How CrossFit Helped Me Change My Body And My Mind

Learning to listen to my body feels like a gift.

I don’t remember the first time I heard about CrossFit, but it definitely wasn’t in Berlin, where I’ve been living the past 10 years. I think it was a last ditch weight loss effort my sister opted for during the lead-up to her wedding. Maybe it was in a stray copy of Men’s Fitness I found during a visit to my parent’s., The first time I saw it, I remember thinking, When I have time, I’ll do this. It looked cool and elite, hard and the opposite of prissy. Most importantly, it seemed logical: Do these basic moves in repetition and you will get fit.

I have a two-year-old daughter, a partner with an erratic schedule and no family near-by to shoulder the burden. I work full time and am the primary earner. The stress of all this shows.; fitness is no longer a card that I hold. When I started CrossFit in September of this year, I was 20 lbs overweight. Most of that weight is packed onto my belly, but at 36, I am starting to see signs of middle-age body creeping in. My butt looks saggy. My upper arms feel stuffed like sausages in a size medium shirt and my cheeks and neck are showing early signs of jowl-itis.

Like many new moms, I made the decision to put my daughter first and put taking care of myself on a waiting list that kept getting extended: when she joins preschool, when we have more money, when my partner’s schedule becomes more normal. When none of these solutions panned out, I had to face facts: I was really out of shape. I was depressed. I was not interested in having a body and preferred instead to distract myself with books and TV and anything that didn’t require me changing out of sweat pants. When the odd free hour presented itself I was reluctant to work out. It seemed like an exercise in futility.

As I struggled to create a schedule that would enable more self care, on the other side of the world, my mom was dying of cancer. She had been struggling with lung cancer for years, clinging to experimental trial drugs that she hoped would magically transform her from the weak, oxygen-mask wearing patient to the kick ass Pilates student I’d always known. When these drugs were working my mom was a health machine. Along with my dad, who’s had the same 5-day-a week gym schedule for almost 40 years, the two of them inspired real envy in me. They looked great. They seemed so bonded around looking and feeling great. It was stupid and vapid and very southern Californian, but it was also keeping their hope alive.

They went paleo, drank distilled water with drops of essential oils, tried reiki, meditation, and got personal trainers. But eventually cancer won. When the drugs stopped working in August of this year, we gathered to be with her and held her hand as she bravely faced whatever it is that comes next. The next day, all surviving family members went to the gym.

While sitting Shiva for my mother in the Huntington Beach home she’d lived in for the past decade, I became acutely aware of how health and the community that comes with devoting yourself to health shaped my mother’s life. My mom’s yoga teacher spoke at her funeral. Her Pilates friends showed up every day in their Lululemon with green juices for all of us. It’s the sort of thing that could be a spoof of Californian culture but it was actually really moving. I looked around the room expecting to see relatives and noticed instead that most of the people there were friends from gyms — both present and past.

When I got back to Berlin I bit the $150 a month bullet and signed up for my first fundamental training at a CrossFit gym near my office. When asked what my goal was, I said, “I want to be scary fit,” and I meant it. That first 10-minute workout was brutal. I came in dead last, surrounded by, what seemed to me like the fittest group of beginners I’d ever seen. Half of them were actual personal trainers. The other half were marathon runners and triathletes. In Germany, CrossFit is not the suburban housewife’s post-yoga experiment. It’s a serious club for serious athletes. Still, despite how terribly I performed, no one told me to go home. So I came back and came back and came back.

It’s now two months into my training and I haven’t lost a pound. In fact, I’ve gained about 5. I hate this and I am not above anxiously Googling “Why am I gaining weight after starting CrossFit” to soothe my worried mind. I had envisioned a slender, toned version of myself emerging from the lumpy clay that two years of no exercise will lead to. After all, I’m from L.A., a place where thin is more important than fit and fit is a justification to get even more thin. But I’ve glimpsed something in these past two months that keeps me rushing from work to the gym — strength. I think it’s what my parents were addicted to. Every morning I wake up with sore muscles, I feel like I’m alive. I can no longer ignore my body the way I used to and that feels like a gift.

Tonight I will be getting home at 7:30. I will be relying on my partner to pick up our daughter, cook dinner, and keep her out of trouble during the witching hour before bed. I will swoop in, sweaty and stinky, shovel some leftovers in my mouth and hopefully get my contacts out before crashing in bed with my daughter at 8 and falling asleep, unable to resist the calming effect of her slowed breathing and warm little hands on my arm.

I’ve given up a lot to make this work. I barely talk to my partner anymore. I haven’t had a drinks’ night with girlfriends in months and I’ve cut back on all the treats that used to make me feel better — shopping, endless bowls of pasta, manicures. Nona Willis Aronowitz wrote about treating herself to cope with grief. She used shopping as a means to elicit human kindness from shop owners and sales people. I consider CrossFit my one and only treat and I get a lot of comfort from the investment of trainers and classmates in my progress. Grief is loss, strength is gain and while that formula might sound a little pat, there’s something to it. Panting and dizzy at the end of a workout, I feel better than I did when I came in. That alone is worth far more than six pack abs.

Sabrina Small is a writer, fitness and nutrition enthusiast living in Berlin

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