Steven Axelrod discusses fitness after fifty and finding the perfect distraction.
Full disclosure: I’m 57 years old, and twenty pounds over weight – and that was fine with me, at least until I caught a glimpse of myself, ambushed by an unexpected mirror. I can’t tell you exactly what I saw (I’m sure you can guess) but it did not match up with my svelte 20-year old self-image. It was a stiff does of reality I couldn’t shake. All those pairs of pants kept getting tighter, and it wasn’t just the shrinking effects of the dryer, though I remain a staunch supporter of the shrinking effects of the dryer.
I had to fix the problem, but I knew my options were limited. Getting up at six A.M. and running five miles sounded good but I had tried it before and I knew it wasn’t going to happen. A personal trainer would have been great, but it was a little out of my price range. My son had gotten fit just by running on a treadmill, so I talked Annie into the idea and looked them up on line: too big, too expensive. You needed a separate room for a piece of equipment like that. All of this was at the stage where just thinking about exercising seems almost like the real thing. It takes up time, distracts you, tires you out. Plus you get that all-important sense of self-satisfaction: You get to say stuff like “Exercise” (at least thinking about exercise) “just happens to be a major priority for me!” Notice the “happens-to” formulation, a favorite among self-righteous jerks who invoke coincidence just to deny it; and thus imbue their random opinions with the gravity of fate.
Well it all sounded good but I was still getting fat. My solution was to join the local health club.
They had treadmills – and a shower, which my current antique apartment did not. There were other people there – who could be depended on to snicker at me if I slacked off (Peer pressure is good, once you’re out of high school). I would get to drive there, and buy coffee afterward. It seemed like a manageable proposition. Of course, there was always the locker room issue, you know … getting undressed around other men (I think of Woody Allen in Annie Hall, explaining why he doesn’t shower at the tennis club: “I’m not comfortable being seen naked by a man of my own gender.”). But I figured going a little later than other people – as a painting contractor, my time is pretty much my own — might cut down on the crowds.
It was worth a try.
Plus if you give some one three hundred dollars in advance for three months of Health Club membership, you feel especially profligate and irresponsible (not to mention lazy and puny and lame) if you don’t go. It’s a good system – it puts every kind of pressure on you, and the combination usually works.
So now we have to talk about the machine itself. It takes you through a work-out, increasing the incline and decreasing it, measuring the twenty minutes in two and three minute segments, praising you (“Great job!”) and encouraging you (“Only six more minutes!”) as you go along. It’s a little abstract, being praised by a machine, but the worst part is, I’m so craven I like it. “That machine says I’m doing a great job!” I told myself. Later on, I asked the instructor about the calorie-burning meter display, and he just laughed. “It’s an average,” he said. “The machine has no idea how many calories you’re burning.” So maybe it was just as unreliable about how good a job I was doing. Liar. But I didn’t care. Flattery will get you everywhere, treadmill machine.
The real problem was those minute and two-minute increments. I got caught up in them and the workout seemed to take forever. I needed a distraction. I don’t have an iPod, and I don’t really like listening to music when I’m exerting myself; anyway, they have magazines at the club, but the print is way too small to read comfortably while jogging. TVs line the walls, with the sound off, but they’re placed diabolically remote from the treadmills, rendering the close-captioning illegible. This is bad because I realized quickly that distraction is the key to getting through a workout. What do I do when I’m bored any other time? I read. But books were too cumbersome to set on the treadmill’s shelf and once again, the print was too small, anyway.
Driving home on the third day, I realized the solution, with that familiar twinge of retroactive impatience and annoyance. It was so obvious! Why hadn’t I thought of it before?
That day I ordered a big print edition of Virgina Woolf’s To The Lighthouse from Amazon. I wanted a book I had been meaning to read for a long time, something challenging. I wanted to improve my mind along with my body.
When the novel arrived in the mail, I razored out the first twenty pages and took them to the club with me. They fit perfectly on the Treadmill shelf and to my mild surprise they were utterly engrossing. And distracting: I ran six minutes before I even noticed (three had been my outside limit before I partnered with Virginia). What the lady herself might think of me vandalizing her novel to place the pages on an exercise machine, I have no idea. I hope she’d be pleased. The thing that might please her most I discovered entirely by accident. The big print renders her book shockingly accessible. Classic literature has always meant small type: brown pages packed tight with tiny indecipherable text. It’s like the way we see World War II in black and white, from all those grainy newsreels. But people shot color footage then also (John Huston made some stirring documentaries), and seeing those times in all the hues and shades of the real world creates a haunting new intimacy with those people. It restores the dignity, the imperative human truth of their long-extinguished lives. Big print does the same thing for the classics, removing the mystique of eyestrain and rendering the sentences, however antique and complex, fresh, approachable and seductive:
Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallize and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss.
Good writers control your breathing: you literally hold your breath though a compound sentence and pant along with a series of short staccato ones. With Virginia Woolf in charge of my respiration and my mind taken up with Mrs. Ramsay’s walk into town with the egregious Charles Tansley, the exercise becomes almost incidental.
My next goal: twenty minutes at 4.5 miles per hour through all the inclines …and Mrs. Dalloway. Then five mph and The Moonstone! Six mph and Middlemarch. But why stop there? Seven mph and anything goes — Mao II, Midnight’s Children, Mason and Dixon —
I just wish there was a private shower at the club.