36. No Excuses

36. No Excuses

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Shaping the New You

No Excuses

The human body is the only machine
for which there are no spare parts.
 ~Hermann M. Biggs

I got into the exercise habit as a twenty-year-old college student, and it has stayed with me nearly 40 years. My sense of identity was very much tied up in that healthy image, and if anyone had asked me along the way, I’d have said I was a runner—or later on, a walker. Oddly enough, that self-image remained even when daily reality became something else altogether.

Oh, I still walked. But walks that used to be miles now were often just a half-mile. . . or even less. Life just got too busy—I was working as an attorney, and had a long commute. I traveled a lot for my job and it was hard to figure out where to squeeze in a workout, between flying across the country, breakfast meetings, and long evenings of strategizing. I remember trying to run in place in my hotel room while my colleagues were at the bar before dinner, but it wasn’t enough. Other times, I got up early and did loops around the hotel. Even when I was home, it was often dark and I was tired, so a quarter-mile turn between our house and the neighbors’ was the extent of my daily exercise.

The arrival of my three babies within a two-year period was even more devastating. I struggled to survive on as little as four hours sleep a night, and before I knew it, I was back commuting to work again.

What I found was that life intervened. If it wasn’t work, it was kids. If it wasn’t kids, it was two weeks of flu—or a death in the family. Or any number of other things. There was always a reason—or an excuse—for abbreviating my workout or just skipping it. Every time, I told myself that as soon as the present crisis was over, I would get back into my routine. Meanwhile, I was a healthy person, I told myself. After all, I worked out!

Amazingly, I was able to keep telling myself this—and believing it—even after “the present crisis” stretched into a matter of years. My asthma, which had plagued me in my 20s and then seemed to vanish, came back with a vengeance after a bad bout with a virus. My hips and lower back ached night and day, to the point where I had to struggle to get out of bed, or even to tie my shoes. Between my joint pain and my breathing issues, I had trouble sleeping.

One day, I woke up and looked around me. I was horrified to realize I felt old. Of course, at this point, 20 years of “temporary” distractions had come between me and any serious attempt to exercise. I was still eating the way I always had, but suddenly, my weight was creeping up, and I’d developed the most distressing potbelly—it was actually so pronounced that I could have set my plate on it and eaten standing up. Now when I couldn’t sleep at night, I used the time to worry about whether I was already starting the dying process.

Determined, I started increasing my daily walks. Instead of the quick quarter-mile, I did a full mile most days—or even a mile and a half from time to time. But to my consternation, I didn’t feel much better. I saw the doctor for my asthma and my chiropractor for my joints. And I bumped up my exercise again. I walked faster, trying to do my mile in under 15 minutes. After I got used to that, I stretched my walk to two miles, then three. By the end of summer, I was doing my three miles in under 45 minutes.

I was amazed at how quickly I started feeling better, and how fast my potbelly shrank to a less scary size. My old sense of myself as strong, healthy, and energetic had returned!

But walking that far and that fast was work. I had to push myself when I was tired, when it was hot and muggy—or dank and rainy. I really wasn’t enjoying my workouts a lot of the time, and I wondered how long I’d be able to keep pushing myself through them.

Then, one day, I learned my high school friend had died of breast cancer. She’d been two years younger than me, and she was gone. I’d had the flu again, and afterward, my lungs just never really cleared. Months went by, and I felt as if I was drowning in heavy mucus. Maybe it was because I was thinking about my friend, but as an ex-smoker I became convinced I had lung cancer. After all, my father had had both lung cancer and emphysema when he’d died—and my mother’s sister, who had never been a smoker, had had lung cancer, as well.

Because I’d had this deep cough for so long, my doctor ordered a CT scan. Instead of reassuring me, it revealed multiple areas of density. My doctor’s voice showed how concerned she was—I’d need a bronchoscopy.

Fleeing my demons, I walked longer, harder, faster. I walked in all kinds of weather, concentrating on deep breaths as I ferociously charged ahead, my face pouring sweat or stung by raindrops, or with snow piling up inside my glasses. I would outwalk this; I would.

After my bronchoscopy, and another year of CT scans, I was released with a diagnosis of benign nodules, and I felt reborn. I kept walking my fast and furious miles—until we went on a long vacation. . . and then, I got sick again. And then, my mother went into the hospital and I had to drive back and forth for many weeks. Life, once again, had intervened.

I kept trying to get a consistent routine going, but every time I did, the next crisis hit. Besides, I really didn’t enjoy working that hard.

At this point, another friend gave me the push I needed. Because of a chronic lung condition, she was on oxygen, and needed a wheelchair in order to handle long distances. She asked me to accompany her on a round of appointments at Cleveland Clinic. From early morning until six at night, I pushed her from one test to another, one appointment to another. By the end of the day, I was sitting waiting for her last consultation. As I sat there, I watched all the patients, both young and old, as they came and went in their wheelchairs or leaning on walkers or companions, trailing oxygen tanks or wearing paper masks against infection.

Suddenly, I was struck right in the very pit of my stomach by how fortunate I am—and shame washed over me. There I’d been, so quick to let my exercise routine get derailed by inconvenience, so quick to whine and complain about how hard it was. What person in that waiting room wouldn’t have cried with joy and relief to be able to do what I do—the way I myself had felt when I got that benign diagnosis? And who wouldn’t want to work hard, the way I once had, to be able to stay that way?

Since that day, all I need do to get myself back on track is to put myself back in that waiting room. With each sweaty, straining step, I say, “Thank you, Lord!” and push on.

~Susan Kimmel Wright

More stories from our partners