The cartwheel imperative

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Esther Cepeda
Thursday, January 5, 2012
— Here it is again, National Best Intentions Week—that’s how I describe the first few days of the new year when resolutions are still exciting and every workout place in the country is bursting with people who have promised themselves a Speedo body by summer.

Since it is a time of both childlike hope and crushing realities, I thought I’d share with you the ongoing ups and downs of my own resolution, which was made back in August.

On a beautiful day, I saw my neighbor’s kids out in their front yard doing perfect, effortless, giggle-filled cartwheels—the kind I’ve never been able to do.

Ordinarily a simple, missed-out-on-childhood experience would inspire only wistful regret in a busy 37-year-old’s life. But cartwheels struck terror into my heart early last year when I found out I’d need to perform one—with a sword in one hand, no less—during the series of basic form tests necessary to earn a black belt in Korean sword fighting, which I’ve been working on for a year and a half.

Watching those 8-year-olds tumble effortlessly feet-over-head, I knew there was no way I could handle learning that skill with my complete lack of upper body strength. So I naively vowed to gain 10 pounds of muscle.

I honestly thought that for someone in OK shape, this was a reasonable, achievable goal in time for mid-February, when I’d be expected to learn, then flawlessly execute, the cartwheel for my two extremely demanding Korean masters. As additional inspiration, I had medical research from UCLA showing that muscle-building helps reduce the risk of getting type 2 diabetes, which runs like wildfire in my family.

And then reality intruded: I got a free fitness assessment from the certified trainers at my gym, and they broke the news to me that someone with my sad lack of muscle tone could, with intense training, meet that goal in a year. Maybe.

I forged ahead.

Now, you might imagine that health vows are easily made and kept during summer months because it’s nice outside and there are many opportunities to be active. True, but this didn’t help me—the weight machines and dumbbell racks at my fitness center are inconveniently located inside the gym where, in the summer, the only people there are the ones who are already in tiptop shape.

Try straining against the gravity-defying heft of five-pound hand weights just feet away from Adonises who could bench-press a 115-pound weakling like me one-handed.

That wasn’t the worst of it. At the rate I went—three hour-long muscle-group workouts a week, the most amount an average full-time worker with a family can possibly set aside for fitness—I made slow progress. Verrry slow progress accompanied by day-after aches that felt like a bad case of the flu, constant hunger, plus a fair amount of wondering whether I was wasting my time.

In five months I’ve gained about an inch on almost all of my major muscle groups. And though I still have to build up to the 90 that are required to pass my black belt test next November, for the first time in my life I can now do a handful of real, military-style pushups.

It will probably take me another two years to reach the lofty goal I set for myself last summer, but I’m going to continue working at it through these cold, dreary months and after I (hopefully) earn my black belt.

Keeping a resolution to get into shape or be healthier in any way takes a lot of hard work in the form of actually doing it and also fending off comments from well-meaning friends and family who can’t understand why you’d waste your time on such an exhausting pursuit. “You’ll never be a model, anyway,” will sound familiar to many.

Keeping these types of New Year’s resolutions might call for a different mindset this time. Forget about the swimsuit—how strong do you want to be when your first grandchild is born? Do you want to live long and healthy enough to meet your great-grandchildren?

Put it like that and your best intentions will seem worth it.

Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

Last updated: 7:36 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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