An Ode to Exercise


I was a clumsy child. My ankles were constantly sprained, my knees frequently bruised. I felt like I was always bumping into things. Clumsy, yet careful–unlike my brothers, I never broke a bone and never needed stitches. I went bouldering with my husband, rock-climbing without a harness. We climbed 14-foot walls and when we got to the top, my husband let himself fall to the safety of the crash pad below.

I climbed back down. An unusual choice, a sometimes more difficult choice, according to him.

As a high schooler, I wanted to be a dancer. It was too late for me, I’d chosen Girl Scouts over ballet when I was six years old, I would never have that flexibility or that grace, but I coveted it anyway. I was strong in my own way, but not in a way I’d ever take notice of. I was child-strong, spongey and sprinting, with more energy and less stamina than my middle-aged choreographer. In those lithe days my peers learned to take issue with their bodies. I learned that my breasts had stopped growing and that I could eat two boxes of Thin Mints in a single sitting and live to tell the tale. When high school ended so did any outlet for athleticism that I could stomach–marching band, musicals.

It’s difficult to describe what happened next. It was a quiet thing, the way my body changed. So quiet, I didn’t notice, for years. One might say I aged, and that’s true, but it was more than aging. It was–shrinking. Unraveling. It was not just the lack of control from my preteen years, although that certainly returned. I was flimsy and unprotected.

My body has never received much consideration from me, which is perhaps why it took so long for me to realize the connection between exercise and contentment. In the years following high school, I did yoga every now and then, I took gym credits in college, I was in a musical or two. And I was happy during those times. People often recommend exercise as a way to combat depression, but I think they’d be surprised at the way it works, at least in me.

Since October, I have been doing a combination of running and strength training. Where before I was clumsy, now I can feel the balance. I can feel the power. With every move, with every step, I feel my muscles shift according to my design. They move in harmony with each other. They’ve learned how to work together, and together they hold this human shape of mine reliably.

Exercising gives me a fortress to which I can retreat.

I envision myself as a statue–that’s my normal state. The stone that makes me up is comforting, and exercise helps that. No soft stone am I, not anymore. I’m marble, and the elements will have to rage long and hard to wear me down.

And when immobility isn’t comforting, when I’m covered in choking vines, the exercise helps that too, because there’s strength in my limbs that hasn’t been there before. I’m strong enough to tear up the vines that threaten to suffocate me. The fatigue, the struggle is bearable; I’ve trained myself, and I know that even through pain and exhaustion I can will myself to move.

I joke that my exercise regimen is about training for the zombie apocalypse; the truth is, it’s more about training for the longest skirmish of my life. Exercise does not make me happy. It makes me feel safe.

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