Some mornings, I’m more likely to hit the snooze button than get out of bed to go work out. Though I have to say I usually only do that now on days when I know I can get my exercise in later in the day. If I have a packed day ahead of me and my only opportunity to exercise is first thing, well you can bet I’m getting up. I’m squeezing myself into a sports bra, pulling my hair into some sort of attempt at a ponytail, grabbing a smoothie out of the fridge and on my way in less than 10 minutes from when I hop out of bed. Sometimes I just want to go crawl back in bed but I don’t, for a few reasons, but one that stands out to me more and more the older I get is: Because I can.
I walk because I can.
I run (sometimes!) because I can.
I bust my butt at Booty Barre because I can.
I ride my bike outside in the summer and my indoor spin bike in the winter, because I can.
I lift weights in my living room because I can.
I do yoga at home, outdoors and in a studio because I can.
I do push ups & crunches because I can.
I go swimming because I can.
I do these things even though I don’t always want to. Sometimes I’d much rather just lay on the couch and watch TV. Sometimes it would be way more fun to go out for a cocktail. And sometimes when I’m in a grumpy mood, even though I know working out will make me feel better, I just straight up want to stay my grumpy self. Most of the time, I do what my body feels capable of each day – even if it is just something small (and yes I do allow for rest when it’s needed). And I push forward because I can.
Why am I repeating myself? What’s the significance of “because I can”? Well I have 3 people whose experiences I can thank for it.
The College Roomie’s Mother
In college, we walked all over campus, all of the time. Over time, as some of my friends brought their cars on to campus (parking was always a pain), the idea that we wouldn’t have to hoof it from one end of campus to another on foot was pretty appealing! One friend insisted we still walk everywhere even when her car was parked directly outside of our apartment. Me and our other friends would complain and tease her, saying “Ug, you make us walk everywhere!” One day, as we were walking across T-hall lawn, she turned to us and said “You want to know why I walk everywhere? Well some days my Mom can’t. Some days her legs don’t work, so as long as mine do, I’m going to walk everywhere I can.”
Her mother had MS, which all of us knew, but we didn’t really know enough about the day to day goings of someone dealing with it. We were young, the general public was less informed about it than they are today and this friend didn’t talk about this stuff with us very often. While it helped me understand my friend better and what her family was going through, I don’t think it had a huge impact on me personally then, but a seed was definitely planted in my mind.
Many of you know that my mother passed away just after I graduated college, and her passing has heavily influenced my lifestyle decisions since. But even before she passed, my mind was often on her health. She was a smoker, had asthma (and more lung issues but we didn’t know it yet) and I remember coming home for a holiday break and hearing her having coughing fits in the middle of the night, so bad, that I got up to check on her. She was up doing a nebulizer treatment (a common sight in our house – most of our family had asthma) for the second time in an hour – which was not like her. Coughing fits were the norm, having the nebulizer not help the first time wasn’t. In fact, her cough was so distinct (at least to us kids) that when I was in the Catholic school choir and the school attended a monthly mass together, my sisters and I always knew when our Mom was able to make it, without even seeing her, because we would hear her cough and recognize she was in the building. My mother quit smoking not too long after the two nebulizer night but her lungs only got worse.
Regular breathing was such a struggle, that without her saying anything, I learned to recognize the signs – shoulders up high and lips pursed, it would take up a ton of her energy to just breathe. But she continued doing things normally as much as she could. Going to the grocery store, I’d offer to push the carriage but she wouldn’t give it up. I realized later that it wasn’t because she wanted to be tough, it was because she literally needed it to hold her up, because she was exhausting herself just trying to breathe, something that most of us take for granted.
My father gave her a hard time about needing to exercise – he (and my sisters & I) thought, that if only she exercised, her lungs would get stronger and her “asthma” wouldn’t be so bad. Her “asthma” at this point was really end stage COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) but none of us knew this, and if she did, she kept it from us. Her exercise goal was just to walk to and from the mailbox a few times a day. She said she would be proud of herself if she could do that. Our mailbox was not very far from our house. I have no clue what the length of our driveway was, but if you parked 5 cars back to back from our doorstep to the mailbox you would probably reach the mailbox before the last car was even squeezed in. Covering that tiny distance took everything she had. And she’d have to stop and catch her breath when she came back in the house.
