I exercise in moderation. It took me a long time to learn how to do this, because, generally speaking, being okay at stuff doesn’t earn you a lot of accolades. When I show up in the gym every other week or so, the manager, who is the nicest guy ever, says with a hint of sarcasm, “Nice to see you again, Chris,” and I get it. I’m a raccoon in the gym world. I’m a little soft, a bit of a scrounge, and while rarely seen, no one is surprised when I show up once in a while. This used to make me feel guilty, but it doesn’t anymore. I’m perfectly fine with it. In fact, it feels like becoming lazy about my exercise regimen shows that I’ve finally figured this whole fitness thing out.
Let me explain.
I had been fairly athletic as a kid, but in college I gave all that up and made a serious commitment to cigarette smoking. God, I loved to smoke. I knew it was bad for me, but in the ’80s when I was a teenager, most of the people I knew smoked, and it was part of my identity. If you knew me even a little, you knew I was a smoker. Given this, I was also not an athlete. Run a mile? You might as well have asked me to climb Everest or swim from Cuba to Florida. It wasn’t going to happen, and had I attempted it, I would likely have needed an ambulance.
However, once I gave up the cancer sticks, I decided to take advantage of my newly smoke-free lungs and see if I could rally a bit of cardiovascular endurance. I signed up for a five-mile race and started training. With hindsight, that first race was not a pretty sight. I started too fast and had to stop before I’d hit the first mile, gasping for air. I spent the rest of the race alternating between those two speeds: sprinting and gasping, sprinting and gasping. It was torture when I was running, but when I finished I was euphoric. I couldn’t believe I had done it.
I signed up for another race, then another. I learned to pace myself, and the miles became slightly less painful. I picked up speed. But there was a problem: I still didn’t like running very much. In fact, I kind of hated it. So, to reward myself for training for and finishing a race, I’d give myself a “break,” which meant that I did very close to nothing until I started feeling sludgy enough to sign up for another race. Then I’d start the process all over again. Generally speaking, this is not a particularly good pattern.
After I had kids, I decided that what I needed to do to lose the baby weight and get myself motivated was set a more challenging goal, so I signed up for a sprint triathlon. I joined a women’s training group. I got a bike and went to classes to learn about transitioning. I ran intervals and did brick workouts.
When triathlon day finally came, all that training paid off. I did really well despite my panic attack during the swim, and I was faster than I expected. I felt fit, strong, muscular! Who doesn’t want to feel like that? I signed up for another triathlon right then and there. There was only one problem: The race was a year away. Without a race in the relatively near future, I slipped back into my usual M&M’s and potato chips regimen. I let my workout gear gather dust all winter long, and once again found myself at square one in the spring. I did this triathlon after triathlon, each time essentially starting from scratch, giving myself less and less time to train and becoming more and more resigned about the inevitable post-race sloth.
Needless to say, as time went on, my workouts and races became far less enjoyable. Any exercise I did manage to squeeze into a schedule full of kids and work and household responsibilities seemed tainted by how awful I was at sticking to a fitness regimen. What each race highlighted was not how I had succeeded, but how I had failed—again. The last couple of races I finished were fueled by little more than sheer force of will, and at the finish line, I was just grateful it was over. Then a couple of years ago, I stopped signing up for races. I cancelled my gym membership. I put on 10 pounds. I gave up, thinking I just didn’t have it in me to be an athlete.
And that’s true. I don’t.
I’m not an athlete, and where I had gone wrong was in thinking that to be “fit,” I had to compete in races and have drawers full of finisher’s medals and old bib numbers. But I don’t. I’m in my mid-40s. I have never been an athlete, really, although I am fortunate to have been blessed with a body that can fake it if I’m so inclined. But that’s not really the point of exercise, is it? I want to stay healthy, and I can do that simply by taking the stairs and building some extra walking into my daily routine. In addition, I can work out by doing things that I actually enjoy: going to my weekly yoga class, taking walks with friends, jogging in the park when the weather is cooperative, and, yes, spending an hour at the gym when time permits. Thinking about fitness that way won’t earn me a medal, rock-solid abs, or sitcom actress arms, but I don’t really need these things. I just need to keep the motor running for a bunch more decades, and it seems to me, doing less and losing the stress is exactly the workout I need.