Desk muffin
Illustration by Eddie Guy
Doctors warn that moving can be one of the chief causes of stress in life, right up there with changing a job or a partner. To move, you have to confront the past. You never know what you're going to find in the garage or the basement. It might be something poignant, like the favorite baby outfit, lovingly put away for the second child you never managed to have. Or something enraging, like the copy of the memo you sent to an abusive boss. When I was packing up to move in December 2006, what I unearthed was a fitness assessment from the day I joined a gym in Cleveland in March 1984, when I was 28.

Talk about stressful. Suddenly, there it was, in black-and-white; the quantification of my physical decline over the previous 23 years. Could it possibly be true that I once weighed only 104 pounds? Leaving cardboard boxes gaping and bits of Bubble Wrap strewn across the floor, I went hunting for the bathroom scale. Part of me hoped I'd already packed it.

No such luck. I stepped on the scale and watched the needle travel in a wide arc around the dial. In the second it took to find its resting place, some very good meals flashed before my eyes. Steaming plates piled high with linguine. Crispy fried chicken and mounds of mashed potatoes. Succulent shellfish glistening with butter. The result of all this culinary indulgence glared at me in big black numerals under the shuddering needle: In 23 years, my petite, five-foot-two-inch frame had gained 19 pounds. And thanks to the careful measurements noted on my fitness evaluation, I was able to ascertain exactly where those pounds had landed. Braving withering looks from my spouse, who wondered why I wasn't getting on with the job at hand, I started rummaging around in the packing boxes until I located my tape measure.

It's not the easiest thing, taking one's own measurements, but this was hardly information I wished to share with anyone, especially a husband. I tried not to cheat by pulling too hard on the tape. Biceps, chest, thigh, and far, the news was surprisingly good. But that 19 pounds had to have gone somewhere. I slung the tape around my midriff. Ahhhhrrrgggh. Then my hips. Eeeeek.

In 1984 I'd been an hourglass. Now I was a brandy snifter.

In the hourglass days, I'd worked as a newspaper reporter, assigned to The Wall Street Journal's Cleveland bureau. My boss had an aversion to seeing reporters sitting at their desks. He believed, quite rightly, that the news was happening elsewhere. So in those days I'd done quite a bit of pavement pounding. But now I'm a novelist, an occupation that is almost entirely sedentary. In the morning I walk the dogs. In the evening I weed the garden. In between I just sit, on what I now was forced to recognize had become my ample backside. You can't get a novel written without a great deal of sitting. Bum glue, as a colleague once indelicately put it, is a necessary material for the writing of any book. For almost ten years, I'd spent my days staring into space, trying to work out what my characters were going to do next. Now I had to decide what I was going to do next. Going through the rest of my life shaped like a Bosc pear was not an attractive option.

The problem I faced was twofold: I love to eat and I hate to exercise. But all was not lost. The move we were making was taking us from rural Virginia to downtown Sydney for a three-month sojourn in my sun-drenched, surf-splashed hometown before we relocated to our new, permanent place on Martha's Vineyard. Surely, in the sparkling days of an antipodean summer, I could exercise without effort. Regular trips to the beach, pitting myself against the strong Sydney surf, would sweep some pounds away.

Actually, what got swept away was me. After years of summering on gentle Atlantic coves, I'd lost my healthy childhood respect for the Pacific Ocean. I plunged into the invigorating brine, powering out past the breakers, out past the last line of surfers, slicing through the water like a seal. "This," I thought, is easy. "Fun. Exhilarating." Eventually, as my arms started to feel heavy, I turned to shore. Which suddenly seemed rather distant. Caught in a powerful current, I made no headway, no matter how hard I thrashed and kicked. Had it not been for a 12-year-old surfer who paddled out to rescue me, my pear-shaped corpse might have washed up in New Zealand. Sprawled on the hot sand, humiliated and waterlogged, gasping for enough breath to thank my pint-size savior, I realized I was going to have to try something else.

Yoga seemed a safer bet. I admired the toned, flexible bodies of friends who were devotees. After consulting a bewildering menu of choices—Bikram, vinyasa, vindaloo—I set out for a studio located superconveniently close to our Sydney home. I enjoyed the evocatively named poses: warrior, downward dog, cobra, plow. But as I lay in corpse pose at the end of each class, struggling to clear my mind and follow my breath as the instructor advised, all I could think of was looming deadlines and shopping lists. Instead of rising calm and centered to face my day, I'd bolt out of the studio, wild-eyed with guilt and anxiety over all the tasks awaiting me. An hour and a half, I realized, was an unrealistic time commitment for someone trying to be both a full-time writer and a full-time mom.

A friend, lean and fit well into her 70s, recommended Pilates: "You'll love it. It's yoga, speeded up and stripped of all the BS. And it takes only an hour."

Maybe. But what a boring hour. It was too rote, too predictable for me. I found myself sneaking glimpses at my watch: Can we really be only ten minutes into this? It feels as if I've been sucking in my belly button and neutralizing my spine for, like, ever....

Three months later, our Sydney intermezzo had come to an end and I was packing to move again. I pulled the old fitness report from the place I'd stashed it, at the rear of a file drawer, and realized I was still nowhere: still a slightly mushy, 123-pound pear with the cardiovascular capacity of an aging hippo. I needed help.

