I'm suffering through the medical equivalent of court-ordered community service — physician-ordered exercise. Well, physician-recommended exercise, but, you know. Instead of a judge deciding I have enough worth not to be discarded on the ash heap of irredeemable miscreants and can instead be rehabilitated by polishing up the shabbier parts of town, a doctor has determined that my decrepitness has not yet put my ramshackle body beyond hope, that it can be stabilized if not rejuvenated by periodic bouts of masochistic abandon.
At least I don't have an ankle monitor. But I have Tony, the exercise supervisor, who usually has several of us to keep an eye on at one time but always manages to look over at me just in time to throw out his favorite exhortation: Just one more. Just one more lap around the track. Just one more minute on the stationary bike. Just one more set of reps with the weights. Just one more stab of pain in my lower back before I collapse in writhing agony.
I said "periodic" when I should have said "regular." The point of an exercise program, I gather, is routine, repetition and reinforcement. You do the same set program at the same set time over and over, but gradually do just a little more — a little more time, a little more weight, a little more stretching. It's Tony's job to ensure I comply, and I'm not sure I want to find out what he does if I fail. Call my doctor, maybe, who will wag his finger at me and ask sadly if I want to be benched for the rest of the season in this football game called life.
Well . . .
I'm in the predicament in the first place because my doctor asked me sadly if I exercised regularly. Er, well, I said. I mean, he asked, do you do anything besides walking? Well . . . You do walk, don't you? he asked. "When I have to."
My regimen consists of three one-hour sessions a week, from 8 to 9 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at the St. Joe fitness center, just a block up the from The News-Sentinel where I work. My doctor is affiliated with Parkview, and that's where he initially thought he would stick me. But the Dupont complex is a 20-minute drive from work, and even the Randallia campus is a slog through downtown and midtown traffic. So we arranged for Parkview to shop me out, so to speak, which seems to be the equivalent of Sears sending a customer to J.C. Penny. It's doable but sort of frowned upon. But I have what I want — heaven forbid an exercise program should be inconvenient as well as intolerable — so I'll let them fret over the bureaucratic details.
I had my choice of time of day for the program, and I thought a long time before choosing 8 to 9 a.m. I told myself it was so I could more easily fit the exercise into my work schedule. Instead of going to work, stopping at some point for an hour's workout, then going back to work (with a lunch hour thrown in there somewhere), I'd just get the exercise out of the way before work even started. But the truth is I just wanted to get the damn thing over with instead of worrying and fretting about it for a good part of the day. And the advantage of the early hour is that I'm barely awake, so it's usually only later in the afternoon when my muscles inform me what I put them through.
I just finished my 12th session yesterday, and the insurance company will pay for 20, which means I have to decide what to do when my program ends in a few weeks. I asked Tony if he had a list of exercises I could do at home, and he said sure, but the truth is most people start slacking off. They intend to continue exercising after the formal program is over, but they seldom follow through for very long. What I needed, he said, was something more formal. "You mean like joining a gym?" I asked. Yes, he said. "Or you could just join our fitness center." It turns out that a St. Joe fitness center membership is just $90 for six months, which would provide me with a card key granting 24/7 access — I could exercise whenever I wanted to. I haven't priced gym memberships lately, but I suspect this is one of the greatest bargains in town.
It's a funny thing, this formal enterprise we call "exercise." I remember as a kid that a lot of physical activity was fun rather than a chore. Running, jumping, climbing — I was a tree-climbing fool when we lived in Kentucky. Even after we moved to Fort Wayne when I was 12, riding my bike all day Saturday all over town never tuckered me out. I remember being hot and sweaty, yes, but never close to exhaustion. But by the time high school came around, I had already turned into a flabby, slouched-over juvenile couch potato, and this awful thing called "gym class" was thrust upon me. And this was before the internet and social media and electronic game gadgets and smartphones.
And then came the Army, where one of the first things they said was, "Put on this pack, and let's go run a mile." They spent the 10 weeks of Basic Training and then longer than that during AIT (Advanced Individual Training) exhausting me over and over again to mercilessly whip me into top physical shape so that I would be in prime condition to go to Vietnam and sit at a desk for eight hours a day. (If you think that meant working at a desk eight hours a day, you know nothing of the military.)
But of course it is better to be fit than not, so I will give this new regimen a try. Maybe I can achieve the kind of balance our ancestors never did. We hear all the time that they engaged in strenuous physical activity all the time — not to stay in shape or get in shape, but merely in the course of their daily living. It was hard work just to get the things done we take for granted. Tending a garden is a little more strenuous than driving to the supermarket.
Of course there can be too much of a good thing. They may have been physically very active, but can you really call it fit when they died so damn young? If exercise was such a great thing, shouldn't they have lasted a little longer?
I've got the living longer part down pat. There was a country song I liked a few decades ago that had the line, "Oh, Lord, don't let that cold wind blow, until I'm too old to die young" in it. Well, good news — made it! Now all I have to do is get fit and —- well, hell, I don't know what.
But the phrase "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic" comes to mind for some reason.