Exercise has always been something of an afterthought for me. Books, not sports, were my passion growing up. But I’ve also always enjoyed travel, exploring both cities and natural wonders. And it’s become increasingly clear to me that if I want to continue doing so, I need to stay in good physical shape. The desire to keep on traveling well into my old age—and not necessarily the health benefits of exercise—are what keep me moving.
Having said that, I certainly don’t mind the health effects of exercise. As JoAnn Manson and her co-authors note in the August issue of Scientific American, the closest thing we have to a magic bullet for maintaining good health and mobility is regular physical activity. In the past few years, they write, researchers have learned that the benefits of exercise extend well beyond lowering heartbeat and blood pressure or increasing lungpower. Regular physical activity also changes oxygen and glucose levels in the blood—leading to a cascade of beneficial biochemical, molecular and even genetic changes throughout the body.
Last November I got a jumpstart on my New Year’s resolutions by deciding to ride my bicycle to work as many days as I could. Door to door, my commute is about 4.5 miles almost entirely on a fairly flat, pretty well-protected bike path in Manhattan that parallels the Hudson River.
Unlike past promises to myself to “be more active,” this time around I decided to have as much fun as I could while working out. I don’t ride in the rain or snow, during heat waves or when it’s bitter cold. You’ve heard of the slow-food movement? I’m part of the slow-bike movement—which means I’m not trying to set the land-speed record going to work or riding home. As an added benefit, my more leisurely pace helps me avoid the inline skaters and the sometimes unpredictable behavior of the cars, trucks and buses I encounter on the way to and from the bike path.
But perhaps the most surprising part of this new twist on the old self-improvement campaign is that I enjoy the biking so much—the feeling of freedom and independence so similar to what I felt when I first learned to ride a bike—that now I’m taking on other physical challenges almost in spite of myself.
Lord help me, I’ve even signed up for a marathon—although I won’t be running continuously the whole way. Rather, I’m alternating running for several minutes with walking for 60 seconds. Once again, I find the combination of running and walking more enjoyable—and therefore less difficult to maintain as a training routine—than my previous efforts to “become a runner.”
I guess if I had to sum up my experience in a single sentence, I’d say, Start where you are and then keep on going.
You can check out your own fitness level—as well as get some tips on how to get healthier and stronger—by visiting the Adult Fitness Challenge, which evaluates you on four major criteria—aerobic fitness, muscular strength, flexibility and body composition. The test is put together by the same folks who brought you the President's Fitness Challenge for school-age kids. When I took the test, I scored 66% overall for my age group. Wonder what it will be next year?