The Big Cooldown

After 30 years as a personal fitness trainer, I was done. Just one lingering question—what am I supposed to do now?

No pain, no gain, no worries.

I'm obsessed with people who live to be over 100. Not just any centenarian, but those people who still have it together, can carry on a conversation, get around, dig into their birthday cake and even work.

Some centenarians smoke, drink and eat what they want, and others are health fiends, but the common threads between most of them is that they socialize a lot and live with other people in big cities. While the image of the loner might seem romantic— writing poems on a mountaintop, sailing alone around the world—it's not the extraordinary person that lives the longest, but the ordinary one who talks to the neighbor over the fence.

I used to have the traits that would keep me living long: My home was New York City; I was always married or in a relationship; I had loads of friends and I never turned down a party. Plus I exercise, eat well, don't smoke, etc. You think I'd at least live to 100.

Well, these days I live in a small city and I live alone. And, after blaming the locals for being standoffish, I realize that it's me that doesn't socialize much. In other words, I'm doomed.

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Why I'm not the social person I once was came to me soon after I exercised my last client for the last time (she was moving).

After 30 years as a personal fitness trainer, I was done. Over the next few days, I took down my website, threw away my business cards and put my personal training book in the back of a closet. I no longer had to be up on the latest exercise techniques, which got more convoluted, to say nothing of my growing cynicism about fitness companies designing exercise programs intended to sell branded equipment and clothes.

It really didn't hit me that I'm no longer a personal fitness trainer until the next time I was supposed to see my client. I went through my usual preparation that I always did before seeing a client—what we spoke about last, what was going on in their life, and what kind of workout we would do that day. Thinking about it gave me a Pavlovian response—I felt energized and ready for both the mental and the physical work that went into personal training. This is how I revved myself up for decades, but now I had nowhere to go.

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I'm supposed to be glad I stopped being a personal trainer. I'm also a writer and editor, and over the years I've focused more on that. I tried ending my personal training business half-heartedly about 15 years ago when I moved to this little city, figuring it was not a culture of personal services. But I was wrong.

In New York City, my clients were mostly from the art, publishing and acting professions. I worked with them two or three times a week. They were smart, savvy, urban people—some celebrities. I was part staff, part shrink, and over the years, I heard everything from their personal affairs to business doings and would not utter a peep.

My clients in Northampton, Massachusetts, were entirely different. The colleges in the area contracted with me as their first personal trainer, so my clients were professors and other people who were affiliated with the school. From those clients came a different kind of knowledge. And because of their age and mine, over the years we talked about colleges for their kids to assisted living for their parents. I became very close to these people.

What I miss the most is the conversation. I didn't talk that much about myself but I listened a lot, remembering things from session to session, and commented.

Is this what "retiring" is like? Do people have to reinvent a whole new social life once they retire?

I spend hours at my desk, getting out only to take the dogs for a walk, or to go to the gym. Often I have to turn down social engagements because I have a deadline. There are days when I hardly speak to anyone.

Maybe it's time to start talking to the neighbors over the fence.