Author | Photos Lizzie O'Donnell.

Fitness at 40: How I Finally Became a “Gym Person”

I recently turned 40, and I’ve been thinking a lot about time.

So when I first walked into Soul Fuel Fitness and sat down to fill out the intake form, I was taken aback by the very first tick box listed under Fitness Goals: Increase Life Expectancy. There were lots of other reasons outlined (Reduce Stress, Muscle Gain, Fat Loss, Improve Posture) and I was supposed to rank the importance of each, but my eyes fixated on that first line. It struck me for two reasons: I don’t recall ever seeing this as an option on a fitness intake form before (which is odd, as I’d assume it’s ultimately the end goal for all?), but it also stirred me because YES, YES I WANT TO LIVE A LONG LIFE! Tick-tick-tick! 

If you looked at my gym track record over the past twenty years, you’d notice a pattern: tries every goddamn gym in the city, commits to nothing. I go in with the best of intentions thinking—yes, I’ve found my thing, this is it.  But it’s remarkable, really, just how many places I’ve tried and failed. Remember Diesel Fitness on Spadina? Did I really think that was my thing? Working out while DJs glug Red Bull and blare house music? I suppose I did think it was my thing, or why would I have signed up? Or maybe I thought that if I went enough, I’d transform into that person: taute bod, perky pony, desirably sticky. GoodLife, The Gym at 99 Sudbury, Christine’s Fitness, the YMCA: I hoped I’d achieve my fitness goals at all of these places, but like a one-night stand, the desire dissipated by the time I zipped up my jeans and exited the building.

I am not someone who makes protein shakes in a blender. I don’t have a drawer full of activewear. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I can’t touch my toes. I am not a gym person. This was a message that I told myself often, and even when I announced to friends that I had begun seeing a personal trainer, a few exclaimed, “Really? You’ve never been a gym person.” Not that there is anything wrong with not attending a gym—there are numerous ways one can exercise—but I was feeling sluggish, stressed out, and knew that a dedicated workout that got my heart rate pumping could do me a world of good.

When I walked into Soul Fuel Fitness that first day, there were immediate signs that I had finally found a place that fit. I was lacing up my shoes when owner MJ Shaw turned to me and asked, ‘Would you like a coffee?” I definitely did, and I was delighted she asked me. This was the first clue that I was where I was supposed to be. The second was that MJ, while one of Canada’s leading fitness experts, has a disarming way of making you feel completely relaxed. I liked that she was wearing a long cardigan and dangling earrings. I’m sure it was unintentional, but it set the tone for our first one-on-one workout: comfy, unassuming. Sipping my coffee, and filling out my fitness goals, I felt at ease. 

MJ is also 40, and a mom like me, so we bonded over these similarities. As she guides me through various exercises, we talk a lot about our kids, but we also talk about politics, work challenges, ethical dilemmas, pop culture, health concerns, relationship ups-and-downs, and the weird fitness inventions–like a pilates ring or agility disc–equipment that literally looks like something you’d pull from a recycling bin, but have made some smart entrepreneurs multimillionaires.

As someone who has spent thirteen years working from a quiet home office, I look forward to the conversation as much as the workout (maybe more so). MJ believes that in our hectic world, where we’re mostly communicating in texts and Instagram messages, ‘the gym’ has become one of the last few places that brings community together in real life, and in a real way – no makeup, and a slice of time away from our screens. It’s the part of our day where we’re connected to our bodies and feeling the blood rush through us, instead of filtering and altering an online version of ourselves. 

While I pound out stress doing HIIT after HITT (high-intensity interval training), I also work through stuff that is clogging my brain. I’m not sure she’d want me to describe our time together like this, but I find it to be a bit like therapy. I purge issues that are spinning out of control in my head: both through talking them out and moving my body. By the time I’m done, I feel my anxiety has been pushed out of me, in the form of sweat and verbal diarrhea. It’s a release, and I walk out feeling lighter and more focused. 

