My birthday fell on Election Day 2016. The giant carrot cake sat uncut at our watch party as we saw Ohio flash red. Then Florida. Sometime around North Carolina, my friends started mumbling the “Happy Birthday” song. I blew out the candles, knowing the electoral map would deny me my wish.
For days after, I could not get Donald Trump out of my mind. It was not a matter of party politics; it was that this future president had run on a platform that seemed opposed to the very idea of me: a woman, a person of color, a child of immigrants.
I was stressed, distressed — angry. Then I started thinking about all my annoyingly upbeat runner friends who over the years professed that what they loved most about the sport was how it just “clears your head.”
I’d never really understood it. My whole life I’d scoffed at vigorous exercise. At the school I attended, varsity letters were handed out for Model United Nations as often as they were for sports (I went the nerdier route). My mother still calls sneakers “P.E. shoes” because she purchased them only for our middle school physical education classes. Thanks to her, I had a decent metabolism and a great ineptitude for anything remotely athletic.
The Monday after Donald Trump’s election, that changed. With few other options to escape my own mind, I put on a pair of P.E. shoes I’d bought two years earlier, which were still good as new. And I entered the “red room” — a boutique fitness arena otherwise known as Barry’s Bootcamp.
It was like nothing I’d ever seen: nightclub lighting, blaring music, treadmills and a terrifying wall of dumbbells the size of my head. The class was full of people who looked like athletes or models or both, contorting their bodies into positions named after sharp objects like “jack knives.”
On Tread No. 18, facing a mirrored wall, I sprinted toward an aspirational reflection of myself: determined, radiant with sweat, and no longer moping on my couch. I was propelled by pop hits remixed at 135 beats per minute and the chants of a muscular preacher stationed at Floor Bench No. 9. Apparently, I could “do anything for 30 seconds.”
The coach continued to preach, “We all have the power to leave behind whatever it is that holds us back!” I believed him. I panted harder and found a second wind in my quest to leave behind Donald Trump.
For that one hour — for the first time in 5 days 22 hours and 21 minutes — I was free of him.
It was the beginning of a bizarre transformation inspired by a septuagenarian president whose preferred workout is typing on Twitter, playing a round of golf and raising the remote to summon his own image on the TV screen. Not your standard Instagram #fitspo.
The red room at Barry’s became my church. I started going every week, then every other day, and sometimes more. Eventually I added other fitness classes to the rotation: Megaformer Pilates; a circuit session where we pushed and pulled sleds like Rocky Balboa; and even a workout in which we wore high-tech skin suits designed to stimulate muscle groups with electrical pulses as we squatted and lunged around a studio in TriBeCa.
When fitness classes shut down in the pandemic, I bought myself resistance bands and a mini-trampoline. I bounced through “rebounder” cardio at home while cursing the president’s lies about the coronavirus and the damage he was allowing to unfold in our nation.
Exercise took the sadness and anger and powerlessness I felt about these four years and fueled it into something productive. It made me healthier than I’d ever been. In the process, I realized I could change something: myself.
So I started changing other things too. I volunteered more, I focused on producing film and TV projects that had some social purpose, and eventually I started to work at The Times.
This president unintentionally changed many of us. Maybe you, like me, were one of the millions of voters who had skipped midterm elections but turned out in 2018. Maybe you, moved by his unapologetic abuse of women, finally came forward with a story from your past and said “me too.” Maybe he convinced you, Republican or Democrat, to run for office. To be a better dad. To fact-check your opinions. To subscribe to a newspaper. Or even to learn about Maricopa County, Arizona.
Of course, civic engagement and sweating it out at the gym are not the same things. But they are connected. When we felt powerless to change the course of events unfolding in our nation’s capital, we could at least control how we spend our own lives.
I’m sure many of us would give anything to erase his reign (I’d certainly give up all the burpees, push-ups and that one time I embarrassingly fell on the treadmill going 11 miles per hour). Yet any bright spots we’ve found during his presidency continue to glow.
I wonder what will happen once he’s gone.
Will all that angry motivation melt away, leaving us complacent? Will it persist because even after four years of Donald Trump’s supposed leadership, this election was tighter than we’d expected? Or will the action and activism he unintentionally pushed us toward simply hang around like good habits?
When it comes to my own workout routine, I think I’ll keep it going. This time not for Donald Trump, but for myself. It turns out that my annoying runner friends were onto something. Exercise gave me a clarity of mind and purpose. It made me realize that in all that despair, I could find the strength to do things that once felt impossible. Not just for 30 seconds, but for four years.
Maybe even for a lifetime.