Scientists tell us that exercise is so good for us that it can reverse the course of aging. In my heart I don’t believe them, but I persist in the exercise anyway. I’m a little like the kid who wouldn’t say anything bad about God, just in case God really exists, and is listening. So regarding exercise, periodically I feel like I’ve fallen behind in my efforts and decide on some Herculean effort to make up for past sins. Not the wisest course, I’m told.
Last Sunday morning was one of those times. Franny was away. I had no plans. I had some thinking to do. The whole day yawned in front of me like an empty vessel, and a long walk, maybe a very long walk, seemed the perfect antidote to my lapsed practice.
I’m going to walk the Boston Sports Club, about 5 miles away, work out on the weight machines, then walk back. I’ve long had a romance with the idea of covering distances on my own steam. Being on the trail, especially in the high mountains of California and Colorado. By the time I’ve walked a mile or two, I’m absorbed in the scenery. I stop thinking and I lose myself. A delicious time for me.
The walk along Lexington and Winter Street is not quite as pristine as the High Sierras but 10 to 12 miles and a workout at the midpoint offers its own, funky excitement. And I am using the word “excitement” literally. I don’t know why.
The walk begins well. My muscles feel good. The arthritis in my knees and ankle feel manageable. There’s a jauntiness to my stride. At least that’s the inner experience.
I love the cool air, even when a light rain begins. I promise myself to be mature. If the rain intensifies, I’ll duck into a store and call an Uber — the St. Bernard of the Lexington wilds. At the moment, though, I am calm. A man of No Mind, as the Buddhists say.
After a few miles, though, thoughts intrude:
“What kind of nutty thing are you doing, Barry? You’re 77. Are you trying to reassure yourself? Why? Aren’t you more mature than that? Is this one of those crazy, old man dares that leads to trouble?”
Then another part of me responds:
“Don’t be silly. I’m not climbing Everest, for God’s sake. I love the freedom of walking. And OK, I do want to check myself out, see how well this old machine is working. Will it hold up? Do I still have my stamina?”
The walk is becoming a doctor’s appointment, and I’m the doctor.
I’d like to say that the argument ended there but it went on for a mile or more. In fact, I do reassure myself:
“You’ll be fine. You might not be able to play basketball anymore, but you can walk. You’re strong enough. You’ll probably walk this way into your 80’s…
“Yeah but You’re going to be sore and, by the sixth mile or so, you’ll be pushing, pushing. It’ll stop being fun. You’ll start worrying about injuring yourself. This whole gambit will end up a disappointment.”
By now, I’ve heard enough of this grumbling. I remind the damned pessimist in me that science is on my side. I had just read a research article about how exercise slows cognitive and physical decline and relieves stress.
“Sure, sure, but if you push hard enough, you’ll cripple yourself. You’ll live longer but it won’t be such a pleasure.”
I’d like to dismiss the whole argument but, as I walk, it fades in and out of consciousness. For the most part, I walk on, feeling good even during the steep climb to the gym. There, after some weight training, I decide not to call an Uber. The rain has stopped. The training has given my legs time to rest. Why not walk home? There’s only about 5 miles to go. By the end, it will have been a grind but a virtuous grind, the kind that makes you feel great when you’re done.
After about a mile, the refreshed feeling is gone. The steps are slower, more effortful. There’s very little rhythm. I begin to wonder if my old friend, will power, is there for me.
I could still call an Uber but I don’t.
During the last several years, I’ve not wanted to push myself too hard.
“What for?” I say. “I’ll never be in great shape again. I’m never going to write my novel. I’m not going to build another organization.”
“Relax, man! Enjoy the easy life,” I say out loud.
“Bullshit,” I reply.
But I have always gotten something from pushing myself. A sense of satisfaction. A sense of moving beyond my ordinary self. I keep walking.
I’m content with the grind for another 15 minutes — until I begin to wonder if I might have a heart attack or a stroke out here on the street. All alone on the street. People my age do, after all. Franny would be mad at me if she knew what I was doing. She’d say I’m being irresponsible. “Why do old men keep challenging themselves in this way? Besides, don’t you understand…other people care for you. You are being selfish.”
Of course, I’ve got an answer to that critique:
“I’m not in the desert or above tree line in the mountains. I’m walking in the suburbs. Don’t be a sissy!”
And so it went until I was home, cooling for a bit and listening to Duke Ellington play Mood Indigo. Then a shower to end all showers and an easy chair with a book. There’s no interior dialogue that I can hear now. I am exhausted. And I am pleased with my day.