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There was a time when I was a morning person – it happened to coincide with when I was athletic – but I'm not any more. So it was with dread that I scheduled my first workout with my personal trainer for 6 a.m., my only free time.

After slamming the snooze button, I managed to bike down to the gym for my first session with Sarah Daly, a personal trainer with the Toronto YMCA. Part of the reason for getting a trainer was because I needed expertise and motivation.

But before an expert can help, she has to know your starting point. A fitness test, which is how most training programs begin, is not unlike the breathless drills you did in high-school gym class. But unlike gym class, you don't struggle at the exercises in front of forgiving, equally unfit friends. Your audience is one of super-fit strangers. And struggle I did.

Much to my embarrassment, I couldn't even do one full-body push-up. So I switched to half push-ups, which I could do. Kind of. Around number 25, I started to feel my flabby, weak arms wobble. At around number 28, my body gave out and my face smashed into the mat. A fitness test can be demoralizing and the results shameful, but it's necessary.

"At the start of a new program, fitness testing assists a trainer in understanding the member's current fitness level, and acts as a baseline measurement to compare future tests to," said Daly. "Seeing progress is a great motivator, and helps a trainer know when and how to adjust a program to continue to challenge the member as they strive towards their fitness goals."

Because these tests are so dependent on variable factors (such as age, gender, fitness history, nutrition, etc.), the results are very personal. It's hard to say whether the number of sit-ups I could in a minute (29, in case you're wondering) is good or bad.

But if you are doing a simplified test at home, you can use online calculators, such as those at, to give you a sense of where your fitness ranks. Much to my amazement, when I entered in my push-up results into the calculator, my rating was "average."

Daly made me a much-needed workout calendar. In the past, I had developed a binge exercising habit. I'd avoid the gym for weeks, then feel guilty and frantically work out, usually late at night, to the point of utter exhaustion. I'd wake up the following day so sore that walking was challenging, and the unhealthy routine would continue.

The plan Daly set up for me is gradual, consistent and balanced. I would work out with her twice a week: once for strength training, the second for an hour-long core workout. I'd run on my own twice a week and attend three classes by myself at the gym: one spin class, one yoga class and one kettlebell class. In total: seven workouts in the week, with two full rest days.

Daly also provided some much-needed encouragement. There was a split second when my face was still against the mat after my final half push-up that I thought, "I don't know if I can do this. I don't think I'll ever be as fit as I want to be." Her cheerful response ("That was great!") interrupted my negative self-talk and got me off the floor and into the next drill. As I powered through my squat repeats, I felt much stronger.

Follow Madeleine's journey every Monday in The Globe and Mail.

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