Sometime in the last fractious decade I read an article that caused a great kerfuffle about the average increase in the weight of the American woman over the last fifty or so years. Its clickbait title said something about the decline in hours that women spend doing housework, which was, I assume, what people were irritated about. The truth is that everyone’s average weight has increased (except fashion models’) due to a veritable buffet of reasons, especially the availability of higher calorie foods, cheap sugar, more time spent in front of computers and screens, and an aging population. There are certainly more you could throw in, but those are among the more obvious reasons.
Whether or not there are also food additives, increases in allergies or sunspots, or corporate conspiracies involved, one truth will always be true: If we eat more calories on average than we expend, we gain weight. If we burn more calories than we take in on average, we lose weight.
I’m not on my soapbox to talk body image or social expectations and judgment of our bodies. This isn’t even much about food or eating, though my own dietary issues have brought me to this place. I want to tell you my experience of coming to view gym-type exercise as an irritating, necessary evil. I want something more from my calorie expenditures than, well, calorie expenditure.
As a girl, I was built for speed, not comfort. My dad was an athlete, and my mom has always been slender and energetic. I tried a few sports, including tennis, golf, racquetball and horseback riding, but I didn’t fall in love with them. (My sisters were both talented athletes.) Reading was my favorite sport, and I did a lot of it. But I was also restless. If the weather was good, I wanted to be outside, alone or with my friends. I swam and took long walks. I biked miles through nearby neighborhoods, looking for old graves or hidden places. I daydreamed stories about what might happen in those places. My imagination wasn’t as dark as it later became–and I’m probably lucky I didn’t run into someone who might have wanted to cause harm to a pre-teen girl in one of those lonesome, hidden places.
I wish I had more to report about my awkward teen years. I got my first job at fifteen, not just for the money, but because I could move and not sit around. The outdoors was still my favorite place, but my friends and I didn’t expend a lot of effort over anything but partying. We went out on boats on the river, or had keg parties in newly-cut fields, or swam and drank beer. My freshman year, some friends who lived near a neighborhood construction site dug out a fort in the dirt, and covered it with plywood sheets. Usually they got stoned in there, but I really just thought it was cool to be in an (almost) underground fort. Later, when my friends and I could drive, we went out to the Kentucky countryside and explored. Again, we often explored hidden places–places that show up in my fiction. But still, I yearned for movement. I was full of energy.
Sometime after college in the eighties, the fitness studio movement kicked into high gear. I still didn’t have a sport, but I did find working out to be novel and fun. While I mostly did aerobics and strength training, I also tried a ballet class. It was horrifying! I liked the discipline and learning the positions–it felt like a real challenge. But the teacher was batshit crazy, and spent a lot of time taunting me in front of the other–teenage–students. After a half-dozen classes, I was done, and also left her fitness studio. Fortunately, I found somewhere else to work out. During the day, I worked in an office, though I was only in my chair about half the time. The work was not difficult, but it didn’t engage my mind much, and my body was restless. I yearned for something demanding.
Did I say I wanted demanding? There’s little more demanding than having a couple of children.
My kids were spread out, with 7.5 years between them. I was a very busy mother, and wrote during nap and tv time (seriously–what is television good for if not to be an occasional babysitter?) Or while waiting at soccer practice. Occasionally I used sitters. It was probably the only time I sat down, except for nursing and cuddling. (Nursing an infant while tending the house can be done, but I don’t recommend it.) But I really felt like all that movement had purpose. I lived at the ragged ends of my energy, and I loved it. I had focus. Probably hyper focus, given that I was diagnosed with ADHD the same time my son was diagnosed, ten years ago. It explained my restlessness, my need for movement and distraction. Girls–I believe–are often misdiagnosed because they know they’re expected to not act out in the classroom (opinions differ on this). I think that was true for me. But the constant demands of parenthood satisfied a deep need for busy-ness, and interaction, and movement. My body was happy. Sure, I struggled with the dreaded baby weight, but I almost never felt lethargic or hopeless.
Even keeping house felt pretty good.
I realize those last two paragraphs could be a sign that my biggest challenge right now is adjusting to being a mother of adults, rather than dependent children. But I’m going to finish on the trajectory on which I started.
My psyche likes immediate results, and the movement and focus required of engaging physically with the world is just the ticket to make me happy. I’m rarely happier than when I’ve just planted a bush, or swept the porch, or put all my laundry away. I’ve mowed the lawn (not recently) and trimmed bushes and dug up ivy and tilled dirt. I’ve made and served thousands of meals, taught hundreds of workshops and Sunday school classes, and washed my own cars. I’ve collected books and hauled them to libraries and visited shut-ins. I’ve painted so many walls and done pest control. It’s all activity. It’s all movement. It all provides immediate rewards.
The past few years, I’ve moved so much less. Contributed so little that wasn’t writing. Along the way, I’ve wandered into a strange sphere of suffering. (Okay, it’s existential suffering, but that counts, too. Existence is kind of a big deal.) Suffering sucks. Have I mentioned that? I hate the idea of suffering. I hate that anyone suffers–from anything. But the worst is when suffering can easily be avoided. Sometimes, though, discovering it’s going on takes close, painful examination.
At this point in my life, my focus is almost entirely mental, rather than physical. I exercise because I have to or I will continue to gain weight, and my body will suffer too many of the worst effects of aging. (The act of getting older isn’t a problem for me. Just the effects.) There’s no joy for me in walking on the treadmill or riding the exercise bike or lifting weights. It feels like a sentence, not a worthy accomplishment. Yoga is somewhat different. Yoga involves a good opportunity for reflection. It doesn’t feel punishing to me in the way other exercise feels. Rather than feeling like an internal experience, yoga feels like I’m plugging into something universal. It’s not worship for me, but I feel God in moments of stillness.
Back to the purpose thing. It occurs to me that I’ve not had a great relationship with the concept of self-care. Self-care is important. If we don’t take care of ourselves, there will be no selves to care for. But it doesn’t feel like an end for me. It doesn’t feel productive or purposeful in the same way that physical work does. I suppose that’s just my outlook on the world. It’s not like I don’t think I’m worthy of self-care: it’s that so many self-care activities bore me to death. Mani-pedis? Shoot me now. Massages? Okay, I like a massage, as long as the massage therapist is telling me stories. Facials? *sigh* I’d rather slather my face in olive oil and take a walk. Relaxation is often anathema to me. Maybe that’s weird, but it’s just the way I am. I’m good with a book, a gossip-filled chat with a friend, but if I’m on the phone, I’d just as soon be cleaning the kitchen, or folding laundry, or walking the dogs. I want it all: I want productivity and purpose and something to fill that deep chasm of need inside me. I want something besides the promise of adding an extra 30 seconds to my life.
Work holds meaning. Any kind of work. I believe we were blessed with the concept of work. It gives us dignity and purpose, whether it’s mental or physical or both. My writing holds meaning for me, and I go a little crazy myself if I don’t get the stories out of my head. How ironic that the girl who searched so hard for the hidden places so she could tell herself stories, now tells stories, yet yearns for the frantic movement that took her to the hidden places in the first place.
I’m thinking about this, about the irony, and about the need for work and productivity and satisfaction and movement. I rather wish I’d thought about it sooner, but don’t we all sometimes find ourselves at points in our lives thinking, “How in the hell did I get here? And what do I do now?” It’s another kind of blessing, I suppose.
If you feel moved to, please share what your relationship with movement and work and self is like…