GRAND BAHAMA ISLAND -- Labor Day Monday was the island's last big tourist weekend until the Christmas season. The more accessible beaches were as crowded as an airline complaint line, and about as pleasant to be around, too, if your eyes were trying to tune in healthy-looking bodies.
That is not my observation, either, but that of some visiting photographer friends who make their living seeing what the rest of us don't see. Each day for a week they walked along the beach from their hotel to my street, and each day they arrived a little discouraged. Fat reigned over the sandy domains and, especially discouraging, it claimed an awful lot of children as its subjects.
So said my friends, who are slender and aerobically fit and have always actually enjoyed high levels of physical activity. These people sweat with smiles on their faces. He jumps rope when things get boring, and she buck-dances at least once a day.
If you saw "Deliverance," you saw buck dancing and probably don't doubt its aerobic characteristics. Buck dancing, also known as clogging, has an almost hypnotizing charm about it, but the steady movement of feet in overtime still reminds me of bare feet moving over a boiling and endless asphalt plain.
I don't share my friends' enthusiasm for exercise. Even after the changes that have taken place in my health and body, I still am proud to be a part of that great majority that equates organized exercise with the devil. This morning, when I forced myself to jog my requisite 20 minutes along the ocean, I spent virtually all of that time looking forward to the last step, rather than looking at the very handsome sunrise of magenta, violet, National Geographic yellow and ambulance red.
But I did run it. And the effort, incidentally, put me in the 20 percent of the population who actually do exercise enough to meet the recommended guidelines for cardiovascular improvement (at least 20 minutes, three days a week, at your recommended heart rate).
On the most selfish of terms I therefore recommend unpleasant physical activity for its mental perks alone.
I think, more importantly, my effort made me feel better about myself today. Moodiness comes to me like purring to a cat, and during the past months of slowly developing at least minimal disciplines of physical activity, I have found that my low moods are virtually always helped when I complete an unpleasant physical task. On the most selfish of terms I therefore recommend unpleasant physical activity for its mental perks alone.
At any rate, my friends' visit made me think about the reasons researchers and common sense say most of us don't exercise enough. I present them here to you, in no particular order, and hope you'll tick off the ones which seem to fit your particular excuse mechanisms today:
Why You Didn't Exercise Today
1. You were not raised in a family with an active life style and/or a high degree of health consciousness. Lots of research now is showing how our activity patterns are set very early in life by those around us. Our eating habits are formed then, too. And, not coincidentally, eating and exercise habits work together at times in less-than-healthy ways. Many obese children, for instance, live in households of obese parents who themselves are inactive partly because of their weight. That old saw about the sins of the father being visited on the son certainly seems to fit here.
2. You don't really believe exercise will make you feel better or be healthier. If you're really honest with yourself, confronting this reason will scare you. I, for instance, always have wanted to believe exercise didn't matter, but deep inside (probably as you) have known it did. And if exercise really did improve the quality of life, why did I still avoid it? And why do I still want to avoid it? I personally decided it's better to suffer through the temporary unpleasantness of hard breathing and lots of sweat rather than think on this one too much.
3. You don't have time. If you really don't think you have time to exercise, let me right now give you several things that will improve your health at least a little without taking virtually any additional time:
Increase your walking speed during the working day and use those few extra minutes to walk some more. If it takes five minutes to walk to your destination, tomorrow walk that distance as fast as you can comfortably and the next day increase your distance -- walk around the block before going into your home or workplace.
Avoid elevators. Start walking at least one floor in your building today, and increase the floors as you feel stronger. If your building locks the fire doors between floors, don't take that as an excuse to take the elevator down to the doughnut shop. Talk to your building management about opening at least some stairwells to walkers.
Pedal an imaginary bike when you're just sitting there. Lean back in your chair, raise your feet in front of you a little, and begin to pedal. You'll be breathing hard in two minutes. Each day, pedal a little longer. When you can pedal 20 fast minutes like that, you've done your aerobic exercise for the day. Now, I know this looks funny, but so what? Challenge the laughers to keep up with you.
4. You simply don't like exercise and are not going to do it, regardless of the consequences. I suspect this reason applies to a lot of us. But even if you are shaking your head "yes" here, you still desire some of the more direct benefits of exercise, don't you? More energy during the day? Perhaps a sounder night's sleep?
Even if you are not going to become involved in exercise in its purest sense -- organized activity which raises the heartbeat for a sustained period -- you still can increase your energy and strength levels simply by increasing your current level of activity a little bit. Anything is better than nothing when it comes to the benefits of activity. Walking across the room to trash this article in your neighbor's wastebasket is better than tossing it, especially if you, as I, probably would miss. Humiliation is nearly as bad as poor health.
Anything is better than nothing when it comes to the benefits of activity.
5. You're out of the habit. Do you remember when sports were fun, and only old people sat at home with their feet up? When a pickup game seemed to materialize every day, or your basketball never gathered dust? If activity was part of your consciousness then, it won't be hard at all to make it a part now.
Judging Your Activity Level Right Now
Now, I am aware that most of you reading this are probably doing so with just a little bit of smugness. You may not be a jock, but you're certainly an active person. You don't feel that bad, and you certainly don't deserve a lecture or any sympathy.
I felt that way most of my life. My sympathy was reserved for those truly unfortunate ones who no longer could make many (or any) voluntary movements -- people injured in terrible accidents, or struck down with terrible diseases.
The irony of my thoughts only came to me last year. For most of my life, I have, in one sense, been a complete invalid. I made virtually no voluntary movements. I went through life with just enough movement to complete the tasks of existence.
That's an awfully disquieting reality. I have been a prisoner of minimal movement. I, like you, want life to possess more than that. Jogging, or any pure exercise in itself, may not be your idea of heaven. But the freedom it will bring you is worth those few minutes of you-know-what.