Strong and Tough


I like working out WAY MORE now that I belong to a gym with a lovely, clean locker room and lots of stretching space … but I can’t say I love working out. Not indoors, not four times a week for two-plus hours at a time. I’d rather be writing, or sleeping, or watching “Finding Nemo” for the 89th time, or pretty much anything else. But I do it, and I do it consistently.


Well, I do feel better about myself when the clothes I already own fit me, so part of it is body shape maintenance. And I do want to live to a ripe old age, so part of it is for my health. But I also like to feel strong and tough.

People have told me all my life that I’m strong. Because I went to college far from home, because I quit all the jobs that made me miserable, because I asked for what I felt I deserved. But I never quite bought it. To me, strength is cultivated, intentional, definite. I felt like I could deal with catastrophe and challenge, but only because I have an excellent autopilot setting: I don’t even THINK about it, I just deal. Is that strength? It sure never felt like it.

And I never understood sports as a young girl, so I never possessed physical strength. I couldn’t do more than a handful of sit-ups, never lifted weights, nearly threw up after running the mile in gym class. I didn’t do anything physical until I was about 23, and then only grudgingly.

But now – after I’ve discovered that riding a 65-pound one-speed cruiser 12 miles per day is an impressive feat, after I’ve discovered that I CAN do Tae Kwon Do at 40, after I’ve discovered that pushing myself to plank for 3 minutes is kind of mind-blowing – I finally feel it. I am strong. On purpose. And I love it. I am tough because I work at it, because I push myself, because I have decided to be. Life didn’t make me this way, I MADE ME THIS WAY. And I love it.

It’s been a tough couple of years, both personally and physically, and I feel more delicate than ever in many ways. Perhaps that’s why it finally feels good to work out. I may loathe being trapped inside a gym, but it’s absolutely worth it for the payoff. I am strong and tough because I want to be. Finally.

Image courtesy Victoria Garcia.

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37 Responses to “Strong and Tough”

  1. La Historiadora de Moda

    "I am tough because I work at it, because I push myself, because I have decided to be. Life didn’t make me this way, I MADE ME THIS WAY. And I love it." = amazing

    Sal, you truly are an inspiration!

  2. Ang

    Congrats to you!! I have been going back and forth with this for years. I hate working out with the passion of a thousand fiery suns. I recently started teaching an S Factor style dance and pole class…seriously….and found that in discovering my innate "womanness" I have found strength and power. I still have jiggly bits, but I really embrace them. And now my arms could probably bench a great dane. 🙂

  3. Lisa

    What an insightful post! I like how you mentioned that people always referred to you as being strong for doing things such as asking for what you deserve which has no connection to physical strength. I think a lot of times in women confidence and being sure of yourself leads people to believe you are "strong" whether you physically are or not. I like how you describe how you physically made yourself strong and how proud you feel about it (as you should). I've recently gotten back into working out hard and really trying to take care of myself and I hope to someday feel what you described.

  4. Mary

    Sal, this is EXCELLENT. Something I think we all need to hear, every day, all day long.

  5. Jen

    Thanks, Sal, this articulates very well why I'm still running. I'm not good at it and I kind of hate it while I'm doing it (or at least, tolerate but really dislike), but I feel SO much better when I'm doing it consistently. I feel generally better about my body – it's hard to get down on my legs for being fat, for example, when I actually see the large muscles in action. I have more energy and I'm more cheerful. My skin is better. Etc. But it's also that same idea of myself – I've never been an athlete, I hate sports, so seeing myself as a runner makes me feel tough in a way that I never was growing up.

  6. Toby Wollin

    Sal — not to put a bummer on you but you are being very smart to get strong…because as women, we actually NEED it. When I had to care for my mom in her home after she'd had a heart attack and a stroke, the only thing that emotionally and physically got me through that experience was the fact that I'd been lifting weights and had good core strength. Given how much caring women tend to do (kids and then many times elderly relatives), we need to literally be 'the stronger sex'.

  7. pretty

    I can see you're strong just from your writing and your photos.

    Also, for me the preparation for working out is what sucks. I quite like the experience itself xxx

  8. maryeb

    Ah! I could have written this post, although not nearly as eloquently. You said so much of what I've been thinking and feeling lately.

    Sometimes it's hard to stay motivated and to keep working. But I love feeling strong too, especially when life makes me feel 'small'.

