STRONG BODY, STRONG MIND: My Anchor

Our fitness editor explains why an annual kettlebell-swing challenge brought an unexpected benefit during turbulent times.

women lifting kettlebell in gym

I used to have to force myself to squeeze workouts into my schedule. For years, even when I wasn’t particularly busy, going for a run or taking a class was something I had to prepare for, mentally and physically.

Over time, an unexpected thing happened: My workouts became something I could count on in my life. And some days moving my body felt like the only thing I could count on.

I first noticed this during grad school. From 2008 to 2010, I was a full-time student pursuing my thesis while also student teaching, freelance writing, and holding down an internship to makes ends meet and bolster my résumé. It was a privilege and an honor, and each day flowed into the next in a jumble of marked-up papers and script revisions, of daylight hours spent shooting interviews, and overnights locked in an editing booth.

These disjointed pieces were held together by Core Blast, a boot-camp-style class that kicked my butt three times a week. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’d squat, lunge, jump, and crunch until I was in a puddle of sweat and once again knew what time it was, what day it was.

When the world seemed to be yelling “Anchors aweigh!” as it was setting me adrift, Core Blast anchored me in the moment, in my body, in reality.

This past winter and spring marked yet another turbulent season in my life, and in the lives of many others.  This time, my anchor was a 20-kilogram kettlebell.

The year began with fears of war against Iran, my family’s homeland. That was followed by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. The circumstances would have offered good reasons to skip working out. But many of the events last spring coincided with an annual kettlebell-swing challenge I’d participated in for five years.

The 5K May challenge, and the more ambitious 10K May version, dare participants to complete 5,000 (or 10,000) kettlebell swings during the month. The timing and total number of reps are arbitrary, but the point is brilliant: It’s unreasonable to perform thousands of swings at a challenging weight in a single day. The goal has to be split up.

I calculated that, to hit the 5,000-swing mark, I’d have to average about 162 reps each day; for 10,000, I’d be reaching for about 323 daily reps.

But I didn’t set a goal outright; I was more interested in committing to a routine that I could recover from, knowing that the stress of life could be a deterrent to my fitness.

I left my kettlebells in the middle of my living room. I used the 20kg for standard two-handed swings and reserved a 12kg for single-arm variations. Some days I did a proper workout, devoting about 30 minutes to swing-based circuits. Other days, I committed to doing a few swings at the top of every hour to break up the day.

Some days I felt energized, even hopeful for the future, and got after my swings with gusto. Other days I felt so tired and so defeated. In late May, longstanding racial disparities and justice issues came to a head with the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. I watched my city catch fire, literally and figuratively, as protesters and activists pursued meaningful, long-term reform. I rallied with my community. And still, amid my grief and anger, I swung.

The weight of the kettlebell, the dynamism and power of the swing, the repetitive movement pattern that after years of practice is ingrained in my brain and muscles — it all came together to give me a sense of, if not “normalcy,” then at least a sense of being. On days that I did swings, I felt a little more clear-headed, a little less lost.

I don’t mean to be hyperbolic, giving more credit to a simple act than is due. But in my experience over the years — whether it’s just my world or the whole world turned upside down — moving my body helps to right me. Exercise is more than physical. For many of us, movement’s benefits transcend the mental, emotional, and social.

On May 29, I crossed the 10K threshold. There was no fanfare, no celebration, no one to share the accomplishment with — there were bigger things going on in the world. But the point, after all, wasn’t just to get the swings out of the way for the sake of celebration. The point was to do a little something every day. A reminder that many days of little somethings can amount to something much bigger.

is an Experience Life senior editor.

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