by Shannon Dea
I am a late blooming, on-again-off-again exerciser. In September, I flicked the switch back to the “on” position.
For many years, I was convinced that exercise and sport weren’t for me. I was born with club feet and for the first five or six years of my life wore casts and then leg braces. During this period, I had very limited mobility; so, I spent most of my time with books and paper. When I started to walk – comparatively late in childhood – I was awkward, ungainly and slow.
I also had an eye condition that left me stereoblind (that is, without depth perception – or at least, not much). So, in addition to having legs that didn’t quite move in the usual way and a general lack of fitness from spending more time reading than playing outside, I also had a tendency to walk into lampposts and fall up (yes – up!) stairs.
I gained the reputation for being good at school and bad at gym. And I bought it. It was so much a part of my identity that I was a klutzy weakling that it never even occurred to me that practice might help. Year after year, I got A’s in school and the consolation pin in Participaction.
It was pregnancy that changed all of that for me – in particular, a pre-natal yoga class. Having avoided all forms of exercise up until that point, I don’t remember what inspired me to sign up. But I suspect that the fact that it was geared for pregnant people made it feel less like fitness to me. It was a gentle yoga class with slow movements and deep breathing, and I found it super boring, but I liked the teacher. So, I continued taking classes with her even after the baby was born.
When Maya stopped offering gentle classes and started offering Ashtanga (power yoga), I remember being afraid of making the switch, but I trusted Maya and she encouraged me to give it a try. Compared to the classes I had taken before, Ashtanga was fast, hot and high energy. It was hard work. But unlike the pre-natal classes, it wasn’t boring; it was thrilling. I started to do Ashtanga daily and for the first time in my life I became fit. I was strong, muscular and flexible, something I had never experienced before. I became passionate about Ashtanga and took teacher training with some of the top Ashtanga teachers in the world. When Maya moved to another town, I took over as the local Ashtanga teacher. That was my jam during my late 20s and early 30s.
And then I went to grad school. Between grad school and raising my kid, somehow my yoga practices became less and less frequent until eventually I was quite sedentary again. You might wonder how someone could revel in their newfound fitness as much as I did and then become sedentary again. I don’t really know how that works – whether it’s because my default for so many years had been not exercising or whether it happens to everyone.
In any case, I was professionally busy but physically sedentary for about six years, until a colleague at my new job invited me to join a departmental fun run team. That invitation sparked the second period of fitness in my life. Running was terrible at first, but for some reason I stuck it out until I was a fast, strong runner, who I learned to my own great surprise loved the second hour of running even more than the first. How was that even possible?
During those years (my early 40s), my fitness was fueled both by my love of the endorphins I experienced during exercise and by the mutual support from the friends I exercised with. We ran, we cycled, we swam, we kayaked, we did aerobics classes. And races! We did 5 ks, 10 ks, triathlons, and eventually a half marathon. I was fit and strong and super excited about exercise. And then I sustained a knee injury that revealed some pretty substantial arthritic degeneration in both knees. No more running. I was so bummed not to be able to run that I stopped doing everything else too. It was a kind of mourning period, I guess, but I never really snapped out of it.
In the years since I stopped running (and doing much else, fitness-wise), I have often felt shame and grief over becoming sedentary again, and in a bunch of ways, that seemed to make it harder to recommit to fitness. Brains are weird.
I’m 51 now, and in September I started a demanding new job in a new city and province. I decided that all of that change makes this the perfect time to turn over a new leaf. But we’re in the middle of a pandemic and the winters here are hard. I knew I wasn’t going to go to the gym or reliably exercise outdoors year round. So I bought a fancy exercise bike and since the fall I’ve been religiously working out on it three times a week for about an hour at a time. At first, it was boring and the time on the bike really dragged. (Has it really only been 5 seconds since the last time I checked? Ugh!)
But after only a couple of sessions, I started to get strong again, and started to experience those lovely endorphins again. I am panting and sweating again for the first time since I stopped running, and I’m loving it. With each workout, I get stronger and faster. I’m still at that stage where every workout is a new PR. When I’m not working out, I’m stronger, calmer and more energized.
Will I lose momentum again like I did with yoga and running? Maybe. Probably. But that’s ok. People change, bodies change, schedules change. There are worse things than being an on-again-off-again exerciser, and I have enough stress without adding that worry to the pile. For now, I feel great. And every time I get fit again, it lays down a memory for my future self that I can always get back on the proverbial (and in this case, literal) bike.
Shannon is a Philosophy professor, a Dean, and a recovering desk potato. She philosophizes, deans, and exercises on Treaty 4 territory.