    Thanks for writing this blog.

  9. Melissa

    This post is beautiful and so well-written. So many people need to understand what it feels like to work out consistently enough to get to this place and then our world might become a healthier place. It's about health and strength, not about becoming just like anyone else, but becoming healthy and strong for yourself. I love this.

  10. Denise

    Well said, you. Isn't it funny, all the things we think we can and cannot do? Because of my size, I've always felt strong (and fairly invincible) when in reality, we're all vulnerable in one way or another. Many years ago I was attacked with a knife by a stranger and I was convinced that the only reason I was attacked was because it was dark, and they didn't see how big I was! Isn't that crazy?

    On a lighter note, I hate exercise but I still do my thirty minutes on the treadmill six times a week and although I'm still fat, my knee doesn't hurt and I feel so much better in general. So I just listen to Prince, or public radio, and watch the minutes add up till I can stop!

  11. Brooke

    Wow – you can plank for 3 minutes?! Holy cow! I can barely make it 20 seconds! Good for you!

  12. Luinae

    I truly love my workout- I'm a dancer. Dancing makes me stronger, leaner, and it makes my body feel amazing. I love when I do a jump and then you land it perfectly and you can just FEEL the muscles moving and doing what they are supposed too. Or someone takes a photo, and you can see your muscles. I do dance and other workouts (like resistance training, cardio) because I love how my body can move and I love how they make me feel.

  13. Peldyn

    I am just getting strong again. I was always strong when I was young. I ran, I lifted weights. I was a girly girl who had a mean streak of tom-boy in her. Then I became ill and frail. It was mind-blowing for me. Now I have to try and build my body back up and at my age this is really hard! I have a permanent disability now that prevents me from being how I was before, but I hope I can be the best me I can be now. I think that is all we can hope for 🙂

    *I envy you for having a gym. I am trying to do all this in my tiny living room on a crosscountry skiing machine and by hiking in the desert. You go girl!

  14. Charlotte

    Thank you for this ! I too was a child, a teenager, a young adult who didn't get sport… I've been trying to find my exercise joy for years now, first out of necessity (stress and weight control), and now, I'm catching glimpses of other benefits too — the sense of accomplishment and the physical well-being. It's not my first try at working out regularly, and each time's been a little easier and a little more rewarding.
    I hope it's the time i stick with it for life!

  15. Katja

    You've said just what I feel (except that now, two years into weight-lifting, I love lifting). Congratulations on finding your inner athlete so early (it took me until I was almost 50).

  16. La Belette Rouge

    Maybe you could watch Finding Nemo when you are working out.;-)

  17. Kathryn

    I'm 22, and just at the beginning of the cycle you described that began for you at age 23… Like you were, I've never been regularly physical in any way, but I'm sensing the importance of it like a wave about to break over my head! 😛

    Do you have any advice for those just starting out? What was your process of assigning importance to physical strength, and how did you manage the bumps in the road towards practical application? I suspect that much of the answer (for most people) is "Just do it", but just thought I'd ask.

    I love love love your blog. 🙂 Read it every day! I especially love your choice of color.
    Stay well!

  18. Sassy Molassy

    That's awesome, Sal. COngrats. It is important that we find the strength in ourselves to truly believe it.

  19. Sal

    Kathryn: Ya know, I feel like my relationship with exercise really began to change when I started biking. I ENJOY biking, like lots and lots, and I had never found any kind of exercise that I actually enjoyed. Since I liked it, I did it a lot, and it changed my body. That transformation shifted my feelings about exercise overall.

    My advice? Search around for a kind of exercise that you really do enjoy. It’s out there, and it might be obscure, but you can find it. And when you do, strength and agility will take on new meaning!

  20. bubu

    Great post, I feel this way too since discovering running. Question for you, Sal: you've alluded in some posts (when wearing flats) to back pain you are dealing with. I just strained my back a few weeks ago and have been trying to go easy on it (including walking instead of running) and am starting PT soon. However, I wonder if you'd found any good exercises for alleviating back pain, or ways to work out that don't exacerbate it while the back is healing. Thanks!

  21. Sal

    bubu: Hmmm, I have a protruding disc and the exercises I do are specific to that, so I'm not sure they'd work for you. I'd say wait and talk to your physical therapist.

    BUT! I can tell you what not to do. Squat, don't bend at the waist. Go easy on or stop and abdominal exercises you're doing. Don't wear heels if you're hurting.

