by Emma Donoghue
This post isn’t addressed to the already-fit. It’s a message of hope for total couch potatoes who have perhaps despaired of ever talking themselves into an exercise routine.
Towards the end of 2012, when I turned 43, I read a couple of articles about the dangers of sitting for long periods of the day, especially for women. Totting up how many hours a day I’ve been sitting, ever since… well, all my life, really, as schoolgirl, student, and writer… I came up with the horrifying figure of fifteen hours sitting, eight hours lying down, at best an hour on my feet (if you include cooking). I realized that despite being seven years younger than my partner, I might well die first. I always tell my kids that I’ll do my best to live to be a hundred, but that was a big lie: I wasn’t doing anything of the sort.
Around the same time, a writer friend mentioned other writers she knew who had taken to walking on a treadmill while writing. I hooted with laughter.
Then a couple of weeks later, I purchased a Lifespan DT7 treadmill desk, sight unseen. I could have tried it out in a local showroom but decided not to, in case I wouldn’t like it at first; I was hoping the enormous price would compel me to commit myself to treadmilling.
Two days of slight dizziness; a week or two of aching thighs. One friend predicted that I would fall off, because I’m famously clumsy, but it hasn’t happened yet. I could tell from the start that this was going to work for me as nothing else has, because – engrossed in writing – I just don’t notice the hours going by. At long last, I’ve managed to trick myself into movement.
I started at two miles per hour (American machine, so imperial units) and now I’m up to 2.7. I don’t have a rule for how many hours a day I stay on, but I’d say it’s rarely below two, often about four, and one glorious day hit six. It really helps that I attach my laptop to a big monitor, so I’m typing at hip level but reading at face level.
The one mistake I made was not to realize that I would need to stretch sometimes. I thought of walking as such a basic human activity that it couldn’t hurt me… and then strained my back, four months in, after an afternoon of collating a manuscript. (The physio said it was a classic injury of someone who takes up exercise for the first time.) But once I was healed I got back on the treadmill and now, a year in, I can’t imagine working without it. Tiny static shocks when I touch my laptop are all I can complain of.
I’ve read that treadmilling diminishes concentration slightly, and I’d agree; sometimes if I’m about to draft a brand-new scene, I decide to save it for when I’m sitting down with my coffee. But on the other hand, the walking wards off afternoon sleepiness. I can write, do online research and email, talk on the phone if it’s with someone who doesn’t mind my sounding slightly breathless… When I’m doing something hands-free like watching video, I lift some light weights while walking. Handwriting or video editing would be difficult, but luckily I rarely need to do either. Reading books (rather than onscreen) I save for sitting-down time.
I weigh the same as a year ago (perhaps because all that exercise makes me want lunch at eleven), but I feel much livelier. I don’t think my writing’s got better but it’s no worse either. Basically, it’s a miracle.
Emma Donoghue is a writer of drama, literary history and fiction (Slammerkin, The Sealed Letter, the international bestseller Room and – coming in April – Frog Music) who lives in London Ontario.