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I’ve Been On the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Fitness Journey


I’ve been doing the Ruth Bader Ginsburg workout for almost a month and I am pleased to announce that I am now extremely hot and plan to live forever.

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You may think that that’s not enough time for me to have a complete total body transformation like a late 90s Ryan Reynolds, or a mid-2000s Chris Evans, or an early 2010s Chris Pratt, but to that I say “I dissent! Anything is possible with the Notorious RBG! Move to strike!”

Look, I’ll be honest with you—most of my hotness is from genetics. But when a Supreme Court Justice offers you the chance to experience the workout that keeps her active, sharp-witted, and full of spunk at 84, you don’t pass it up. Plus every copy of the book comes with an honorary law degree from Columbia, so it seemed like a really good deal all-around. I didn’t get totally hot in three weeks with RBG, but I did experience a transformation.

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The RBG Workout, written by RBG’s trainer Bryant Johnson, with a lovely forward by Justice Ginsburg, is a slim collection of medium-intensity exercises that are meant to be both accessible and effective. Taken as a whole, it’s a circuit program which Justice Ginsburg runs through twice a week. Johnson has been working with Ginsburg since 1999, when she was recovering from a devastating battle with colorectal cancer. In the forward she writes, “Bryant restored my energy as I worked my way back to good health.”

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They continued to work together and when she faced pancreatic cancer 10 years later, Johnson was again able to guide her back to strength and fitness. “This book, I hope, will help others to experience, as I have, renewed energy in their work and their days.” Reading that, standing in a random Barnes & Noble, I actually started to cry a little. I wanted to be restored. I wanted to stop saying “Oh Lordy!” every time I sat down. I wanted to be able to deliver whip-smart opinions and delightful bon mots well into my 80s (and if not my 80s, at least my 40s). I was buying whatever this book was selling.

To be honest, this assignment came along at a pretty great time in my body journey. And by pretty great I mean pretty terrible but opportune. There comes a point, if you have a certain body type and reach a certain point in your aging, that you start to wonder “Is this the beginning of… a problem?” Did I have a dadbod? Or is this a “my doctor is dropping hints” bod? There’s nothing wrong with a dadbod, even if you don’t have any kids, just like there’s nothing wrong with any other kind of bod. But why does every bod have to have a name? Not to disrupt the bod-naming industry but giving my flesh nomenclature doesn’t always radically transform my self-image.

Still, whatever the name of my body (I call it Millicent), I had started to feel super unhappy in it. I had a sad bod. I had recently started being really surprised with my reflection. I’d catch my profile with a sidelong glance and find myself genuinely confused by who this person was and why his body was shaped like that. Part of this is just not being plugged into my physical form—I moved to a new state and started a new job, pretty much upending my life, so I didn’t know who or where I was, let alone what my body looked like. The other part of it was the fact that I am someone who sometimes eats an entire box of Girl Scout cookies because of feelings. Apparently that causes you to gain weight.

The book presents RBG’s workout exactly as she does it. I’m not looking for Ruth Bootleg Ginsburg.

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So, I was looking for a workout that would help me feel better physically while also not telling me to stop eating a box of Girl Scout cookies. I was delighted to find that Bryant Johnson does not mention Girl Scout cookies once in the book, so this seemed like the plan for me. He does note in the introduction that, inspired by his fitness guidance, his mother has become a vegan and has lost fifty pounds. I decided that I would allow that into evidence but have yet to rule on the food question.

The book presents RBG’s workout exactly as she does it, which is what I wanted. I’m not looking for Ruth Bootleg Ginburg. At a little over 100 pages, it contains a circuit of exercises for every part of your body—chest, legs, back, triceps, shoulders—plus warm up and cool down instructions. It’s supposed to take an hour but it took me like 90 minutes because I was holding a book the whole time and I frequently got distracted by the gym television.

R. Eric Thomas

Best of all, almost everything can be done while standing or sitting in one place. There’s no jogging or skipping or jumping rope or any other kind of thing required, which is great because that would have been a deal breaker.

I’m not a runner, honey. I don’t jog, I have never jogged. If I wanted to jog, yes, I probably could go out and jog but I won’t because I am what? Stationary! With the RBG Workout, I got a compact, easily achievable fitness plan that didn’t have me out in these streets wheezing and sweating.

The instructions say this is a twice-a-week exercise program but I decided to do it almost every day. I don’t have time to follow the guidance of a trained professional. The icebergs are melting; I’m trying to be hot now. Call me Paula Cole cuz I don’t wanna wait.

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I initially had trouble finding a book in the store. The fitness section is a place that I have literally never been. I got distracted by a Ree Drummond cookbook; an hour passed. Eventually, I approached the help desk and told the two people behind the counter “Ruth Bader Ginsberg has workout book.” It seemed important news for everyone but also was my way of saying “Help me.” One half of the counter duo looked stricken and said “She doesn’t look so fit.” I slapped him across the face. “She’s 84 years-old,” I retorted. “Do you expect her to look like Gal Gadot? You better Gal Get out of here.” The counter man prattled on, arguing only with himself now. “Well, she was an athlete when she was young. They say that the key to a long life is physical fitness when you’re young. So, I can see it.”

While this may be true, I’m 36 years-old and have avoided breaking a non-panic attack sweat for my whole life so I probably only have a couple years left. Wasting time arguing with this nincompoop didn’t seem like a good use of my sunset years. I sentenced the man behind the counter to house arrest and proceeded to purchase the book. I’ve decided to live to 100. Out of spite.

I’ve decided to live to 100. Out of spite.