    Hope you're out of the woods soon, lady!

  22. Nickname unavailable

    Your story is shared by many of us – wretched hours in gym class as through high school – last one picked always!- equipped me with precisely nothing that I needed to be healthy in life. And I was gobby and about ten pounds overweight. I went to the gym in my twenties, started experimenting with yoga in my thirties and on my fortieth birthday, made the commitment to Be A Yogi. It's been almost six years and I have a daily practice. I feel better than I ever have in my life and all my checkups corroborate my good health. I am also a perfect size 4 with a perfectly flat stomach and total strangers compliment my arms. I came to yoga with the size 4 goal, I admit. Somewhere along the line things shifted and it became more about how I feel than how I look. I am happy to be rocking the clothes, of course, but the first thing I do as I start daily practice is think about how I feel in my head, not my thighs. It was a journey to get to this, thinking from the inside out, with many ups and downs. My advice to you is to look at fitness the same way as dating and relationships. You have to experiment to find what works for you, like dating, and you have to find the activity that gets into your head. For me it is yoga, others may swim, scull, hike, ballet, whatever. Something doesn't feel like work, most of the time is your ideal mate. Then make the commitment, because when you are tired or busy and it does feel like work, you'll keep it in perspective and you'll do it, at least every other day, because you made the commitment.

  23. Eyeliah

    I could watch it 89 times lol “just keep swimming, just keep swimming”.

  24. Laura.

    AMEN, SISTER! summertime always makes me realize how strong and tough i am, which makes me love working out and biking everywhere because i can see the progress i make, getting all strong and tough. such a great cycle to be in. i totally agree that working out makes you stronger physically, emotionally, and mentally.

  25. enc

    I'm proud of you and happy for you, Sal. Your approach and attitude are right on.

    Very inspirational!

  26. Anonymous

    Another awesome post! I feel the same way about working out. I don't love it but I feel strong and great when I do it. I love lifting weights in front of the mirror at the gym and appreciating the way my arms look toned.

    I'm petite and young looking so people mistake me for being a push over. Working out makes me feel strong and tough which I hope translates into my career and life!

    ~ Sarah

  27. Ann M.

    As someone who is still in the phase of discovering sports, kind of, this is inspirational as hell. Thank you!

  28. Katie, Tinda Keelie

    wow. i can't express how much i LOVE this post. i've been working out all summer and i noticed the other day when i was driving that i'm packing some pretty impressive biceps! go strong ladies!

  29. KateR

    Wow. Thanks for that. I got up early and ran this morning with your words in my head.

    Love your blog. Love your clothes. Most of all, love the positive vibe you are sending out.

  30. Maggiethecat

    Thanks for a great post Sal, this really resonates with me. I've never been able to stick to any kind of gym regime, because I simply can't find anything rewarding in it – looking hot in my fave outfits just isn't incentive enough, and being genetically blessed with sturdy good health means it's easy to fall into thinking that this will never change. However, not long ago I finally fooled myself into thinking I was braver than I was (fake it 'til you make it is my motto), and took up judo, something I wanted to do for the longest time. I'm loving it, and it's easily the best decision I've ever made in ages. As I said, merely having a perfect ten bod doesn't give me the push I need to devote time and energy to run a treadmill hamster-like, but developing strength, confidence, and sharpened reflexes in order to able to block an attack, or throw a man 20 or 30 pounds heavier than me, is indeed a reward I'm willing to work and sweat and get beat up for, not that the firmer, tougher body is bad, either 🙂 I especially love my stronger arms, which I used to hate. Whatever I do, I'll never have the slim sylph-like arms I used to wish for, but I now have strong, buff Michelle O arms that say 'do not mess with me'. Looking stronger is indeed great for small women like me, especially since I also loathe confrontation and drama, and people often try to take advantage of that (fortunately for me, what I lack in shrillness I've always more than made up for in hardheadedness)

  31. Maggiethecat

    '20 o 30 pounds'… um, I meant kilos. Metric vs imperial, ugh…

  32. Kara

    You work out 2+ hours at once? What do you do that takes that long?!

  33. Sal

    Kara: Warm-up, stretching, abs, half an hour or more of free weights, and an hour of low-intensity cardio.

  34. Darcie

    this is awesome, sal. makin' me bleary-eyed with your inspiration 😀 good for you!!