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My Humbling Return to Fitness After Baby

I had a friend a few years back who, right after having her first baby, was feeling a little down about the physical changes she experienced post-pregnancy. It was new to her, vanity. She said she'd never spent much time considering her appearance but that, she was realizing, was only because she had always thought she looked good.

New mothers are, rightfully, encouraged to embrace their amazing, albeit somewhat changed, bodies. I didn't obsess about changes to my body during pregnancy, but getting back in shape afterward was important to me.

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Before children, although I was never an iron woman, exercise was always a part of my life. It's hard to shut that off. I loved running in particular. I enjoyed how it made me feel: more alert, more grounded, more energized.

And, yes, it kept me in fit.

In contrast, being pregnant felt exhausting. The extra weight, the increased girth, the swelling, the out-of-breathness of it. I couldn't wait to meet my children, but I also couldn't wait to for them to get out of me so I could feel like myself again.

Immediately, I understood why the others wore padded pants—rookie mistake.

I wouldn't trade having my children for a better figure, but, especially after my first child was born, there was a little voice inside me that wanted firm abs again. When he was 6 months old, I joined a gym.

I checked out the group lessons, something I'd never done before, and opted for spinning. The spinning room is the VIP lounge of my gym. Its glass walls allow you a tantalizing glimpse of what goes on in there. It's dark, with flashing disco lights, and there's a DJ station.

My first mistake was thinking spinning looked fun.

Pepper—the instructor from Texas—helped me adjust my bike seat. She strapped my feet to the pedals and explained the basics: turn the small knob between my knees left to get more resistance, right for less. We were ready to go.

My own bike is my main mode of transport, aside from my feet, but the spinning bike was different. I'm not used to my seat being higher—way higher—than my handlebars. I felt I was being hung from the ceiling by my back belt loop. I gripped my talons on the handlebars like an anxiously perched bird.

We began with sprinting, which means sitting on the narrow, hard seat and holding the closest of two sets of handlebars, pedaling fast with relatively low resistance. Immediately, I understood why the others wore padded pants—rookie mistake. But I was optimistic. From her front and center bike, Pepper cranked up the music and smiled at me.

Then Pepper changed. "I will work you hard," she charged and began staring individuals down, reprimanding them by name, accusing them of partial effort, reminding us that she was watching. Then she yelled "climb," and it all began to go wrong. Climbing means turning up the resistance, lunging forward to a farther away set of handlebars and biking in a standing position.

The pain that shot up my thighs was the wailing of muscles long dormant, and my heart felt ready to fly out of my chest. The sweat from my forehead was blinding. I looked at the clock and we were only 10 minutes into the hour-long class.

It was a humbling experience to feel so out of shape, and, soon after, I was pregnant again—and then again.

I clenched the handlebars, staring down at my white knuckles and feeling all my weight in my arms, shoulders and neck. This apparently is not good form. Pepper dismounted her bike and walked over to me. She insisted that my impossibly raised tailbone was my center of gravity.

"The force is coming from your thighs and abs," she instructed, grabbing me in both places.

And then my left leg came free from its pedal vice, but the flywheel's momentum kept the pedal spinning at a dangerous speed, while I held my free leg out of its reach. Meanwhile, my right leg, its foot still firmly attached to its pedal—piston to crankshaft—cycled on madly against its will. Panic-stricken, I looked to Pepper, who shook her head and offered, matter of factly, "If you had enough resistance, that wouldn't happen."

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It was the worst time I've ever had doing anything, and I had to submit to failure. Not even the music could inspire. The songs I heard that hour now unlistenable. (Gwen Stefani? You're dead to me.)

It was a humbling experience to feel so out of shape, and, soon after, I was pregnant again—and then again. I never went back to spinning but have kept up the habit of the gym.

I may never regain those elusive firm abs, but exercising makes me feel like my old self again and helps me be more prepared for everything else in my life—especially for keeping up with three small children.

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Image by Tracy Brown Hamilton

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