Recently, after decades away, I decided it was time to go back the gym. The last time I had embraced a workout was when I started doing Step aerobics in college, more than 20 years ago. After a move and a divorce I found myself reevaluating everything in my life and it was time to face the fact that all those years of eating whatever I had wanted to caught up with me long ago. So I posted on Facebook that I was looking for a workout that would be fun and rewarding.
One friend suggested a gym in midtown that’s modeled after recess in school. A former colleague recommended a kickball league. But I was looking for a workout that happened to be fun, not fun that might include a workout.
And then a business acquaintance suggested Mark Fisher Fitness (MFF), a little cult gym known mostly for being where a lot of Broadway types (including Lin-Manuel Miranda, who talked about it in the New York Times) train when they’re prepping for a role.
Walking up to the door the first day, I was terrified. I’ve never believed in the idea that if something frightens you or makes you uncomfortable you should do it. Um, no … if you’re so scared your heart is pounding that’s nature’s way of telling you to run, thank you very much. I felt weak, uncoordinated, and out of shape, and I was sure the trainers would be able to tell that I didn’t belong there. But I quickly realized this place was special.
My first workouts
Courtesy Reilly JenningsFirst, it doesn’t look like any gym I had ever seen. There are graffiti-style murals on the walls, and the coaches wear silly outfits and sometimes even costumes. (I once did a semi-private class with a trainer in a Cats’ costume. We’re not talking a simple headband with ears and a pin-on tail—an actual costume from the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical!) There are laser lights and disco balls, raunchy jokes (if you blush easily, consider yourself warned!), a giant blow-up unicorn they call their mascot, and upbeat sometimes wacky movements and playlists. (One of my first workouts was to the Hamilton Mixtape; sometimes we finish our routines with “drag queen burpees.”) The atmosphere isn’t an accident—the concept of the place is that having fun and being silly makes exercise less intimidating and allows people to work hard without it feeling so much like work.
Courtesy Reilly JenningsAlso, the workouts center around kettlebells—that’s right, I went from the couch, right to weight lifting. It felt like a strange decision at first … would I really be able to do this? Should I pick something easier instead? But MFF starts you off with two training sessions before you ever take a class. They show you the movements, focusing on form and posture rather than just cranking out reps.
It wasn’t easy. The first week I pretty much crawled out of bed in the morning, wincing as I reached for the Advil in my medicine cabinet. But, slowly, I started to pick it up.
Getting serious with a six-week program
Courtesy Reilly JenningsAfter a few months, I was progressing, but I wanted to focus on healthy eating. So I signed up for the gym’s “Snatched in Six Weeks” program, a boot camp of sorts that includes three workouts a week with the same group of a dozen people, nutrition coaching, and encouragement that you do two other weekly workouts of weight lifting programs (somewhere, anywhere). Since many people start with Snatched before ever lifting a kettlebell, the workouts begin at the beginning and gradually gain steam so that, by the end, they’re more intense than the regular workouts at the gym.
We started each class with the same warm up, which included everything from rocking in place to skipping and “bear crawling” across the floor, growling at each other as we passed. I learned to love the Spider-Man lunges, and the feeling of sore muscles getting stretched out before we worked them out again.
One of our coaches was Mark Fisher himself, the handsome and inspiring 37-year-old fitness guru who started the gym. (He would balk at the term—adding “I’m not your guru, I’m your Sherpa!”—but there’s no denying that those of us who finally found success here would follow him anywhere.) In his sparkly red pants and chicken hat (just one of his many costumes), Mark often quietly encouraged us, and gently pushed us toward heavier weights. (“You do you, but I think you’re ready for more!”) Amanda “Wheels” Wheeler, our other coach, always noticed when someone made progress, and—even in a room full of people—the moment I moved from push-ups on my knees to real ones I could hear her cheer me on.
And, every single morning, Mark sent an email to those taking Snatched, addressed to his “babies” and “girlfriends,” walking us through, for example, the latest research on dieting or evaluating other popular fitness programs. (I read them quickly and saved them all; I know what I’ll be rereading on the beach this summer.)
Focusing on nutrition
Our nutrition program involved a high protein, low-carb diet that allowed us to choose what we wanted to eat within the constraints of the macros they set for us based on our individual weight, age, and measurements. I got used to prepping a bunch of meals and portioning them out on Sunday nights, eating eggs in the morning instead of oatmeal, making protein shakes, and having the maki at my favorite sushi bar wrapped in cucumber or daikon instead of rice. We logged everything into an app and our nutrition coach, Reilly Jennings, would send us regular comments. Mine often included some version of “You’re crushing those protein goals girrrrrl! Now try to see if you can get in some more vegetables…”
And, somehow, almost immediately my class became a team, with inside jokes and shared recipes and assigned mats. We gave ourselves silly (not fit to print) team names, created a team cheer, and planned dress up nights. One Wednesday, we wore pink (an homage to the movie Mean Girls), another we wore super hero costumes.
Courtesy Reilly JenningsOur resident Broadway star, Jennie, sang along through every class, and when she was out-of-town one Friday the room seemed too quiet. As the workouts got harder with shorter rests, it felt comforting to know I could look to my left and admire Kerianne’s flawless glute bridges or watch Michael and Itamar leap in the air in jump squats before me. Sure, they probably soared higher than I will ever be able to reach, but it didn’t stop me from trying. And the night I melted down after forgetting to log a protein bar and going way over my carb limit, I knew these were the people who would understand.
I had been so afraid to do this, but soon it was my favorite place to be.
And it was amazing to watch our whole team shrink as the weeks went by—to see Travis’ cheeks thin out and Sean grow impossibly small in a short period of time. I spotted Susan across the locker room one evening and wondered if it was her at first because her arms and legs seemed so trim.
For our last night, we planned a party with cocktails, dinner, and a movie. It was right after the final workout of the six weeks, and by the time we were done with our class everyone looked wrecked. Still, every single one of us stayed to hang out, hitting the showers before grabbing a seat in front of the screen. It was the quietest movie night I had ever been to—we had all left a lot on the mat!—but we wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.
The results are in!
Courtesy Reilly JenningsIt seems shallow to talk about the actual weight loss when the experience is so much more than that. But the results were significant for me: In the last four and a half months I have lost 35 pounds and almost 20 of those was during the six weeks of Snatched. I also dropped my BMI, my dress size (OK, four dress sizes!) and gained a lot of muscle. Feeling like I knew what I was doing in Snatched encouraged me to try other kinds of workouts—rowing (fun and challenging), Pilates (more of an active recovery, but a great stretch), and Barre (honestly, probably never going to be for me).
Now, my team is planning group dinners (high protein, naturally) and workouts, editing each others’ dating profiles, and quickly finding that these are friendships we’ll have outside the gym, too. It seems silly to think I was afraid before I started. Back then, the idea of finding a workout I loved after decades out of the gym had seemed unlikely at best.
But the most amazing part is how it extends to the rest of my life: last week, right before a job interview, I felt anxiety welling up … and then I remembered the last day of Snatched. At the beginning of each class we introduced ourselves by answering a question. The last night, the question “What is something you learned here?” made me pause. And then it came to me; it wasn’t that I learned how to do proper push-ups or that I can lift my body weight on a hex bar. “I learned that just because I am afraid of something doesn’t mean I can’t do it.”
Suddenly, the interview didn’t seem so scary anymore. And, of course, I crushed it.