I have a love-hate relationship with exercise. I love having done it, but I hate everything else about it. I hate figuring out how to work it into my crazy schedule. And I hate how hard it feels – every single time. I hate that I’m not one of those people who feels “off” if I don’t work out. And I hate that I’ve never ever felt the mythical rush of endorphins that’s supposed to make me feel somewhat euphoric. Why must you elude me, runner’s high?
I suppose my mixed feelings about exercise can be traced to my upbringing. When I was young, my father used to tell me that “the principal purpose of the human body is to keep one’s head from rolling around on the ground.” We were not an athletic family. Ping pong was my parents’ sport of choice.
And yet, over the years I watched a rowing machine, two stationary bikes, and a treadmill make their way into our house. I never saw any of this equipment being used, but I assume my parents thought they might derive some benefit from being exercise adjacent. Owning the equipment meant they might someday use the equipment, and there was a psychological payoff to that if not a physical one.
So maybe it’s not surprising that I never developed an exercise routine I wanted to stick with – one that was more than a means to an end, preferably an end that included chocolate cake.
When I became the mother of three children who require an abundance of physical and emotional energy, I got more than my daily share of cardio running around after them. Surely carrying them and the profusion of stuff that went along with them counted as strength training, too.
But as my children got older, I realized their energy and my exhaustion were increasing in tandem. I noticed that doctors no longer asked me in passing about my exercise routine, chuckling when I told them my kids kept me in shape. Instead, they set aside time at my check up to discuss and dissect how many minutes of exercise I did per week. My PCP even got down on the floor to demonstrate the perfect plank.
I knew I wanted to be strong and healthy for my family, and I knew that exercise was one way to tip the scales in my favor. But with the kids, a demanding full-time job, and a lengthy commute, I didn’t know how I’d fit it in. I reached out to my friend Cheryl, who’d mentioned she’d been going to boot camp at 5:30 in the morning, returning home before her family woke up. I loved the idea of something that had the word “camp” in it. So even though I loathed the idea of giving up an hour of sleep, I agreed to give it a try.
The next morning, Cheryl picked me up at 5:15 and drove us to a nearby parking lot, where a surprisingly large number of people who were surprisingly energetic for what was essentially the middle of the night were warming up racing in laps around the lot. “Cheryl, if this is the warmup,” I asked, “what does the actual workout look like?”
She laughed; I hadn’t been kidding. Turns out boot camp is essentially a series of exercises that increase sequentially; so you do the first exercise, then the first and second, then the first, second and third, and so on, until you are ready to pass out. Each of the exercises was punishing, but none so much as the “burpee.” I should have known from the name. The burpee involves jumping, squatting, planking, and crying. It was awful. The rest of the group – every single person – was pushing up, sitting up, lunging, and sprinting while I was trying to figure out how to make it look like I was doing whatever I was supposed to be doing at each station while silently mourning the hour of sleep I would never get back.
When the class was over, Cheryl bounced over to me with a huge smile and told me I’d done great. If “great” is a euphemism for, “oh my god, I didn’t realize you were so out of shape. You kind of embarrassed me but at least you’re still standing,” she was right. I’d done great. She then confided that after her first time at boot camp, she’d gone home and thrown up. Really? She couldn’t have shared this bit of information with me ahead of time? Had I known that totally fit Cheryl had thrown up from this workout, I’d surely have passed. I was looking to rejuvenate, not regurgitate.
I decided to forego boot camp and give yoga a try; I liked the idea of something low key and inward focused. The class took place in a cozy studio, with LED candles casting a peaceful glow. It was raw and rainy outside, but here it was nice and toasty, and much more inviting than the boot-camp parking lot.
Our instructor lulled us into some preliminary stretches with soothing talk and relaxing music. “I can do this,” I thought. “I might even be able to shut my eyes and get a quick nap in.” But within a few minutes he walked over to the thermostat and turned up the dial. He started to call out positions that apparently everyone else in the room understood: “updog, downdog, cat, cow, warrior II.”
I barely had one figured out before he was two ahead. The strength and flexibility of those around me was astonishing … so was the amount of sweat pouring off them. My classmates gracefully moved from “eagle” to whatever animal refers to a headstand, and back again. I was still in child’s pose, the one where you get to curl up in a ball and pretend you’re exercising. I was a hot mess … literally.
I decided I needed to go it on my own. There’s a beautiful rail trail near our house that snakes along a lake. It’s completely flat, and I figured it would be a good place to become a runner. I’ve always liked the idea of saying, “I’m just going for a run; be home soon.” It seems so athletic and Cape Cod-ish. So off I went for my “run,” which is a generous way of saying I went for an incredibly slow jog. On my second outing I convinced my son to join me. He outpaced me – and he was walking.
The third time I went, I decided to forego the pretense that I was out for a run and embrace the notion that I was on a fast walk. I listened to a book I’d downloaded for my commute, and something astounding happened: I lost track of time.
I finished the loop but I hadn’t finished the book, and I didn’t want to stop. So I decided to reserve the rest of the book for the next day’s walk, incentive to get back at it. But as soon as I started the trail the following day, my friend Liz called. I spent the next hour walking and talking.
Soon I got creative…I could walk and talk, walk and read, walk and catch up on the news. I downloaded the perfectly personalized playlist with all the cheesy music I secretly adored and marched to the beat of my own soundtrack.
Exercise became the happy byproduct of something else – the “me time” I’d been craving. It doesn’t make me feel euphoric, but it also doesn’t make me want to throw up, so that’s a win. I don’t burn as many calories as a boot camper, and I know that saying “I’m headed out on a walk” lacks the panache of “I’m going for a run.” But I don’t need to force walking on to my to-do list; it wants to be there.
I like that the only person I need to keep up with is me and that I’m the one calling the shots. I’ll never ask myself to do a burpee, but I do try to go farther and faster. So for now I’ll forego the camps and the classes and simply put one foot in front of the other.