Promises that Stick

January 2015. Time to make our New Year’s resolutions. We evaluate our habits, set goals, and vow to improve, but habits can prove difficult to change. Last summer, while discussing the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks with some friends over dinner, I excitedly described the book as life-changing, meaning it influenced my perspective on social justice, medicine and bioethics. In my mind, it was life-changing. In reality, my daily life was pretty much the same.

My husband, Rich, joked, “Life-changing? You still don’t put the dinner dishes right into the dishwasher.” He was right. I developed this habit while living in cramped New York apartments with small children where one cannot see the rest of the apartment from from the galley kitchen. I liked to clear the table as quickly as possible and move on to the rest of the exhilarating bedtime routine. We now have a dishwasher that requires less rinsing and the kids are a bit older, and that particular habit was not too hard to undo. Other habits, like refraining from texts and e-mail between school dismissal and bedtime, or getting into a regular exercise routine, take more effort to develop. As our family transitioned rather smoothly into 2015 after a year of change in 2014, I reflected on the first New Year’s resolution in recent history that I remember upholding for the entire year, and what made it work: Friendship, technology, community, accountability and a sense of humor.

Last year, we vacationed with good friends over New Years. As we all enjoyed the warm weather and daily walks and runs on the beach, we dreaded going back to the Northeast. With winter storms already threatening to ruin whatever progress we made to overcome our holiday indulgences, my friend mentioned that she planned to do five pushups and a one-minute plank every day. She and Rich encouraged me to join. I had never been good at pushups, and because I wasn’t good at them, I hated doing them. It was the one obstacle I faced when it was time each year to attempt to achieve the Presidential Fitness Award in my public school gym class. Okay, it was not my only weakness. One gym test from the ‘80s, the Jump-and-Reach, measured your vertical jump, and I usually registered an impressive eight or nine inches. Impressive, really, because in spite of that I went on to enjoy a career as a mediocre high school gymnast, complete with back-handsprings in a floor routine set to my favorite New Order song. My strength in the fitness circuit actually seemed to lie in a niche exercise called the flexed arm hang. It was something I believe only girls were allowed to choose as an alternative to pull-ups. Not confident I could do a single pull-up, I opted for the flexed arm hang and found I could hang there for about a minute and a half. It clearly used a different muscle set and one that is used for few other upper-body exercises, but it was my shining moment in that annual week of high school gym torture.

Quickly remembering how I brace myself in yoga classes before each push-up and my long history of avoiding these types of exercises, I hesitated. With a few vacation days left to test-run the workout together, I realized I had nothing to lose. We agreed to text each other each day when we completed the workout, and that we would do this in addition to any other exercise. No judgement, no gym partner standing over me donning a ponytail and a Pink Floyd t-shirt, counting my reps while the stopwatch ticks down; just the potential for a slightly stronger and healthier me. For the next few days, we did the pushups and plank together, then we parted ways and returned to our lives in New York City, cellphones becoming our lifelines to staying motivated.

At first, I did the five pushups on my knees, quickly advancing to ten and then to a place where I would choose five “real” pushups or ten knee pushups. The plank went from a shaky sixty seconds to a minute and a half on good days. Sometimes I channel the former gymnast in me and throw in a headstand, much to the delight of my children who try to knock me over. When we first started, my daughter, Eliza, would try to do the plank with me and for some reason we would sing “Let It Go” from Frozen to help the time pass. It turns out the song is about a minute long from the beginning to the end of the first chorus, and unfortunately, getting into plank position has become a Pavlovian trigger for that magical tune.

By spring, our group grew. We told a few other friends about it, and they joined in. Friends with whom I once shared a dorm, an apartment building, or a weekly four-mile walk in Central Park, but whose lives have now taken us in different directions with careers and family, all share a brief but meaningful text each day. We still try to get together in person as much as possible, and our children are among each other’s oldest friends. Regardless of the face-to-face time, we get a little update, as short as the word “done” or occasionally with a video of a child suggesting a new exercise. Some texts come in the morning, some in the evening, and some in the middle of the night from business trips to far-away countries. While technology can be blamed for leading people to feel more isolated, this little change in routine has reminded me that it can also help us reach out, build a support system, and take time for ourselves and our friends, even when we all complain of feeling perpetually busy.

Meanwhile, as we are doing our pushups, some of our husbands decided to come together and start competing in Spartan races and Tough Mudders. My son, Robert, often asks if Rich and his team won the race, and we explain that these races aren’t about winning. They are about teamwork, achieving goals and sticking together. He and the other children all found it pretty entertaining to watch eight of us grown-ups stick together through the New York Times 7-Minute Workout in our yard last Memorial Day. Our neighbors were probably equally amused or perplexed. I hope we are still texting and encouraging each other when our kids go off to college, and perhaps by then I will have attempted a true pull-up. Maybe this is some sort of mid-life crisis we are all going through, and if it is, I’ll take it.


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