time—when I tell him that my nightmare is having my stomach protrude farther than my boobs—he mentions “booty-do.” What, I ask, is booty-do? “When your gut,” says Jay, grinning, “sticks out farther than your booty-do.” We share a love of hip-hop and R&B, so many a session revolves around topics like whether Miguel or Frank Ocean has a better falsetto. Jay also has a nickname for me. “Come on, Wild Thing,” he says as I grimace through my third set of lunges, a 20-pound weight in each hand. “Show me what you’ve got.” When you spend as much time with your trainer as I do, it’s very important to like him or her. And it’s impossible not to like Jay.
But I’m not paying him to be my friend. I’m paying him to make me awesome. Which is why midway through Week Three he begins insisting on two-a-day workouts. I fight him at first. There aren’t enough hours in the day, I argue. When that doesn’t work, I complain of exhaustion. Eventually I even plead, “I’m old!” Yet the truth is, I’m not feeling old. I’m feeling…alive.
From here on out a typical day starts with running or jumping rope in the morning and a strength workout with Jay at night. Together we run down Runyon Canyon, starting at Mulholland Drive, then jog as much as I can back up the steep ridgeline trail. Jay straps me into a 25-pound weight vest at the track at Los Angeles Valley College and has me do sprints. He puts me in the ring at NoHo’s At One Fitness and teaches me muay Thai. And when my self-discipline flags and Jay is busy (he does have other clients), I find instructors to keep me sweating. A special shout-out goes to the Graham sisters—Karyn and Cynthia, owners of Toluca Lake’s RPM Fitness Studio (see page 103)—who teach me how to spin as they lead by gorgeous example (and play, to my mind, the most inspirational music in town).
I’m not sure of the exact moment when fit becomes a word that describes me. It might be when, after weeks of sullenly dragging a heavy bag back and forth across a vast workout studio, I am ordered to pick it up—all 80 pounds of it—and run. And I can. It also might be when, after “doing” about 450 chin-ups (half-hoisted by Jay), I do one by myself, then seven more. Probably, though, I finally achieve fit status on the morning when I’m running bleachers for an hour, two at a time. I’m winded, but I don’t even think about throwing up.
I keep at it—striving to perfect my left hook one day, working to master deeper push-ups the next—and another pound comes off. Yet I’ll admit: More than the Big 5-O, The Number hectors me. Days away from my birthday, I’m only five pounds lighter.
A doctor would tell you that shedding five pounds over 28 days is healthy. My body is decidedly more ripped, in the vernacular of gym rats. And people are noticing. Jay announces that my quads are looking “hellagood.” I will never forget the morning another trainer—we call him Deacon Dennis—approaches in the gym and delivers a sermon of praise that begins, “I’ve been a lot of places and I’ve seen a lot of things, and I want you to know what I’ve seen you doing in here is damn impressive.” When words like that come from a six-foot-four, 288-pound man with biceps as big as my (shrinking) thighs—well, let’s just say it speaks as loudly as any bathroom scale.
The Big Day
The morning I say good-bye to my forties, Jay gets out the tape again. Nothing says happy birthday, after all, like being sized up like a prize pig. (Whose idea was this again?) But the news is good. I’ve lost almost three inches from my waist (no sucking it in!), one inch from each thigh, two-and-a-half inches from my hips, and a quarter-inch from each arm. My endurance, as well, is much improved—in every exercise Jay throws at me I’ve increased what I can do in 60 seconds. A month before, I’d done 11 real push-ups. Now I do 28 without wussing out. Pull-ups? I can now do 12 all by my lonesome! My body fat (another number, to be sure, but I would argue a more meaningful one) has dropped to 24.9 percent—and will soon drop even closer to my target of 24.
Jay is proud of me and says so, which makes me supremely happy. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a coach—someone who metes out tough love, expects the world, and has only my best interests at heart. Now that I have that in my life for the first time since I played on a soccer team in 1987, I’m hooked. What began as a stunt has turned into a lifestyle. Jay and I are a team. I feel too good to stop.
Does The Number still exist in my head like a dark thought? Yes, and it probably always will. I don’t like to fail, and even as I seek to redefine my definition of success—to reject the reduction of each person to so many pounds or so many years on the planet—I know I’m not quite there yet. As I run up a hill one morning, noticing how it hurts so much less than a few weeks before, I make another vow. Going forward, improved performance will guide my quest to remain fit. Whether I ever reach The Number or not, I want to defang it, to strip it of its potency. Unrealistic expectations, fortified by a litany of self-recriminations—that’s something I’m determined to lose for good.
Amy Wallace is editor-at-large for Los Angeles. Her article about disgraced writer Jonah Lehrer appeared in the October issue.