Fitness didn’t define my upbringing. Back east, in my town of suburban Anyplace, USA, my parents grudgingly went to the gym a few times a week, usually seasonally when it was time to burn some of the winter away.
No one pushed me to go to the gym. I found my way to exercise on my own. Maybe this is why I took pride in it.
I’ll never forget one afternoon when I was getting my gym bag ready to throw in the car, excited to go work out. My stepmom grumpily countered my pep: “Going to the gym isn’t supposed to be fun, Alli. It’s work.”
That sounds like a real wicked stepmother move, and it kind of was — although she was not evil, just grouchy. But it stuck in my head.
I asked myself: Did going to the gym feel like work? Yes. Was it fun? No, not exactly. Then why was I so excited about it?
I knew I wanted to do this thing for myself that might not feel like sunshine and rainbows while I was doing it, but I had come to realize over time and muscle memory it would make me feel better in the aggregate. While I had the motivation to go, I wanted to seize on that before the couch had a chance to get me first.
The couch meant languor, stagnation and self-loathing. The gym meant propulsion, movement and focus. The couch sucked me down and in. The gym pushed me up and out. Or rather, I pushed myself up and out at the gym — an empowering feeling. The fun part was everything the gym enabled me to feel and do outside of the gym.
Recently, I’ve been running like a robot. A few times a week I get up in the morning, drink my coffee, ignore my stomach growling — I fed you pandemic ice cream last night, I growl back at it — and lace up my shoes.
I have this loop right outside my door that’s not super short but not long either, and is absolutely pancake flat. It is the outdoor running equivalent of getting on a treadmill at the gym, like I did back in the days when my stepmom was irritated with me for my enthusiasm.
I run the loop. I’m not super fast, but I don’t walk. When I get home I feel sweaty but not exactly like I worked hard. What I feel after the run is just some semblance of normal. If I woke up that morning stuck in a coronavirus-fueled news hole, the run fills it up to ground level. I don’t end up any higher than usual, but at least after I run I can stand on mostly firm, if a bit uneven, ground for the rest of the day.
I’m not getting any real joy from running or exercising outdoors during a global pandemic. There’s a sheen over everything, a layer of Vaseline blotting out the sharpest and most exciting parts of the world.
Do I get glimpses of joy from being outside and exercising? Yes, but far fewer than I did a couple months ago. I don’t expect it. I don’t exercise because that’s my aim; right now I simply exercise because I know I need to.
Ironically, I’ve come full circle to when I first started working out. My stepmom talked about exercise as work. Exercise is a habit: a thing you do because you know it’s good for you even when it’s not fun. Right now that’s how it is for me.
The alternative — staying inside, sinking into the couch — is even more dangerous for me than normal, because the couch is where the news on my phone lives. The couch is where the minutes of screen time tick up to slap me on Sundays with unsolicited daily averages. If I don’t get outside, I’ll sink too far down.
Right now having a habit of exercising outside keeps me level, and I think during a global pandemic staying “even” is a perfectly reasonable fitness goal.
Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.
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