My Life as a Gym Rat (Plus a Really Good Smoothie Recipe)

There are a lot of mirrors in a gym. Back when I was a workout fiend, spending at least an hour there six (often seven) days a week, I loved seeing my image reflected back at me a thousand different ways. A bit of a show-off, I’d wear leggings and a sports bra—why cover up with a t-shirt when I’d worked so hard to get that body? I loved watching my body work, noting how the ridges in my shoulders rippled when I raised my arm, how the quad popped out on my thigh when I did a squat. Narcissism mixed with wonder and kept me going. Today I went back to my trainer, Mark Diaz, for the first time since June. He went really easy on me and it was still hard, shockingly so. When I pointed this out, Mark kindly explained the reason why: I’ve got twenty pounds more on my body to move, and far less developed muscle with which to move it. I knew that, of course—I’ve noticed how much harder it is to climb the steep stairs at my subway stop, how much faster I tire while painting our kitchen, how much less energy I seem to have in general. I’ve just been ignoring it, as if it would get better, or I’d notice it less, in time.

My first sessions with Mark, back in 1997, were exciting—I’d already lost about 85 pounds and turned to weight training because hours of step classes, running, and stationary bicycling weren’t budging those last fifteen. I’d researched it and learned that the more muscle a body has, the more calories it burns at rest, and the leaner it looks: although muscle weighs more than fat, it’s much denser tissue and takes up less space. Mark taught me how to use my muscles in specific ways, how to do each movement properly, how to get the most out of each rep. He was relatively green when we started, but he’s an avid pupil and over the years he’s learned a tremendous amount about how the body works. It took a good four months to lose those last fifteen pounds, but strength training was the key to reaching my goal weight; although I lessened the intensity of it after a few years, until fairly recently I still lifted weights two or three times a week. Injuries laid me out from time to time and I’d worry about losing muscle tone, but Mark always reassured me that it would take far more than a few weeks away from the gym to undo what I’d accomplished.

Today, he and I agreed: five months is plenty of time to undo it all, and then some. Instead of marveling at myself in the mirrors, I was very nearly repulsed. Look at that roll of fat around my middle, pulling against my t-shirt! I was embarrassed. Mortified. How did I let it get this bad? For the first half-hour or so, instead of confident, I felt invisible and a little pathetic. By the end of the session, though, I was proud that I’d worked out at all, and looking forward to getting strong again.

On my freelancer’s budget I can’t afford the fancy gym where I trained with Mark—I can’t afford Mark either, really—but he wrote a program for me for me to do at my no-frills Brooklyn gym. Three times a week: Peterson Step-Ups, Supine Hamstring Curls on a Swiss Ball, Split Squats, Romanian Dead Lifts, Powell Raises, Pull-Downs, Scott Hammer Curls, Triceps Extensions, and External Rotations. Sounds like a lot, but I can do that, can’t I?

Yes. I did it before, and I can do it again.

After my workout, Mark made me a protein shake. He put several different nutritional powders in a shaker, added some ice water, and voila! Mmmmm chocolate. Sweet. It perked me up when I was feeling about to die, but I prefer the ones I make at home. My recipe’s simple, healthy, easy, and blissfully flexible. (And it has waaaay more carbs than Mark’s shake, but he and I never saw eye-to-eye on the Protein Is God thing anyway.) It requires a teeny bit of forethought—you have to let some bananas get good and ripe, then freeze them in chunks, but once you get in the habit of doing that you can have a smoothie anytime (not to mention baking a spur-of-the-moment banana bread). Using frozen fruit eliminates the need for added ice, which keeps the whole thing much fuller-tasting.

Master Smoothie Recipe

Makes one good-sized smoothie

¾ cup nonfat plain yogurt

1 scoop vanilla-flavored protein powder [I get mine at Whole Foods, but you can buy it at any health-food store]

5 or 6 1” chunks frozen ripe banana (approx. 1 banana)

½ cup frozen fruit of your choice [I like peaches & mango, or mixed berries—just make sure you’re buying the kind that’s pure fruit, no sugar added]


2 T. peanut butter &

a good squirt of your favorite chocolate sauce [I like U-Bet]

Skim or 1% milk, as needed

Put yogurt and protein powder in the blender and get it whirring on high. Add banana chunks one at a time through the hole in the lid, being sure to re-cover quickly each time or it’ll splatter. When mixture appears relatively smooth, add frozen fruit a little at a time, in a similar manner, or add peanut butter & chocolate sauce all at once, if that’s the smoothie you’re making. If mixture gets too thick, thin with milk. Whir until smooth, and serve in a tall glass.

P.S…. Just because I’m watching what I eat doesn’t mean I won’t still write about good food. Words to Eat By is a finalist for Best New Blog in the Food Blog Awards. Polls close at midnight PST on Friday—New Year’s Eve, fittingly—so if you haven’t already voted (for me, or anyone else you read and enjoy), click here now. Thanks!