Her name was Bette (pronounced “bet", as in Midler), and her job was to take my two years of sedentary living, overeating, and excuse-making and turn them into a fitness regimen. I would not want her job. Hence, the two years.

It’s fair to say I had mixed feelings that would not unmix themselves, even as I signed up for 5 initial sessions.

Once you are out of shape, getting back into shape is hard. When you are middle aged, even more so. My fatigue-filled days were already crowded with single mothering, work, and graduate school. Where would an exercise regimen possibly fit?

Nonetheless, I dutifully met my trainer in the gym lobby for a first session. She looked sculpted in all the places where I had become flabby, and she did not look like she’d been made miserable by the process. I found this to be a blend of inspirational and irritating.

“You can do this!” she chirped, and then she made, I kid you not, a little fist pump in the air.

This I found irritating, without the inspirational.

I followed her up two flights of stairs, pretending I was not out of breath after the first one, then, down a corridor. I assumed we were headed to the gym, but she stopped at a different door.

Moments later, I was in a room full of clanging metal, men with rippling muscles, and the strong smell of sweat. Does testosterone have a smell? Because either it was my imagination, or the whole room reeked of it.

Maybe she needed to drop something off here?

She gathered a couple of dumbbells and showed me how to curl with them. I tried to watch her, but surrounded by mirrors, all I could see were men sweating, grimacing, and heaving gigantic barbells into the air.

“Here, you try.”

She handed me the weights.

By this point, weight lifters were beginning to look my way, some briefly, but others, not so much. They all had the same kind of expression on their face, like someone had just gone before a judge in a bikini.

“Slow down. If you use momentum, that’s cheating,” she said.

I slowed my curls, breathed the way she showed me, and fervently wished to become invisible.

She showed me several other exercises, but there was not a single moment when my attention was not divided. Where did these guys come from?

A boxing school?

A motorcycle gang?

Where were the average size guys who didn’t look like they could throw you across the room or start bench pressing a car?

“Now we’re going to do squats,” Bette said. “Watch me, first.”

That was when I heard it. The first grunt. It sounded pained or sexual, but it turned out to be, apparently, a weight lifting side effect.

You know how sometimes at night, you hear a single cricket chirp, and then it is followed by a chorus? Soon, all the men, it seemed, were making guttural noises, grunting, groaning, their lifts punctuated by a strange effort sounds.

I began to feel afraid that I would laugh.

As it turned out, I would not be the first one to do so.

“Try it,” Bette said of the exercise she had just demonstrated.

And as I executed what I thought was an exact replicate of Bette’s carefully-executed squat, she erupted into laughter.

“No, no, no, not like that! Your knees should be lined up with your feet. You have to stick out your butt, like this. Like sitting in a chair.”

Dead silence in the recently grunt-filled space.

I could feel the eyes on me.

My face felt like I was under a heat lamp.

Somehow, I managed to get through the rest of the session. Somehow, I never got up the nerve to share how horribly self-conscious I had been, how much I’d hated the space we had worked in.

Maybe I just won’t do this again, I thought on my way to my car.

Did I mention how hard it is to change when you’re having reservations at the outset? My pros and cons list began to reshuffle itself, the cons becoming heftier by the moment.

And yet.

And yet, I did have reasons for wanting to get physically fit. If I was honest with myself, I had to admit that I needed more energy and more strength in my day-to-day life. I did feel better about myself at a lower weight. And I was flirting with both high blood pressure and diabetes, which run in my family. I did not want to be weak and ill during my daughter’s childhood or adolescence, if this was avoidable. Nor did I want to be the one to say no to all of her fun ideas for lack of energy.

And the five session payment was non-refundable.

I decided on a bottom line. I did want to take some initial steps toward fitness, and I did want to take them under the guidance of a trainer.

I did not, however, want to train in the grunt room.

I composed an email and conveyed to my trainer, in an uncharacteristically assertive way, that while I was willing to learn about and practice strength training, I did not want to do so in a room that made me completely uncomfortable. I had no aspirations of being a fellow grunter. I simply wanted to get strong, have more energy, and hopefully get more lean.

Later that day, she responded with an email saying she understood. She said we could use a different room, and she could also teach me exercises I could do at home.

I am almost done with my five sessions, and my progress has been uneven. I’ve had days when I’ve been considerably more physically active while also eating healthy food, and days when I have skimped on exercise and indulged myself with junk food. I know that if any change is to be effective, it will ultimately amount to lifestyle change, not a weight loss diet or a full-throttle exercise program followed by a return to my sedentary life. I keep my eye on my long-term goal.

My training sessions, after the first one, have been blissfully gruntless. In a quieter place, where the machismo level is not stifling, I can focus on my learning, my form, my progress.

I have nothing against all gender exercise areas. I just choose to pursue my beginning fitness goals without a lot of sound effects or watchful eyes. I can hardly blame the muscle men for viewing me with incredulity or skepticism. I was a fish out of water, and would sure have continued flopping around and feeling self-conscious if it hadn’t been for the change of scene.

Sometimes, knowing what we want, why we want it, and what our limits are can make the difference between progress and spinning our wheels.

As for me? You can find me, on my healthy days and my cheating days, in the grunt-free zone.

Things you might find in this writer's catch-all drawer include: child's artwork, university ID, dog treat, half-written list, & poem on a napkin.

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