Worked Out: Exercise is About More Than Sweat, Muscles and Calories
I'm sick of exercising.There, I've said it.I'm sick of hot-weather work outs: sweat in the eyes; T-shirts soaked through; unquenchable thirsts. I'm sick of the planning that goes into exercising: when; where; how long; how to squeeze it in amidst everything else that needs doing. I'm sick of the pain: sore muscles, a persistent ache in my left hip, calluses. And above all, I'm sick of the emotional energy involved: the worrying (am I working out enough? hard enough? long enough?), and the calculating (can I get away with not working out today? tomorrow? this week?), and the subtle contemplation of a never-ending, perhaps unanswerable question: am I burning all these calories because I want to because it genuinely makes me feel good or because I think I should, because on some occasions exercise answers some deeper need for a kind of self-punishment?As we do with so many of the important activities in our lives -- eating, drinking, working -- most of us have an active, if not well-understood, relationship with exercise. Mine began rather late in life: I wasn't much into sports as a kid, never particularly liked the energy output it took to run around and compete. It seemed a little silly to me, all that effort. In ninth grade, I belonged to the absolute worst softball team in my high school's history (we once lost a game 127-3), and my dominant memory of the game has to do with the time I got hit in the nose by a line drive and ended up lying with an unstoppable nosebleed on the bathroom floor for 45 minutes, waiting for my mother to come pick me up. By 10th grade, I managed to bypass anything requiring actual physical energy by becoming the manager of the girl's basketball team, a nice, passive post I held until I graduated. My college years were blissfully sedentary: I may have walked really fast to the cafeteria once or twice, but I didn't do so with the aim of working up a sweat, and for the most part I didn't think about exercise or give much thought as to whether I should or shouldn't take it up.Exercise for me (and no doubt for lots of women) accompanied concern about body image and weight, which blossomed into an obsession in my early 20s, the anorexic years. Fresh out of college, unanchored by academic rituals and responsibilities, and hell-bent on controlling something in what felt like a small, chaotic environment, I stopped eating and started jogging. A 10-minute run several times a week turned into a 20-minute run every other day, then a 30 minute-run every day, and so on. At the height of my compulsiveness, I weighed 83 pounds and was running six-mile road races on an empty stomach, of course. The concept of carbo-loading seemed grotesque to me, and weak.Those days (mercifully) are long gone, and my relationship with working out has become richer, more complex, less singularly self-destructive. Back then, the equation was simple, the relationship one-dimensional: exercise meant expending calories, and the more the better, regardless how much it hurt. I hated jogging, actually found it monotonous and painful. But I suspect that pain was the point, and enduring pain (both physical and psychological) was a prerequisite for feeding myself in any other way: I felt I didn't deserve to eat (or to relax, or to feel like a decent human being). I couldn't allow myself such indulgences, unless I'd earned them somehow.As anorexia lost its hold on me, so did compulsive exercising. In my mid-20s, around the time I my relationship with food began to get back on track, I discovered sculling, a difficult sport that gave me something to master besides the contours of my own body, and for the first time, I realized that exercise could be something other than tedious and hard on the knees. I loved -- and continue to love -- the feel of sculling, the swoosh of it, the rhythm, the sounds of oars dipping into the water, popping out, sweeping back against the water. It's an aesthetically pleasing sport, physically demanding and yet meditative, and for the most part I've been grateful and enthusiastic about it for more than a decade.Yet I sense it's time to rethink the relationship once again. The compulsive edge has lingered, particularly during times of stress. The summer my father died, four years ago, I rowed a thousand miles: I rowed six or seven times a week, no matter what the conditions, often racking up seven or eight miles in a single outing. I went to France that summer for a week, came home, got off the plane at 2 p.m., and was on the river by 4. That was frantic exercise, an attempt to literally row away from my own feelings, and although I've not repeated the effort, I'm often aware of the same pulls and pressures, the same wish to muscle my way into some altered state, and an attendant struggle over the question of what's enough. How hard to work out? How often? How much pain is required in order to feel pleasure?One day not long ago, a particularly hot, muggy, windy day in late August, I spent 50 minutes flailing around in my single scull on the Charles River, my oars flapping against the chop, a large blister developing on my left hand, sweat running into my eyes and making them burn. I hated it. Two-and-a-half miles up the river, two-and-a-half miles back, and the whole way I kept thinking: Why do I do this?I know myself well enough at this point to answer that question: that particular morning, I'd been feeling restless, edgy, a little lonely and depressed. For several days, I'd been eating too much, procrastinating too much, shying away from restorative things, like contact with friends, and sufficient sleep. Exercise at times like that can be a helpful thing, a way to jump-start myself into a more energetic mode, a path out of lethargy and the slothful sense of self that comes with it. But at other times, like that morning, it reverts back to its old self: a form of self-punishment, a way to literally beat myself up. I knew the water would be rough that day, the row unpleasant, the experience painful and lonely, and I did it anyway. That isn't a workout; it's an exercise in self-disgust, and I suppose that's the brand I'm tired of.There is still nothing like a good row, when the water is flat and calm, the air cool, the conditions right for that particular combination of hard physical work and psychic reward. But I'd like my relationship with exercise to be less manic and less propelled by guilt, less forced. A rotten day? Don't row. A set of feelings that exercise won't resolve? Find another way to manage them.For the last few Saturdays, I've been taking long, meandering hikes with a new friend and our dogs. We've tramped around the Fells, between Melrose and Winchester, and we've tramped around the woods in Lincoln, and I've discovered on these occasions a wonderful balance between physical exertion and social pleasure. We walk and we talk and we pause on occasion to sit and drink water and watch the dogs, tireless and ecstatic to be outdoors. I've come home from these walks feeling not only physically restored but also refreshed in other ways -- connected and content and closer to the things that make me happy: my dog, good conversation, the quiet of the woods. I've tended to be the sort of person who believes that walking doesn't "count" as a form of exercise, that you're not really working unless you hurt. But it occurs to me now, perhaps for the first time, that the heart is a muscle in many respects, and needs attending to beyond the gym.