Posts Tagged ‘exercise’

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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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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Whatever time of day I stagger into the exercise room, at least two of the three treadmills are in use. They’re by far the most popular of the cardio-vascular machines – and I can’t figure out why. But perhaps my view is prejudiced from the sneak attack from one that I faced a few years ago and a long way from home.

What I can’t understand is why anyone would choose to walk or jog on a treadmill in Vancouver. I could understand that enduring ice and snow underfoot would get old fast in some place like Calgary or Winnipeg, but here we get about ten days of snow a year. So why would anyone endure the tedium of a treadmill when the sidewalk is waiting outside? I would much rather see the parade of people, birds and animals than endure stationary exercise. Our suburban streets are only mildly dangerous, too, so long as you’re not hanging around ill-lit bus stops at midnight.

True, the same question could be raised about the bike that I use. But I plead the insanity of trying to pit eight-five kilos of body and bike against twenty times their weight of metal and gas. By contrast, walkers and joggers have safe sidewalks to use.

I also confess that I endure by doing flat out intervals – much to the disgust of most gym-goers, who seem to think that exercise is fine so long as you don’t break out in a sweat while doing it (or maybe it’s my silent snarl as I go all out). When I see how most people plod along at a continuous pace, I’m not surprised when two-thirds of them stop exercising regularly after a few weeks. They’re setting themselves up for failure.

I also have to stop myself from delivering warnings of doom to those who use the treadmills. From my own experience, they are treacherous machines, that would just as soon humiliate you as drop the pounds from you.

My revelation came when I was on a business trip to Indianapolis just after the turn of the millennium. I had put in long hours the day before, and the different time zone had my circadian rhythms mildly befuddled, but decades of guilt drove me down to the hotel’s exercise room at 7AM, determined to get at least some exercise. I would have jogged outside, but it was mid-winter, and Indianapolis is flat, and that trip at least, an arctic wind was blowing so hard that once or twice two days before it had almost knocked me off my feet.

The day before, I had used the treadmill for a long slow walk. However, having a meeting in less than an hour, that day I decided to replace quantity with quality. After studying the controls (someday someone will standardize them, but probably not in my life time), I set the machine to a six minute mile pace.

Then I made the mistake of glancing up at the news cast on the TV mounted on the ceiling. And while I gazed with bleary eyes and pondered the wickedness of politicians, the treadmill attacked, sending my chin against the handlebars and throwing me to my knees.

As the treadmill careened below me, I tried desperately to get to my feet. Twice, I was almost up when it swept my feet from under me again. Now thoroughly humiliated, I crawled on my hands and knees to the edge, sprawling forward on to the floor and looking desperately around to see if anyone had seen my humiliation.

Fortunately, I was alone.

Determined to conquer, I leaped back on the machine. But one foot landed long enough before the other that I was swept off my feet again, this time on to my back. Frantically, I clawed my way off again.

This time, I could see the evil gleam in its LEDs. Muttering nonchalantly, I pretended I was walking away. When I was out of the machine’s line of sight, I pounced and managed to turn it off before it could attack again.

Suddenly, the exercise bike seemed a safer alternative, not least because another hotel guest had now entered the room.

I spend the rest of the day walking stiffly, feeling each bruise on my legs and knowing it part of an unprovoked assault on my dignity.

Looking back, I won’t swear that I had nightmares that night. Nor, so far as I could remember, did I hear a repetitive sound outside my door that night and peer through the peephole to see the treadmill waiting for me in the hallway. But that might only be because the machine couldn’t climb stairs. The next day, I keep a close watch as I came down in the elevator and took my exercise while braving the arctic winds – a preference that I keep to this day.

You see, you can use a treadmill, and get to know it, but you can never really trust it. Relax for just a moment, and it will turn on you. Believe me, I know.

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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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I woke this morning to a couple of centimeters of snow. Part of me was mildly outraged that snow should fall so late in the seasons. Snow may be continuing to fall in places like Calgary and Saskatoon, where they’re still experiencing lows of -20 or greater, but I’ve been running in shorts since New Years, and was starting to expect the first signs of spring in two or three weeks. Still, like most weather extremes in Vancouver, the snow is unlikely to stay for more than a few days. Meanwhile, this morning, it was enough of a novelty that I could enjoy the experience of an early morning run through it.

Speed, of course, is totally lost in the snow, especially when it covers a thin layer of ice, like this morning’s did. So, frequently, is balance and dignity – I fell twice this morning, although, with the feeling of an unexpected holiday that comes with snow in Vancouver, I took both with surprisingly good humor. But I was in no hurry, and slogged along, my ankles getting as much of an extra workout as they would have if I was running over sand.

The worst moments were crossing the roads, where the few cars on the road had stripped the layer of snow and left only black ice. I tiptoed with exaggerate caution over the intersections, arms spread low for balance and head high so that I could check for cars.

I’ve always enjoyed the sensation of being the only person stirring on a morning run, but the snow adds substantially to that feeling. True, even at sunrise, the tracks in the snow indicated once or twice that I was not the first person stirring. Yet for long stretches, mine were the first footprints in the snow. And even where I could see the signs of others, the sound-muting qualities of the snow were in force, and the quiet intensified the sense of solitude. Literally, too, I was one of the first stirring, with no more than a single car passing every kilometer.

I didn’t experience, as I have in other snowfalls, being the fastest thing on the road. This year, Vancouver has had enough snowfalls that most people were prepared for driving in the snow. However, the snowfall intensified before I had finished half my run, so I had a good twenty minutes of feeling that I was falling into an endless well of snow flakes.

