I've never been much of an athlete - neither as a kid nor as an adult. There are good reasons for this.
Not an overpowering physical specimen, I've always gravitated more toward books and culture than physical exertion or organized sports. Reading, thinking and self-examining (however stilted or incomplete) have always seemed to me to be more important, more at the centre of my life than kicking a ball or running a marathon or lifting weights.
But now in my 50s, with an infinitely interesting teenage daughter - and with a growing desire to watch her mature and flourish - I recently have become more concerned about my health. I want to hang around a while longer.
On Jan. 1, 2010, I set myself a goal (a "resolution" sounded way too definitive and restrictive). I would try to row one kilometre for every day of the year, bike one kilometre for every day of the year and run one kilometre for every day of the year.
Not one km of each thing every day - I allowed myself to row five km in one day, then take the next four days off, for example. No restrictions on speed or number of workouts each week. Certainly no pressure to push my body beyond its natural limitations.
I have exercised over the years - haphazardly, inconsistently - but not since high school have I played any form of serious sport, and I've certainly never set such an ambitious exercise target before this one.
As I reach the end of 2010, I am pleased to say that I met my goal: I have biked 365 km this year, I have rowed 365 km this year and I have run 365 km this year. Not bad, if you don't mind me saying, for a 53-year-old guy more comfortable in front of a screen or sitting with a book than hanging out in the locker room.
Many days, I took no pleasure in getting myself to the gym. Other things got in the way - work, grumpiness, laziness, a family funeral, an overwhelming feeling of "why the hell am I doing this?" - and I was not able to keep up. This meant I had to catch up in the succeeding days or weeks.
Often I just had to say to myself: "Don't think about all the reasons why you don't want to do this. Just get moving."
I tried to use arithmetic as motivation. I reminded myself that the goal was not to run and row and bike like a maniac. I just had to complete the equivalent of about 15 to 20 minutes of physical exercise each day. Not rocket-science logic this, but it did work.
Some days I did experience pleasure and a sense of accomplishment after my visits to the gym or runs outdoors. Days that started with lethargy ended with satisfaction and even sometimes a speck of exhilaration. There were moments when I said to myself: "Ha, you old fart - your body managed to keep things moving even when your mind said that you didn't want to."
The one thing I was quite strict about was counting. I made sure to record each and every kilometre that I logged on the treadmill or outdoor trails, rowing machine and exercise bike. I wanted to make sure that I was keeping track, and could support any claim that I made to my daughter or others to whom I sometimes bragged.
Immediately after each workout I noted my progress on my cellphone, while the numbers were still fresh, so I now know how many days in March I worked out, or how much I rowed in October. I ended up at the gym exactly 183 days this year.
I have seen other tangible benefits. I haven't been sick or achy for more than a day or two at a time this year. I tend to eat any cookies or chocolate within sight, and still do, but my weight has stayed constant. And although I used to take vitamin pills and echinacea and other remedies, I have not taken one such pill the whole year.
When I had my blood pressure taken in mid-November as part of my annual checkup, my doctor (he also likes to count) told me some encouraging numbers: "120 over 70." That's exactly where it should be, he said.
This has been, to put it mildly, a stressful year with all sorts of challenges - some generic, some specific - related to my work life, extended family, real estate, romance etc. ("The full catastrophe" as Zorba says.)
But something about exercise and the mere act of counting - one kilometre at a time - has sustained me. I like to think that the workouts have also kept me alert, without falling into too many moments of wondering, "Now where did I put my keys?" A close friend is convinced the exercise has helped me get through the year with my sanity relatively intact. I think he is right.
I believe it was Socrates who said something like: "The unexercised life is not worth living." I do think there is wisdom in examining, and trying to put into practice, his wise statement.
I've decided to continue this running, rowing and biking goal for 2011. Another 365 kilometres of each over the year. It is less expensive than vitamin pills, and certainly less expensive than therapy. And I do think it will give me more time with my daughter. If nothing else, it will keep me counting.
Peter O'Brien lives in Toronto.
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