“Hi, kids,” said the 40-something desk clerk, grinning, as my 60-something husband and I scanned our ID fobs at our neighborhood gym. Once out of earshot, I murmured to my husband, “Guess we’re officially old now — old enough to be patronized, kid.”
Rich answered, “Better than being called ‘Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus.'”
He was right. When we first started showing up at the gym, over two years ago, we did look like those A-List celebrities (“A” as in arctic), thanks to Rich’s full white beard, my spectacles, and our more than ample bellies. Our outlook wasn’t so jolly, though. Despite our having lost a ton of weight — actually, 120 pounds between us — Rich’s diabetes and my high blood pressure remained poorly managed. No matter how much we disliked the idea, argued our doctor, nutritionist, and grown daughters, exercise was the missing link to our good health.
Resigned, we signed up at the gym, a former factory, only a five-minute drive from our house in Northeast Philadelphia. (What, walk? Are you kidding?)
“We have a trainer who is very good with seniors,” said the desk clerk, brightly. “Let me get you set up with him.”
Those first sessions with that trainer, Vernell, hurt us, body and soul, as Rich and I struggled to adapt to a new way of life. Accustomed to using charm to disarm in any negotiation, Rich explained to Vernell that we were champions at doing diddley squat, not squats. Good at working apps, not abs. Better at talking, not walking. Firm believers in “less is more,” when it came to exercise.
Vernell listened, smiled — and calmly added a few more repetitions to our regimen. For months, this pattern of pleas for mercy being met by more reps continued. One December evening, Vernell joked, “Okay, have it your way: Don’t want to do 20 minutes on the treadmill? Do 25 minutes, Santa Claus.”
After many razor-sharp looks, ever-optimistic Mr. Claus finally understood: If Vernell gives an instruction, just do it.
So for an hour twice a week, Rich and I play ball — sometimes literally, passing a gigantic Pilates ball back and forth. We lift weights, we do crunches, we bike, we groan, we sweat, we smile (on the way home). When Vernell tells us to walk through the gym (what we call “Old People on Parade”) we can’t help feeling a little foolish, if not weak, as we watch younger, more muscular gym clients concentrating seriously, almost grimly, at the gleaming metal equipment.
Gregarious to his (strengthening) core, Rich speaks to everyone we pass. Like the aforementioned North Pole frequent flyer, he seems to know each person’s name. “Keep up the good work, Stevie,” he says. “Better you than me!”
Most people are polite — they chuckle, or at least nod back, pointing to their earphones. I suspect that to the gym regulars, we two gray-haired kids are official gym “characters.” Maybe we are still Mr. and Mrs. Claus.
But that’s okay. Gaining better health — and maybe adding a few more years to our lives? — is worth losing some pride. Rich’s insulin intake is dramatically down, my blood pressure has stabilized, and our mobility and stamina are much improved.
Santa and Mrs. Claus have a brand new (gym) bag — and we feel good. Here’s looking at us, kids.
Elizabeth McGinley is a freelance writer who lives (and exercises) in the Lawndale section of Northeast Philadelphia. Her essays on parenting and modern life have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times, and other print and online publications.