Wednesday, February 10, 2016

ten thousand steps

out walking, Crystal Springs, © 2016, Amber Schley Iragui

I don't write about exercise. It seems like an inconsequential and even impolite subject, something that should stay just between you and your running shoes. That is to say, the miles you ran yesterday? It seems embarrassing to publish those on Facebook. But since I don't exercise much, I'm rarely tempted to overshare. I error in another direction: I don't think about exercise much at all. And when I do, it is in an avoidant, fear-centered way—like I ought to be doing it, and perhaps liking it, and I'll start tomorrow.

But indulge me in this subject for a moment. I have been thinking about it lately, and the trajectory seems to be veering away from my old worn habits of hate.

First off, whether or not I admit it, I primarily view exercise as a means to losing weight. And, then, since I also think that the whole pursuit of losing weight is silly and overemphasized, I never truly commit to any exercise regime. I am not saying that good health is not a proper goal; it is an excellent goal. But it is no longer compelling enough to induce any suffering in the department of get-up-in-the-dark, put-on-exercise-gear, go-out-in-the-cold category.

Nor am I athletic. I cannot think of one sport I enjoy watching, much less actually playing. All the sports I was forced to endure as a child—volleyball for instance—were entirely comprised of dread and longing: dreading the ball would come anywhere near me and longing for the game to be over. Compared to team sports, jogging is fun. At least there is nobody counting on your participation.

The only physical activity I've ever looked forward to, and continued despite the feeling that I might just collapse, was dancing. And then I'm talking dancing to eurotrash at the Bulgarian Bar on the Lower East Side—drunks in suits, international students, Parisian tourists, an entourage of Indians who liked to dance with a chair. And it required no special gear, just something cute with flats.

And I cannot go any further down this road without a word about gear. Pretty much everyday of my adult life I have worn a cotton dress (or tunic or skirt), with a cardigan, and boots. In the summer with sandals. That is pretty much all I want to wear. It's comfortable, flattering, and goes well with my scarves and earrings. If I have to put on other kinds of things, like logoed tees in blocked colors, or ubiquitous black yoga pants, I feel done. Like my life is pretty much over. I might as well pierce my eyebrow and streak my hair green and buy some ugly Louis Vuitton purses.

So, well, exercise is not very me.

So when I saw online link to a New Yorker article with the byline "an essay on becoming a writer and a runner at the same time" I would have hardly paid it attention.  Except that it was written by Haruki Murakami, a writer I discovered last year and have a crush on. And surprisingly (or not, considering my crush) Murakami's perspective on running struck a chord. This bit particularly:
"...I don’t think there’s much correlation between my running every day and whether or not I have will power. I think that I’ve been able to run for more than twenty-five years for one reason: it suits me. Or, at least, I don’t find it all that painful. Human beings naturally continue doing things they like, and they don’t continue doing what they don’t like."
Of course every good article about exercise will tell you somewhat the same thing, find some activity you like to do and then do that. Except I tried and never found anything I liked to do (besides dancing at the Bulgarian Bar, inconveniently located 3,000 miles away). So I'd go back to my typical pattern of joining a gym, working out primarily on the elliptical machine, hating the florescent lights and tv screens, deciding instead to run outside, realizing it's too cold to go running outside, recalling my hatred of workout gear, giving up.

But after reading Murakami's article it did strike me that there is one thing I do like doing that is some kind of exercise. And that's walking. Particularly walking with a camera, or walking to do an errand, or walking to get a coffee or see a view. However, if I attempt to walk for exercise—if I go out in sporty gear and try to keep up a brisk pace—the activity will go the way of all my attempts to exercise: I'll get bored and realize I'm wearing spandexy clothing in public. But if I go out walking in what I'm already wearing, and if I carry a camera, and if I don't indulge in silly self-talk like no stopping! or keep up the pace!, suddenly things change. I keep walking, I go farther, I forget this is a chore and I enjoy myself.

