Cover Story » Vol. 44

Live the active life you want

Fitbit HorizontalBy Bernard Whitmore

When visiting family in Florida, I often pass entrances to communities proclaiming themselves “for active adults.” Strange, though, I never see anybody outdoors or any traces of activity. Which leads me to wonder: What is considered “active”? Dressing oneself? Taking nourishment and bobbing one’s head to PBS fundraisers?

We want more to life than that, don’t we?

Enjoyment of life must mean living it. Observed from a thousand feet, sitting in front of a television does not appear lifelike. This is passive time that consists, in large part, of watching others actually do things and listening to pitches for weight-loss potions and exercise apparatus. Ironically, the easiest and least expensive exercise program might be this: Get up, get dressed and walk out the door.

I suggest this because activity has benefits, both physical and emotional. As I learned from a conversation with Paul Reilly, CEO of ActiveRx, which has a center in Westborough, proper exercise can strengthen bones and reverse the loss of muscle mass. And, of course, it can stall out that tendency to pack on pounds.

But it’s the emotional benefits of an active life that I prefer to focus upon. When people hear that I run and bicycle, they seem to assume that it’s self-sacrificing discipline. Wrong. It’s all about feeling good and having fun! Having said that, I don’t think it’s useful to preach any particular form of exercise as “the answer.” I’m convinced that there is an enjoyable form of activity for everyone. The key is to explore the options and discover which works best for you. The key to this quest is to be physically fit.

Walking would seem the ideal place to begin a fitness regimen because no special skills or equipment are required and most of us are naturally adept at it. Plus, it’s there for you year-round. The American Heart Association encourages it over running and other high-impact sports as “your way to a healthy heart.” Once you’re feeling fit, you will find a world of opportunities available; I encourage you take advantage of those opportunities.

Motivation

Let me start with a word on demotivation. Almost everything in our culture seems to encourage being sedentary. I reckon our very DNA might be coded for “making life easier.” The impulse to avoid action is strong; I admit, there are times when I wonder why I commute by bicycle. When the temperature plummets below 15 degrees and the wind is howling, I sometimes think: Are you crazy?

It is this struggle against psychic inertia that inhibits the resolve to get started. Taking the first step is often the most challenging and hazardous to the success of a fitness program. When I get these thoughts, I scoff at myself and remember some of the wisest words ever written:

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”
~ Laozi, Chinese philosopher

Your journey may be weight loss; when you reach a plateau, try considering it the beginning of the next journey. Or it may be steeling up the nerve to walk on a city street; it’s easy to feel intimidated by what others think. Later on, it might be a road race and the fear of an embarrassing performance. But guaranteed: The actual doing is easier than the dread of apprehension. And accomplishment ~ however incremental ~ is sweet reward.ipod

Fortunately, we can devise ways to make that dread of starting a bit easier to overcome. Look inward. What motivates you?

Start keeping track of your activity; record your number of workouts per week and steps-per-workout. In the beginning of a venture, it’s motivating to see improvement. If you have a smartphone, check out apps that count your steps and chart your progress. If you don’t have one, purchase a decent pedometer.

You don’t have to go this alone; social media allows you to keep in touch with others who are just starting out or trying to improve. Try using a fitness tracker; they help you establish reasonable goals and give you a push every now and then to help reach them. And let’s not forget real, live, in-the-flesh friends. Companions can bolster your spirits when things seem too difficult.

If music is a passion you’ve grown away from, you can enjoy it on your daily walk and regain your lost muse. Jazz, classical, the blues and new genres ~ it’s your personal choice and they all await you. My preference is all of the above, and I use a tiny clip-on iPod Shuffle.

Or perhaps your active time is simply an opportunity to be alone, clear your head and let your mind wander. Most of my writing is framed and drafted whilst pounding the pavement.

Gently now, start setting attainable goals and set aside standard times of day to devote to activity. Here’s an idea: Many people devote noontime to eating. Try replacing part or all of that time with walking and, perhaps, discover how exercise can suppress appetite.

Put some of your sedentary time to use. Google “walking to get in shape” and scan a few of the millions of results for ideas. Over decades, I’ve found that there are no perfect solutions out there, but that each article has a grain or two of useful information. Craft your own solution.

Fitness yields choices

That it constantly tests the edges of my endurance makes road running my love. The exhilaration of speed and its pure utility make bicycling my joy. But if you’re a social animal, well, these activities are probably not for you. My sister has taught aerobics classes for decades, and her students love the vigorous workout and the social aspect of sweating together.

If someone dear to you has suffered cancer, the Pan Mass Challenge might present an attainable goal with priceless rewards, both physical and spiritual.

Hiking gets you into the woods, up mountains and closer to nature. I gravitate toward outdoor activities where I can experience life ~ the seasons, nature, urban craziness and even celestial events.

I’ve found that, regardless of age, I keep learning more about life by facing challenges. When presented with a sailboard, I thought, “No way! You’re clumsy and will make a fool of yourself in front of the entire waterfront!” But I stepped onto the board and took off for fun-packed hours.

That lesson taught me to throw away what I imagined were the rules for someone of my age. Don’t close doors. Diversify. Snowshoe. Sailboard. Ski. Swim. Hike. Run. Cycle. Golf. Pogo. Try yoga, aerobics or kettle bells. Get crazy. Go to one of the local boot camps. Compete in a “mudder.” Get lost in the woods on a mountain bike.

