Archive for the ‘workouts’ Category

With Labour Day approaching, I’m coming to the end of my daily swims. At some point in the next three weeks, the strata council of my townhouse complex will decide to close the pool. The gate will be locked, my daily swims will be over until next May. Meanwhile because the council never announces precisely when the pool will close, I arrive each day wondering if I will see the notice of closure and feeling a sense of impending loss.

Part of my sense of loss is simply the wish for selfish convenience. When exercise is less than two minutes from my door, I have few excuses for missing it. Even if I arrive home exhausted, I have a hard time convincing myself that I can’t stagger out and do a few laps. And, once I’ve done a few laps, I’m usually in a rhythm that makes finishing my daily quota easy.
Another part, equally selfish, is my wish for variety. For eight months, I’ll only have running, walking, and the exercise bike for aerobic workouts. Having a fourth choice for a third of the years is always welcome, and swimming is the best of my usual choices for recovering from leg or foot injuries.

However, the major reason for my sense of impending loss is that I feel that I am just getting used to the laps. I am not an especially graceful man; my exercise is usually proof of dogged determination than any real ability. But after a few months of regular swims, I feel a certain power and grace creeping into my swimming. I know the rhythm of my swim, and the distance a single stroke of the arms and legs will send me. What, I wonder, would I be like if I had another month or two? I have a sense of an enhanced state of fitness and consciousness that is beyond my reach, yet one that I am inching inexorably towards.

Of course, I could see if this sense is an illusion by going to a public pool. There are four within ten miles of me, including one that is ten minutes’ walk away. Yet none are free, and none are as convenient as the pool just beyond my door step.

Moreover, the one within walking distance is part of a basement complex that is half dark and full of joyless exercisers. Going there would would be a constant struggle against the physical and emotional gloom of the place. So, the likelihood is that I won’t go to any of them regularly.

Meanwhile, my pleasure in the exercise is tinged with a sense of its impermanence. Each time I finish could easily be my last until next spring.

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For me, exercise has always been a contemplative act. I usually exercise first thing in the morning, before I face other people and the day’s business, or at the end of the workday, when I’m trying to relax. Most of the time, I exercise solo, not just from preference but also because doing so is easier than trying to get schedules to mesh. All these reasons explain why, although I have just about become accustomed to mixing an exercise bike with street jogging, going to the exercise room at the nearby rec center, my pleasure from working out is lessened by the people around me.

Admittedly, I always enjoy people-watching. But the only way I can make using an exercise bike tolerable is to do interval workouts in which I go flat out for five minutes, then ease off for two. This sort of workout takes a certain kind of concentration, a slipping into the zone where the rhythms of the exercise take over and I can keep going without a conscious effort.

The constant radio and TV are distractions enough (and I’ll leave it to possible future blog entries to ask why both need to be on together, why background noise is assumed essential, or why classic rock stations never play the really classic rock, like Derek and the Dominos or Jimi Hendrix instead of mediocrities like Elton John or Chicago). But the people are often too much.

I suppose that the only way many people can exercise is by making the effort a social occasion. But, too often, it seems that people are doing far more chattering than exercising. Moreover – no doubt hardened from constant cell phone nattering, most of those working out carry on their private conversations as if they were alone.

I wouldn’t mind so much if their conversations were interesting. The rec center is less than five miles from a major university, so you’d think the odds would sometimes be in favor of a thoughtful remark or two. But the reality is more relentlessly banal. If it’s not housewives talking endlessly of half-baked dieting fads and what’s on Oprah, it’s male middle-managers replaying last night’s hockey game or trying to outdo each other by peppering their conversation with sports statistics. More than one exerciser spends three minutes talking for every one minute he exercises – and that’s on a good day.

But by far the worst are the teenage boys. For some reason, if you put the average teenage boy near anything to do with sports, he seems to instantly lose forty IQ points and to affect the hoarse, semi-articulate tones of a hockey announcer. Then, to make matters worse, they start throwing mock punches at each other and wrestling or kickboxing in the aisles, all the while talking relentless trivia.

