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Harvey: Here's a recipe for health: Get outside

Every once in a while, I dream about getting good and sick.

I'm talking about the kind of illness that's not life threatening or altering but allows me at least three days camped out on the couch, entitled to watch as many reruns of "Arrested Development" as I want, accepting offerings of Sudafed, tea and Us Weekly from my caring (if laughing) husband.

This kind of "sick" would be best when there's nothing pressing at work, my social life is in a lull and I have no Alaska adventures left on my bucket list. That is to say, getting sick is never actually best but lives in a recess of my mind as the possibility of forced R&R.

I do know what it's like to be truly sick, and I don't want to do that again. When I was a kid, I had what I think is fair to call debilitating asthma. Cue the tiny violinist in your head, and imagine a chubby, bedridden teenager with all the usual high school problems: mean girlfriends, boyfriend dramas and the burdensome knowledge that I was smarter than everyone else, especially my parents. Add three nebulizer machines (a machine for each parent's house, plus a battery-operated one for just in case), bimonthly hospital admissions plus a healthy sprinkling of late-night ER visits, and 130 annual absences from school for years in a row. There are 180 days in the school year.

When I was Lil' Wheezy, my typical day was spent camped out on my bed or lolling about the house. I drew pictures, read, painted my nails in elaborate patterns and watched reruns of "Murphy Brown." Then one night I had the scariest asthma attack I, and my family, had experienced and soon afterward the air quality tests from my school came back.

The cause of my asthma, it turned out, was mostly the dusty and moldy air quality at the schools I attended until I was 13. When I changed schools, my asthma immediately vanished -- and so did my identity.

Picture the physically diminished and soft form of a teenage girl who just got out of bed. Add the ghostly and hesitant personality of someone who, since I could remember, had been formed by what I was not doing. I was not at birthday parties, not involved in sports, missed school dances and was absent from class.

Put away your violin now; things got better. Over time, in fits and the most awkward, painful starts, I grew a personality. My accomplishments started to accumulate into a repertoire of things I could do, rather than the things I could not do.

I'll never forget the first time I climbed up a mountain. Climbing is a pleasant term for what the experience of making it to the top was like. When I force myself back into the memory, I recall sweating, heaving, wheezing, jelly-legged torture. That was only the first incline.

Still, when I arrived at the top, I remember thinking: Aha! So all I have to do is put one foot in front of the other, and eventually I will make it here. That seems so simple.

I was hooked.

Many more steps and many more mountains later, here I am, as addicted and enthralled by making my lungs work and being outside as I was once flat, sedentary and bedridden. The only remnant of my asthma is an inhaler I use before I exercise. So, I know sick. And again, I love the idea of being sick just every once in a while but the practice is always inconvenient and depressing. I've done enough missing things in my life; I got that out of the way when I was young.

So now I do things every day to ward off getting sick. I am actually quite superstitious about it, and what I do seems to work because I rarely catch a cold anymore.

First, I rarely go to the gym. I will go in the middle of breakup, more because I am an admitted exercise addict rather than pursuing any notion of health, and I will sometimes go with friends as a social thing. But I don't like working out in an enclosed space with recycled air. There are people working out all around me, every one of them coming from their own separate place of employment with its own "thing" inevitably going around. Add in working hard and breathing in air that my body gratefully accepts in gasps, and I think going to the gym is not a recipe for health but a great way to catch a nice cold.

More than a hobby, I view my weekly runs, hikes, bikes and walks as health insurance. I know that when I stop exercising outside I get sick. It is as simple as that.

Another thing: This sounds counter-intuitive but I try not to do too much. Summer's coming, and the temptation for all of Anchorage will be to hike at least out to our back porch, if not up Wolverine after work, followed by beers 'til after the sun goes down: 2 a.m. We will wake up the next morning groggy but ultimately re-energized by the confusing and dazzling return of the midnight sun. If I allowed myself to wholeheartedly tag along for every bipolar pattern of the Alaska seasons, I would probably once again spend half my years prone and sniveling.

Finally, superstition tells me not to brag about health. I am writing this article from the enclosed environment of an airplane, where a nice cross-section of humanity is crammed into a flight to Seattle (there is, of course, someone coughing behind me). By the time this is printed, I am sure I will be sick. However, it will be for a noble cause, because at least I will have shared my superstitions with the world and offered this bottom line advice for staying healthy: Go outside and play.

Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.

 



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