It's January (hi, 2018!). Let's talk exercise, because, girlfriend, I know that even if you haven't made exercise-related resolutions, they're probably bombarding you left and right. "Your Fittest Year Yet!" - or something along those lines - is emblazoned on the cover of every magazine in the check-out line at QFC, and nearly every GroupOn email emphasizes workout classes at the top of the list of local deals. I want to acknowledge that exercising is not inherently a bad thing - it's actually a really good thing! - but the way that our culture approaches exercise can sound a little bit like idolization. C.S. Lewis writes in The Screwtape Letters, from the narrative of demonic sprint: "...feed him the grand lie which we have made the English humans to believe, that physical exercise in excess and consequent fatigue are specially favorable..." All of us worship something, and for some of us, exercise - or physical health - is too great a golden calf.
Kind of like my breakfasts, in which I eat the same thing every day for three weeks until I remember other things exist, I go through phases in which I am particularly devoted to one form of exercise. For twelve years, starting at three or four, I took ballet lessons, improving in posture, coordination, turnout, and self-discipline, and learning how to fit in with my classmates despite being the only non-soccer player in the room. In high school, my world of sport and athleticism broadened as a member of the dance and track teams, although, admittedly, it remained fairly narrow, exemplified by my hurdling coach who asked me on several occasions to "run, not pirouette, over the hurdles".
College, a place of exploration and discovery (and discomfort and confusion and failure and too much boxed wine), led me to row crew my freshman year. My shoulders were boulders; my hands were calloused, and not in the metaphorical way, as though my life as been one of suffering, but in the way that they have calluses like you might have had from climbing the monkey bars in elementary school. I quit the team when I slept through a final exam, realizing that I could never get enough sleep and never get enough food. My sophomore year, I over-corrected, and the only "athletic" activity I engaged in was tailgating because I ran around and danced a lot (but does it even count if you are holding a beer in one hand and a hot dog in the other?). Junior year, I was passionate about yoga and really committed in kind of the wrong ways: drinking green smoothies that made my stomach hurt, buying too much Lululemon spandex, obsessing over thighs too thin for my body type to maintain, and boring my family to tears discussing the benefits of a vegan diet (and denying all the ways in which it wasn't actually very good for me).
Post-college, I had a good run with strength-training. I'm talking plates on plates on a squat rack, pull-ups, t-bar rows and supersets. I'm talking protein powder and #gainz and #eatcleantraindirty hashtags appearing frequently on my Instagram's explore page based on the accounts that I followed most closely. I didn't renewed my subscription to American Vogue that year, but instead signed up to receive a monthly publication of STRONG Fitness Magazine. Whatever disposable income I had went toward BCAA's and jump ropes that I kept wearing through and misplacing around the gym. I found myself googling, "macronutrient intake for increased athletic performance", which was healthier than my college days of swinging the pendulum between two-a-days for crew and extreme tailgating (read: drinking).
Now, today, I'm nowhere near as strong as I've been. I can do a few push-ups, maybe - a far cry from the 45 I could do during my crew career. My jeans are several sizes larger than they were during my peak yoga. I exercise when I can. Sometimes it's yoga, like it was this morning; sometimes it's a jump rope circuit. Sometimes, when I've gotten a good night's sleep and have been eating well, it's sprints on a nearby track. Sometimes it's dancing in the kitchen to Michael Bublé on Christmas Eve with my family because I can't contain the joy and it's the only thing I know what to do with myself. I'm working toward arms that can toss my kids in the air and legs that can keep up (or pass up) a companion on a hike. I'm working for shoulders that can hoist a bed frame above my head during a move, and a core that can hold a plank not for the abs but just because it feels really good to be capable.
I am working for a body without an end result in mind - not for a recital or a competition or a meet or a regatta or instructor's praise - but one that can carry me through this life, whether it's walking through an art museum with my sisters or chasing my kids through sprinklers in the summer, because there's nothing like being able to do the things God meant for you to do.