Yesterday, Barbara Berkeley posted an essay on the value of embracing exercise. In it she encourages all of us (and inspires those of willing spirit) to keep trying to fall in love with physical exertion. Good advice. Her drug of choice is tennis. Once upon a time, mine was running.
Barbara’s essay prompted me to do a word search for “running” in some pages I’d written. I was hoping for something inspirational that I could update for this blog. Instead, I happened upon a discomfiting draft of an essay that dated to 2006 or thereabouts. The context tells me it was a time when Oprah was trim and bragging about doing 300 sit-ups a day. I was gloriously in love with running, and never suspected my joints would put an end to that affair. I didn’t know whether I actually qualified as “high” when I ran, but I knew that I loved to run (or, more accurately based on speed, “jog”), I craved it, and often while running I lost track of time and place. I ended up back at home at a time that would indicate I’d trod my usual course, but not remembering specifics. Here’s what I wrote about the process:
When I jog, I find myself writing essays or creating fiction plots that I will later take down, mumbling long passages of dialog and playing multiple characters. Sometimes I mentally stage and win arguments with PTA moms who disagree with my fundraising ideas, or I refurbish my house. Some days I engage in conversations, musical duets or more intimate liaisons with movie stars or musicians. (On rare occasions I think about liaisons with my husband.) I discuss the future of the planet with scientists, politicians or other newsmakers. I negotiate peace accords in troubled countries where I don’t speak the language, but I charm my fellow delegates by feeding them their favorite native desserts prepared by my expert chef. I talk through my interpreter of a peaceful co-existence, and we all strategize about reducing the world’s horrible stockpile of weapons one by one. Then I exchange my bulletproof brassiere for a standard Maidenform and go talk to Oprah about it on her show. (I know Jim Lehrer would be more appropriate, but this is my fantasy.)
I think most of the time I managed to do all this without moving my lips or gesticulating too much, but I don’t know for sure. My neighbors never complained or turned me in to authorities, but neither did they ask me to watch their kids while they were away. I do miss running, whether or not it made me “high.”
I’m not completely out of the game now. Once or twice a month I have a course I run to make sure I’m keeping my cardiovascular conditioning at a “running” level. My speeds have slowed considerably, but I make it without having to break stride and walk. In the days I’m not doing my running check, I do low-impact aerobics using a weighted vest plus hand and ankle weights amounting to roughly 30 pounds in all, or I do high-intensity interval aerobics, without weights, on heavily padded carpeting. It’s not the same as running, but it seems to mostly maintain my weight and I don’t awake the next morning unable to set my left foot on the floor for the pain, or having to pull myself with my hands and arms along the wall to the bathroom, forcing my stiff, sore hips to move my legs to follow.
I have become stoic. While I really wish that the honeymoon could last forever, and mine (blessedly) lasted roughly five years, the kind of exercise that I require to continue my weight maintenance experiment is not effortless, nor is being in love with it. It is not, as I’d imagined, a romantic till-death-do-you-part proposition (unless, perchance, I’m fatally blind-sided by a MAC truck while performing my part in a fictional PTA argument involving fisticuffs).
Yes, yes, yes, I’m always on the lookout for the next exercise love affair that I may have. I take a tap dancing class once a week that is pure joy (though twinges warn me that doing more would surely inflame the pain monsters in my joints and left foot). I’ve tried swimming, but it’s not the same as running, and requires more time to exert the same amount of energy. I’ll keep trying. And I’ll consider my own advice from once-upon-a-time.
I don’t know, exactly, what to make of it, and I don’t know who I thought my audience was. Obviously, I thought I was “inspirational,” since I switched from the confessional (egotistical) first person to a cringe-worthy, condescending second person. It makes me ill-at-ease to read it now, perhaps because being out-of-love with exercise makes me a very different person from when I was in love and wrote it.
. . .”I don’t have time to exercise,” for example, is a copout. No one is so busy or important as to be obligated, legally or morally, to shorten his or her life by refusing to exercise. While work, family and other stressful daily situations may present enormous obstacles, none is insurmountable and all should be re-ordered or otherwise tamed. Even US presidents, of both political parties and with complicated families, exercise. They are not being selfish. They are not doing something frivolous.
Exercise shouldn’t be something you try to get around to, after you have taken care of every other family member, your work, your friends, your house of worship and other volunteer obligations (and I’m assuming you’ve already minimized the time you give non-human obligations, like your housekeeping and yard work). You do none of these groups or individuals any favors if you shortchange your mental or physical health or shorten your life. If you are the most prized volunteer in your house of worship or at another charity, but you’re ready to choke a fellow volunteer because you have had enough, then it’s time to tell the organizers to rotate in a new prized volunteer. You don’t need to tell them you’ve lost your joy in that position; just tell them your tenure is up. Don’t concern yourself with who could replace you. It’s not your problem and even God is indifferent. You go exercise.
If you suspect that your family won’t accept this seemingly strange behavior, then have your doctor write a prescription. There isn’t a doctor alive who wouldn’t cheerfully pull out the pad and sign off on the following: “Walk briskly 45 minutes every day. Sundays optional.” If you tell your doctor to specify a particular time of day, then he or she will add that in too. Tape your exercise prescription to the inside of the medicine cabinet, so you may point at it when someone pressures you to do something in your exercise time other than exercise. Your family wouldn’t dare suggest you skip a pill your doctor prescribed. That might endanger your health or shorten your life! Guess what: they won’t (or shouldn’t) argue with this either, and for the same reasons. Trust that they will recognize their reward for supporting you when they see how happy and mellow you become, and when this new mellow you lives long enough to celebrate dozens of additional family milestones.
On every airplane flight we are instructed to put the oxygen mask on ourselves first, then take care of the small children or others with us. This is because we cannot serve these people if we cannot breathe. Exercise ranks with oxygen as a life necessity. It is essential for mental and physical health – both of which you are allowed to claim if you dare – but, along with eating healthfully, people won’t always make it easy for you.
Who the Hell wrote that? Would Family Circle have published this? Should I trust this woman and take her advice, which would mean cutting back to 45 minutes of brisk walking per day? I think I had a couple of good ideas, but were they merely the ravings of an exercise manic in love?