For at least the twentieth time, I am currently in the process of getting back into shape. As a regular exerciser, I find it an effort that consists equally of humiliation and patience.
I know that treatment for an injured knee should include staying off it. However, when you live alone, that’s not possible. There’s no one else to do the laundry or cook meals, and even ordering take out means dragging yourself to the door. Occasionally, too, I need groceries, and although neighbors and friends offer to help, it’s easier for me to get them myself than describe with precision the food I want.
As a result, the original injury is only the start. After a few days, collateral damage sets in on the other leg. If I’m especially unlucky, the collateral damage can cross back and forth several times between legs.
Being forced into as much inactivity as I can manage is a blow to my self-image, because for much of my life I’ve been on the high end of fitness. Suddenly, my muscles feel flaccid. Simple tasks like pulling on socks and shoes require all my ingenuity.
Even worse, as I hobble out with a cane, I am slower than everyone else – slower, sometimes, than even octogenarians. Instead of offering help, I am faced with the decision of whether to forget my pride and accept it. Instead of giving up my seat on the bus, I am offered one. Twenty times a day, I tell myself to cultivate patience, and sing Stan Roger’s “The Mary Ellen Carter” in my head to keep myself going. When I come home, I collapse on the bed, as often as not falling asleep before I can pull my shoes off.
Nor does the ordeal end with the last of the collateral damage. Having gone for days without the usual outlets for my excess energy, my first impulse is to throw myself back into my full exercise routine. But the sensible part of me knows that is the last thing I should do. Three or four days of full exercise will only make me an invalid again. I have to start slowly, if not from the beginning, then close enough to it that my pride takes another beating. Often, the first few days leave me feeling like my entire body is bruised, and the gradually increasing effort leaves me lightheaded for a week or more.
That’s where I am now, and, as always, I have some insight into why so many people who are new to working out quit after a few weeks. Every step of the way, I have to caution myself against impatience and the temptation to do too much too soon. One good day, and I can all too easily do a harder workout than I can manage. Physically, I have high expectations of myself, expectations unsuited to my current circumstances and increasingly out of sync with my age. Unless I am careful, I could easily find myself at the beginning of the process again – and I seem to be an appalling slow learner, reluctant to do as much as take a day of rest when I have missed so many.
Of course, unlike newcomers, I know that the effort will be worthwhile. But getting back into shape is not a process that improves with repetition. It’s simply preferable to any alternative.