The Eskimos, who live in intimate contact with fluffy white precipitation, have developed more than one hundred words to describe it. These include: aput ("snow on the ground"), qana ("falling snow"), piqsirpoq ("drifting snow"), qimuqsuq ("snowdrift"), "pokatok" ("grainy, salt-like snow"), "mauyak" ("soft snow"), and "ayak" ("snow on your boots”). English speakers, on the other hand, are left empty handed. We call it snow and that’s the end of it.
Language reflects experience and engagement. The things that we’re interested in tend to develop complex language around them. That’s why I find it particularly interesting that---just like the word snow---- English speakers only have one word for physical activity: exercise.
From my point of view, “exercise” is a very limiting and highly unsatisfying word. Exercise is the stuff Jack LaLanne used to do on television when I was a kid. Push ups, jumping jacks, marching, weights. Exercise is a word that has regimentation built into it. It reminds you of marine boot camp. Exercise is what you force yourself to do. Exercise is what happens when your all too human body is forced into interaction with cold hard machinery: the treadmill, the stationary bike, the metal pulleys, the levers and the iron weights that make up gym equipment. Exercise is a word with bad karma.
If our culture was more in touch with the physical body, we might have 100 words for exercise. We could use them. They would have definitions like these:
- Exercise that creates a trance like state of deep thought.
- Exercise that stimulates bursts of intense joy.
- Sweaty activity that loosens the body and spirit.
- Calming exercise.
- Heart pounding, elating exercise Exercise that connects inner and outer worlds.
- Magical exercise
If we had these words, perhaps we could convince people to find the magic that is found in moving their bodies.
My patients have been willing to do all sorts of things. They have been willing to eat bizarre diets composed of pots of cabbage soup, mounds of grapefruit and odd assortments of bars and supplements. They have been willing to have surgical treatments and to undergo the slashing of their stomachs, intestines, and extra skin folds. They have been willing to have suction catheters shoved under their skin to forcibly vacuum out the fat. They have been willing to purchase totally unproven remedies sold by snake oil salesmen on radio and in magazines. They have been willing to ingest these unknown substances in the hope that their cortisol levels will be suppressed, their carbs will be blocked, or that they will lose the 20-30 pounds that “some experts say are stuck to the colon walls like spackle or paste” (!).
But a large number of them are not willing to exercise.
The woman sitting in front of my desk has just lost 50 pounds. “And what are you doing about getting some exercise?” I ask. Despite the fact that I have warned her repeatedly that she will not be able to maintain her weight loss without physical activity, she is unconcerned. “I haven’t had time to get that in”, she says with a bit of annoyance (directed at me). “Yes, I know I have to, but I just don’t like to sweat.”
It’s that “e” word again.
I simply don’t have the descriptors to let her know that exercise is a sublime addiction and she doesn’t believe me when I try to tell her. Like all addictions, exercise starts out badly. Remember that first cigarette? That first beer? UGH! My first inauspicious experience with exercise occurred when I was 35 years old. Prior to that I’d been an utter couch potato and the flabby thighs I referred to in an earlier post were a testament to my love for Mallomars and inactivity. A friend suggested that I accompany her to something called “aerobics”. It was painful. We gathered in a circle in a poorly lit gym. The instructor stood in the center while an odd disco tape played and we tried to imitate her kicks and knee lifts. Well, that wasn’t something I was ever doing again.
Until almost a year later. One day, while walking down the Main Street of a new town, I heard a commotion coming from above me. I looked up, and there, in the plate glass window, above a stationery store, were about 30 women in tights jumping up and down on little purple platforms. They were shouting, sweating and hooting. I wanted to be up there with them. And so I was, after I finally drummed up enough to courage to mount the dark, dank staircase that led to Patty White’s studio. From Patty, I learned that aerobics could be joyful, social and even a bit raunchy. Patty had a penchant for sharing stories about her sex life while teaching class. It was quite the education.
I stunk at aerobics for a long time. There were always these women in the front row who knew Patty personally, looked incredibly trim, and could do the class from start to finish without stopping to catch their breath. I, on the other hand, stood in the rear gasping.
It took about two years to begin moving forward, but move I did. It became my goal to make that front row. Along the way, I got to meet a lot of really great people who stood in all sorts of positions throughout the room. Once I got good enough to stand up front, I chose to stay in the back with some other friends. We were that cool.
In the years since, I’ve followed Patty, Tami, Reggie, Dale, Michael and Joe through various iterations of aerobic nirvana. When I travel, I take class. And I’ve done that all around the country and outside its borders. For me, it’s about the music, the energy, the people in the class and the dancing. It’s been an experience that has only become more important as I’ve gotten older. I never feel as alive as I do when I’m taking a class with people who are half my age and I can marvel at the fact that my body still responds, still works for me, still craves this experience. None of this is specific to aerobics. I just happen to like that particular form of work out. I see the same expression on the faces of distance bikers, karate enthusiasts, kick boxers, tennis players, line dancers and runners. Discovering the right exercise connection is a direct line to bliss.
I try to share this with my patient…the one who won’t exercise. Finding the right words is impossible when you speak a language that doesn’t encompass the subtleties of the physical. Instead, I simply advise her to find a kind of exercise that she thinks she could love….someday. There has to be an attraction at the very beginning, I say, or she’ll never last through the tough times. I tell her that if she waits it out and starts falling for her chosen exercise, it will change her life. But I can see that she hasn’t moved past the “e” word. In her mind, I’m still asking her to do something painful and horribly sweaty.
I suspect that most of you who are reading this have discovered that you can’t do maintenance without exercise. I only hope that you have moved past the “e” word and into that undefined region where physical activity brings you into direct connection with the body you are protecting and the joyful spirit that cares for it.