That Life, That Exercise (Part 2 of 2, Finally!)

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If you’re jumping in on this three-part blog entry that I initially sold as a two-parter, you can gain some context here with Part 1 and here with Part 1.5. Those of you following me on a weekly basis can exhale now, because I know you’ve been holding your breath in anticipation for this incredibly (anti)climactic last part.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to pull all of this together without turning the topic of me — exercise, diabetes, body image, and…well, and all of that other stuff that falls under the huge umbrella of “self,” — into a nice little nugget or two of what I’ve learned.

Just last night while out with some friends for beer and great conversation, “The Gym” as a topic came up. We’re all of us exercisers (my wife and the couple we were with), all of us normal-looking (“normal looking”) folk, and, like most people, we’ve all of us our share of body issues.

At one point the subject came up about how unfair it is that the men at the table had small, tight behinds, while nothing the women would do, no how many hours on a treadmill, miles run, glutes pressed, what have you, seemed to get them — or their backsides — to where they’d like to see them.

We all have body issues. All of us. If you don’t, more power to you.

Have I mentioned that we have body issues? Because after the comment about small, tight tushies — and maybe because I was on my second beer, but hell, I’m writing the same thing now and I’m sober as can be — I said to the group that for the entirety of my adult life I’d have gladly traded some of my genetically gifted predisposition toward love handles — curse my Swedish and German stock — for more junk in my trunk if it meant a more carved, svelter abdomen.

Yet that’s not going to happen. The thin middle. And I’m not talking here about wanting that stupid six-pack (we’re no longer talking beer, either). I know that even when I burned thousands of calories a day in cross country and track, or cycling, it didn’t happen. The more I wanted it to happen, and the more I worked out in the hopes that it might happen, it seemed to me the larger the bits of flesh, which weren’t much to begin with, became.

Because I obsessed. I paid way too much attention. See, you know that psychological exercise they give people with eating disorders? The one in which those with disorders are asked to draw what they think they look like? You have tiny, tiny — thin, really thin — people who draw these overweight representations of how they think they look to the world. Totally out of whack.

I understand that. (Not that I’m tiny, tiny, and thin, really thin. No.)

However, I have to say that my long view of exercise has changed how I think of my physical self — changed for the way better, pushing much of my body-image anxiety into a manageable realm. I can’t pinpoint exactly why, but here are some bullet-point ramblings :

  • Having a chronic illness (diabetes), and then topping that with the thyroid cancer last year, meant, and means, visiting a lot of doctors. This means taking off my shirt, or more than my shirt, in front of many medical professionals on multiple occasions. Privacy isn’t a luxury anymore. And you know what? I realize that people just don’t care about my body. Not in that way. So I stopped worrying about what I thought they thought and became happier with what I thought!
  • Going to the gym, and sustaining an exercise routine four or five days a week is no longer a means to an end. It’s not about vanity. It’s not about winning something, being the best at something. I no longer think (which is easy to do when you’re young and working out) that one day I’ll look in the mirror and see the person I always wanted (or thought I wanted) to see. It’s about maintenance, body maintenance, health maintenance, about cardio training and the weightlifting to try to prevent more health problems from landing on my plate in the future. And the endorphin rush doesn’t hurt, either. I mean, there’s nothing quite like feeling healthy, being in shape, and having that energy. Nothing. Quite. Like it. If you’re out of shape, it doesn’t come quickly, but it also doesn’t have to be difficult. It just has to happen.
  • As I overcame the vanity aspect — granted, seeing myself build muscle I previously didn’t have can make me feel good — I lost much of the self-consciousness that always plagued me in gyms. I always felt as if I didn’t belong, that people didn’t want me there because I wasn’t the group of often obsessive, usually self-obsessed, typically genetically superior (sometimes pharmaceutically superior) Adonises hanging out by the free weights. No one ever said this to me. No one ever gave me any bad vibes. This was all in my head. And when it disappeared, I learned to stop hating exercise routines and began to love the ritual. These days I get in, do what I need to do, then shower and get out. I pay little attention to others except as human theater (because watching some people at the gym is simply entertaining).

Treat the gym, treat exercise, treat the routine, the ritual — and your body — as if it’s yours. It is. You belong wherever you are, and once you realize that, it’s kind of a cool thing.

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