I've always exercised: that's pretty much the only thing I'll talk about in this series that I have always done right. And it's been somewhat by accident that I've achieved it, because once again, my guides were not great.
I used to walk a good deal. I loved walking. I took long thinking walks, and talked to myself, argued with myself, recited poetry, made plans. It was fun. When I moved to New Haven, walking was no longer fun. It was difficult and dangerous. People viewed you with suspicion: why were you walking? Streets were difficult to cross. Muggers were numerous and savage. In the winter, snow and ice made walking a struggle. It was a discouraging time, and I lost the habit. I was in graduate school and I felt I didn't have time anyway.
But I got back to Portland, and I took up swimming, which I had always loved: I swam at the old YWCA up on 10th Avenue. I was doing it for exercise, by then. I had Kenneth Cooper's Aerobics in hand, as my manual, and I tried to train up, according to his guidelines.
Somehow it never quite worked out. I would always get sick (with what I thought of as a cold), at a certain point in my training programs, and spin out for a week or two, and have to start over. I documented my progress meticulously. Always that failure, and starting over, the gradual progression, getting more distance and more speed and then – failure.
I did the same thing with weights. I got dumbbells and started lifting. Daily. With elaborate systems worked out to lift more and more, with more and more reps, and no endpoint, no point at which it was good enough. Curiously enough, I never got very far before I hurt myself, my elbows or my shoulders, and would have to quit for a while.
I'm very grateful for the periodic failures and blessedly minor injuries, now, because I think they saved me from doing what I've seen many, many of my clients do: undertake a determined and resolute program of training to injury. They take up some repetitive exercise that is really hard on the joints, and up the ante, up the ante, up the ante, doing it longer, harder, and more frequently – until something gives. They injure a knee, a hip, or a shoulder, and – suddenly they can't do their chosen exercise any more. They can't do it at all. Any many of them, at this point, give up exercise altogether. It's deeply discouraging to them. Especially for those of them who were athletes in school, it can be a severe identity crisis. If they're not supremely fit, getting better and better – then what are they? They're nothing. Failures. Has-beens.
I don't exercise any more, as I used to understand it. I don't try to get better and better. Doing massage keeps my hand and upper body strength pretty good. I bicycle to and from my writing-cafe – three or four miles from home – most mornings. I'm always meaning to get my weight machine set back up, but I never quite do it. And maybe it's just as well.
The other bit of exercise I do every day is what I call my “back exercises.” Way back when I used to have a lot of low back trouble – in New Haven, curiously enough – I went to a chiropractor. The adjustments didn't do anything for me, but he handed me a sheet of paper with exercises on it, and I did the exercises, and they helped a lot. I think when I started doing them, they took about 25 minutes, every morning, which is a big investment of time. I streamlined them more and more, till now they only take about 10 minutes, I think. I do them every single morning. I'm convinced (caveat, caveat, caveat, sample of one, your mileage may vary) that these exercises keep my erstwhile back trouble at bay.
(I know now that these “exercises” were actually borrowed yoga poses. One of these days I'll document my routine for you. Remind me.)
These exercises helped my back dramatically. Every once in a while, once every couple months, maybe, I'll be pressed for time some morning and skip them. By afternoon my back will be twinging in that old, ominous way. If I skip them a second morning, I'll “throw my back out” that day, almost for sure. Even I can respond to feedback that clear. I don't often skip any more, and I never skip two days in a row. Life is short, and I don't want to spend much of with my back in spasm, gasping on my hands and knees.
What do these three activities – the back exercises, the bicycling, and the massage – have in common? I enjoy them all, they're knit into my daily routines, and they are not progressive. They're not a training program. I'm not trying to get anywhere with them. They're just the way I live. If I don't do them, I get grumpy, or my body starts hurting, or I can't sleep. It's become pretty obvious and self-reinforcing.
So. Why did I start with exercise, in a series about learning how to deal with food? Because for me, dealing with food depends on careful deployment of will power, and replenishing will power depends on sleep, and sleep depends on exercise. It's that simple. I don't exercise, I won't eat right. It's not about burning calories; it's about feeling good. And about waking up with enough oomph in the bank to get through the day.