A Few Thoughts on Why—And When—We Exercise
People with back pain frequently tell me that their number one problem is that they don’t have time to work out. They say this with pride, and then describe the back surgery they are contemplating; a surgery that is likely to bench them for weeks or months.
To recover from chronic back pain, you need to embark upon—and make a lifetime commitment to—a structured, intensive exercise program. If you do this with fortitude and determination, you will find yourself in a tentative truce with your back. The arrangement is a simple one: You do the exercise regime, and your back remains on best behavior. Take two days off—because you've just flown across the country, you’re tired, and you’re busy in meetings—and forget it. The white flags will be history. In no time at all, your irritable back will be firing over the border.
But where to find the time? I know, it seems impossible. Four years ago, I remember telling Margie, the trainer I was seeing twice a week for precisely thirty minutes each session (during which I complained that it hurt), that these brief visits were the best I could muster. I was finishing Carved In Sand, raising young teenagers, and trying to run a household. I did not know the meaning of the phrase “spare time.” Exercise was not meaningful to me. It did not get my kids’ homework done—and done well. It did not make money. Thus, it was highly unrealistic for her to continue to ask me to do something active—other than sitting at my desk fluttering my fingers over the keyboard—every day. My back hurt almost all the time, but I refused to acknowledge that I couldn’t spend eight hours a day at my desk, two or three more in the car, ferrying children after school let out, and another few on the sofa or at the dining room table, supervising that homework—and expect a mild workout that lasted only thirty minutes, twice a week, to make up for it.
Although my kids are older—grown-up, really—the time-crunch is no less threatening. Now, the demands arrive remotely. Whatever spare moments might be available are devoured by urgent texts and emails from all corners of work and family. Is that fact correct? Can I get the piece into the magazine three days earlier? Has the dog eaten? Would it be a good idea to take a raincoat? What’s for dinner, and is there enough extra pasta to invite three large friends? Failure to answer in less than 30 seconds results in escalation: “Mom.” “MOM.” “Okay, wow, Mom, would you please pay attention to your phone?”
But here’s what I've learned from writing Crooked. It has taught me that if I want to thrive intellectually, emotionally and physically, that it is unwise to go a single day without some form of exercise. Over three years of research and testing—I joke that I've had to get accustomed to doing certain interviews in workout clothes (I prefer Lululemon or Athleta for this, and finally had to abandon my baggy tank tops and gym shorts)—I've learned that I feel good all over if I exercise, and draggy, achy, and irritable if I don’t.
This passionate need to move my body daily may have something to do with why this book (which I will grant you, ranges over a vast landscape) has taken so long to write. For a half-hour a day, seven days a week—and sometimes twice that, if the spirit moves me—I’m not writing or fielding texts and emails. Instead, I’m engaged in some physical pursuit. I might be swimming, or twisting and twirling in a Gyrotonic class, or doing Iyengar yoga, or hauling on a pulley or hefting weights in resistance training, or trying not to fall off an inverted Bosu ball, or engaged in a Feldenkrais class, or even racing up and down the length of the gym performing lunges under my miracle worker-trainer’s watchful eye. But I am definitely moving.
Four years ago, I hated exercise. I didn't mind taking a sociable walk with a girlfriend, but the truth is that walks—especially of the ambling variety—will not fix your back. In decades past, the days of our lives were filled with multiple and varied physical tasks. That didn't last. As soon as we had the means, we automated everything we could, substituting fossil fuels for human energy expenditure. I don’t propose that we bring back the wooden laundry roller-wringer my grandmother still employed when I was a teenager, or that we ought to take to scrubbing the floors on our hands and knees, when a properly equipped, feather-light Swifter is so much more ergonomic. There are limits, after all. From my research for Crooked, I do know that to get our backs in shape and to keep them that way, we need to simulate those physical maneuvers (the equivalent of chopping wood and carrying water), every day. Yes, it takes time, but if we fail to ante up, the opportunity costs—missed days at work, and worse, missed days of pleasure—are far too high.
When I look at pictures and videos of myself from five years ago, I’m appalled. I thought I was appealingly svelte, but in reality, I was scrawny—chicken-wing, bird-bony, without muscle where there ought to have been muscle. No lats, no traps, no glutes, and certainly no transversus abdominis, erector spinae or multifidus, all of which are required to maintain a healthy, erect posture. By my early 50s, a flabby tube had formed around my hips. I assumed that this was something a mature woman who had born children ought to accept, with a minimum of fuss. I saw no relationship between my lack of musculature and my chronically aching low back and hip. I was wrong. That sack of blubber on an otherwise slender person—especially when coupled with slouched shoulders and chin that juts out like an open dresser drawer—is a recipe for back pain.
In future blogs, I’m going to tell you how I learned to change all that.