By Kim Brittingham
I’ll never be one of those sleek, adrenaline-pumped people in a commercial for high-tech sneakers or sports drinks, grimacing in steely determination with a toe poised on the edge of a starting line, grabbing life by the humid balls one steep mountain-bike path at a time, sweating electrolyte-blue droplets with glorious abandon.
Impossible. Because I hate exercise.
To me, exercise is a big, bullying bruiser who’s all too happy to push me to the brink of death. It is a doomful march at gunpoint through a syrup-aired tropic jungle. It’s being face-up on a gurney, unable to tell the huddle of white coats around me what hurts, so they cannot help me.
And I hate that I feel this way. It seems unnatural.
You would think, as part of a built-in mechanism to promote survival of the human species, that we would all have an innate desire to jump and run and flail our limbs around on a chalk-lined field.
So why is it that some of us don’t?
When I was a kid, my mother was always telling me to “Go outside! Get some fresh air! Play with other kids!” It was never an alluring prospect. Especially when it involved a ball, or moving my body rapidly from one place to another.
It just seemed I was born for more sedentary pursuits. I wanted to be left alone, so I could finish reading “The Great Gilly Hopkins” for the hundredth time, or return pen to lined paper as I scrawled my latest short story into a ratty spiral notebook. For sure, I had the cerebral thing taken care of – but why didn’t I feel a more natural pull towards the physical?
Maybe it was the frightening state that exercise put my body in, so reliably, every time.
Running even the shortest distance made my heart pound so loudly in my head, it partially deafened me to everything outside. And it beat far too fast for any activity that was meant to be fun. A voice throbbed in my ears, this can’t be healthy! I’m going to have a heart attack!
The accompanying shortness of breath was terrifying. I’d look around at all these kids frolicking and having fun and think, they can’t possibly be experiencing what I am right now, or they’d be sprawled on the grass dying!
Clearly their lungs, unlike mine, had not shut down, collapsed into themselves like two popped pink gum-bubbles, two pink layers clinging together, no open space to fill, just me and a dead-end sort of choking. I often wonder if I had asthma and was undiagnosed.
So no, exercise did not equate to joy in my life. It meant extreme discomfort, pain, the fear of death.
If you went to public school in the United States in the ‘70s, no doubt you remember the Presidential Physical Fitness Test – a battery of events meant to test your strength and stamina, the mastery of which earned you a navy blue embroidered patch at an end-of-school year ceremony.
I never, ever passed a single Fitness Test event – that is, never met the minimum requirements to be deemed “fit”. I couldn’t even pass the “easy” ones, like the long jump. The long jump required you to bend your knees, swing your arms energetically at your sides, then launch yourself forward, sneakers together. I could never jump far enough.
The message was clear: I just wasn’t cut out for sporty things. There was something wrong with me. I was abnormal. Unfit for society. Maybe even fat.
But I had additional reasons for avoiding all things athletic. Like I didn’t care to get hit in the face with a ball.
As an adult, I’m comforted to know I’m not alone in this. Recent conversations with friends have revealed there were like-minded kids all over the country who valued their noses and teeth.
With us, this ball phobia ripened with age into a piquant blend of belligerence and proud disinterest in team sports. Our classmates hated us for it, of course. My friend Kathy zealously confessed that during gym games, the ball would come to her and she’d cross her arms to make sure she didn’t catch it – complete with a kiss-my-ass smile.
I remember being forced to play softball in gym, but having no idea what was going on, nor did I care to learn. Always last to be chosen for a team, I’d be cast off into the outfield, where I imagined I was in a Minnesota flower field in a calico dress, Laura Ingalls’ unwritten chubby sister, just a stone’s throw from our darling little house on the prairie. I wondered if I sucked on my teeth hard enough if the gap between the front two would close up on its own. I pondered how they got Tootie to look so much older for her short stint as a supermodel on “The Facts of Life”, and decided with some irritation that Mrs. Garrett was being overly protective – so what if a twelve-year-old girl snarled into the camera? And no doubt I was thinking, this sun is so hot! And there are gnats in this grass!
And yes, the occasional ball would bounce past me on the dewy lawn, and suddenly everyone was yelling at me. Oh — was I supposed to catch that?
Oddly enough, I’m reminded here of Ralphie in that classic holiday movie “A Christmas Story”, when he’s waiting in line to see Santa Claus, and The Wicked Witch of The West cheerfully accosts him. “Don’t bother me,” he says to her dismissively, “I’m…I’m thinking.” That was me and sports.
That’s me today, faced with a world of gym memberships and upwardly-mobile rollerblading couples and impromptu volleyball games among neighbors. Don’t bother me with that painful, sweaty stuff – I’m thinking. It’s who I think I am. A thinker, not a mover. It’s what I’ve come to believe.
But I understand that bodies need activity to stay healthy, energetic and mobile. Herein lies the problem. How can I learn to love something I hate, in order to have the happiest, longest life possible?
