It was a cold and drizzly fall day,the year was 1976. I had agreed to meet my friend Joe outside in the parking lot of the condominium where we lived off-campus at The University of Connecticut. At the very last minute, I found myself changing my mind. I did not want to do this. What if I couldn’t do this? I was feeling insecure and afraid, but yet, when I agree to something I hate backing down. My motto is “you never know until you try”. For instance, I tried golfing once, I tried to get on a horse, and I tried skiing. People seem to love these things, and I wanted to understand why. After getting kicked by the horse and breaking my leg in two places as well as my ankle on the bunny slope, well, I can say I tried. Golf didn’t work out either. It was kind of like baseball for me, I just could not hit the darn ball.
So there I stood in the drizzle, waiting in my new Nike sneakers and windbreaker. He finally shows up and starts talking, giving me such encouraging words, describing what we are going to do and how we are going to do it. Joe was a physical fitness major and he knew what he was talking about. I had recently quit smoking cigarettes, and I needed something else to help me deal with life in general. After chatting with him the days before, I agreed to give running a shot. He was here to help me, and to guide me on my very first “run”. He had mapped out our route, which simply was a half mile to the end of the street and back, totally an entire mile. He guided me through some simple stretches, and then we started. Can I do this?
I literally felt like a fish out of water. Just a few months ago, I could barely walk to class without running out of breath (and would light up a cigarette once I finally got to sit down and catch my breath). It had been awhile since I smoked, and I actually was feeling so much better (I did not realize how bad I felt until after the fact…..when I had much more energy and realized this is how I am supposed to feel! this is how people who don’t smoke feel very single day). I also need to share that my roommate Marion at the time was my inspiration to even consider this. She was a runner, and loved it, and although I did not understand why, I wanted to be like her! So Joe and I started out on this country road, and I started to run as fast as I could (isn’t that what you are supposed to do?) but he stopped me. He showed me how to pace myself, and trust me, it was VERY SLOW! So slow, in fact, that it actually felt GOOD. I could breathe. My legs felt strong. I could do this.
We made it to the end of the country street and turned around. I will NEVER FORGET how I felt when we got close to the end of our “run” and I could see our condo complex. I am going to make it, I thought. We reached the parking lot and I felt something shift inside of me that changed me forever. I loved that feeling so much, that feeling of success and accomplishment, it changed my “definition” of who I was, and who I wanted to be. I think we all have our own self-dialogues going on in our heads, thoughts nobody else can see about ourselves that eventually create who we actually are. Sometimes the thoughts are self-deprecating. “You are so lazy! You can’t do that!”
Yes, I can. And I did.
After that, I looked at myself in a very different light. I loved the idea of feeling good, and being healthy and fit. THAT is who I wanted to be. NOT someone using cigarettes to deal with stress. But, I definitely needed something, and the reality is, when we give up a “habit” it is almost always necessary to substitute something else. In my case, it was running. It became my new “habit”. It stuck. For years. Over time, I increased my distance and my usual runs became 2 or 3 miles. I did not run fast, but I loved running longer. It gave me time to think and meditate, solve problems, plan and dream. As I got more fit, running was just as relaxing as sleeping. I started to do road races and loved the camaraderie of other friends who had discovered the same joy I had.
Over the years, my running habit has shifted along with my life. It is funny, but I think because I always ran after classes (4-5 pm), that is the time my body seemed to crave movement throughout my life. To this day, after work, I just can’t wait to move. My body just craves it. I went through phases of running longer distances, but now prefer walking and slow jogging. I can day dream on a track, on the side walk or even on a treadmill. It doesn’t matter to me, just let me move. It can be kayaking on a local reservoir or mowing the lawn. I just need to move. If you have ever taken a few minutes to watch young children outside, they usually can’t stop moving. I think it is innate in us to move our bodies in ways that are fun and enjoyable. When we put unrealistic goals and numbers and expectations on it all, well, to me the fun is gone. Maybe that is why people “hate exercise”?
The benefits to my life thanks to Marion and Joe are too many to count. Because of this life-changing experience, I can enjoy vacations as much now, at my (older) age as I did in my 20’s. I can hike up Red Rock in Sedona, or down the Grand Canyon. I can walk for miles up and down the cobblestone streets of Cinque Terre in Italy. I can walk almost the entire town of Venice, never tiring. I can enjoy all of the bike trails on Cape Cod, explore the cliffs of Gay Head, garden for hours, walk all over the lively North end of Boston and still dance the night away. Yes, that day changed my life.
Since that day, I also became passionate about promoting health. I felt it, the way this simple act changed my life and my identity, and I wanted everyone to feel it, too. With every patient I have ever worked with, this has been my goal. So many people focus on how they look, and not on how they feel. They focus on the number on the scale, they judge themselves for that, and the self-talk and dialogue in their minds do nothing to help them be who they are supposed to be. People “try” but unfortunately, not everyone has a “Marion” for inspiration, or a “Joe” in their lives who can guide them in such a gentle and self-loving way to be the best they can be. To just start. One foot in front of the other. One pedal around the block. Dancing to even one favorite song.
Unfortunately, not every has the physical ability to enjoy all kinds of fun movement. I know many with joint issues, back pain, muscle issues, and other ailments that will always impact them. I am so grateful to be blessed with a body free of pain, and know that many do suffer. If you can move without pain, you definitely are blessed.
As I was writing this blog, my husband walked in and asked me to read what I had written so far. So I did, but as I started to read the 4th paragraph (“We made it…..”) I could not continue. I got choked up. That is how powerful that experience was, that is how important to my life. It took me by surprise, how strongly I felt, but then again, life-changing shifts in self-identity can do that.
I hope you take a minute to stop and reflect on your own self-thoughts and the dialogue in your head. Do you have unrealistic expectations when it comes to “exercise”? Do you call yourself names? Use the “L” word? When it comes to moving, to be clear, I definitely do not think everyone should be running! I have absolutely no advice on what anyone should do as far as physical activity. YOU are the expert on that. YOU know what you love. Some people absolutely love competition, enjoy running fast, getting stronger and stronger, keeping track of times, and amounts of weights they can lift, how many reps they can do, etc. The bottom line is, they enjoy it. It makes them happy. If what you are doing is not enjoyable, or does not make you happy, that is a different story. I just hope you look at moving in a different light. If you look at it as a means to an end, it may be hard to enjoy. If you instead can find something that has the capacity to be one more thing to enjoy in your day, a fun way to move your body (think kids, think hula-hoop, think fun, think freedom), well, that may be something you keep in your life for as long as you live.
So, that is the story. A day that changed my life, who I am and is part of why I have a passion to help people be healthy. Not perfect. Just healthy. I don’t want to be the only one on the dance floor when I’m 80.