Consider this variety of options your reward for being fit. When you’re busy being active, there’s no time to worry about getting old. Once you’re taking brisk 30-minute daily walks, you’ll be more fit than most young people. I’d like to think we’re tearing the pages out of the user manual for agingUneven Sidewalk.

But just get out and walk.

Safety

A few rules to keep in mind:
1. People driving cars care very little about pedestrians.
2. People driving cars have unconditional right of way.
3. People driving cars do not see you, regardless of time of day or weather.

My only solace out on the road is a naive belief that most drivers prefer to avoid the inconvenience of running me over ~ accidents are messy and waste time. This is not to scare you back indoors. The more we can make the sight of people on foot a normal one in Worcester, the safer we’ll all be. Just respect the power relationship and be careful!

Additionally, while watching for traffic, don’t forget to observe the surface ahead of you for hazards. The city is not always vigilant about replacing water main plugs, as I recently discovered when I found myself face down in the middle of a crosswalk with my left foot snugly wedged in an iron hole.

Gear

Don’t neglect your feet! Proper shoes are your foundation. I could tell you how wonderful my Mizunos are, but everybody’s feet are different. Consider using free experts such as the staff at Sneakerama. They can tell what suits you by observing your gait and the wear pattern on your old shoes.

There are other experts, of course, but avoid most mall stores. Here’s my last and most memorable exchange with a kid working at a local mall:

Me: “I’d like a pair of good Nikes”
Clerk: “I don’t know about running shoes; I’m too skinny to run”
Lesson: Mall stores sell shoes to pose in, not necessarily to be active in.

Here is what I consider the most important winter gear in my arsenal.shoes

Hooded outer shell: One that’s light but airtight, zippered for thermostatic control and cinches at the waist and cuffs. Water repellant is good, but wind resistance is critical.

Arm and neck warmers: These extend your sleeves and collar, providing airproof seals where the outer shell ends. Decades ago, I made my own from a thick wool sweater.

Gloves: Collect a set for each temperature range.

Pants: Old-fashioned gray sweatpants used to be de rigueur. After a few minutes into a workout, they became a soggy nightmare of chafing and chill. All this went away when I cut over to Lycra.

Light and reflector: Forehead-mounted lights are one of the neatest applications of LCD technology because they open the nighttime to activity. Reflective trim on clothing and shoes is a good idea; I strap reflective bands above my ankles.

Injury

Sooner or later, active people experience aching muscles, joints and tendons. Sometimes, simple rest and scaling back speed and distance helps, but some injuries just seem to persist. The best singular piece of advice I’ve been given was to go to Back to Health chiropractic on Park Avenue in Worcester. Its founder, Dr. Cheryl Houston, has boundless enthusiasm, wisdom and ~ best of all ~ skill at getting me back on the road.

My last bout of plantar fasciitis was particularly painful and persisted for years. I fought it with stretching, anti-inflammatories and glucosamine with chondroitin (for joint repair). After an interview with Dr. Charles Birbara, a prominent rheumatologist here in Worcester, I asked him about glucosamine. He didn’t trash the supplement, but I could tell he was skeptical.

So I stopped taking it. Two weeks later, I was pain free. Coincidence?

“There are no coincidences!” asserted Dr. Houston when I related the story.

But this is critical: See your doctor before you start a fitness program, especially if you’ve suffer from heart disease!

Fear

I recognize that many people are reluctant to walk, let alone run, in public because of what others might think. It would seem that everyone’s self-conscious about his or her body, and I realize that I should be sensitive. As a male, it’s difficult for me to appreciate the additional fears that women experience.

And there are rude jerks out there. In the dead of summer, I’ve had young guys scream at me “Put on a shirt!” as they drive by. I admit that, initially, it feels a bit violent and humiliating to be so judged. But it’s also easily dismissed when I remind myself that I’ll be trim and fit when they’ve grown into middle-aged couch potatoes.

Try not to let other people’s ifitgnorance stop you from doing what’s best for yourself. If you prefer, there are rail trails in the area that offer sanctuary for those who prefer to be with kindred souls and away from traffic.

Benefits

The media is so loaded with “secrets to a healthy you” that we should react with suspicion. There’s no fast and easy way to fitness. Moreover, motivation and activity choices are very personal, not commodities for sale. My running life has held rock steady for more than 40 years. Years scattered with very difficult days that sometimes stretched into weeks.

Fitness is not a guarantee of perfect health or longevity. But we are designed for motion; I think that’s why activity sharpens the mind and awakens the soul. It just seems to be the right way to live. And on those many good workout days, the glow of exhilaration lasts for hours.

Years ago, I developed a nagging injury and finally, after months of impatient waiting to heal, made an appointment with a sports medicine doctor. It was exhilarating to know I was finally taking action. Walking past the sports clinic sign, my hopes soared.

The doctor, around my age, astounded me by asking, “Well why do you want to run? Aren’t you afraid of what you look like out on the streets?”

This rendered me speechless and crestfallen. What a fool!

I don’t remember what I stammered in response, but what I felt was this: Activity is what separates us from the hereafter. Without it, we are incomplete. Because once you find your truth, you cling to it for dear life.

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