Staying Fit Is a Challenge Worth Meeting, Wherever You May Be

By Howard Schneider
Tuesday, March 3, 2009

If all goes according to plan, I'll be over the Atlantic Ocean heading to the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv when the paper containing this article goes to press. This week I start a new assignment as The Post's Jerusalem bureau chief, so this will be the last MisFits column under my byline.

Health section mensch-in-chief Frances Stead Sellers briefly entertained the idea of letting me continue to write about fitness from Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. But once we got down to brass tacks, it didn't seem practical. (Be honest now, how many of you would show up if we did a trail challenge along the Via Dolorosa?) Vicky, of course, will continue to write -- and probably continue to ignore any semblance of upper-body training, though she is married now so maybe Mr. Vicky will nag her some since I can't anymore. Meanwhile, the hunt is on in the Post newsroom to find her a new sidekick.

By way of signing off, I thought I would distill the chief things I have learned about fitness and exercise in the past two years. It may be difficult to do so without dredging up a cliche or two, but here goes:

1. It's all our own fault. Finding ourselves out of shape and overweight is a result of choices we make to eat in an unhealthy way and avoid activity. Don't fool yourself otherwise. I am writing this on a Tuesday after spending the weekend in New Orleans with my daughter and eating one fantastic, gigantic meal after another. I can't begin to tell you how delicious praline bacon tastes, particularly after a couple of bloody marys. Turning food and drink into a pastime is a dangerous game. This weekend was a celebration. The challenge is to make sure it doesn't become a habit.

2. We're lazy. Writing the column was great motivation for me to work out. With a space to fill, a deadline to meet and the potential embarrassment of writing about this topic and not staying in reasonable shape, I kept to a pretty good schedule the past couple of years. But in the past few weeks, time has been tight preparing to move, and I can feel the schedule slipping. I can also see how easy it is to overestimate what we do and rationalize that what we are actually achieving is adequate: I went for a run before going to New Orleans, then gorged myself over the weekend . . . but I did walk a lot while I was down there, so doesn't that make up for it? What I needed to do was go running or do something a bit more strenuous during the time I was there. Four days off can become four weeks in a flash.

3. We're impatient and unrealistic. The human body is like a crusty old county councilman: He won't spend money on new roads and schools unless you convince him that they are necessary. Roads and schools don't just take money up front; they require resources every day to maintain. Likewise, your system will not invest its caloric resources in new muscle or metabolic change unless you have, through your level of activity, made a convincing case. Why build muscle that takes calories to sustain unless it is going to be used? And why keep it unless it is used? Making the case for change takes months -- and sustaining it takes persistence.

4. The process does work. Despite all that, the happy talk from trainers and coaches really does have a point. If you apply yourself, your health will improve. Not to be pedantic, but you could make a case that there's a social obligation to do so. Health-care costs are distributed widely across the population, whether through government programs such as Medicaid and Medicare or the premiums paid to insurance companies. To the degree we can each minimize the risk of chronic illness -- and obesity and lack of exercise have links to several types -- we are doing more than just ourselves a favor.

That's a bit preachy, but I can't think of a better way to embark to the Holy Land than with a good sermon. Of course, I've already heard that there's great kayaking over there, and I've scoped out mountain biking routes online, so maybe this is not the complete last word from this wandering MisFit.



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