At 7:29 a.m., six days a week, I log on to a Zoom meeting.
It's not for business. And it's not necessarily fun. But it has been an essential part of my life during social distancing. It connects me to friends, creates structure in my day and keeps me fit.
Six days a week, my wife Sally and I gather with friends for a brief session where we all plank — a full body exercise where you hold yourself in a push-up for several minutes. Our sessions do more than strengthen our muscles; they strengthen bonds of friendships that started in college almost 40 years ago and connect us to people who are outside our pandemic bubbles.
By 7:30, Marta joins from Florida and Todd and Laura, from either their Brooklyn apartment or home in Maine. As we prepare, we chat about the weather, the news or whatever is on our minds.
Then Marta says, “Ready?”
We mumble our assent, knowing how difficult the next few minutes will be.
"3. 2. 1. Go."
And we start planking. Some of us get into the traditional position, putting our forearms on our yoga mats and straightening our bodies from head to toe. Others modify their position to accommodate injuries, aches or pains.
Building up muscles little by little
Planking requires no equipment and can be done anywhere. You start by lying down and push your body up, resting on your forearms or hands with your arms straight. By keeping your toes firmly grounded, your back straight and your abdominal muscles engaged, you strengthen muscles in your arms, abs, back and legs. Compared to sit-ups or push-ups, you burn more calories, strengthen more muscles and build more endurance. There are several variations of planks, some of which are easier to hold over a longer period.
Our planking group started shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted everyone's lives. Having previously failed to complete the 30-day plank challenge after several attempts, Marta asked Todd and Laura to join her to plank six days a week (Saturday is a rest day). When they started, they planked for 30 seconds and gradually increased as they went along.
Laura invited Sally to join during one of their “how are you making it through this pandemic” calls. A few days later, I invited myself.
Another group member, Julie Mae, lives on the West Coast. With the rest of us on Eastern time, she and Marta have a separate video call at 10 a.m. Eastern on weekdays. Julie Mae planks while Marta keeps time and cheers her on. On days Marta is busy, someone else is Julie Mae's partner.
Courtesy (clockwise from top left) Julie Mae Muiderman, Laura Zylstra and Todd Garth, Sally Davis, David Hoff, and Marta VanderStarre
Strengthening friendships and abs
On Sundays, we meet at 10 a.m. Eastern. With no workday looming, the sessions have become times for extended conversations. One Sunday, Sally and Julie Mae each gave tours of their gardens. On another, Julie Mae told us about the ongoing protests in her hometown of Portland, Oregon.
Even on the weekdays, we'll sometimes extend the call for a few minutes, like after my uncle died and after Marta's cousin's ranch burned in the California wildfires.
Over the months, we have gradually increased the length of the planks. At times, some of us modify our position by pressing against the wall. While the accommodation releases pressure on the hands and back, it still engages muscles in the core, legs and arms.
We arrange our lives to attend every day. But sometimes schedules interfere (Todd often has early morning conference calls for his work in international development) or someone oversleeps (who, me?).
But over the months, we've kept at it and built our endurance.
As timekeeper, Marta will add five seconds every couple days without telling us. At the end of one day's session, she'll say: “Congratulations, we've added 15 seconds this week."
Secretly, we're happy to hit a new milestone. Outwardly, we all complain that she tricked us into getting there.
As of now, we're at four minutes a day. No one is clamoring for more.
Our 30-day plank challenge has been going on for 100 days. Just like everything else in 2020, it's not going according to schedule. We have yet to reach the goal of five-minute planks. But we don't care.
Our success is defined by deepening our friendships and supporting each other through difficult times. Improved fitness is a bonus.