In the dim light, my legs pump the pedals faster and I feel my pores open and fill with sweat, despite the fans. The instructor barks instructions into her mike and we dutifully crank up the resistance or pedal faster, stand and run the bikes, or hop off and grab free weights. I watch the mirror image of the clock as I gasp for air, trying to remember which way clockwise is. How many minutes remain? We’re supposed to plank, push-up, and punch??? Why did I volunteer for this? Can I make it through to the end of class?

Joy after workoutI am 36 years old. My guess is the cycling instructor is 40. Every one of the fitness instructors at my gym is at least 40, and they kick my butt. They work hard every day and it shows. They make 40 look far better than 25. I am not too breathless to admire their toned arms and legs, or to compare with my own.

My eyes slide from the instructor to my red-faced reflection as we sprint through a 30-second interval of “flat.” After a year of semi-regular work-outs, improved eating, and despite birthing four babies, I’m probably in the best shape I’ve been since my swimming years as a preteen. Yes, the woman counting down the minutes until the end of class is at her best (thus far). Clearly this isn’t saying much and there’s always room for improvement, but still. I am proud of it.

I tuck my long bangs behind my sweaty ear for the tenth time as we begin a series of “jumps” – standing up for a couple of pedals and then sitting back in the saddle for a few pedals, then repeat. I spill water as I gulp between sets.

My fellow cycling class members are all at least 40, except for me and one other woman. Many are quite a bit older than that. We’re wives, mothers, grandmothers. We all pant and sweat and fight against the toll that age, stress, and bad food has on our bodies. They have no idea how much their tenacity inspires me. I resolve for this year, 36, to be the beginning of my fight.

I take caring for my body more seriously now than I did in my teens. Back then I was over-confident in my youth, health, time available, and metabolism. I didn’t have to work very hard to get results. Now I do. I also know how dull and discouraged I feel when I don’t take care of myself. My life has been filled with inescapable stress for twelve years. I spent years in survival mode, sleep-deprived and stressed by the demands of caring for my young medically-fragile family. I knew my body was suffering but I had no margin with which to engage in physical exercise. Everything I had went to keeping my children alive, with nothing left for me. That’s significant and I know it has aged me prematurely. Now that I have some margin, the best antidote I can think of is regular exercise. I need it to manage the current ongoing stress, keep up with our growing family, and just be a better (healthier, happier) person (I remind my kids of this when they complain about having to hang out at the gym).

Some weeks are better than others. I’m hoping to get to classes twice this week. Illness, kids’ schedules, and freelance work keeps me away fairly often. But I am trying not to let one week away, or even one month, keep me from going back.

Life: unmasked button

Who inspires you? What do you do to fight aging and stress? Are you still striving to reach your best?

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On Wednesdays, I host a link-up for anyone willing to take off their “everything is fine” mask and write naked. You can keep it simple and just share a photo, you can get artistic and write a poem, or go deep. Anything goes, as long as you’re real. As a friend of mine said yesterday, there’s such comfort in just knowing someone else has been there too. If we all pretend we’ve never struggled, none of us will never know that comfort.

The instructions are simple: include a link back to this post in your post (you can use this short link: http://wp.me/p2n5xv-x6 ). Copy the direct link to your post into the linky below. Then visit a couple others and let them know you stopped by.