The Morning Call (Sunday)
I Was Tired of Training. But Then I Thought of R.B.G.
The justice’s legendary gym habit showed you could be smart, powerful and strong all at once.
A FEW YEARS AGO, I realized the only fitness idol I needed was a brilliant octogenarian Supreme Court justice fighting her fourth round of cancer on a few hours of sleep and a withering regimen of push-ups and planks.
Even through the pandemic, CNN reported early on, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg kept up the grind, continuing her squats and presses at the Supreme Court gym. Her workout attire included sweatsuits with cheerful variations on the term “diva.” She gritted her teeth and didn’t hide that she was trying. She kept her glasses on.
Amid a virtual onslaught of etched-out abdomens and “fitspo” hashtags urging us toward maximum hotness, it was remarkable to have an 87-year-old woman whose trademarks included a combination of fierce intelligence, stubborn longevity and physical strength emerge as not just an American icon but also a fitness icon. Justice Ginsburg was notable for embracing exercise as a performance tool — not for boosting how she looked, but for how she worked. Watching her invest in her own strength for the sake of it felt like the literal definition of empowerment.
Her athleticism — like so many parts of herself — was something she defined on her own terms, on whatever schedule was available to her.
As the journalist Irin Carmon noted: “One reason Ginsburg might have been reluctant to retire is that like many women of her generation, it took so long for her to get a chance, and even longer for her to become the person she was supposed to be. She did not even begin to be a ‘flaming feminist litigator,’ as she would later describe herself, until she was 37 years old.”
Discovering her athletic potential came even later, long after most conventional definitions of one’s physical prime. Growing up in the typical postwar American environment where the boys played the sports and the girls watched, Justice Ginsburg started working out only in her final quarter of life, as a means of advancing her recovery from colon cancer in 1999.
That was when she started lifting weights. And doing squats. And arm presses. Toning her 66-year-old arms, chest, legs, back, shoulders, glutes and abs. By 2017, when someone asked her who the most important person in her life was, she joked that it was her trainer, an Army veteran named Bryant Johnson.
“I found each time that when I’m active,” she explained in 2019, “I’m much better than if I’m just lying about and feeling sorry for myself.”
It’s hard to think of another older American woman who has simultaneously been