Posts Tagged ‘exercise’

As I write, I am several days into resuming my normal exercise routine. I’ve spent the last two weeks sidelined with a knee injury – not the first time this has happened, and probably not the last, although I hope it is. But as I shake myself clear of my Ibuprofen-induced haze, as always I am aware of an overwhelming truth:

Walking is wasted on the able-bodied.

Seriously, there is nothing like losing an ability to make you appreciate it. When you have a leg injury, your entire perspective changes. Whether you’re limping along unaided or using a cane or crutches, suddenly distances seem to increase, because you need more time to travel them. Public transit, you realize, is far less convenient than you once believed, due to the distances between stops or the need to walk up to the platform. Even going from the living room to the bed room can seem a long journey that needs to be planned; if you forget something, you are not exactly going to nip back to pick it up.

When your legs aren’t functioning properly, you feel more vulnerable, too. The vulnerability is especially strong in public, where, if you must be a cripple, you hope you can at least appear to be a sturdy one who is capable of beating wallet-snatchers off with your cane. Yet, in the safety of your home, the vulnerability is only marginally less, if, like me, you hate being dependent on someone. A few days of limping, and you can work up a fine cloud of depression at your increased helplessness.

You start to wonder if what you’re experiencing is a foretaste of old age. If so, you conclude, you are probably not strong enough to endure the experience. The line “Hope I die before I get old” becomes, not a line from the heyday of The Who, but a completely reasonable point of view.
After a few days, you have to keep reminding yourself that your condition is not permanent. A couple of weeks, and civility is stripped from you like the veneer of civilization that it is. If you can’t impress through physical activity, your hind brain insists, then you will impress through crankiness instead.

Then, just as despair threatens to win, you wake up one morning feeling strangely lightened. You are still not walking well, so you take a while to realize that the chronic pain that you’ve been living with is faded to a dull ache. Suddenly, you have something to anticipate.

A day or two later, and you are walking on your own again. You are taking short, unbalanced steps like an upright hippo probably would, but at least you are walking. Ten minutes of being upright tires you like sprinting a couple of kilometers, but at least you can do it.

When you stand, you can feel the muscles in calves and thighs shifting to propel you upright and keep your balance. From the way you hurl yourself upright, you realize that most of the effort in standing has been made recently by your arms, and that you can transfer the effort back to your legs again.

Start to walk, and you wonder how you ever took for granted the interplay of muscles that make you a bipedal ape. You can feel muscles that generally you are hardly aware of contracting and pulling against one another. The physical awareness is such a joy singing through you that it feels a like a brief return to your teens. The fact that bipedalism is the result of endless evolutionary compromises only makes it seem all the more wonderful.

Soon enough, you start to forget the marvel called walking. It becomes automatic again, and you stop thinking about it. But for the first day or two after you return to walking, you find yourself looking at all the people around you who are oblivious to this simple delight and thinking, “You ungrateful bastards. You need a week on crutches to appreciate what you have.”

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Four years ago, a doctor diagnosed me as having a mild case of osteoarthritis in my knees. I had run too many kilometers for too many years on blacktop, and now I was paying the price. My running days, he told me, were over, and the best I could do was light exercise. But trial and painful error has shown that the doctor was mostly wrong. If I was selective, I found, I could still do the kind of heavy daily exercise I’ve been accustomed to since I was eight. I simply had to make some changes in my routine.

The first change was to add some exercises to my daily routine. Half-squats, I’ve found, are ideal for building up the muscles around my knees to take some of the strain from them. I also do some stretching, one leg at a time, with a piece of surgical tubing while sitting on a bed or mat, and lie on the floor and walk an exercise ball up the wall.

For my main exercise, I’ve left the road for the gym. I now do repetitions on an exercise bike, varying the speed, tension, and duration from day to day and repetition to repetition to keep my interest up. The bike allows me a sweaty workout, but, because my weight is off my legs, pedaling puts very little pressure on my knees – in fact, even more than the exercises, it helps to reduce the aches around my knees. True, switching from running to cycling has changed the shape of my leg muscles, but that’s a small price to pay.

Recently, I’ve also added sessions on the summit climber. At first, I thought the motion would be too much like climbing stairs for me to manage, but the machine is designed to minimize pressure on the legs. If anything, the summit climber is even better than the bike for strengthening my leg muscles so I can work around my lack of meniscus. However, it is harder on the knees than the exercise bike, so I only use it in moderation.

