Mickie Shapiro of Costa Mesa was brought up to be a typical '50s woman, setting aside her career in favor of her family, focusing her energy on husband and children instead of herself.
So when her 5-year-old daughter expressed an interest in becoming a runner 17 years ago, it was only natural for Shapiro to stand behind her, hobbling around the sidelines at track meets in her platform high heels--the height of mid-70s fashion. ("My daughter ran, but I could hardly walk," she says.)
Then one day Shapiro decided she could be even more supportive if she traded the platform shoes for running shoes. She started training with another mom, running a little, walking until she caught her breath, then running a little more. Day by day, her stamina increased and she soon found herself pounding the pavement alongside her daughter, then 9, in her first 10K race.
Midway through the race, daughter complained to mother as they ran through Beverly Hills in the pouring rain; she had a cramp. And Shapiro's response was something neither of them expected: "I told her, 'You're on your own.' "
Ultimately, Shapiro says, "she passed me." But by then Shapiro had gone through an important change: She had stopped putting herself last.
Fast-forward to fall, 1989, Kona, Hawaii. This time, daughter Deborah was the supportive spectator as her mom--now a successful marriage, family and child counselor, sports therapist, instructor in exercise psychology at UC Irvine, and triathlete--competed in the grueling Ironman Triathlon, the most famous and prestigious event in the field.
By now, just about anybody with any interest in fitness knows that exercise can make you feel good. Most have heard about such things as endorphins, the natural, morphine-like brain chemicals released during a sustained workout or other activity that can leave you feeling strong, alert and even euphoric for hours afterward.
But that's just one of the many emotional and social fringe benefits of exercise, says Shapiro, 54, who has incorporated exercise--running, swimming, biking, weightlifting and more--into all aspects of her life, including the career she resumed during the awakening she underwent in the 70s.
She sometimes exercises with the clients who come to her for counseling, individually and in groups, even though only about 20% are there primarily to concentrate on fitness. The other 80%, she says, "are people reacting to the turmoil that change has created in their lives." Most all of them benefit from getting in touch with their own physical strength along with their emotions, she says.
"I try to stimulate and motivate people to get in touch with their bodies," she says. "We are a composite of mind and body. If we're mentally imbalanced, we're often physically imbalanced, too."
A dancer since she was a young girl, Shapiro taught exercises based on modern dance back in the early '60s when her children, now 31, 29, 25 and 22, were small. Even then, she recognized that "the women who came got more out of the experience mentally than they did physically." She kept that in mind when she went back to school, earning a master's degree in counseling and guidance and another in dance therapy. Later, working at a state mental facility in Los Angeles, she used her training in both fields to develop exercise therapy programs, including running, for mental patients.
"Exercise opened all kinds of 'I can do it' attitudes for me," Shapiro says. "It showed me I could compete equally with men." And competition , she learned, is not a dirty word.
"Most are afraid of success," she says. "We're not programmed to feel good with it. But the victories we experience by accomplishing exercise goals help to counter that. And a regular, daily goal, even if it's only to spend 20 minutes walking, can help us organize other aspects of our lives as well."
The best way to ensure success is to make those goals small and reachable at first, rather than programming yourself for frustration and failure by setting unrealistic goals. Start, as Shapiro did, by running around the block, not by signing up for a marathon.
Each of those small goals comes with its own reward, a sense of accomplishment, success and pride. "False pride is very negative," Shapiro says. "But if you can truly feel proud about your body, that's very positive.
"If we can count on our bodies, we have more security. We're not as dependent emotionally on other people," she says.
As we become more flexible physically, we also tend to be more flexible and resilient emotionally, Shapiro says. "The whole essence of mental health is not to be defensive and feel threatened."
Exercise, she points out, is also a good way to relieve the tensions that build up from work or other areas of life.
And becoming fit "increases your sense of uniqueness. Getting to know your own body, its strengths and weaknesses, is an important part of getting to know yourself."