Looking back, the biggest sign of how sick my mother was and how limited her physical mobility was, came my junior year in college. I was living at the “Gables”, UNH’s on-campus apartments and my mother was coming to pick me up so I could work for the weekend. She hadn’t see my apartment yet and I was excited for her to see it and meet my new roommates. When she arrived, she called me on her “emergency” cell phone. Back then, no one used cell phones for anything but emergencies but my mother wanted to let me know she was there but didn’t want to come up. I gave her a hard time. I really wanted her to come see my place! The building we were in had a little cul de sac out directly in front of the doors, you weren’t supposed to park there but we all did if we were just going to be a minute (the parking lot was really far away otherwise), then you walked down a short hallway into an elevator, rode it to the 6th floor and my apartment door was right in front of you. She would not have had to walk very far at all – probably no farther than the distance to the mailbox. I was a bratty know it all 20 year old and acted ridiculous about her not wanting to come up. I couldn’t comprehend how she wasn’t fit enough to come inside. Even though she told me she just didn’t have the energy to come up, I saw it as her being “lazy” but what it really was was her cells being completely starved of oxygen because of the COPD. She was in tears (and I probably was too) by the time I got down to the car. She rarely let us see her upset so I knew she had to be hurting. Still, I didn’t quite get the message until later.
My mother had one sister, Denise. She was “Aunt Ninny” to my sisters and I. She never married and had no children. She chose a life of freedom & adventures with her friend’s John, Rosie and Linda, instead of settling down with a family. She enjoyed wine, cheesecake and her dog when she wasn’t hitting the casino or visiting a new city. She was one of the most giving and hilarious people I’ve ever known.
She also was a smoker and had asthma. She spent many years on corticosteroid inhalers to control the asthma and that medication caused osteoporosis. One day, she had a coughing fit and coughed so hard that she fractured her T4 and T5 vertebrae. When brought to the hospital she was still able to walk so no one thought it was that serious, but within a day or two she mentioned being unable to feel her legs and then after that she lost all movement and sensation. She ended up being paralyzed from the waist down and was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life, which sadly was only a few years. She spent many months in the hospital and in rehab and then many more months in a nursing home while her home was renovated to be wheelchair friendly. Doing basic tasks for herself became impossible. Things we all take for granted – cooking, going to the bathroom, showering, walking the dog, reaching for a cup on a shelf – were all out of reach. Her vibrant life was whittled down to days spent waiting for others to come visit or assist her with everything, and though she tried to put on a brave face when we came to visit, you could see in her eyes just how painful her new reality was.
The conversation with my college friend happened around 1997 or 1998, my Mother passed in 2001 and Ninny died in 2005. By the time Ninny became paralyzed I had fully heard the message – do what you can, while you can.
Nothing is guaranteed. You could say that both my mother and aunt ended up the way they did because of smoking, so if you just don’t smoke, you’ll be ok, but that’s not true. People who don’t smoke get Emphysema and COPD, get paralyzed and develop MS. And there are countless other conditions or unfortunate situations that arise suddenly and can take away one’s ability to do the things they love or do the things that keep us physically fit.
Exercise keeps me sane. It gives me an outlet for nervous energy, helps give me focus and clarity. It helps lower my blood pressure, reduces my chances of getting sick and gives me energy to get through each day. It keeps me strong enough to pick up my 70lb niece like a sack of potatoes and climb 5 flights of stairs to get to a class. Being able to move when I want to and because I want to is currently a choice, but if it was suddenly taken away from me, whether through my own fault or not, I would be devastated. So, I will continue to move when I can and how I can, not just because of the benefits I outlined above, but because I CAN.
I keep my friend’s mom, my mom, and my aunt in the back of my mind when I’m thinking about skipping my workouts. I know not everyone feels the same love & need for exercise that I do and I understand that. But if you enjoy your physical ability to do anything you want, I hope you honor it by indulging your body and moving it the way it was meant to be moved, even if “movement” for you means going apple picking with the kids, visiting a new city on foot with friends or just getting your feet wet at the pool.
What’s your motivation for exercise or for pushing forward when you don’t want to? How do you honor your body?