Then came the welcome relief of a hot bath and dry clothes – to say nothing of the rosy glow of virtue that comes from finishing something difficult and mildly against my inclinations.

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Eleven days into the New Year and already the throng that appeared in the exercise room on January 2 has disappeared, leaving only the regulars. I can’t say I’m surprised; just looking at them, most people would have predicted that they would break their resolutions quickly.

You could see in their faces that they didn’t want to be there. The fact that they had screwed themselves up just to go to the gym could be seen in the wary way they approached the exercise machines, almost as if the machines were animals that would turn and savage them. There was a doggedness in the way they pushed the pedals around or plodded along the treadmills, and a twist to their features and a slump to their shoulders that showed their reluctances. And when they finished, they did not so much walk away as drag themselves, held up largely by their wills, looking faintly disgusted by their own sweat on the designer clothes they had bought for their efforts.

I’ve got back into shaped so many times in my life that I sympathized with them – I really did. The trouble with starting an exercise regime is that it’s at the start, when you really need the encouragement, that you feel the most discomfort. Later, it gets easier, but in the first few days after exercising, when your throat is dry and your legs feel deboned, when you think at the end that your whole body is about to burst out in the shakes, any relief seems far away. And if you haven’t been through the experience before, so that you know that your sense of humiliation will be slowly replaced by a sense of confidence, you don’t have very much to keep you going. I considered telling one or two of them that it gets easier, but I didn’t think they appreciate a stranger observing their difficulties.

Besides, they weren’t likely to stick around, as I said. Most of the people who suddenly appeared with the New Year were at least in their early thirties to mid-forties: Young enough to remember the resilience of youth, but old enough to have lost it if they hadn’t kept physically active. For some, it may well have been the first time their bodies hadn’t lived up to their expectations – a milestone of aging that’s uncomfortable for anyone.

Experienced or strongly motivated people might stick out the discomfort to win through to fitness. But, to do that, they would need an ability to take pleasure in using their muscles, and most of them manifestly couldn’t do that. They used iPods and magazines while they were exercising, but they got bored anyway. To them, the exercise bikes were a chore, somewhat more pleasant than housetraining a puppy, but not very much. Not being used to exercise, perhaps they didn’t even imagine that there might be some other form of exercise they might enjoy. All they could think of was that getting into shape was something that needed to be done, so they marched down the gym, braced for the failure that became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It seems to me that New Years’ Resolutions are a cruel custom, because they encourage people to try to make changes, while everything in our culture says that the likeliest outcome is failure. Having seen all the cartoons and jokes about breaking resolutions, people expect to fail to change their lives in January. Perpetuating such a vicious cycle seems a needless refinement of cruelty, especially when the average person has enough failures in their life.

For me, I don’t mind so much. Now, I can get on the exercise bike when I want to, instead of waiting in line while someone struggles through their self-appointed misery. But other people’s disappointment in themselves does seem a high price to pay for my convenience.

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If there’s one thing I know, it’s recovering from a leg injury. In fact, sometimes, I think that recoveries define my life: I remember, for instance, the period I spent limping around after my knee crashed into a steeplechase hurdle, or the time I tripped on an uneven piece of sidewalk and lost long strips of skin from my leg and palms. For the past few weeks, it’s been a torn muscle – and a long and dreary time, it’s been, too. Frankly, the process, is getting repetitive – and my apparent inability to learn wearisome.

To start with, many of my injuries are due to strain. Although I haven’t raced for years, I still tend to push too hard and fast when I don’t have the energy. A denial of middle-age, perhaps? Or, more likely, I’m so much in the habit of training that I drag myself out for exercise even when I shouldn’t. I don’t think it’s a residue of macho – at least, I hope I’m not that shallow.

Then there’s the question of which injury actually deserves rest. Some injuries, I know, disappear if I do more stretching and ease up a little. For others, that’s the worst thing I can do. But knowing which is which is almost impossible. So, I have the choice of either gambling or resting just in case, neither of which appeals.

And if the original injury isn’t enough, a few days of limping around, without or without crutches or a cane, often produces collateral damage in the other leg as I try to keep my weight off the injured one. That can go on for two or three rounds, long after the original injury is healed.

Meanwhile, I’m sticking close to home and rapidly spiralling down into cabin-fever. It’s one thing, I find, to stay at home out of choice, and entirely another to be confined there. Moreover, if there’s one thing I hate more than being subservient, it’s being waited on, even when doing things myself take twice as long. And, while in theory, spending time reading, watching DVDs and playing computer games sounds like a leisurely break from my regular routine, none of these activities are so enticing when I’m using them to fill up time rather than relax.

The only good thing about this enforced inactivity is that escaping it gives me a good incentive to start my comeback. I need all the help I can get, too, because the first few days of returning to exercise make me feel decrepit. But if I can endure the first few days, exercising slowly gets easier (although, more than once, the thought that maybe I’m getting too old for all this crosses my mind). If I persist, I know that I’ll soon be enjoying the benefits of heavy exercise. But at the start of the process – where I am now – I feel a sort of constant low-grade irritation at just about everything.

The worst thing is, I don’t really know how to break out of this cycle of recoveries and crashes. Paying more attention to my physical state is probably key, but one of the disadvantages of being a life-long heavy exerciser is that you get used to taking a high level of fitness and health for granted. For over fifteen months, I have been being careful – but one moment of carelessness, and I was back in the cycle.

If this is what growing old is like, I’m tempted to say, I don’t want any part of it. The only trouble is, I’m already too late for the alterantive of dying young. As for leaving a beautiful corpse — well, that was never an option in my case, anyway.

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