January 15, 2014

borrowed thoughts on exercise

[excerpted from Endangered Pleasures by Barbara Holland]

Once, not needing to exercise in order to survive was a privilege and the hallmark of gentlefolk, who were identified by their soft white hands and merely vestigial muscles. Well rested, heartily fed, and flushed with excellent port, many of these sluggards lived to an overripe old age, annoying their heirs, while for those who exercised all day life was nasty, brutish, and mercifully short. We have failed to profit by their example. We have, as a nation, embraced voluntary, non-essential exercise.

For those of us left behind by the new wave, yawning, stretching,and reaching for the coffee cup are quite enough activity to liven up the muscles for the day. For the au courant, however, only violence will suffice. They rush out into the humid smog or the icy darkness and run as if demons were after them, coming back purplish, gasping, and awash in self-satisfaction and sweat. Sometimes, to set the gold seal on their virtue, they suffer from pulled hamstrings, tendinitis, shin-splints, and muggers. They support a while new branch of science called “sports medicine.”

Smugness is one of life's basic joys, and for the altruistic exerciser there's also the amusement he gives to onlookers and the rest of the family, who sit there dry and comfortable, reading the funnies, buttering their muffins, and rejoicing in sloth. The family cat, who stays fit as a fiddle on twenty-two hours of sleep a day, stretches luxuriously, smiles, and gets on with his nap.

As an extra delight, I'm told the fleet-footed sometimes experience what's called a “runner's high,” a fit of euphoria vouchsafed to those who have pushed it clear to the edge of cardiac arrest. God knows I'm in no position to report on this personally, but it sounds to me like the diver's problem, “rapture of the deep,” which involves nitrogen poisoning or oxygen starvation or something. Pleasure is where you find it.

The new, enlightened exercise is governed by a new, improved set of rules, mysterious to the outsider.  First, if you're having fun, as in dancing or skiing, no benefits accrue. No proper runner has ever been seen to smile; no proper lap-swimmer dangles at pool's edge sipping a cool drink and chatting with friends. Exercise, to qualify at all, must be lonely, painful, humorless, and boring.

Second, it must produce no useful effect on anything except your muscles, or some say, your cardiovascular condition. Mowing the lawn, sweeping the floor, and toiling up the basement steps with a basket of laundry are useless because of the irrelevant purpose involved; rowing a boat gets you, with luck and a favorable current, from point A to point B and is therefore not exercise. For exercise, there are machines (called “equipment”) that simulate mowing, rowing, sweeping, and stair-climbing, and these machines perform miracles for the body because they were designed to do nothing else; however long you labor at them, the laundry still languishes in the dryer and sassafras saplings sprout in the lawn. Perhaps you can hire someone to deal with them, thus doubling your outlay.

Third, exercise should cost money. Money proves that you're really serious about this body business, and the body, flattered, responds. There are dues to pay at the gyms and spas and pools, and the truly serious buy their own machinery. Friends of mine replaced their living-room couch with a rowing machine, most wondrously awkward to sit on. For years my brother stabled a sort of steel giraffe, called a NordicTrack, in the guest room. He was never seen to operate the thing, but it was useful for hanging up one's jacket or drying one's underwear, and effective in breaking the toes of guests trying to find the light switch in the dark. Presently it disappeared. I don't know how; it was much too heavy to steal or throw away. It had cost a fortune.

Even the runners, fleeing like purse-snatchers through the morning streets, have spent money. They carry patented weights in both hands, wear special running shorts or suits, dam the sweat from their eyes with special headbands, and buy shoes so expensive that simply contemplating them on the closet floor improves one's muscle tone.

Adhere to the rules and you too may find happiness. As I said, I'm not authority on the joy of exercising; for some of us it lies in more in the breach than in the observance. We can stroll to the window with our coffee cup, gaze down as the virtuous go laboring past, and enjoy a wholesome flush of pleasure at not being numbered among them.

[excerpted from Endangered Pleasures by Barbara Holland]

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Agreed. Well, partly. I unfortunately am among the crazies that need exercise to live happy. Sitting on my bum for more than an hour I begin to feel the beginnings of irritability. But the joy. The joy is essential. Movement is joy for me. I'm happiest on day-long hikes or bike rides or mountain climbs... I think that might sound funny to admit. I'm a bit abnormal, I'm afraid. But without the joy... pointless, mostly.
    Gardening is the other thing. You can see that joy is the main thing in my current situation. My garden is constantly dying, being eaten up, shriveling in this arid savannah. If it weren't for the joy of growing things, I'd have given up ages ago. Go for the places of joy we each have. Yep.


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