Before I tell you how I stopped doing cardio, let me tell you why. First, I'm lazy. Also I don't like pain. And I am old as dirt. But mainly it's because I've been sidelined by an injury.
For the last year or so I've been coaching at a boxing gym and a few weeks ago, I was doing some plyometrics--jumping squats. Everyone knows jumping squats are good for elderly fatties such as myself, so I was surprised to wake up with throbbing pain in my left foot. Not the Daniel Day Lewis movie. The hunk of bones and tendons loosely attached to my ankle. It turns out my Achilles heel is my Achilles heel.
Let me back up. I spend most of my free time pretending not to be crazy. As a coping mechanism for being a sensitive soul in an unsettling world, for the last 20 or 30 years, I haven't missed more than a day of doing some kind of brutal work out.
The last time I took off a week was in 1995, after I fought in a martial arts competition and needed a day to nurse my wounded pride and face.
I should also say that I am not genetically blessed. I basically look like a sack of potatoes full of sour cream. My default body type is Pop Tart. I look like the Chris Farley in an off Broadway musical about the Pillsbury Doughboy.
Somehow I always had the idea that if I ever stopped running and jumping rope for one day, I could feel the fat growing on me overnight. As a martial arts instructor and competitor, I also felt it was important to maintain physical conditioning. And so for decades, I would work out once or twice or sometimes three times a day.
Three weeks ago, when I woke up with foot pain, I figured I would work through it. But the pain got worse and worse, and I was reduced to crawling on all fours for several days; and then weeks of hobbling with a cane and on crutches.
I don't have access to a swimming pool and couldn't run, jump rope, kick a heavy bag or even shadow box. I saw four doctors in three weeks and they loaded me up with medicine, some of which cause you to gain weight. But the sheer physical pain overshadowed all other thoughts, pushing neurotic narcissistic concern about body image to the back of my mind.
Yesterday I limped into another doctor's office. When the nurse told me to step on the scale I felt so depressed I didn't even care about the fact that I felt like I could have stood naked in a aged feta cheese storage unit and nobody would have noticed me.
I had been to this same doctor one week earlier and they weighed me on the same scale. To my surprise, after a month of no cardio I had lost 5 pounds.
(It's true that this enforced period without cardio overlapped with passover, so there were 8 days without any bread, pasta, or beer. And I confess to sneaking in a few hundred push ups and maybe a thousand sit ups a day, and lifting hand weights, because after all, I am bat-shit crazy.)
But the real eye opener was the recognition that maybe I don't need to feel like I am a hamster on a treadmill who can never stop trying to outrun the bogey man of impending blubber.
Of course, running and jumping rope are not just a means to an end. I really enjoy my heart beating faster and breathing deeply on a beautiful day in Central Park. But when this injury heals and I am back in my heels, I promised myself I would return to running in a different way. Not as a compulsion but as a choice. Not as a desperate means to an end but as one of many things I can do for fun.
Tonight I returned to my gig at the boxing gym. And I realized that it's just that breaking a sweat is a way to burn calories and stay fit. I remembered how much I love being inside a boxing gym. The smell of sweat and the loud thwack of gloves on mitts, the intense exertion. The unspoken camaraderie.
I happen to be the only white person in the gym, and there is not a lot of talking between anyone in the gym. I like that. It's a non verbal place, and for a person who loves words as much as I do, it's an important respite from the life of the mind.
I also realized that being a white guy who grew up with a relatively privileged life, I enjoy the suffering of boxing because it gives me a kind of hard-earned happiness. I get in there and mix it up with guys who are younger, taller and stronger than me, and I suffer and train just as hard as--or harder than--anyone else. And after three hours, I feel a deep inner peace that only comes after war ends.
Or maybe I just like punching things.
But somehow the martial arts workout satisfies something primal in me, a need to be my own spirit animal (even if I look more like an overfed rabbit than a tiger). So much so that even when I am doing more "yin" exercises like yoga, I find a way to push myself to my limit. I don't like exercise to be easy.
But getting older also means I can't get away with working through pain the way I used to. If I want to continue being able to work out, or even be able to walk without crutches, I'm going to have to find a way to approach my physical limits and then back off a few inches. To push myself hard enough that it's satisfying but not so far that I break something.
And so if there has been any lesson in this injury, it's that I don't need to live in fear of taking a day off to rest. But that I probably won't anyway.
Because fear isn't the only thing that drives me. There is fear--of being weak and slow and chubby, but there is also love. I really enjoy the workouts. And until I was forced to step away from my routine for a few weeks, I didn't quite understand how much those competing strands of fear and joy were intertwined.
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