The word exercise has, through far too many dodgeball games in gym class, overly pleased-with-life marathoners and cringe-worthy weight loss shows, become both the savior and bane of our physical activity-sapped existence. We’ve learned exercise can only be enjoyable in the rarest of occasions — usually if it is immediately followed by food. We wallow in our lack of time for it and resent the apparent ease at which exercise and our in-shape friends seem to get along. Through it all, however, exercise never loses its luster, and we all talk about finally “hitting the gym” someday, dealing with the pain, setting the morning alarms and buying the newest exercise program so we can reap the Instagram-worthy rewards. But exercise doesn’t need to be a heroic, glistening display of the human physical form — it just needs to be something you can consistently do. Tights optional, enjoyment recommended.
Our friend exercise has taken on the image of a bossy, needy energy sucker that can only be reached during normal working hours in a room full of other suitors vying for the coveted relationship with bigger biceps and firmer butts and shirts that are missing the sleeves. So we play the part. We buy the gym memberships and the fancy shoes. We join the clubs and teams. We write down our goals and set our morning alarm with a shudder. We do it all to convince ourselves and our new friend that it’s real this time. We ignore our disdain for the weight room or the running path, because, well, that’s what the others did and look how great they look.
A month later we’re deleting our fitness apps like text messages to a friend who never replied. We say it would have worked out had we only tried harder, had more time or been more motivated. We console ourselves by looking up new ways to make the friendship more exciting. We watch the videos and read the articles, dreaming about a fresh start. Maybe next semester. After I graduate. Once I have more time.
This is the story of our overweight uncle who “let his weight get away from him.” It’s a story we feel too comfortable telling, convinced that our failed rollercoaster ride of a friendship with exercise was better than a less exciting one that lasts a lifetime. It’s not and it never will be. That story is a shortsighted, over-romanticized, and over-celebrated take on something that should be a resource for a long, healthy life. Bench pressing hundreds of pounds or achieving an Instagram-worthy set of abs may provide you some shortlived happiness and “likes” online, but won’t mean much if you’re completely divorced from exercise a couple years later.
You and exercise might never like hanging out in the Student Recreation Center or running charity 5k’s, no matter how well it might seem to work for other people. Maybe going to the gym and drowning out the worries of your day in bench press grunts and more squats than I want to imagine makes your day better. Maybe you just like leisurely riding your bike around town and feeling the wind in your face. Whichever way you like, find a way to happily spend time with exercise and stick with it. Exercise and I like walking and running and private yoga sessions where no one can laugh at us. We don’t much like pumping iron, but the best friendships are well-rounded and require some sacrifice — so we squeeze in some pushups and lunges before we call it a day. Every once in a while, we try something new together, getting embarrassingly sweaty in the process. It’s not flashy and we aren’t destined for Olympic gold or Instagram fame. But our friendship helps keep me healthy, happy and ready for all sorts of adventures.
Your time with exercise doesn’t have to be Vine-worthy, measured by a wrist watch, or an act of great will to be worthwhile and improve your life and health — it just needs to be consistent. Summer flings are fun and midnight kisses on New Year’s Eve can make a good story, but the relationships that give us the most are the ones that last a lifetime. Exercise is no different.
So as we all move to Kirksville and begin a new chapter of caffeine-fueled study sessions at Pickler Memorial Library, let’s try to be better friends with our often simultaneously vilified and glorified friend. Find what works for you, don’t get caught up in other people’s friendships and don’t make it any more complicated than it needs to be. Exercise can be everyone’s friend — no gym membership or dodgeball games required.