The Running Cure

About fifty years ago, monks at a monastery—I can’t remember where—all got sick at the same time. Doctors were puzzled. The liturgical changes after Vatican II had recently taken place, and these changes swept away the singing of Gregorian chant, even for this monastery. Physicians, on a hunch, recommended the chant be restored. The sickness went away.

I have been thinking about this story in terms of my exercise habits. For three years I had a daily routine of running anywhere from three to eight miles a day. I usually looked forward to it, and when I didn’t I remembered the advice of Jeffrey Tucker: “When you don’t want to run is when you need to do it the most.” I clung to that maxim, and it always proved itself true, because the psychological rewards of running are equal to if not greater than the physical benefits. Depressed, tired, angry, frustrated, confused? Take a run. Clear your head. It works every single time.

Last winter I decided that this system that was working for me wasn’t good enough. So I threw the gym into the mix. The first trainer I met with there—the only one who seemed competent, quite honestly—got me into a routine that got me away from running pretty quickly.  I was doing all sorts of activities on various cardio contraptions, but no running. All was well for awhile, but lately I have felt growing dissatisfaction.

I am a cerebral person; I think for fun. “You think in your sleep, don’t you?” someone once asked me. It’s true. My father used to tell me to relax, but the truth is that this is how I relax: for me, tension is having to go through the motions of society, which, it must be admitted, doesn’t tolerate much original thought. When I think, I can be myself and by myself in glorious solitariness.

Running offers the creative space to allow this to happen, not to mention the endorphins to give my brain a little extra kick. When I run I think through the various problems of human interaction that we all face; I dream up solutions for the world; observe the way people interact in various kinds of traffic (which led me early on to the conclusion that John Nash’s Equilibrium Theory is nice but unworkable); and I even practice my music, usually concentrating on only a few phrases. In short, I get lost in my own little world, and it’s a wonder I haven’t gotten hit by a car. (Knocks on wood.)

In contrast: here is what my workout at the gym sounds like inside my head:









You can’t think about much else when you’re counting. I get bored out of my mind, and there is no chance to get a good train of thought going. The occasional daydream happens between sets, but nothing long enough to be productive. Endorphins? Hardly. In gyms these days you can’t get a good rhythm established because the gym rats who live there slow everyone else down. (Do a set, play with iPod, talk on phone, play with iPod—all while three people are waiting.) It is not uncommon to wait for equipment while one’s heart rate goes straight to hell.

I usually finish up these workouts with some time on the gazelle, but with TVs and music blaring this is still no place to think. I don’t suppose I burn half as many calories as the machines claim, either. I can feel it in my body that I am not being challenged. The problem is the time crunch: Lifting weights and running takes a long time.

Interestingly I noticed something else recently: my leg muscles, in spite of doing two leg weightlifting routines a week, aren’t what they used to be. Maybe I’m just plateauing or something. Who knows? But I am developing the suspicion that I was actually in better shape in many respects before I started at the gym. What runs I have done recently seem to be slightly more difficult than they used to be.

I started at the gym to try to slim down just a little bit more. That worked to a limited extent for a short time, but then I got used to my new routine and compensated with my diet. Then as the muscle started to build up I started eating more to get more nutrients. But with that I also introduced more fat into my diet, which is hard to avoid unless you have your own gourmet cook. The long and short of it is that I’m only a little better off than I was before, with a little more muscle to show for it. I honestly don’t know what to do about all this, but I can say that I miss the long runs that I feel like I no longer have time for. (Seriously, unless you’re a pro athlete or something, if you spend more than two hours a day on exercise, you need to find some other things to do.)

Sometimes I think this debacle is the manifestation of a psychological disorder. I hate lifting weights, but I continue to do it because I am insecure about my image. Sometimes it seems like all I need are six pack abs, and everything will be fine. It’s the health version of “If I Had a Million Dollars.” But all flesh is as grass, and in the case of getting buff, one need not get anywhere near death before he meets with frustration. Old age will do. Even middle age is quite adequate.

But even in youth, what does it all mean? Beauty is skin deep. I think sometimes we chase after impossible, idealistic images and that many of our efforts come from unhealthy places. It takes a viciously puritanical diet to look like a fitness model. Is it worth it? It seems like a high price to pay just to show people what I’ve got every beach season. Vanity of vanities, and all that.

For me, on the other hand, the desire to run comes from a much healthier place. While the so-called Adonis complex is probably ill-advised, it’s nonetheless commendable not to be fat, and running is a good insurance policy against that fate.  Cardio-vascular health is important, too, and then there are the psychological benefits I’ve already mentioned. When I am running, my anxiety levels are more than manageable. Lately, however, I have been all over the place. I have reverted to psychological habits that I thought were well taken care of. Perhaps not. Believe me: OCD is much worse with no exercise. (I should have said “not enough cardio exercise,” or something like that. But I’m going to leave the poor choice of words in place. I think it reveals something about what my body is telling me about my current routine.)

For now, I am attempting a compromise: The two leg days at the gym are gone and have been replaced by six-mile runs. My leg muscles were frankly in better shape when I wasn’t lifting but I was running. I am retaining my upper body days at the gym, and when I’m feeling particularly adventurous may add runs to these days, but often due to time constraints I just do cardio exercises right there at the gym, while i yawn from overdoses of television. I hope this works. There are in fact benefits to weightlifting in spite of all my kvetching. Maybe if I stick with it a little longer it will all start to feel like it’s worth the effort.