Over 20 years, I’ve tried pretty much everything for anxiety, ranging from SSRIs to therapy to meditation to yoga to generally freaking out, with varying degrees of success.
One thing I always resisted, though, was regular exercise. Why? Lots of reasons. One, I’m lazy. I don’t enjoy physical activity—it hurts. It’s tiring. My natural position is prone, book in hand, blanket akimbo. Why would anyone voluntarily move? Why stand when you can sit, run when you can walk, sweat when you can sleep? A mystery.
There are deeper anatomical and psychological reasons, too. I’m short and busty, and whenever I’d play tennis or (attempt to) run or do yoga, my ample bosom would crash into my chin. As a child, I also suffered a classic indignity, one that has inspired countless stand-up comedy, writing and possible psychotherapy careers: last one picked for gym class. Yes, I could burp the entire alphabet and write satirical columns about the unfortunate cheese plate at our school semi-formal, but dodgeball? Not my forte.
And so, every time I’d walk into a gym as an adult, I’d feel 10 years old all over again, dreading another humiliating outing in my black wire-rims. The entire world of fitness and exercise was alien and other to me, reserved either for graceful people with tight abs and serene mindsets or just plain masochists. I operated in the cozy indoor universe of words, humor, food and sofas.
Then, at the outset of the pandemic, I bought a Peloton. A combination of inertia and Lexapro had helped me to gain 20-ish pounds. I’d always been small but out of shape, something I could usually disguise with the proper undergarments or by sucking in my stomach to the point of asphyxiation. But I was also getting older, with borderline high cholesterol and a genetic predisposition to cardiac woes. I couldn’t rely on youth or metabolism to last much longer, and I didn’t want to drop dead.
Plus, Peloton was private. I could slink to my basement and ride without anyone watching. I could work out on my own time, with no reproach. There would be no angry trainer asking 20-year-old me if I was sure I’d never been pregnant (nope, just out of shape!) or buff gym bunnies smirking while I flailed on a weight machine. I could wade into this unknowable realm of exercise in solitude. Oh, and best of all, it was an exercise I could do sitting down. Heh, heh.
I started out slow, taking scenic rides without trainers or metrics. I didn’t want to be yelled at. I wanted to make the experience approximate my favorite state of being—staring into space while listening to music. My husband, who carries none of my athletic baggage, chided me for taking the easy way out. He was enjoying punishing workouts with perky instructors who motivated him to ride 45 minutes at a clip. I wasn’t pushing myself, he said.
Well, fine. He didn’t have panic disorder. Picture your worst workout imaginable, wherein your heart accelerates to the point of explosion, you break into a clammy sweat, cannot breathe and feel as if you’re about to die. That’s a panic attack. Why on earth would I willingly summon such a feeling?
But I considered his words (and my burgeoning gut). I had been on Lexapro for a while. I felt stable. I hadn’t had an acute anxiety attack in many months. Maybe I could mount the Peloton in earnest, try a guided workout and do it without panicking. This from someone who, at her worst, couldn’t walk up a steep flight of stairs without needing Ativan.
So I started small, trying low-impact rides with an instructor who had shed more than 100 pounds. Then I segued to Cody Rigsby, a sassy Instagram sensation who loves to discuss ranch dressing and fajitas, and whose saucy banter distracted me so much that I began to ride for 30 minutes at a clip, getting my heart rate up to 160 beats per minute without wanting to crawl into the fetal position or grope for a benzo.
I began to meet friends for rides—virtually, which is the charm—and, in fact, sometimes beat them. I discovered that my abs might be Jell-O, but my legs are actually quite strong. During one ride, I felt a panic attack coming on, but I pushed through it because I couldn’t clip out of the bike without help. (It’s notoriously tough. There are YouTube explainer videos.) My ineptitude saved me: Gradually, my heart rhythm re-regulated and I finished the ride. This security built on itself. If I didn’t die that time, well, I probably wouldn’t die the next time, either. I gradually became stronger, more confident and, yes, less anxious.
At the risk of sounding cultish (too late, right?), I even discovered a few online Peloton communities, such as Working Moms of Peloton and Jewish Riders of Peloton. If you had told me a year ago that I’d be part of a fitness community, I would’ve laughed in your face. But pandemics do strange things. I lurk in these groups, reading about other women who’ve battled panic and anxiety—and worse—with the bike’s help. I look at the body transformation photos, the cancer recovery photos, the pregnancy photos and the triumphant 100th ride photos and remember that we all have baggage.
And so I keep at it, but I still don’t consider myself an athlete. The major draw is mainly the playlists (I usually seek out 1960s rides or else cheesy rap), the humor (I avoid instructors who give me angsty gym flashbacks) and the way I feel once I’m off the bike: proud, depleted, capable. No, I don’t love the feeling of riding. I don’t love to sweat or to breathe shallowly. I don’t think I’ll ever be someone who craves physical activity.
Yet on days when I don’t ride, I’m a little bit…off? Sad? Dare I say, I actually, um, miss it? A few weeks ago, I came in first in my session—beating out about 40 other riders. I did it for me, of course, for my current anxiety (and abs, and legs, and future swimsuit prospects). But I also did it for the fourth grader who would hide in the bathroom during floor hockey. It’s like they say: exercise is good for the heart.