Several years ago, on the advice of my former therapist, I agreed to a free trial session with her personal trainer. She recommended him highly, said he wasn’t like other trainers: “He’s very patient and insightful…very Zen.” Being that she knew me well and specialized in helping large-size women with eating disorders, I trusted her judgment.
This bald and beefy little black man in linen with a Buddha collection, who’d left behind Wall Street to bring people into better balance with their bodies, completely sucked ass.
He pushed me beyond my limits. He pushed and he pushed.
I told him as soon as I walked in the door, “Look dude, here’s the thing. I hate exercise. And the only way this is going to work is if I feel I have a chance in hell of doing this long-term. I have to want to come back.” I thought I made it clear that I didn’t want the workout to be too hard at first, that I needed to work my way up slowly. Much more slowly than most people. If I left panting and exhausted and deafened by my own heartbeat, chances are he’d never see me again. In that state, I’d gladly sign up for ten to twenty years off my life if it meant I didn’t have to go through that torture again. He nodded sagely and I thought he got me.
Halfway through the session I stopped and looked at him incredulously, red-faced, my scalp a salty waterfall cascading over my face. “Did you not hear what I said? This is too much!”
“Well I have to make you do a certain minimum, you know?” He sounded exasperated. “If I don’t do that, then I’m not doing my job. I can’t let you leave here knowing I didn’t at least give you the minimum I know you need to see a difference.”
I’m sorry, but you won’t convince me that doing only twenty lifts on each arm instead of forty would’ve done me no good whatsoever. Because you see, at twenty, I might’ve felt like, “Hey! I can do this!” Yes, encouraged. I might’ve come back to him, determined to do twenty-five, thirty, forty, or more.
But instead, I left frustrated, feeling like the poster child for Athletic Imbecility. It was sixth grade gym class all over again. A minimum had been set, and if I couldn’t meet it with a smile on my face, then I was a physical reject.
Furthermore, did you catch that last thing he said? The “minimum I know you need to see a difference“? In hindsight, I realized this dumb bell was completely appearance-focused. For him, my success (and his) were defined by how my body looked. Nothing I’d said about wanting more energy, stamina and overall strength had really sunk in for him. For him, this was about reshaping a lumpy fat girl. All those other benefits fell in the fringe category. Gee, I hope he’s become more enlightened.
I wasted a lot of years believing myself incapable of anything athletic, and so I sat back on my butt and never tried. I was never taught the value of baby steps.
But a Christmas gift from an optimistic ex and a decision to move to a beach town may have saved my life.
You see, an old boyfriend gave me a lovely red beach cruiser bicycle, complete with a wicker basket and a pretty flower-patterned bell. It sat in basement storage in my former Manhattan apartment building for about eight years, rusting. I believed I was too weak to hold myself up, my butt too big to sit on the seat, the streets too crowded with unforgiving traffic to make it safe for a trembling wreck of a beginner like me.
Upon moving to an idyllic oceanfront community in New Jersey, where leisurely bicyclists on cheerful pastel cruisers is an uplifting, everyday sight, I decided to climb aboard the old red bike and give it another try.
Yes, it hurt at first. My legs were stiff and unsteady. And in a bona-fide biblical miracle, my bicycle seat managed to locate bones buried deep within my abundant ass, and pressed them to a point of pain.
But there were also intoxicating oceanic breezes that cleansed me as I rolled through them, feeling like a sunburned infant diving with the grace of a porpoise into a pool of cool milk, my soul sighing.
I wanted to do it again.
And there was adventure in this biking thing! There was curiosity — satisfied! Surrounding towns become increasingly familiar as I sail down little-known side streets, past impeccable art deco mansions and shabby seaside bingo halls lost in time. I discover farmer’s markets and yard sales. And I feel like I can fly.
I have moments when I think to myself, But I’m not obsessed enough with biking for it to make a real impact on my health or wellbeing. It can’t be helping me – it’s not hard enough!
However, my legs don’t hurt anymore when I ride. And I can ride three towns away and back without feeling like I need an all-day nap to recover. These are indicative of progress, are they not? Of an improved level of fitness? And isn’t any improvement still worthwhile? Don’t lots of little improvements eventually add up to big ones?
So maybe I don’t have to be “obsessed”. Maybe I don’t need to be a Gatorade-chugging fanatic in clingy streamlined shorts. If I never sign up for a hip and happenin’ road race for any kind of cure, it’ll be A-OK. I believe it’s still possible to be happy and healthy and live a long life without changing one’s status from geek to jock. Yes, finally, I believe this! After 37 years, I have seen there is joy in movement!
And maybe if I get in better shape, I’ll find joy in even more kinds of movement! Who knows? I always dreamed of taking up fencing – ever since I saw “The Princess Bride.” And when I practice, I want to wear a red sash at my waist. I doubt I’ll make it into a Nike commercial with all the would-be Olympic hot bods, but you never know. Look for a chubby girl with a sword or a rickety red bike with a book in its basket, encouraging you warmly to “Just do it.”