Sometimes, too, three or four kilometers of walking is beneficial. I’ve never liked the slow pace of walking, but I can do it.

The doctor was right that I can’t sustain the sixteen kilometer runs that I used to do. I can run one without trouble, but on the second day, my knees start to give way. If I am stupid enough to persist for four or five days, my knees start to swell.

But I can manage five kilometers a day indefinitely, especially when they are added to my time on the bike and the summit climber. And, every now and then, for a change of pace when I’m feeling nostalgic, I can do ten or twelve kilometers. If my speed isn’t what it was – well, growing older was slowing me anyway.

At first, I worried that these exercises would hurry the degeneration of my knees. However, from experience, I doubt that is the case. My legs are stronger and my knees hurt less after a session on the bike, and I am now healthier and more active than I was when the doctor delivered his verdict of doom, and generally have much less discomfort in my knees, too.

Obviously, how active you can be with osteoarthritis depends on its severity. I’ve been lucky that my problems are relatively mild. But I’m convinced that the exercises I have discovered can not only help alleviate the symptoms of osteoarthritis, but also keep many of those with the condition far more active than they (or my former doctor) imagines. My only regret is that the doctor who diagnosed me has since moved away, so I can’t have the satisfaction of telling him that he was wrong.

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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 simple. However, as I glance around at other people at the gym, I realize that I am very much in the minority – just as much as I am in my taste in music, reading, and art.

To start with, I still wear much the same as I did when I first started running daily in my teens. Since I’ve suffered my share of leg and foot injuries, I insist on a pair of running shoes with firm heel support, but often the best model of shoe is far from the most expensive. Otherwise, any old T-shirt, and a pair of shorts (not too long), and I’m off in the summer. In colder weather, I add a sweat top and a rain jacket, and for a week or two in December and January some sweatpants, and that’s all.

In contrast, you’d think that the people at the gym were auditioning to be models. It sometimes seems that every piece of clothing they wear is festooned with logos. Almost all of them have succumbed to fashion and sale clerks, and bought a pair of shoes that would be more suitable for triathalons than the half an hour of genteel puffing over repetitions on the weights.

Since I started going to the gym, I’v also taken to carrying a towel, because gym rules and common courtesy demand that I wipe off the machines after I use them (even I find the amounf of sweat I generate disgusting). Everyone else, though, carries more excess baggage than the Franklin expedition. iPods are especially popular, although the ear buds are forever getting tangled, sometimes with the equipment.

Everyone, too, carries a water bottle, carefully sipping from it every five minutes as though they are in the middle of traversing the desert. I have actually heard personal trainers warning people in their mid-twenties that regular hydration is a basic necessity. If I were more insecure, I’d wonder if I had been doing the wrong thing all these years, not drinking until the end of my exercise except at the height of summer. As things are, I suppose I’ll muddle along the same as ever. I mean, silly me – I’ve always maintained that eating or drinking very much during exercise only leads to cramps, because the body isn’t used to digesting and exercising at the same time.

What’s happened to exercise, I suppose, is that it has become popular, and overwhelmed by consumerism. But, to my jaundiced eye, people respond to the consumerism because it feeds their self-importance. Just hitting the pavement or the gym would lack glamour, and put them face to face with what they consider tedium.

So, instead, they surround their exercise with minute details of accessories and ritual. Just as some people seem incapable of hoisting a dumb bell with grunts and twisted tormented faces that make you think that the Spanish Inquisition has come to town (all unexpected), they are incapable of doing without their accessories and constantly fiddling with them.

It all seems to me a way of injecting drama into what would otherwise be dull routine (I must drink, or I will collapse!), and it all makes me, for whom exercise is a kind of meditation, feel simple and unimaginative.

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Today, I suddenly realized that I was enjoying swimming – enjoying it immensely. The reaction comes as a surprise for several reasons.

To start with, I learned to swim under what I remember as the most miserable conditions when I was a child. In my mind, all the swimming lessons I took in the local outdoor pool occurred in the pouring rain and freezing cold, when all I really wanted to do was stay huddled in my towel in the cabana where the class met.

To make matters worse, I was a poor learner. Or so I thought, because I took forever to struggle up the hierarchy of lessons. It was only in my last year of lessons that I had an instructor who was built like me, with an long torso and short calves, and that I realized that much of what I was learning was useless for anyone of our build. The instructor taught me some alternate kicks that actually worked, so I could tread water for the first time in my life.

