The Morning Call (Sunday)
Donald Trump Was My Fitspo
Anger at the president kicked many of us into action — or activism. Will those habits stick?
renowned for her formidable intellect, her professional power and her gym habit. We live in a culture that still loves to separate jocks from nerds. Regardless of your gender, Justice Ginsburg’s example suggested that those divisions are false — you can be smart, powerful and strong all at once.
Justice Ginsburg’s value as a role model for the hundreds of women who’ve followed her into the law and onto judicial benches across the country has been well appreciated and will, rightfully, make up the bulk of her legacy, along with the ways she helped shape the law to support underrepresented groups in court.
But to me, it was also powerful to watch her lead by example in terms of shaping what it means to act like a modern older woman, especially when it came to her relationship with her body.
Justice Ginsburg upended models of what exercise for women can be, particularly for older women in a country that values youth. Her gym habit was both a visible symbol of her toughness and her willingness to reinvent herself, but also a signal of her determination to endure.
And if she could, I could.
The last time I was tired from a marathon session of Zooms, I remembered that three weeks after major cancer surgery in 2009, Justice Ginsburg still showed up for the State of the Union address. What was my excuse? I went for a jog.
When I was sick of running last fall while training for a race, wondering if my fastest times were behind me, I remembered that well into her 80s, Justice Ginsburg was still doing 20 push-ups, sets of 10 at a time. I could do the final few miles. I could handle the pace, too.
When I was tired writing this, fretting over unsent emails and languishing lists of to-dos, I remembered that months ago Justice Ginsburg criticized her fellow justices for leaving “women workers to fend for themselves” when it came to contraception, participating in the case’s oral arguments from a hospital bed because of a gall bladder condition. She didn’t give up. I was fine.
MY BIRTHDAY FELL on Election Day 2016. By the time I blew out the candles on the cake at our watch party, I knew the electoral map would deny me my wish.
For days after, I could not get Donald Trump out of my mind. It was not a matter of party politics; it was that this future president had run on a platform that seemed opposed to the very idea of me: a woman, a person of color, a child of immigrants.
I was stressed, distressed — angry. Then I started thinking about all my annoyingly upbeat runner friends who over the years professed that what they loved most about the sport was how it just “clears your head.”
I’d never really understood it. My whole life I’d scoffed at vigorous exercise. At the school I attended, varsity letters were handed out for Model United Nations as often as they were for sports (I went the nerdier route). My mother still calls sneakers “P.E. shoes” because she purchased them only for our middle school physical education classes. Thanks to her, I had a decent metabolism and a great ineptitude for anything remotely athletic.
The Monday after the election, that changed. With few other options to escape my own mind, I put on a pair of P.E. shoes I’d bought two years earlier, which were still good as new. And I entered the “red room” — a boutique fitness arena otherwise known as Barry’s Bootcamp.
It was like nothing I’d ever seen: nightclub lighting, blaring music, treadmills and a terrifying wall of dumbbells the size of my head. The class was full of people who looked like athletes or models or both, contorting their bodies into positions named after sharp objects like “jackknives.”
On Tread No. 18, facing a mirrored wall, I sprinted toward an aspirational reflection of myself: determined, radiant with sweat and no longer moping on my couch. I was propelled by pop hits remixed at 135 beats per minute and the chants of a muscular preacher stationed at Floor Bench No. 9. Apparently, I could “do anything for 30 seconds.”
The coach continued to preach, “We all have the power to leave behind whatever it is that holds us back!” I believed him. I panted harder and found a second wind.
It was the beginning of a bizarre transformation. The red room at Barry’s became my church. I started going every week, then every other day, and sometimes more. Eventually I added other fitness classes to the rotation: Megaformer Pilates; a circuit session where we pushed and pulled sleds like Rocky Balboa; and even a workout in which we wore high-tech skin suits designed to stimulate muscle groups with electrical pulses as we squatted and lunged.
When fitness classes shut down in the pandemic, I bought myself resistance bands and a mini-trampoline. I bounced through “rebounder” cardio at home. Exercise took the sadness and anger and powerlessness I felt and fueled it into something productive. It made me healthier than I’d ever been. In the process, I realized I could change something: myself. So I started changing other things too.
This president unintentionally changed many of us. Maybe he convinced you, Republican or Democrat, to run for office. To be a better dad. To fact-check your opinions. To subscribe to a newspaper.
Of course, civic engagement and sweating it out at the gym are not the same things. But they are connected. When we feel powerless to change the course of events in our nation’s capital, we can at least control how we spend our own lives.
I wonder what will happen once President Trump is gone. Will all that angry motivation melt away? Or will the action he unintentionally pushed us toward simply hang around like good habits?
When it comes to my own workout routine, I think I’ll keep it going, this time for myself. It turns out that my annoying runner friends were onto something. Exercise gave me a clarity of mind and purpose. It made me realize that in my despair, I could find the strength to do things that once felt impossible. Not just for 30 seconds, but for four years.
Maybe even for a lifetime.