The Couch Potato’s Moment of Truth
Sometime in my thirty-sixth year, I was climbing up a mountain in the steamy greenery of Vietnam. Lagging behind the rest of the hiking group by a quite a distance, I could only work to keep on rather than to catch up. Four hours of climbing later, I was finding it difficult to inhale. Then my chest began to feel heavy and convulse in sharp pangs of pain. Leaning into the steep vertical ravine, I felt the soft moss on my forehead and tried to think. Though difficult to admit, I ultimately conceded I was out of shape.
How did that happen? I had always been the sort to swear I was a couch potato. I did like to sit in comfortable chairs and read books. When I was in third grade, my mother even insisted I attend an afternoon gym class twice a week. This involved thirty minutes of bicycling on steep hills with neighboring girls; they would fly down the same hills on which I would generally walk my bike so we didn’t bicycle long together. I was just as glad to be rid of them. Once at these classes, I was only picked for a team when the gym teacher forced the matter. But I wore this as a badge of honor. I had no desire to excel as long as I could do what I set out to do, whether it be to hike, climb, paddle, or anything else. My body had always risen to the occasion.
I had no doubt I was competent. Growing up in a house at the top of a steep hill necessitated all weather power walks up and down that hill to and from school. That was in addition to daily walks with my dog in the nearby conservation land. My dog would run while I walked and belted out Broadway songs. (We stayed together because he always came back to see what song I was on.) Summer days were filled with swimming, badminton and bug collecting. Winter days almost always included sledding and ice-skating. I never doubted my ability to do anything. But baseball fields and tennis courts did not intrigue me.
In early adulthood, there were invitations to gyms and aerobics classes that I haughtily declined, saying I would rather associate with people after they showered. I meant it too. I could not understand why people were so enthralled with this physical fitness craze. Fashions seemed geared toward sweat shirts and sweat pants. (Lycra came much later.) I recall once agreeing to a morning run; this confirmed I wanted nothing to do with that sort of activity. I wasn’t opposed to movement. I enjoyed wilderness survival outings and climbing to mountain overlooks. But the physical fitness fad seemed all about pretense.
So this lagging, and then having chest pangs, on that steamy green mountain caught me by surprise. I had not realized it, but my physical activity had been usurped by office work. Though anxious that I could, I knew I had to keep on climbing. Skinny, bent tree trunks, blurred by the mist, became distant dragons leaning in to mark my progress. In that surreal stillness, I made a promise to myself that once home, I would embark on a physical fitness regimen to get back to normal. It was one of those vows made in adversity while wondering if there would be any chance to make good on it. Fortunately, I made it to the mountaintop and made it home, having only bruised my pride.
Back at home, I considered those chest pangs in the steamy heat and wondered what to do. I tried power walking, but that felt awkward. I tried an aerobics class. That just wasn’t me. My coworker climbed flights of stairs wearing ankle weights during her lunch break and welcomed me to join her. That sounded awful. I looked into indoor pools but the rules and schedules seemed burdensome. My brother ran; my sister bicycled. Neither sounded right for my life.
Ultimately, I joined a local fitness center. Each weekday, in addition to my normal activities, I would go to the gym. I liked the cross trainers and exercise bikes because they let me put in as much or as little effort as I liked, without being conspicuous. After seeing I had become a regular at the gym, a trainer offered to give me a weight lifting routine. I agreed. Weight lifting three times a week in addition to the aerobics machines proved to be a routine that worked with my life.
More than twenty years later, I’m still at it. Now I see working out as a necessary part of growing older. Now I understand the need to work at maintaining physical fitness, even if not inclined to be Wonder Woman.