Spite is the main reason I do most physical activities, but that didn’t really come in handy here. There was absolutely nothing to be mad at in this unassuming, friendly workout book. The warm-ups take about 15 pages, or 10 minutes. They consist of simple stretches and a walk on a treadmill. Next comes strength exercises. This takes up the bulk of the workout. Using free weights, resistance bands, medicine balls, Swiss balls and sometimes household objects like chairs and ottomans, Johnson focuses on different muscle groups with exercises usually in sets of three. Finally, you cool down with another round of stretches.

While it’s all recommended, none of it is required and Johnson offers a number of slightly less intense iterations. “If you reach a point where you feel like you just caught a ride on the struggle bus… I hereby order you to recuse yourself from the rest of the workout,” Bryant writes.

The RBG Workout is filled with accessible instructions and short pep talks like this. “There’s nothing wrong with setting specific goals,” Bryant writes in one pep talk, “but the most important outcome of an exercise can’t be quantified. It comes down to being healthy, feeling good, and staying consistent.” How am I supposed to rage at that? This isn’t Jillian from Biggest Loser, is what I’m saying.

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But unlike contestants on The Biggest Loser, I very rarely cried during my workouts. In fact, I came to look forward to them. Just me and RBG doing casual side planks for longevity.

My gym has a vending machine that sells potato chips and soda.

R. Eric Thomas

The composition of the exercises added a lot to my enjoyment. I don’t know why I worried that RBG was going to have me doing 1,000 crunches a day, but it really stressed me out. With activities like bicep curls, roundhouse kicks and something hilariously dubbed the Fire Hydrant, you get a little burn and you do break a sweat but you very rarely cry. (And if you do it’s probably because you’re thinking of the This Is Us episode from the night before.)

Perhaps the best part of this whole endeavor were the book’s illustrations. Every single page includes a cartoon RBG demonstrating the exercises with a placid expression and, in most cases, a shirt that reads “Super Diva.” I spent every workout screaming with delight.

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There is a book featuring an octogenarian Supreme Court Justice in workout clothes tossing a medicine ball. 2017 is doing the most. You know who’s not doing the most, though? Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Every illustration has the exact same expression—somewhere between serenity and boredom. I call it the “RBG NBD.” RBG looks so chill doing these hip abductors and machine pulldowns, I vacillated wildly between constant glee and feeling deeply ashamed at my own face which bore sweat and emotions.

That’s the first rule of the RBG Workout: Always look like you are in debate with Neil Gorsuch that you are absolutely confident you are winning but don’t want to be a jerk about.

The second rule of the RBG Workout (I am just making these rules up but it’s okay because I now have an honorary law degree): You can do the workout anywhere. You can do at home or at the gym but—I found out the hard way—not while lying completely still, watching The Good Place. So, that’s the one downside.

I’ll admit that when I first looked over the exercises I thought they’d be a cakewalk. (That’s that thing where you reward yourself with a cupcake after walking to a bakery.) “I guarantee I can do a workout that an 84-year-old can do. Scoff scoff,” I said. Honey, at the end of the first day I was exhausted. That 84-year-old is a beast. My ego firmly checked, I came back and did the circuit the next day and then I skipped a day because I was sore and who really wants to be fit anyway?

It went on like that for a week: do two, skip one, eat Girl Scout cookies. At the end of the first week I was surprised to find I could go deeper into some of the workout stretches, I needed to take fewer rests between sets, and I felt a tiny smidge stronger.

R. Eric Thomas

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Now, after three weeks of doing the workout, I must admit that I do feel more flexible, I can sense progress in my lifting things up abilities, and while I haven’t actually lost any physical weight, I am a huge fan of magical thinking so I feel lighterish. That said, I did this workout for the same reason I do all workouts: to change so quickly and so dramatically that my own relatives do not recognize me and privately wonder whether I’ve been replaced by a body double like Melania Trump. So, in that respect, this workout failed.

But, in other respects, I’m starting to notice progress.

Here’s me before:

R. Eric Thomas

And here’s my yesterday:

I know what you’re saying, “How do we know you’re not just sucking in your gut? Take off your shirt and then we’ll see what’s what.” First of all, while I am compelled by your use of an aggressive couplet like a rakish secondary Shakespeare character, I am absolutely not going to to take off my shirt. What is this Tumblr dot com? Get your porn elsewhere, fiends. Secondly, of course I’m sucking in my stomach. I’ve been doing this workout for less than a month and I eat a box of Girl Scout cookies every night because of feelings. What did you expect me to look like? You want to see something amazing, Google Channing Tatum and move on with your life. I’m a human being with nipples and skin and no belly button (surgically removed for weirder thirst traps); use your imagination.

Besides, Ruth Bader Ginsburg didn’t start this workout 20 years ago so that she could show up on the cover of a Sports Illustrated or star in Magic Mike Goes to Washington. She started it so that she could find her way back from a place where her body wasn’t working for her, where she wasn’t able to do the things that she desperately wanted to do. There’s an important distinction there. And she kept at it because it made her feel better and it will help her to live forever and save us all from grave encroachments on our civil liberties. This book may not have helped me lose weight yet but it has helped preserve our democracy. It should win a Pulitzer Prize for that alone.

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Do I still have a sad bod? Sure, whatever. Who cares? I’m happy on the inside and I’m full of Girl Scout cookies and I actually don’t hate rolling down to the gym to hang out with placid cartoon RBG and a series of exercises that are getting a little easier every day. The impetus for this workout, and later this book, was the desire to find a way back to life after a crushing physical trial the likes of which I can only imagine. The workout doesn’t involve any secrets, tricks, or potions. It relies solely on your own ability to better yourself at your space and to your satisfaction. Of all the fad workouts I’ve tried, I find myself most inspired by that. It’s a workout that actually feels good. Who knew?

Follow R. Eric Thomas on Twitter.





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