By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
Taking control of your health and fitness doesn’t have to be miserable, according to local fitness guru Susan Finley, owner of the fitness coaching studio TrainSmarter in Crestline Park.
In her recently published book, “The Smarter Way: To Exercise Eat Move Think Live,” Finley strives to debunk myths that surround the notion of what it is to live a healthy lifestyle.
Throughout Finley’s 35-year career in fitness, she has cultivated her own method that isn’t focused on short-term results. The Smarter Way is a roadmap to find strength over time, resulting in less pain and better health.
“If you exercise and eat well, you might not live longer, but it’s going to bring so much more life into the years that you have,” Finley said.
Finley wasn’t born with a love of exercise. It wasn’t a part of her life in any significant way until she was an adult.
“It would be fair to say that I was not remotely athletic,” Finley said, adding that she recently flipped through an old yearbook and was surprised to find that her high school had a track team while she was there.
“My parents were both school teachers,” Finley said. “We didn’t have a lot of money. The money that they had to put into my sister and me they put into piano lessons, which of course was more sitting down.”
The family took care of themselves in other ways such as doctor and dental exams, but the notion of building strength to live a healthier life was not at the forefront of anybody’s mind at the Finley house. It wasn’t a societal norm either.
“I remember my mom saying, quote, ‘Don’t stand when you can sit. Don’t sit when you can lie down.’”
Finley also found exercise in her youth to be a bit degrading – changing clothes in front of classmates and the self-consciousness that can come with group exercise.
Her interest in exercise began to develop as she watched her parents age. There were many aches and pains they dealt with that could have been avoided had they lived a healthier lifestyle.
Finley’s mother struggled with obesity and many orthopedic issues. Toward the end of her life, she needed two knee replacements and two shoulder replacements.
“Now I know that a lot of her knee pain came from lack of hip strength and balance in her hips,” Finley said. “The fact that she was overweight pulled her pelvis forward. That internally rotates the knees, which causes pressure down on the feet, which causes bunions, which she had.”
At the time, Finley couldn’t figure out why her mother’s shoulders were so worn out. Shoulder replacements were something heavy trainers like swimmers and tennis players have, she thought.
“At one point, I asked her,” Finley said. “Once her knees got bad, when she climbed up stairs she would grab the hand rail and try to pull herself up.
“She didn’t have the muscle strength for it so she just yanked on the joints.”
She now sees just how much her mother could have benefited from strength training to manage those symptoms early in their development, before they worsened.
Beyond back problems and joint issues, Finley’s mother dealt with many cardiovascular issues as well – high blood pressure and cholesterol, to name two.
“If (my parents) had just known. If we hadn’t eaten the way we did and if we had moved and moved well, worked on posture,” she said, maybe they would have lived without so much pain.
While Finley had the drive to become stronger, it took her a while to begin to love the practice. It took finding the right method.
Over time, she began teaching and learning and eventually found strength training. It was exciting, and she was good at it.
“The part that really changes your life is the strength training,” she said. “This is where you find out you don’t get as tired when you are doing things.”
Finley noted that as your muscles strengthen, you feel it in your everyday life.
You don’t get winded when you climb a few flights of stairs. It’s easier to move that heavy box without throwing your back out. When you wake up in the morning, things just hurt less.
Finley also stresses that it’s not about how long you exercise, it’s about making sure you do it.
“Say tomorrow, ‘I’m going to work out,’” she said. “If you only have a little bit of time, then do a little, but don’t say I don’t have enough time to do anything, because that gets in the way of progressing.”
As TrainSmarter adapted to the pandemic, Finley and her clients discovered just how easy it is to exercise.
The vast majority of her clients are working out with her virtually from their homes, sometimes without the need for any specialized gear.
“We train based on five movement patterns and one of the most important ones is pulling, because your pulling muscles are also your postural muscles,” she said. “So, you can pull against gravity, but it’s a little bit limiting.
“If you have bands, that’s another way to pull,” she said. “A TRX suspension trainer is another way to pull.”
People can invest in these things slowly as they progress.
“The cool thing is that a lot of people have just discovered that, if it is a rainy day, if the car breaks down, if the babysitter didn’t show up, it’s no worry,” she said. “What do you have nearby? Grab it and let’s get to work.”
There are so many reasons to remain stationary in our technologically advanced world, Finley noted. You can outfit your home in such a way that a simple “Alexa, please …” turns on the lights and the television or does many other things you might otherwise have moved to do.
“We have to make up for the movement we lose somehow,” Finley said.
Adults bear the burden of teaching by example, she noted. Having grown up in a family that didn’t exercise, Finley finds it critical to show her kids how important it is.
“Instead of saying, ‘Let’s go to the movies,’ take a walk,” she said. “It takes a little bit more effort to get yourself to do it, but it’s worth it.”
In addition, prove to your kids that exercise doesn’t have to be as miserable as it was when you were a fifth grader in PE class.
“If you don’t stay strong, you’re going to pay the price sooner or later,” Finley said. “We need to show that (exercise) matters because your health matters.”
If you’re just starting out, Finley said to take away the pressure. Start out with a little. Once you see the progress, you may just find yourself wanting to invest more.
“Your health is something that is really easy to take for granted until you don’t have it. You’ve got to tend it the same way you would take care of your body.”