Fortunately, on Martha's Vineyard, that help was at hand. There was a bewildering array of options, from $1,000 a week detox sessions to inexpensive, pay-by-the-class aerobics. A number of my new neighbors on the Vineyard were avid tennis players. Encouraged by their enthusiasm, I signed up for a women's beginners class under an instructor whose e-mail address, LatinAce, sounded promising. LatinAce sent me out on the court with the racket I'd borrowed from my husband and started lobbing balls gently in my direction. Ten minutes later, he shook his head sadly. "Sorry, but you're not good enough for this group. The other ladies in beginners, they know how to hit the ball."

Stinging from this rejection, I began to consider drastic measures. A couple of different fitness instructors offered programs billed rather ominously as "boot camps." I had rejected these as too GI Jane for me. I asked a friend who'd tried one. She wrinkled her nose. "Very talky and huggy." That didn't sound like me. And then, one morning at 5 past 6, I awoke to the sound of raucous laughter just outside my bedroom window. Irritably, I got up to see what was going on. A bunch of women, all shapes, sizes, ages, and colors, were running up and down the hill opposite my house. Weirdly, they seemed to be enjoying it.

A little research revealed that this was the boot camp of Nisa Counter, a 38-year-old certified fitness trainer. I called her. "Is it, you know, talky and huggy?" I inquired. "Absolutely not. That's the other boot camp. My motto is: Your body is my problem, your mind's your own."

I made an appointment to show Nisa my long-ago fitness assessment. She frowned. "This is ancient stuff. Nobody does these tests anymore. Like, 'grip strength'? What is that? 'Flexibility'—how did they measure that?" I explained that I'd had to sit on the floor with my legs extended and reach past my toes. "That's not even a safe stretch!" she exclaimed, appalled.

I told her about my extra pounds acquired since then, and how I'd located them with some precision.

"Okay, so you now know that your entire weight gain has gone to your middle. Well, the bad news is there's no such thing as spot reducing. Seventy percent of that weight is what you put in your mouth. You'll have to work on that. I'll work on the other 30 percent." I asked her for diet advice.

"Sure. I've got a diet: Eat five almonds a day for a month and you'll get thin. No question. But no one can live like that, and it's the same with all these crazy, stupid diets. My rule is simple: Look at the food and ask yourself, "Do I want that glued on my butt? Is a minute of yum in my mouth worth a month of working it off?"
Suddenly I found myself looking at a muffin and realizing it looked just like a curvaceous deposit of midriff fat. And that mound of orzo bore a striking resemblance to cellulite....

Armed with this new dietary perspective, I set out to let Nisa take care of the other 30 percent. Six A.M. is an hour with which, until three months ago, I was not that well acquainted. Now that hour found me up, dressed, and moving. Fast. For an hour, Monday through Friday, we'd meet up at a prearranged location to discover what Nisa had in mind for us. Spinning one day, kayaking the next, aquarobics the day after, lunging along the seawall the day after that, working out with weights, a step class, a power walk along the beach while the sky put on a dawn extravaganza. Every day was a different activity, so I didn't have a chance to get bored. I've learned that variety is key to a program I can stick with. Camaraderie helped, too. For someone who spent her working hours alone in a room, it was fun to start the day with a bunch of supportive, noncompetitive women. It was amazing how fast an hour of lunges went by if, between grunts and gasps, there was some juicy morsel of local or celebrity gossip to chew over.

But after a month, I hadn't had a trumpets-blaring, Rocky-like transformation. I called Lisa Sanders, MD, a physician with a special interest in obesity and the author of The Perfect Fit Diet. I wanted to know what I was up against, metabolically. Is it really harder to shed midlife weight, or is that just a myth we use to excuse our failure?

"There's some metabolic reason, but it's not huge," she said. "As you age, you lose muscle mass, and muscle is a much more effective user of sugar than any other part of you. Also, as you approach menopause, some of your hormones peter out, and that can impact muscle growth." The new hormone environment in your body tends to send fat to the area around your internal organs, which helps explain why the waistline expands. And all this is happening at an age when most of us begin to exercise less, Lisa explained: "You're busier; your life gets in the way." Ideally, she says, the opposite should happen. Women preparing for the onset of menopause should exercise more and eat smaller portions. The easiest way to control weight is to avoid gaining too much in the first place. When you put on a lot of weight, you start adding new fat cells, which, once acquired, never go away. "You can empty them, but they hang around, just waiting to fill up again, and that happens a lot more quickly and easily than a cell that has to build itself from scratch."

This advice, of course, had come about a decade too late for me. I had to deal with fat cells I'd already acquired. So I signed up for another month of boot camp. And another after that. Gradually, I've discovered, I can run farther, lift more weight, do more jumping jacks. The gym equipment that used to make me think of medieval torture chambers now looks quite inviting. Recently, my jeans have acquired a pleasant latitude in the waistband, and my upper arms no longer jiggle so much. ("Arrghh! What's that? A tumor?" I thought the day I made reacquaintance with my long-lost biceps.) Inch per inch, Nisa reminds me, muscle weighs more than fat. And while I haven't dropped pounds, the really good news is the inches. I've lost nine and a half of them from a variety of places. My hips are now an inch and three-quarters narrower than they were when I was 28, and my waist has only an inch more to go. If I'm not quite back to being an hourglass, neither am I any longer a brandy snifter. More, I like to think, a champagne flute. Cheers.

Geraldine Brooks is the author, most recently, of People of the Book (Viking). Her novel March won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize.

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