I am a bit of an exercise junkie. I have a very strong drive for exercise that has shaped much of my adult life. In fact, if I don’t exercise intensely and regularly, I just don’t feel right. It has become a very important aspect of my life, as I have recently reaffirmed. For me, this is part of a long story that goes far back to my early childhood.
As a child, I was relatively scrawny and sickly, and was sick often. I took allergy shots for 17 years, and have calculated that I got over 800 injections. When I was in my early 20s I changed my diet, became vegetarian, and eventually learned to eat a lot better. My state of constant sickness began to go away, and for the first time in my life I became fairly fit and healthy.
My new found health resulted in a heightened sense of physicality and body awareness. As I gained in overall strength, fitness, and health a strong desire emerged to move and test the limits of my body, to see what it could actually do. I became enamored with movement, and started to feel a desire and need for it akin to that for food. I explored the connection between body movement and social programming, experimenting with ways to break down some of the conditioning encoded in our movement. This was very liberating, and I became much more in touch with my own body and comfortable in my movements.
Not long after this I began kung fu training and practice, which lasted for approximately 13 years, 11 of which I spent with the same teacher. During this time I trained constantly, at some points 5-6 week. Combined with meditation, I got in touch with my body in ways I barely thought possible. As you can imagine, I was in quite good shape. I was in far better shape at the age of 30 than I was at the age of 18(for example, I could do pushups on my thumbs). But the desire to be in good shape was not my primary motivation. Rather, this was a means to an end, which was body awareness and better execution of my beloved movements, better enabling my body to drink in that experience which it so craved. The physical results of this training were in some sense secondary, though I have certainly enjoyed them.
I have since come to realize the type of exercise I did then is what is now called interval training – short bursts of intense exercise (sometimes very intense) over a period of 90 minutes to 2 hours. I have always claimed that I reworked my metabolism through this activity, and it turns out there is clinical evidence to support this conjecture. It is actually difficult to elevate one’s resting metabolic rate, but athletes who train intensely for 1 ½ - 2 hours have a higher metabolic rate up to two hours after exercise and also show a higher rate the next morning. Since I trained this way very consistently for years, I am convinced this happened to me.
Over the years I changed not only my body but my entire sense of physicality as well as my physical needs. By this I mean that I have become somewhat hooked on my own brain chemistry. Pushing myself makes me feel very good, and I am sure that by doing so I am activating the pleasure centers in my brain. Neurons in the ventral tegmental area of the brain release the neurotransmitter dopamine, which causes the kind of pleasure response we get when we eat food, drink water, or have orgasms. If I want to feel right, to feel good, I have to exercise, and I have to push myself. It is just the way it is now.
For a period of about 7 years, until just this last May, I was not able to exercise consistently for any significant period of time. The birth of my daughter and then my son, and trying to complete a Ph.D. in physics in a foreign country was too much to allow for this needed activity, and I believe I paid a high price in terms of my personal state of happiness and satisfaction. Since May I have been on a regular exercise regimen and the difference is amazing. It affects every part of my life, and feels like something I cannot do without again. I recognize the slight compulsion in all of this, and wonder if is completely good. But it doesn’t matter, because I have retooled my body’s parameters such that it is something I must do. And I enjoy it, so it is not bad at all.
To highlight the slight compulsiveness in my exercise needs, I should note that while in Amsterdam for 3 years I biked between 45 minutes and 3 hours every day for probably all but 10 or so days in that entire time period. Rain, snow, shine, sick, etc, and that includes biking the kids to school in our bakfiets. So it is not really true that I did not exercise, but to me this was not really enough as it was not a full body exercise and often not intense enough.
So despite my requirement to get into the gym or outside for some kind of workout, I am not primarily driven by a desire to get in shape or look a certain way. I have little interest in the performance aspect of exercise (how much more can I lift this time, how much muscle can I build, how far can I run?). I simply have to do this if I want to feel good. And I think that is great.
I think it is very important here to consider a few other aspects of exercise, health, body awareness, and body image. Clearly, the issue of exercise and physicality is very different for women than it is for men. Men are not judged on their looks and their bodies the way women are, and this greatly complicates the whole issue of body awareness and appreciation. I recognize that I have tremendous privilege in this area, which allows me the freedom to consider and enjoy these aspects of my body and my physicality without the complications of oppression around weight, looks, and fitness.
In addition, it is important that those of us who are able-bodied should be aware of the privilege this affords us. Many people in this world are not able-bodied to varying extents, and find these issues to be much more complicated and difficult. Being able-bodied and having full mobility shapes how we interact with one another and with our environments. This last point is crucial. Heightened body awareness needs to be connected to heightened awareness of our environment. We communicate much via movement, and to a large extent are movements are socially constructed. Messages of sex, gender, race, and class are expressed when we move. To ignore this aspect of body awareness is to be less than fully human, though negotiating this terrain can be tricky.