Around the time I read the Murakami article, I also read somewhere that 10,000 steps a day is a healthy daily amount. I opened the little health app on my iphone (I'd been avoiding it because I suspected it was designed to induce exercise-guilt), and found that I was walking far less than 10,000 steps a day. But at the same time I noticed that during our weeks in Italy—where we walked often but hardly enough to feel I'd exerted myself—I walked far more than 10,000 steps a day. And, trust me, I was not dressed in any special walking gear in Italy.

A month ago I began my non-serious, camera-in-hand, dress-and-boot clad walking. While it takes a little planning to get 10,000 steps into my day, it is not by any means difficult. Walking suits me, and I live in a neighborhood suited to walking (for example, the grocery store is a little over a half mile away).

It is silly that it has taken me so long to realize this. But I am happy. Happy walking around my neighborhood, keeping an eye on the birds and bums in the park, photographing plastic fairies stuck in tree trunks.

P.S. This article was supposed to be about uniqueness. I tried at first to play up the uniqueness of how long it's taken to realize that I wasn't going to start Exercising, but then realized that my situation is probably not that unique. However, to find what suits you and to run with it, to accept yourself as you are and do the best with that, is to take hold of one's true uniqueness—in the sense of one's true humanity. Uniqueness plus humility. I like that.

{ and for a more on-topic post,  here's Julia's blog }


Julia said...

Hi Amber. I really liked reading this (as well as the article it references) and have been meaning to come back and comment. Since working at a school and as a consequence learning a lot more about child development, etc., I've begun thinking differently about what motivates people to exercise or not (particularly those people whose identity is really defined by something like running every day). I've learned that kids are wired with different sensory needs and some kids just need a lot of sensory input in order to be calm and concentrate and feel ok. On the other end of the spectrum are kids (and of course adults) whose arm could be on fire and they might not notice. (Sound familiar? I feel like a lot of academics are like this.) For some reason when you see these different needs in kids it's much easier for it to click in my brain that neither one is better or worse than the other-- just different. And of course for the purposes of school it's probably an advantage to be a person who doesn't have a high need for sensory input. In any case, thinking about it this way makes it much easier for me to not compare myself to my neighbors, a married couple with three kids who take turns getting up before 6 am to go running. I've spotted them stretching nimbly in their driveway a few times against my will when I was majorly feeling sorry for myself to have to stumble outside in cold weather in my pajamas to let our dog out to the bathroom.

For myself, I know I just need to keep moving in one way or another, much like you're describing. And in a world full of activewear becoming the new streetwear, I appreciate your real clothes, which are always pretty and interesting and look comfortable and breathable. The best shape I've been in in the last decade was the year we lived in DC and barely used our car so we just walked almost non-athletic shoes and clothing.

A M B E R said...

Curious. Sensory needs? Because I've never understood people who exercise all the time... whose identity seems to be in their physical activities (biking, bouldering, skiing, etc). Like how can it be so interesting and fulfilling? I mean it clearly IS for them. They injure themselves and all they can think about is getting "back out there." And I'm baffled. I find it all so boring and time-consuming and requiring all sorts of preparation and specialized gear. For what? A few hours of exertion and then you're shivering in sweat-drenched clothes having gained nothing I can see. I guess if you're a great athlete you get praise. But most people don't do it for praise. They do it because they love it. I mean they take their family holiday photos while doing whatever they are into. Here we all are in football jerseys.

I think for me physical exercise has to have a concrete outcome. Like I walk to the store and I buy groceries. I take photos I can use later. I work in the garden and flowers grow. When I used to dance the outcome was less concrete... but it was never really about dancing. It was more about enjoying the scene and meeting interesting people and the whole bizarre experience of the Bulgarian Bar. And the music made me want to dance. But I never felt super great afterwards. I felt tired and dirty and I wanted to go home.

Ultimately whatever "sensory needs" I have are met in making things. I like things I can return to and touch and rehash. I don't even like cooking because it is too ethereal.