Yet, even then, I didn’t care much for the crawl, which was the dominant stroke in those days. I found the swift glimpses above the water disorienting, and I didn’t care much for the sensory deprivation of swimming in general. For years, my main technique was a modified breast stroke that kept my head above water.

Then, just to make me even less inclined to enjoyment, I started swimming regularly a few years ago when I realized that I needed a more varied exercise regiment if I hoped to save my much-battered knees more wear. After years of long-distance running, swimming was definitely second best, and something I endured more than I enjoyed.

Several things have made me change my mind, though. For one thing, after swimming daily since the Victoria Day weekend, I’ve reached the point where I fall into a rhythm while doing my laps, and don’t have to think about what I’m doing. It’s only at this point, I’ve learned from other exercises, that working out stops becoming a grim duty. However, I’ve reached that stage every summer for the past few years without more than mildly enjoying my swimming on most days.

But, over the past couple of weeks, the weather has turned hot suddenly, without any gradual build up that would let me get used it. Walking from an air-conditioned building to the outside, I can feel the heat wrinkling away from me as though it’s a skin that I’m shedding, and, after a run or a session on the exercise bike, my singlet is a sweaty mess that disgusts even me. Under these conditions, the coolness of the pool is luxurious. When I duck my head completely under, a delicious ring of coolness seems to encircle my forehead and temples.

Most importantly, this year I’ve been under considerable stress for several months. While most of the time, sensory deprivation seems hellish to me, as I cope with stress, this year it’s relaxing. In fact, it’s so relaxing that I’ve dropped my modified breast-stroke for the proper thing, dipping my head into the water and coming up for air. Propelling myself face down along the pool, I can see reflections from the sun, like a shimmering chain link fence of gold along the bottom, and not much else. Now, it’s a glorious sensation, being cut off from much of my usual sensory input while feeling my legs and arms moving in rhythm.

I’ve got to the point now where I can swim two kilometers, and, although my muscles know they’re had a workout, I feel like I could easily do as much again. I especially like the solitary feeling because the gym where I ride the exercise bike is usually so full of inconsequential chatter and posturing.

What I will do when the pool in my townhouse complex closes in the fall, I don’t know. But I’ll want to make some effort to find another convenient pool for the winter months.

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When I was running cross-country in high school, my coach was blunt and unpretentious. One boy who briefly tried out of the team kept talking to him about getting his second wind (whether because he hoped to reach that mythical state or for some other reason, I could never figure out). But I used to be embarrassed for him, because I knew the coach was to straightforward to talk in such elevated terms. In his view, you just ran – you didn’t talk about it. I must have absorbed some of the coach’s matter-of-factness, because when I see how some people at the gym try to elevate the simple act of exercise, the same feeling of embarrassment on their behalf floods over me.

The self-aggrandizement starts with their clothing. Naturally, exercisers need a pair of shoes that will give them support, and at least a sweat suit for warmth and dryness. However, these needs are simply met. For all the exercise most people do, they can probably find an adequate pair of shoes for under $100. If they find a sale, they might get away with as little as $50. But, to hear people at the gym talk, anything less than a $200 pair of shoes, and they’re risking crippling themselves for life.

The same goes for shorts, T-shirts, and everything else that they’re wearing. Never mind that they are lifting weights, or only spending twenty minutes on the treadmill. They talk as though they’re planning an Arctic expedition, and one false economy will leave them to suffer the fate of Franklin.

In the same way, I notice that nobody can undertake a workout nowadays without a water bottle. I even hear the trainers who give personal sessions at the gym solemnly warn people never to exercise without their water bottles nearby, and to take a sip every ten minutes or so. You’d think they were planning to run a marathon across Death Valley in the middle of a summer afternoon.

All of which leaves me, whose workout lasts an hour and ends with a few sips of water before I jog home, more than a little amused.

But the worst are the grunters. You know the ones I mean: The ones who are unable to lift the lightest weights without providing their own soundtracks of agonies. Typically, they stand in front of the mirror, motionless for a minute, then heave their weights towards the ceiling, contorting their faces and grunting or moaning as if they just pulled a leg muscle. Apparently, they claim that their noises are the equivalent of a war-cry, and helping them to focus their energies.

Maybe. But I’d be far less skeptical if they were lifting a hundred kilograms rather than twenty.

What all these behaviors have in common is that they take the very simple act of exercise and try to make it more dramatic. In the process, the people who indulge in these behaviors make themselves and their actions feel more significant.