Today, a group of teenage boys were carrying on in their usual way about a meter away from where I was wiping sweat from my forearms and brow and trying to psych myself up for my final interval. But, this time, the antics kept going much longer than usual, and I started to fume.

And it wasn’t just me. A couple of women regulars, who work as hard on their routines as I do on mine, couldn’t get around them to get to the weight rack. One of the women was jostled, and almost fell over a work bench.
Suddenly, I had had enough. I shouted at them to take their games outside and get out of everybody’s way.

For a moment, the boys looked startled. No doubt they were surprised that the middle-aged fogey could talk or have good enough eyes to see what they were doing. But one thing I’ve always noticed is that, the rare times I lose my temper, people don’t cross me. They muttered half-articulate apologies and I started my last interval, glad for the silence but also ashamed that I had turned angry.

The personal stresses of the last month had made me overly sensitive, I’m sure, but my outburst was troubling all the same, especially since I know that I’ll either have to learn to endure the conversation of those less dedicated to exercise or else find a place in our crowded townhouse for my own exercise bike.

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If there’s one set of muscles that people obsess over at the exercise room that I frequent, it’s their abdominal muscles. At least that’s the one that they always talk about, regardless of gender or age. If everyone were to stop talking at once (which would never happen), I swear that the room would still echo for the next thirty seconds with “Abs, abs, abs . . .” in a dying fall.

The common attitude is summed up neatly in a cartoon over the water fountain captioned “Yoga Then and Now.” The first panel shows an expressionless Indian fakir in a loincloth with his thoughts focused squarely on the lotus. The second panel shows a woman who is probably wearing Lululemon workout gear with a vacant smile on her face and her limbs in a desperate tangle. She’s thinking, “This is so good for my abs!”

You have to frequent an exercise room to full appreciate the cartoon. However, take it from me: most of the people who use the gym would happily leave their cardio-vascular system in ruins and their legs and arms flapping with flab, if only they could have a washboard stomach – or at least a flatter one.

Given this widespread obsession, the reaction to the new abs machine is predictable. At one point or the other, almost everyone has tried it in the last couple of months. But they don’t simply read the instructions and try it out. Instead, they circle it for a week or two, like a parrot faced with something new and possibly dangerous. When someone else sits down to use it, they watch out of the corner of their eyes, as though they expect him or her to be consumed by the machine.

And, on the unconscious level, you can see the reason for their worry: with the pads for your arms and the metal frame behind you that you pull forward, the machine does look like something that might be used to interrogate prisoners at Abu Ghraib or Guantanmo Bay.

After witnessing a few people using the machine and emerging unscathed, eventually everyone braves the machine for themselves. Sitting in the saddle, they adjust it gingerly to their height. They shuffle, trying to find a comfortable position on an innately uncomfortable seat. They adjust the weight load. They shuffle again.

Then they have a moment of Nietzschean self-contemplation. No doubt they are muttering something about how that which does not kill them makes them stronger, or some other phrase they picked up while watching a Conan movie. Then they lean forward, pulling the metal frame with them, their heads up so that they can watch themselves in the mirror.

Five, ten repetitions, and most of them are done, rising to join the crowd around the wall-mounted television, or the one arguing about the latest hockey game.

So far, only a handful have returned, or started using the ab machine regularly. Having tried it myself, I’m not surprised . Put any sort of weight on the machine, and you can feel the reps straining muscles you never knew you had.

Of course, enduring the unusual strain for several months is how you get that six pack (and I do mean you; I never look like I’m fit no matter what exercises I do, not without taking off my clothes, and, while you can do that in public when you’re two, bystanders are considerably less tolerant of such behavior when you’re an adult).

But such a regime doesn’t fit in well with our cultural cult of instant gratification, or the widespread genteel belief that getting and staying fit is a social occasion that sweat shouldn’t enter into. Not detecting any significant increase in their sex appeal after their ordeal, most people are content to leave it alone. They don’t quite circle around it, but something in their walk suggests that they would like to.

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