Six months ago my friend Vickie said, “We should go to CrossFit.” We both laughed because, after all, we were both over 50 and not in the best of shape (at least I wasn’t). I had tried exercising here and there over the years, but didn’t have the self-discipline to do it regularly. My job — which involves sitting on my butt all day staring at my computer — led to some really unhealthy habits. Add to that a bunch of stressors in my life — a death in the family, becoming empty nesters, our grandson being born with a rare genetic condition, a kitchen reno, a cancer scare, a major job change — and I was an out-of-shape mess. I put on 50 lbs. in a year and everything hurt. The disc degeneration in my back was getting worse and despite several rounds of physical therapy, at times I couldn’t get up from the floor unassisted. I clutched the railing every time I went up and down steps, fearful I’d fall. Worse, my blood pressure and cholesterol had ventured into unhealthy territory and my underactive thyroid forced me to go on medication.
Not exactly what you think of when you picture a CrossFitter in your mind, right?
Vickie and I talked each other (maybe it was more of dare) into trying the 6-week Fundamentals class offered our local at CrossFit in Orrville, Ohio. The first six classes were free, so what did we have to lose, right? The following Tuesday we met in the parking lot and giggled as we walked into the box (CrossFit jargon for gym) together, both of us terrified but excited.
My first thought as I watched the class before ours winding down was that I was in way over my head. There were a bunchy of beefy guys doing pull-ups and lifting enormous amounts of weight and then collapsing in exhaustion.
But it was too late to back out, so when the class circled up, I was there. I was glad to see there were several women around my age in the group and they all welcomed and encouraged the newcomers. Lexi Nussbaum, our coach and the manager of the box, painstakingly showed us how to do the movements the right way and explained that what we were doing could help us in our everyday lives—squats and deadlifts would help us to easily pick up Amazon boxes from our front porch and push-presses can aid in getting a box down from a high shelf.
During that first class, I huffed and puffed through the warmups and was 98.7% sure I was going to die after the 15-minute workout of the day (WOD). I was ok on 30-second planks and didn’t hate the weightlifting (push-presses that day) but I failed badly on box jumps, only able to jump onto a 10-pound plate thanks to my bad knees and decades of avoiding exercise.
Somehow I managed to drag myself to my feet afterward and walk to my car. I gulped water all the way home and practically crawled out of my car.
I can’t say I enjoyed that workout—not even close—but I had a feeling of accomplishment. I had survived a CrossFit class at age 56! The next day everything hurt—everything except, curiously, my back. I was sure that after lifting weights my back would be screaming at me the next day, but that didn’t happen. My legs and shoulders ached, but it was that good kind of pain you feel after working out.
One thing I loved about CrossFit from the outset was the fact that it’s not boring. You generally don’t do the same thing for more than a few minutes and every workout is different. And it’s easy enough to tell yourself that you can do just about anything for five minutes—a mantra that has gotten me through many a workout.
After convincing myself that a second class wasn’t going to kill me, I went back two days later. This time air squats and running were on the agenda. I don’t know how long it had been since I’d even attempted a squat, but it wasn’t pretty. I wasn’t able to get all the way down, so I squatted to a box, which was embarrassing (until I realized that everyone was too busy working on their own squats to pay attention to mine). We had to run that day and I couldn’t do it. I made it 50 yards before I had to stop and walk the rest of the way. Nonetheless, I didn’t quit and I was proud of that, if not my actual performance.
But I pushed myself too hard. The day after that second workout, the tendonitis in my knee from an old ACL tear that never healed properly flared up and I couldn’t bend it. I tried going for a long walk to see if that would loosen things up but it didn’t. Sitting to a chair and climbing the stairs were excruciating. I texted Lexi the following Tuesday asking her if I should skip class that day. She said I should come and we would work on some stretching exercises that might help and assured me we could scale down the workout to accommodate my knee problem.
It would have been the perfect time to quit—and I seriously considered it. Why put my body through that, after all? And who was I kidding? I was clearly too out of shape for CrossFit. But I decided to go back anyway.
Lexi, who’s truly a miracle worker, patiently coached me through the injury, coming up with scaling options for the movements that wouldn’t aggravate my knee. I also had it checked out at an orthopedic clinic and was prescribed physical therapy. We worked those exercises into the CrossFit workouts.
“Many people think’ ‘CrossFit’ and their minds immediately jump to something crazy they’ve seen on TV,” Lexi told me. She compared that misconception to people who believe that everyone who shops at Victoria’s Secret looks like the supermodels in the fashion show. She said that while CrossFit boxes around the country vary, “At CrossFit Orrville, I have made it my top priority to base everything we do off of functional movements. “
“So for those who are on the fence about coming, don’t have a regular routine, haven’t worked out in um-teen years, I always start by educating them about fundamental and functional movements,” she said. “Movements like going up stairs (lunge, box step-up), sitting in a chair (squat), putting something on a shelf (overhead movement), always mimic things they are already doing in life.” By making the movements relatable, “the barrier that they feel is between them and CrossFit is removed.”
That’s absolutely true.
“There is no physical prerequisite to begin CrossFit,” the Orville CrossFit website explains. “All movements in the workout can be adapted to fit your needs,” what they call “scaling.” The workouts will be tough, she said, but “we will take the time to adjust the movements so that you are able to perform them in a safe, and proficient manner.”
Fast-forward six months: I LOVE CROSSFIT! I may even be addicted (and my kids think I’m probably in a cult). Week by week I’ve been able to see progress—I can lift more, run longer distances, and am feeling better than I have in 20 years. That’s not an exaggeration. The back pain that had plagued me for 20 years is essentially gone, thanks to my stronger leg muscles and core and learning how to lift the right way. And things my husband used to have to do for me—carrying laundry baskets and heavy boxes—I can now do for myself. Just this weekend I picked up a 30-lb. bag of dog food with one hand and carried it to the garage without thinking twice about it. I sprint up the stairs sometimes without even realizing what I’m doing. I even managed to hoist a pair of nested suitcases over my head and onto a high shelf (thanks, overhead movements!) last week.
And while squatting isn’t my best movement (it’s actually the hardest), I can get all the way down now—and back up! Some days it feels like one step forward, two steps back, but feeling good and not hurting all the time has its benefits. I’ve also managed to lose a modest 30 lbs. in six months—turns out that the diet and exercise stuff really works. (Weight Watchers if you’re wondering.) My blood pressure and cholesterol are now within healthy limits, and I’ve been able to discontinue the thyroid medicine.
If you had told me seven months ago that I would be going to CrossFit twice a week and actually enjoying it, I would have laughed in your face. Everyone who knows me would have laughed in your face. And if you had told me that my introverted self would enjoy being part of a fitness “community,” I would have thought the idea absurd. Yet here we are. The encouragement I get from my fellow CrossFitters is part of what keeps me going back—even more so now that we’re all forced to work out at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. The whole experience has been radically life-changing. I feel ten years younger and I don’t fear the effects of aging as much as I used to, knowing I’m building muscle and endurance and learning healthy habits.
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