The last time I went to a group exercise class in 2020, I was trying out something new. It was a step-dance cardio class that fit my schedule and my 2020 resolution to participate in things that fell outside of my comfort zone. When I arrived in class, I looked around to see what kind of equipment others had set up. I said generally to the few people in the room, “so, I need a step, a mat…. Anything else? It’s my first time in the class.” A woman named Pam helped me get my bearings and as we set up we chatted about being Y members. She was a silversneakers member and we spoke about how important it is to stay moving as we get older.
The class was a series of not exactly beginner choreography moves interspersed by fast running, high knees and shadowboxing drills where agility played a key role. At each new challenge, Pam was there to tell me what to expect. Other nearby attendees also caught on, and every once in awhile they’d whisper cues to me as we moved. None of the folks in class who helped me knew my story or why I showed up in class that day. They just saw a new face and helped me to have a successful experience as I attempted a new challenge. I walked away from class smiling and feeling supported, knowing the group would welcome me back warmly and with encouragement.
Then the novel coronavirus came to Austin and so many of the things I thought I knew got upended. The Y closed along with every other business in the state and there was no more group exercise class. In those first early days just venturing outdoors seemed a frightening prospect. We prepared to hunker down for a two-week quarantine, not realizing at that point how naive we were to think we’d be on the other side of it in just 14 days. March turned into April and May and June and things just continued to get worse. I purchased a subscription to an on-demand fitness service and logged into the Y’s live streaming classes but it just didn’t compare to being in a group exercise class with other people. Still, I was grateful for the opportunity to quarantine safely with my family, to work comfortably from home and to order groceries online for contactless pickup. I know so many of our friends and neighbors lost their jobs, lost their loved ones, and suffered with this terrible disease. Exactly one year after Austin went into pandemic lock-down, I received my first dose of the vaccine that would help us to turn the corner of this public health crisis and start to come out of quarantine. But it wasn’t until this week that I returned to attend a group exercise class at the Y.
I was worried that the past fifteen months of elevated cortisol levels, reduced activity and halfhearted on-demand exercise efforts would impact my participation. And while those factors did play into how sore I felt the next day, the feeling of being back in a class with other Y members was so uplifting. Like riding a bike, muscle memory helped me to give it my best effort. I let the instructor know it was my first time attending a group exercise class since March 2020, and throughout the class he made sure to check in with me every so often. I didn’t feel singled out as a beginner – rather, I felt genuinely supported and like the instructor cared and my success mattered. And there’s just something so energetic about being in a group exercise class. Knowing you’re taking on a challenge but you’re not alone and other people are going through the same thing you are, really helps provide that burst of motivation that’s so hard to find when you’re exercising at home. I know that I can ask questions and be vulnerable as a newcomer or someone who’s recently returning, and the instructor and other class participants will be there to support me and cheer me on.
Likewise, as I get stronger and more comfortable with the things I’m relearning, I will make a point to be a resource for other newcomers or folks who are just getting back into it. There are a lot of us, and we’ve just lived through an extraordinary year and some change together. We used to make new choreography releases a big deal in the group exercise classes at Southwest Family YMCA. At one of the new releases, someone got out the label maker and put inspirational messages on some of the barbells. Wouldn’t you know it, my first class back, I got one of those barbells with the message still on it. “You got this,” it declared to me. And maybe I had doubted that when I first walked through the doors. But I did have this. And I’m here to welcome back everyone else who is emerging from quarantine. We got this.