So what exactly am I doing?

A variety of things. I start with a 3-minute run on the treadmill, and then usually move into some weight training, with kettlebells or 50lb dumbells (yes, I’m proud about that). Some days we do tabatas, or a type of HIIT exercise where I’m doing short fast rounds of exercises that get my heart rate up – like jumping jacks, squat jumps, running on the spot. Crunches, planks, twists: we do a ton of ab work, and also focus energy on movement to help my pelvic floor (I birthed a 9-lb baby, that did change things). 

We crank everything from Annie Lennox to Lizzo, and often talk about the music as it plays in the background. I stop for water (or a sip of coffee) when I feel like it, or request the enormous Beyoncé  fan to be blown in my direction when things amp up. While I’m pushed to exert myself with all my strength, I never feel like I’m going to puke or pass out – feelings I have definitely experienced in other fitness classes. That’s not a sensation that I’m ever chasing, but I do love testing my power, seeing just what I’m capable of doing. The rush of endorphins is a healthy high I’m happy to get hooked on. 

MJ is warm, encouraging, and during our sessions, she watches my every move, ensuring that I’m doing things correctly. We laugh a lot, and I appreciate that she meets me where I’m at; if I’ve had a sleepless night, we take things down a notch. It’s impressive how quickly she can read me, a gift I’m sure all her clients benefit from, and probably why we all feel comfortable to show up exactly as we are.

I should probably mention that I’ve known MJ for years, but mostly from afar. We both began our career in PR, and shared some late nights in our twenties—she knows my story, my challenges with addiction, and my recovery from alcohol-use disorder. I likewise know what struggles she’s faced (by the time you hit 40, no one is left unscathed). I like that she knows my history, because it means she has a clearer picture of my overall health, my journey.

Before she opened a Soul Fuel Fitness, MJ ran a theatre company, often balancing her fitness instructing and personal training with directing and acting in productions around town. Her network extends several different directions, but there is definitely a lot of well-known Canadian talent who frequent Soul Fuel. In the short time that I’ve been going, I’ve seen cast members from both Baroness Von Sketch and Corner Gas, which is kind of an added fun bonus, while also being a reminder that we’re all continually working on ourselves. 

As many of my friends have turned 40, or are turning 40 this year, we have a lot of conversations about it. Sure, it’s just a number, but—like so many milestone birthdays—it’s also a moment to reflect on how life has looked for the past couple decades, and what we want for the next twenty. Mortality is on my mind, those years of feeling invincible are far behind me. As much as I’d like to pretend that I can just coast on by, the reality is that my body is aging. Things like osteoporosis (which affects 10% of Canadians over the age of 40) and arthritis (which affects one in four Canadian women) may haunt me around the bend, if I don’t strengthen my muscles now. 

It’s been eight weeks since I began this training, and I’ve noticed several shifts: I’m standing straighter, I’m sleeping better, my anxiety has softened, and my breathing has improved. It amazes me that going to Soul Fuel is something I look forward to, because I’ve never been that person, but I guess I am now. Repetition is the greatest form of permanence, and in two short months, I’ve been able to transform into someone I never thought I’d be. 

We never know what will happen in a day; accidents and illnesses often come down to shit luck. I could live to 80 or 100 without doing any of this, but it’s less likely.  Turning 40, more than anything else, made me reevaluate time: how do I want to spend it, how is it best spent, who gets to have my time, and how much time do I have left? I love life—I’m lucky to love life, not everyone does. 

The mid-life thing can fuck with your head. While I get anxious if I picture sand moving quickly in an hourglass, I’m more excited about what lies ahead. Sure, we could all die tomorrow—we never really know—but we could also live another sixty years. I’m not done yet. 

Soul Fuel is located at 1605 Bloor Street West, between Dundas West Station and High Park. They offer a variety of fitness classes as well as personal & small group training. Check out their current promotions here

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