I’ll never forget the PowerPoint lecture in medical school that taught us about a powerful medicine seemingly able to prevent and treat so many illnesses, with each successive slide illuminating its positive effects. Up until then I was not aware that I had been taking this medicine regularly for most of my life since middle school, but not because I knew it was good for me: Exercise. A magic pill that can prevent and treat many diseases.
I distinctly remember when I really caught the exercise bug while in 6th grade. Gym up until that point hadn’t been that exciting for me, though I did love dodge ball. I couldn’t throw the ball very hard or accurately, but I could sure move out of the way quickly when that red rubber ball came shooting my way from the strong arms of a male classmate. That winter we got a lot of snow, and one day in gym we were invited, if we wanted, to try out cross country skiing. The back of the school was a large open field, where I would also learn to play field hockey the following fall, surrounded by a forest of deciduous trees. A handful of students decided to try out this new activity, strapping on thin skis, bundling up tightly to embrace the cold, though most of the class stayed inside to play basketball. I remember so clearly how the only sound I could hear against the silent backdrop of winter was the pounding of my heartbeat in my ears, the attempt of my heart to deliver more oxygen to my leg and arm muscles, struggling very hard to control the skis and poles.
I was hooked. Not just on cross country skiing, which would become one of my athletic focuses during high school but hooked in general on pushing my cardio-vascular system. At that time, I did not know this commitment to exercise could prevent fatty plaques to build up in the arteries of my heart and brain, decreasing the potential for me to someday have a heart attack or stroke. I was not aware that exercising would keep diabetes and high blood pressure at bay, or that it would decrease the risk of me eventually developing many types of cancers (including breast, colon, lung, and liver). During high school I added weight lifting to my regimen of training, which not only helped me to be able to do more pushups, but was also helping to prevent the future development of osteoporosis (thin bones susceptible to breaking).
Exercise weaved its way in and out of my life during college and beyond. There were definitely years when I did not have the time to make it a regular part of my daily life, as a young mother raising a child in a city without in-laws and family close by, as a college student and eventually as an insanely busy medical student. Finally, now when I have an established career, with no more educational goals to accomplish other than occasional continuing medical education courses, exercise has become one of my non-negotiables. Something I do most days of the week, almost as important of getting eight hours of nightly sleep and eating at least three healthy meals plus snacks every day.
Sometimes life gets in the way however, and I don’t make or find the time to exercise. After many days in a row, I start to feel this pressure building up, an irritation with the normal challenges of being human, and a sense of looming darkness. That’s when I remember the magic pill: move my body and I will feel better. When I look back at the lowest points of my life, the times when I was suffering from depression (post-partum for sure, although I didn’t recognize it at the time), I realize that I wasn’t exercising. Either my depression made it too difficult to exercise, like dragging myself through thick mud, or my lack of exercise made the tentacles of depression pull me down deeper and harder. Either way, I now know that regularly moving my body will prevent that downward slide into darkness.
I have finally returned to some low intensity training for a sprint triathlon at Donner Lake this July. I have returned to the gym (masked of course) and just last week swam for the first time in a year, so happy to nod to the other early morning lap swimmers at the pool. It felt like coming home. My husband and I went for a short and easy bike ride this last Saturday, just as the sun was warming up the morning. And I went for a jog with one of my colleagues, while she pushed her baby stroller and we stopped at the park for her kids to play while we stretched. I am changing my relationship to triathlons and exercise in general this year, using the training and racing as a way to continue building a healthy body and maintaining a balanced mood, as well as a way to build community. I no longer need to win any races or achieve any athletic milestones. Though honestly, I wouldn’t be unhappy to see my name up on the top of the result board!