Exercising My Prerogative

Getting in shape has always bent me out of shape

Exercise has never been my thing. I inherited my parents' slender builds, high metabolism and belief that lifting heavy weights is for dock workers and teamsters. My idea of a workout is going to the mall, parking as close to the entrance as possible and quick-stepping to the food court.

But when my health insurance plan offered a free membership at the fitness center of my choice, how could I refuse? I selected a popular national chain that just happened to be nestled between my bank and the supermarket. The last time I entered a gym was for a jazzercise class 30 years ago. I admit, I was nervous and a bit intimidated. A staff member who looked like Usher in spandex asked me to grip a black plastic gizmo.

"What's this for?" I asked.

"It computes your body fat," he said. "Yours is 80 percent. You need a personal trainer."

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No way. I had walked into the fitness center with the same percentage of body fat I had at 17. Which is to say, just enough. I was there to improve my cardio and muscle tone. Not to lose weight. I turned down Mr. Spandex's suggestion and asked him to show me how to use the equipment, an alarming collection of steel and leather which I suspect originated in the Inquisition. He whisked me through the machines with apparent boredom. To him, I was the wrong kind of member. A woman over 50 who wasn't going to shell out hundreds of dollars to squeeze into a size two for her daughter's wedding.

I tried the stationary bike. Its digital board flashed my weight in red. Well, not my weight. It was the weight of someone who weighed 30 pounds more than me. What a scam! Disheartened, I stayed away from the fitness center for a few weeks.

Then, slowly, I started to make it a regular part of my schedule. I went in the early afternoon, a time unlikely to attract young women with tight butts and lotharios with six-packs. I called it the Maalox Hour. Just a handful of gray-haired geezers. grandmas and those tattooed gorillas who are always in the weight room. I did a 15-minute warm-up on the stationary bike, followed by cautious use of equipment that I didn't think would land me in the ER.

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No snazzy Lululemon exercise duds for me. Just black leggings and a shapeless T-shirt. No mascara or lipstick. Just my hair pulled back in a scrunchie. There I was, as banal as a Richard Simmons workout tape, circa 1980, when a man approached me.

"I haven't seen you here before," he said. "My name's Mel."

Mel was handsome, flirty and a few years younger than me. I should've been thrilled. My love life had been in neutral gear long enough for friends to move from concern to intervention. But I was totally unnerved. Everything about Mel screamed "player." He was trolling for sex, not a relationship. How could I tell in a nanosecond? Let's just say I've had a lot of practice.

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I understand how buff thirtysomethings may "hook up" during spin class, but women my age? With scrunchie hair? That's not what my health plan had in mind and it's not what I wanted.

The following week, I approached the gym with trepidation. I was there to exercise not to seduce. Sure enough, just three minutes into my stationary bike routine, Mel appeared on the bike next to me. The conversation seemed to be kosher. He talked about his diet. But as I got ready to move along to another part of the gym, Mel made his move.

"Hey, give me your number before you leave," he said.

I smiled and walked briskly to a machine that promised to give me Michelle Obama biceps. A few minutes later, Mel was in my face again.

"You like to dance?" he asked.

Right. I prepared to tango over to the hip abduction machine. I avoided eye contact and, at the same time, continued to be aware of Mel's presence. It felt odd to be strengthening my inner thighs while evading a persistently horny man. When I finished my workout, I did what animals in the wild do when they sense they are being stalked by a lion. I stood very still, tried to blend in with the landscape, then darted for the exit. Mel didn't get my number. But I'm sure he got the message.