If there’s a gene for proclivity to exercise, my family doesn’t have it. Give me a choice between a vigorous bike ride and curling up with a book and I’ll take the book every time. I got away with it in my twenties because a heavy backpack and a university built on a steep hill forced a certain amount of exertion. And even in my thirties, when working for a string of start-ups and small consulting companies meant long hours, erratic eating, and lots of calorie-burning stress.
But somewhere in my forties time and inactivity began to catch up. I needed an assistive device to open jars. My inviolate “I’ll never wear jeans larger than this size” shifted once. Then again. Chronic back problems that had plagued me intermittently since my mid-twenties became more chronic and less intermittent. My joints ached when I got up in the morning and I hobbled to the door to let the dog out. I found myself thinking, “Aren’t I too young to be feeling this old?”
It was a tiny thing that finally spurred me to action. The day that I had to rest my arms halfway through winding up an electrical cord a little voice in my head snapped, That’s it. You’re weak and getting weaker. Normal people can stir cookie dough without taking a coffee break. You need to do something.
I started with yoga. Then added weight lifting. A few weeks ago, although I hate jogging with every fiber of my being, I installed Couch-to-5K on my Android. I’d still rather curl up with a book. But my back is stronger. My joints don’t hurt (or if they do, I know precisely why – damn you, shoulder press). I can wind cords and stir cookie dough with the best of them. And I’ve learned a few things, about a few things.
Yoga taught me the value of proper equipment. The mat was a no-brainer for traction on our smooth cork floors. I was more resistant to props like straps and blocks, thinking they were crutches I should do without. Then the little voice in my head started sniping again. Hellooo? Crutches are for injured people to use until they are healed and stronger. Have a go at touching your toes and get back to me!
So I broke down and bought them, and it’s not an understatement to say they’re the reason that I’ve persisted with a yoga practice. I may never be flexible enough to perform a triangle pose without resting my hand on a block. But over the years I have been able to turn the block on successively shorter sides, a tangible enough mark of progress to keep me motivated and encouraged.
And I take them everywhere. I have no idea what I look like to a hotel clerk ambling up to check in with my mat and blanket secured in a neat roll by the strap and tucked under my arm, and I don’t really care. Because if dumpling lumpy pillows and a plywood hard mattress turn my body into a brittle achy pretzel, I know I can fix it when morning comes.
* * *
Revamping for weight lifting was a more serious commitment. The last time my husband and I got on an exercise binge we invested in an elliptical and a weight machine. The elliptical got occasional use, whenever I decided I wanted to re-watch Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, but the weight machine mostly sat in our bedroom being a coat rack. It had two things going against it. I often injured myself when guilt drove me to use it. But more importantly, it was boring as hell.
When my husband suggested replacing it with a weight rack, I was skeptical on Many Fronts. For one thing, I had begun harboring a not terribly secret desire to get rid of the Infernal Machine and replace it with a Mission-style Tiffany floor lamp and chaise longue (you know, for curling up and reading). A huge black cage accessorized with safety straps and eau du rubber bumper plates didn’t conjure up quite the same aesthetic ambience.
I was terrified of the thought of spotting for my spouse, who would certainly far and fast outstrip me in weight. And I was unconvinced that I could manage to lever myself up and down with just the 33 pound bar on my shoulders, let alone any actual weights.
But we went ahead with it, and have now been lifting regularly for several years now, and switching equipment made all the difference. There are so many things to think about while juggling a squirmy, heavy bar – is it high enough on my shoulders? am I shifting my weight forward? is it tilting to one side? can I actually stand up again now that I’m down here? – that it’s impossible to get bored. Exhausted, occasionally discouraged, flat out played out, yes – but not bored.
* * *
When it comes to jogging, I have a no-fail, special piece of “equipment”: my dog. Most of the time our boxer mutt defines lazy. If my husband lines up half a dozen tiny stuffed squirrels on her back she’ll lay there for minutes while we amuse ourselves taking cell phone pictures, because she can’t be bothered to shake them off. She’ll play with her toys alone, but if we try to join her she’ll toss them aside and roll over for petting. Since you’re here…make yourself useful while I lounge.
But she dearly loves to run. When joggers pass us out on walks she’ll turn her head and watch them disappear around a curve with what I swear is jealous longing. If they grabbed her leash and dashed away with her I’m not sure she would make a murmur of protest.
Of any exercise I’ve ever undertaken, jogging is the one I hate the most and am far and away the wheezy worst at. But seeing Guinness wiggle so hard in excitement that she slaps herself in the face with her own tail when the (hideously ugly, who designs these things?) running shoes come out inevitably gives me a jolt of energy. Well, at least until the first interval is done.
I lived for years, quite happily, without owning a scale. (The house only sports one mirror, begrudgingly, as part of the bathroom medicine cabinet so I can go out in the world without my hair looking like a birds’ nest.) But as my doctor started making noises about blood pressure medication I decided I needed to get a little more serious about losing weight – or at least, not gaining more.
Measuring devices, I learned from my father, can quickly become obsessions. When his doctor told him to buy a blood pressure monitor I watched him turn into a valetudinarian virtually overnight. He took readings four or more times a day, making panicked phone calls to his physician at every slightest change. He had spreadsheets and graphs dedicated to the ups and downs of pressure and pulse. Some of them were in color.
I log my weight once a day, and have to admit that the scale has its value. What it does, similar to diets – pick a diet, any diet – is to pull eating out of the realm of habit, encourage mindful consumption. Knowing I have to face its judgment in the morning makes me think twice before buying chips at the supermarket, and has curbed impulse and stress eating (yep, turns out even healthy things like nuts and fruit aren’t calorie-free).
Adopting a restrictive diet plan isn’t something I can see myself ever doing again. Deprivation sparks a different kind of mindfulness – of all the things I love and can’t have – that inevitably results in cheating and ultimately failure. But seeing the daily, tangible results of skipping exercise for a couple of days, or that one night I kept eating even when I wasn’t hungry – is (for now at least) enough of a corrective to prod me toward change.
The Yoga of Everything
If I hadn’t started with yoga, I’m not sure I would have succeeded at weights or jogging. For one thing, it’s the only exercise that makes me feel better as an immediate, direct result of having done it. Lifting and running offer second-order benefits. The days I carry six grocery bags from the garage to the house without having to make two trips. Or climb a steep hill and not be out of breath. And that’s really cool. But at the time that I’m exercising…if I’ve pushed myself hard enough lifting it’s a challenge to get my wobbling legs down to the mailbox. And for now at least, jogging straddles a fine line between mostly just walking and spending twenty minutes with a cold compress hoping my face turns less beet-like after I get back.
Yoga, the mantra goes, is about balancing surrender and effort. After two years of practice I’m finally starting to understand what that means, and how it applies to all kinds of exercise. Curling my hands into fists makes jogging rather the opposite of easier, and trying to force the weight bar over my head instead of letting it rise just about guarantees I won’t be able to finish the set.
More holistically, I find myself needing to surrender to my age, a slowing metabolism, the little aches and pains that form the soft, throbbing drumbeat of pushing an unwilling, unaccustomed body to exertion. Losing weight is much, much harder than it used to be. I injure myself every few months when I get frustrated at my microscopic progress and push too aggressively. But the effort is worth it because without it, my fall from physical grace looms much nearer and darker on the horizon.