Standing nervously on the narrow platform, a bundle of wires linking me to a wide-eyed and unblinking machine, I stepped gingerly onto the moving belt of the treadmill and the test began. With instructions to run until I could run no more, I was on my back and out-of-breath within minutes. The cardiologist glanced at the readouts, listened to my heart for a moment, then turned and delivered his verdict: “You’re below average.”
And then, if that wasn’t bad enough, he added “If you don’t start exercising, you’ll just get worse.”
The words echoed over and over: “ You’re. Below. Average.”
If I had the choice, I’d want to hear I was above average, just like the children in Garrison Keillor’s metaphorical Lake Wobegon. Wouldn’t you?
I began my descent to this place of insult one hot July weekend with smoke from wildfires filling the air. I was attacking the roots of a tree with an ax and quickly felt exhausted. But I doggedly kept at it. Within minutes I broke out in a cold sweat and collapsed against the side of our house. How long did I sit there dazed and confused and breathing heavily? Twenty minutes? Thirty? I lost track of time.
That’s how I ended up on the exam table hearing those unwelcome words after a joust with the modern equivalent of the rack.
I bought a mountain bike and helmet and quickly learned that, while cycling is great exercise, I couldn’t break the laws of physics or aging, even though I chose not to wear brightly colored spandex. In fact, Isaac Newton’s law of gravity has inspired my favorite motto: “Ride a bike and you will crash.” I’m living proof. Twice.
I’ll tell you what else you get when you take up bike riding to stay healthy. You get sweat in your eyes, overstretched muscles, a numb backside, and occasional incredulous stares. I’d love to know what some people are thinking. “He’s wearing that?”
Over a decade after hearing those three little words and diligently trying to drag myself up from the health-and-fitness gutter, my hair’s grayer than ever and younger folk continue to ride circles around me and look far better doing it.
Life’s supposed to be better when you do the right things. If you believe in Oz and advertising, people who exercise, eat right and buy the right products smile as they play tennis, travel to exotic locations, and frolic by the sea. Ads for healthy living, laxatives and politics always have the same two constants: the sun’s shining and people smile a lot.
The truth? There’s a road a man must take, that leads away from the fantasy of eternal youth toward the reality of advancing age. It’s not a path of choice; it’s the one we’re dragged upon. And exercise has an important role to play in the quality of the journey. Even if you’re average.