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I don’t particularly enjoy physical exercise, but I do it because it’s good for me. The “dopamine rush” that some people associate with exercise is something I have never experienced. Similarly, I don’t enjoy the work that goes into learning a new song on the piano, especially when it involves reading sheet music, but I do enjoy the satisfaction that comes from being able to play it smoothly. Even if it’s weeks or months later.
My story is about not exercising.
I had always defined myself by my activity. In my youth, I was a runner and a swimmer, then I was a college athlete, and later on a physician who taught medical students about health promotion counseling and who researched physical activity interventions. I was the person my colleagues, family, and friends turned to for advice on how to incorporate exercise into their busy lives.
A half century ago, exercise had little place in medical care. Months of rest were for advised for TB, women spent weeks in bed after giving birth, and three weeks of bed rest was typical after a heart attack (as was a reduced likelihood of returning to many forms of employment).
At that time, a team of us started a cardiac rehab program based at Morristown Medical Center. It involved both professionals and laypeople.
As a cardiologist, I always try to emphasize the American Heart Association’s recommendation to exercise for 30 minutes every day. Unfortunately, during the COVID-19 pandemic, my regular exercise facility was closed. But I found it easy to tell myself that I got plenty of exercise walking around the hospital, using the stairs, and going back and forth to the office.
I retired from critical care nursing in the wake of the COVID pandemic. I had been an avid runner prior to my retirement, and I was then able to start a rigorous exercise program as well. While I had been thin prior to retiring, my new regimen became an obsession, as I focused on exercising, running, and eating “right.”
My daughter and I enjoyed taking cycling/spinning classes together while she was in high school. We attended classes most weekends. As her graduation approached, she announced, “I’m going to get certified as a spin instructor and teach at college.” Then she added, “I think you should get certified to teach spin, too.”
So I did.
I used to work at a facility that had a very well-equipped on-site gym for employees. I would meet a co-worker there just about every day and we’d exercise together. One day, while walking past the receptionist’s desk, gym bag in hand on the way to my daily workout, the receptionist remarked, “You are so disciplined!” I smiled and continued on to the gym and my scheduled workout.
At the beginning of the pandemic, our hospital’s new gym, which had barely opened, shut down due to the strict COVID-control measures. The YMCA pool where I swam each week also closed. And my personal training sessions became virtual, conducted from a makeshift workout space in my basement.
My natural inclination is to live a sedentary life—sitting on the rocking chair with a good book or lying on the couch for a two-hour nap. Even when I caved in to social pressure from friends and joined a gym, I limited my workouts to thirty minutes on an elliptical with little elevation and at low speed.