I have always had a problem with exercise. Lunch and talking are my only sports. I was the one in the modern dance class to whom the teacher pointed and said, "Hey you in the green shorts, stick your rear in." Heywood Broun seemed to have the answer when he said, "The only exercise I get is going to the funerals of my athletic friends."
Then came the '80s and Nikes and endless studies all showing the same thing. Heywood Broun was wrong. We need it. We'd have to be stupid not to get it.
So first I tried spas. I hated everyone. I hated the smiles, the upbeat adolescent chatter, and most of all, I was still the one in the metaphorical green shorts. I tried walking, but a drop of rain sometimes fell and occasionally the weather in Washington went over 70. I tried tennis but then read that it wasn't a real aerobic exercise. I even bought one of those jolly bouncers to use in front of TV, but discovered that when I watch TV, I want to relax, not bounce around.
So what to do? The articles all said you should find something you like so you'd stick with it. But there wasn't a whole lot I liked that had anything to do with moving.
I needed to try another approach. This way of searching was clearly not working. So circling around the problem, rather than facing it directly, I asked myself a different question. What do you give yourself after a hard day that revives your spirit and makes you think life is worth living again? A memory came in.
One year I worked in Boston for The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. All day long I would trudge from one urine smelling apartment to another, trying to be useful to families who were filled with despair. Every night, as soon as I got home, in an almost obsessive desire to reassure myself that there was still some easily accessible beauty in the world, I would put on Mozart. Music has some special power for me. The challenge was how to use that power.
Then I thought about pairing. This is a concept beloved by psychological experimenters that involves joining something you like with doing something you don't like, with the hope that the obvious pleasure of one will change the negative association of the other. I set out to pair music and exercise with the hope that it wouldn't go the other way and I would never again turn on a hi-fi set.
Music paired to movement has a name: dancing. Dancing, unlike exercise, has a positive association for me. As a child I would put on music and just dance any way I felt -- sad, happy, anxious, whatever -- and it had always been a good experience. I tried that now -- it didn't work.
I would put on some glorious music and dance to it, feeling quite wonderful and free. The only problem was that five minutes of creative free dancing seemed to be my limit. I had a lovely time, but it didn't solve my exercise problem.
So then I tried a different kind of pairing. I knew I was on to something with the music -- I still can't get over the miraculous fact that with a flick of the wrist or finger one can command the greatest performers of the world to play exactly the music one wants to hear.
Starting with music seemed right, but I needed something that would help me last more than five minutes. I put on an old VCR exercise tape that I had never been able to stick with but turned off the sound. Then I commanded Itzak Pearlman and his colleagues to play the Archduke Trio. That did it! I lasted 30 minutes.
There has been a fair amount written about what music is helpful for what particular exercise. This way of thinking is putting the cart before the horse. Exercise tapes focus on movement with background music. What works for me is music with background exercise.
The only way I can sneak past 40 years of resistance is to make the music the subject and adjust the exercise to the music, rather than vice versa. This may seem like a semantic quibble, but, for me, it is the difference between success and failure.
So I do not ask myself, "What exercise tape do I want to do today?" The answer would almost certainly be, "None of the above, thank you." Rather I ask, "What record, tape, disc, from your glorious store of musical miracles would you like to have a privilege of hearing?"
On some days I may feel like listening to a Mozart piano concerto, other days a gospel or country record. My tastes and moods vary, but I usually have a clear idea of what I want to listen to at any given moment. At times the juxtaposition of Jane Fonda with a Bach cantata may seem a bit ludicrous, but it is the cantata I am responding to with only a very distant copying of my leader on the tape.
I have found one serendipitous benefit. Responding to music with movement has taught me to listen in a different way. My favorite listening position was and is lying down on a long couch with eyes closed while the music pours out around me. But jumping, skipping, walking, bending with pointed toes and swinging arms teaches one to listen to music differently. Changes in the rhythms become more apparent. Soaring melodies, the grace of a slow movement, the energy of a scherzo are all more emphasized when one is trying to use one's body to follow that music. In short, I found that exercise done this way becomes a creative way of listening.
So these days I look forward to my musical treat. I go to my record collection and one record or disc will inevitably catch my eye. Yesterday, it was Mozart's harp and flute concerto, and as James Galway played his golden flute, I turned off the TV sound and put on a VCR exercise tape. Skipping and reaching, responding to the joyful energy of that third movement, I suddenly thought, "My God, I'm really exercising!"