Personally, I always wonder: Why can’t they just get on with their exercise? They won’t have a better workout for any of these behaviors, and they probably won’t impress anyone who overhears them, either.

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And if you’re looking for me . . .
Hey, if you’re looking for me . . .
The boy’s still running


“Aren’t you the guy who used to be running all the time?” a man I went to school with asked when we met recently in downtown Vancouver. I’ve been hearing variations of that question all my life, from everyone from clerks in local stores to potential employers. That’s not surprising, really, because, aside from reading and writing, few things have been a part of my life as much as running.

When I was in the first grades of school, we used to play tag in a little pieces of woods on the edge of the school ground. I soon found that, while I was only the third or fourth fastest of the boys participating, the longer the game went on, the less likely those faster were likely to catch me. The same thing happened on the soccer field, where by the last minutes of the game, I could outrun everybody.

However, it was in grade three that I first took up running seriously. Like many decisions in my life, it was taken by a wish to prove someone else wrong. The school’s PE teacher had assigned people from each grade to participate in a track meet with two other schools – and he hadn’t included me. Stung by this unfairness in a way that only the very young and self-righteous can be, I determined to make him regret his decision. While his chosen few practiced each morning on the makeshift track on the playing fields, I started doing laps of the school ground, sure that he would see me and be so impressed that he would have to reconsider.

If he ever noticed, he gave no sign of reconsidering. But the habit lingered, and soon I was running three mornings a week before school with several of my friends. I was reasonably athletic, although in team sports I made my mark by enthusiasm and energy more than skill, and I took running very seriously – so seriously, in fact, that when I discovered that a couple of people had cheated on an after-school training run that, when I saw them a block ahead of me, I charged towards them, yelling “Cheaters!” at the top of my lungs, wild with rage and determined that they weren’t going to get credit for finishing first. I beat them, too – although probably I was helped by the fact that they didn’t care as much as I did.

In high school, I had more than my share of firsts in cross-country and distance running, largely on the strength of having discovered that all you needed to beat most rivals was to train every day. Moreover, since my only strategy was to rush to the front of each race and then hold on, I learned the importance of psychology. I won several races when woozy from ‘flu solely because everyone else expected me to be out in front.

Somehow, though, I didn’t have get the victories in the provincial finals that everyone expected from me in grade 12. I was sick at the time, but I wonder now if the illness wasn’t an unconscious rebellion against the increasing seriousness I was finding in sport. By that point, I had been several years in the Vancouver Olympic Club, training under the legendary Lloyd Swindell, and not only had I found several rivals, but the seriousness of the training I experienced seemed to take the fun from the sport.

In university, the seriousness intensified. Not only that, but, as a team member, I was expected to help paint posters for other athletic events and show up to football and basketball games. Since I was commuting three hours a day to university, I couldn’t have given the time to these things if I had wanted to.

Moreover, the competition was tougher, too. At eighteen, I didn’t have my full adult strength (such as it is), and I was competing with fully grown men from across North America. Increasingly, I realized that, judging from the success of some of my older peers at the university and at the Vancouver Olympic Club, I might make qualify for the world championships or the Olympics in the five or ten thousand meters if I devoted four or five hours a day to training – but I almost certainly would not reach the finals, let alone finish with the medals. Reluctantly, I acknowledged to myself that I was a good runner, but not a great one, and somewhere near the end of my second semester, I ran my last race.

But that didn’t mean I quit running. Even then, it was too much a part of my life to give up. It was a form of meditation, a collection of peak moments of exertion and early morning sights that I could never give up. I’ve run up hills in Glacial National Park while on holiday, and several thousand meters high at Mount Lassen with my lungs on fire. Early in the morning, I’ve run through the streets of Berkeley on glorious summer mornings and Tacoma’s skid row, through the fog, and the outskirts of Indianapolis in the snow and stabbing cold. I sometimes feel that, until I’ve run an area, I haven’t really experienced it.

Admittedly, my mileage has dropped and my speed is a joke, especially in the last few years, when I’ve started varying my exercise with swimming and cycling to spare my knees some strain, but I don’t expect to quit altogether so long as I can hobble, however slowly. I sometimes joke that I won’t consider any retirement home that doesn’t have an all-weather running track.

So, yeah, if you’re looking for me . . .
Hey, if you’re looking for me . . .
The boy’s still running.

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