How a Journey to Fitness Taught Me About the Woman I Really Am

How a Journey to Fitness Taught Me About the Woman I Really Am

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A widowed Solo Mom finds newfound strength in exercise

I’ve never been good at sustaining a fitness routine for any length of time. Staying consistent with exercise and being connected to my body for an extended period has always been a source of anxiety for me. I imagine it has something to do with painful emotional memories stored within my flesh, or perhaps it’s a fear of honestly evaluating my successes, as opposed to living in the safety of far-off potentials. . . .

In some ways I’ve been lucky, as I’ve never had a tendency toward obesity. But this has also allowed me to skate by on being sedentary, living largely from the neck up, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more painfully aware of my absence of core strength and overall lack of muscle tone. Then, a little over a year ago, I made a great connection with a personal trainer on another creative project. Once we realized how we could help each other achieve our respective goals, we agreed to become each other’s coaches. I started assisting him with writing, editing, and building out a natural audience for his fitness business, and he became my personal trainer. I knew that the time had come for a radical change, but I had no idea what I was in for.

My trainer’s name is Utenge Utuk—most folks just call him T. He is a professional, drug-free bodybuilder, and at TruBody Wellness, the practice he runs with his wife, Toniesha, he focuses on nutrition as a key component to fitness. He set me up with a rotating series of three weekly workouts, between 20 and 40 minutes long, delivered to me via a customized iPhone app, complete with demo videos, detailed instructions, and tracking capabilities. We checked in with each other via video conference call once a week.

What I’ve learned about myself from working with him over the course of this past year has changed my life. Sure, I’ve developed a comfort with free weights, something I never thought I would do; I’ve learned all about macronutrients and how to schedule my meals to help burn fat and build muscle; and, yes, I’ve lost a fair amount of weight and developed a noticeably stronger core and the beginnings of a more muscled physique. But the real wisdom I’ve gained has come more from the moments of fear and uncertainty that have arisen along the way and how I’ve dealt with them.

Here are some excerpts from my training journal:


I was surprised by how overwhelming it felt at first. I was so worried whether or not I was doing it correctly. I was caught off guard by an intense emotional reaction to the supine bridges (lying on my back, feet on the floor, raising my pelvis up and down). Almost immediately, I experienced a strange unsettled feeling in my abdomen that quickly escalated to nausea accompanied by panic and an intense urge to cry. I was frightened that I wouldn’t be able to get through my reps. . . . What the hell is that all about, I wonder. I can’t help but think it has something to do with childhood trauma.

I kid you not. It was pretty difficult to push through those early emotional humps. During the first few weeks, I wanted to quit almost every time I worked out. Phrases such as “I can’t,” “I don’t want to,” and “This is too hard” filled my mind every time I felt myself straining against the weight of those pitifully small dumbbells, activating muscles I didn’t even know existed.


This morning’s workout was one of those that I really needed to infuse my soul with a sense of power. I’m having one of those being-an-asshole-to-myself days. I’m freaked out about money, my self-esteem is in the toilet, Mercury just went retrograde, and I can’t seem to make the connections I need and want to make. I’ve lost several key pieces of client income, and I’m terribly overwhelmed by all of my unfinished business and projects and clutter. . . . Then, I power my way through this really tough circuit workout that leaves my arms and legs quivering by the end of the last sets, and I think: I can do this. I can make it through this rough period. Things are bleak over here, but not impossible. When I get through a workout like the one I did today, I think anything might be possible.

Yes, this. After just a few months of pushing against my physical limitations, I began to get a glimpse of how exercise could become a sort of metaphor for confronting other challenges in my life.


Here’s how exercising is now becoming the template for the rest of my life. As T likes to say, no pressure, no gain. Not pain, just pressure. Pushing the edges, pushing the boundaries, pushing myself to do better and better. And he says, keep rising. Stay in it, and keep showing up. That’s 80% of it. Knowing that if you say you’re going to do something, you just do it. That’s when the benefits of accomplishment begin to kick in. The slow and steady progress I’ve been making is because I’ve been sticking with it.


Toughest workout in a while.

Nausea, tears, sweat.


Clearly, the difficult moments don’t stop. As I’ve struggled to maintain continuity with my workouts, I’ve begun to learn that I’m far more capable of keeping up with ongoing stress than I sometimes believe. Pushing through those nausea- and tear-inducing moments during a particularly difficult workout to get through those final few reps leaves me feeling exhilarated and empowered. It’s a good reminder to push through my fears, that I have what it takes to get past them, even if I don’t feel it in the moment.

About a year into my training, I hit a wall. On the heels of some particularly stressful financial and emotional challenges, I stopped working out and went right back to square one, feeling terrible and doing nothing about it for days on end. This happened at the same time as T and I fell off each other’s schedules for a few weeks. (Coincidence? I think not!) Weeks stretched into a month and more. That familiar malaise, the amnesia regarding my progress, and the feeling that it had all been a dream brought back frightening memories of my mother, whose dreams had always seemed to her to be one step out of reach.

Just when I thought I was going to undo all of the progress I’d made over the past year, T and I got back on each other’s calendars. We had a phone check-in, caught up on things. I had just started working out again the week before, had two sessions under my belt, and was surprised to discover that I hadn’t lost as much strength as I had feared. After our call, he updated my app with another couple weeks’ worth of brand-new workouts. After talking to him, I felt re-energized, ready to embrace the next few sessions with enthusiasm.

During that last conversation, he said something really important to me. He said that I needed to turn my “shoulds” into “musts.” In other words, in the morning, when I wake up, instead of saying, “I should work out now,” I need to say, “I must work out now.” No maybe. Just yes. Like breathing or bathing or eating. This is the relationship I’m now cultivating with exercise. It’s becoming a regular part of my life. I’ve been at it long enough to realize that when I work out, I feel great. When I don’t, I feel like shit. It’s kind of that simple. Self-care is not optional.

Here’s another important thing I learned about myself during this grand experiment. After being married for 22 years, I got used to regular feedback and encouragement, and not having to rely fully on my inner resources to get me through rough patches. I got soft. In the seven years since my husband died, I’ve had to dig deep to find my courage and resilience during difficult times. I recognize that, though I like the security of having someone to bounce things off of, someone to hold me accountable, someone to bear witness to my process, there are some things that I must do alone. Learning to sort out when it’s OK to ask for help and when I have to push through on my own is an ongoing process, but my ability to discern the difference is improving all the time.

As Solo Moms, we deal with the constant demands of parenthood on our own, without a coparent. Learning when I need to reach out to friends and family for assistance and when I need to power through difficult moments on my own has been incredibly challenging. The option to give up, or even hide under the covers, is not practical or advisable. Still, we all have those moments. It helps to gain some perspective by pushing through something physically challenging and realizing that it will not make us die. It’s a visceral lesson in our own survival capabilities!

The most significant thing to me is that I not get frightened or intimidated into stopping my progress. I want to continue to stay with this and see what happens over time. I’m determined to work through whatever fear I harbor that has made me stop in the past. I’ve realized there’s this element of trust I’ve had to engage—trust that even though I can’t really see the results in the short run, the more I stick with the routine of showing up three times a week to do my exercises, the stronger my body gets.

Taking action in spite of my fear moves things forward. This simple truth has been the biggest revelation of all.

Deborah Oster Pannell is a freelance writer and editor who collaborates with other writers, artists, and creative entrepreneurs to develop and promote their projects. She is currently working on a collection of stories and poems about grief, parenting, and sexuality, which, as it turns out, are not always mutually exclusive.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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