50 Years of Running
Forget the "experts." How do you REALLY keep at it?
Some day in September, 2022, I’ll be marking my 50th anniversary of running (exercising at all, really). Before that, I did pretty much nothing, except walk to class.
Last week, a neighbor saw me running and yelled out, “Hey, Albert! How old are you?” (I answered, of course, “Hah! You’d like to know.”) He later said he envied me because he can’t run anymore. I hear that a lot. In fact, I’ve heard 50 years’ worth of reasons why people can’t exercise. So now I’ll tell you the secret.
What This is Not
This is not another of those sin-and-guilt stories designed to make you feel bad. Or these Instagram-y posts about how I’m so much better than you because I’M FIT! Like:
I started running, and it was hard at first, but now I’m running half-marathons. [Note: I don’t run half-marathons, or even 10Ks]
You might read that, lace up your running shoes, do a couple of miles and think, “There! I’m doing that, too!” Then reality sets in.
Or even more realistic stories on the Web, like:
I tried to run, but my knees hurt. So now I walk, and I read somewhere that that’s just as good. [Note: It’s not]
…and you think “Yeah, my knees hurt, too! Besides, I don’t have any good running shoes.”
OK, What’s the Secret?
But somehow, I’ve kept it up for 50 years. I also work out with weights and do the Bosu for balance (the latter is fairly recent). 50 years is way too long to give all the credit to willpower, or a workout buddy, or “forming a habit”, or getting up early, or any of that stuff you read. None of those are good for 50 years. So how did it happen?
You’ll be disappointed to know that the secrets are mostly inside your head. They’re all in this list:
1. Always keep in mind that if you can’t find time to exercise, you’ll have to find time to be sick.
2. What do you care what other people think?
3. Only do exercises that you like, and only on the days you feel like it.
The rest of this post explains the first, and gives an abbreviated history of those 50 years of mine. The next posts will cover the other two.
Prelude: who am I?
I’m a retired computer programmer. I worked for 43 years after getting my B.S. and M.S. at the University of Illinois. I was never even average at any sport; maybe approached average at racquetball and softball; well below average in tennis and volleyball; not even passable in basketball. My all-time best mile time was 6:40, in my 20s, and I’m nowhere near that now. I ran a 10K, once, and never anything longer. I bicycled a Century (100 miles) once, also in my 20s. In other words, I’m not a jock. I had an indoor job, although, to be honest, I very, very rarely worked those stereotypical late-night hours.
Somehow, although I’m as prone to sin-and-guilt as any other Catholic boy, I’ve kept that out of exercising. Mostly.
Is this the Geek Workout Guide? Those already exist, written by some “expert” in exercise physiology. There are whole magazines devoted to it and you can even find lists of the right hashtags to use in your ads on Instagram.
I’m not any sort of expert. On the other hand, I’ve kept it up for 50 years. Can those “experts” say that?
1. If You Can’t Find Time to Exercise, You’ll Have to Find Time to be Sick
Not wanting to be sick provided the key motivator for me when nothing else could. How many times have you heard, or even said, “I don’t have time to exercise”? The truth is that, for any activity, whether it’s learning French, walking your dog, or exercising, you don’t have time—you make time.
The summer of 1972, I was in Washington, D.C. working as an intern in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (the old name of HHS). Prior to that, in my senior year I had mononucleosis. I got sick that summer a whole bunch of times, in fact, and let me tell you: if you haven’t had that experience, there’s nothing worse. That old TV commercial where the lady says “When you’ve got your health, you’ve got just about everything” is so true.
I still remember the first time I ran. One day in grad school, I just decided I was going to run. I went to the track near me and ran two laps (four laps were a mile). I came home and lay on my bed for two hours. The next day I was too sore to run, but the day after that I did three laps. I don’t remember what happened after that, but pretty soon it was two miles.
This is another place where my story differs from all those feel-good, sin-and-guilt stories you read: I never ran marathons or half-marathons, or even 10Ks, except for that one I mentioned (even with that, I did nothing for five days afterwards because I was so sore). I’ve never regularly done more than three miles. Nowadays, it’s two miles, and it’s real slow.
But since this has been a prime motivator for me these 50 years, let’s spend some more time on it.
Being Sick as a Kid
I don’t know if you were ever sick much as a child, or if you were, if you’ve repressed the memory. I was, and I haven’t. At some deep level, the desire to never go through that again, if possible, has kept me running for 50 years. There are other reasons, which I’ll get to, but I wanted to share this in the hope that it’ll stir something in you, too.
Up until I was 7, it seemed like I was constantly sick. Every childhood disease you could possibly have, except for mumps: I had it. Regular measles, twice; German measles; chicken pox; scarlet fever; you name it.
Once we were on vacation in Minnesota, and I had convulsions of some sort. I don’t know what it was, and even my parents didn’t remember later what it was (my dad said I was stiff as a board), but I was in the hospital for several days. My only memory of that stay was having my temperature taken rectally.
Later I had a cyst (benign) on the back of my knee, which had to be removed, and I still have the scar. In those days, they didn’t do minor things like that via outpatient surgery. I still remember lying face up on the operating table, with a mask over my face and the nurse about to administer the ether, saying “Blow it out!”
Even worse, the family allowed me to feel like it was my fault. My awful brother used to claim I was deliberately getting sick before vacations, just so I could ruin them. How do you think that makes a 6-year-old child feel?
I hated school, too, and didn’t do well at first. Then when I was seven, I had what they called a “T & A”, which is not a term from pornography: it meant “tonsils and adenoids.” You don’t hear about those operations very much anymore, although when I was doing some research for this article, I found that apparently adenoidectomies still happen.
After the T & A, I was almost never sick again. The miracle of modern science! I also became a straight-A student.
So being sick has a special meaning for me. If you ever had experiences like this: just focus on them whenever you don’t feel like exercising. How do you feel about doing all that again? Most of us will do it all again when we get old, unfortunately. Maybe if we’re lucky, we’ll drop dead while out jogging, hopefully in the middle of a busy intersection. That’s my wish. I heard a comedian talk once about headlines when someone is murdered, and what the news stories would say if it was him. It went something like this:
If Jerry Seinfeld was murdered, the headline would be ‘Jerry Seinfeld Found in Pool of Blood!’
If some less-well-known comic was murdered, it would be ‘Comedian Found in Pool of Blood!’
For me, it would be ‘Man Stains Carpet!’
I think my headline would be ‘Man Inconveniences Hundreds!’
The Medical System
Warning: I’m really taking things to excess here. But this is your motivation. Read on.
Close your eyes and imagine having some serious or semi-serious illness. What comes to mind? Is it the caring nurses and doctors, selflessly taking care of you? (Actually, twice I’ve had serious abdominal pain and had batteries of tests run on me, and the staff couldn’t have been more wonderful.)
But is it instead:
Calling for an appointment and being told they can see you in three weeks.
Going to the emergency room and waiting for six hours, with children crying and people screaming in pain.
Sitting in your doctor’s waiting room for an hour after your appointment time.
Getting handed a clipboard with a form to fill out, containing all the information that they already have.
Finding out that your insurance won’t cover everything the doctor did, and getting a gigantic out-of-pocket bill
Sending your prescriptions to the mail order pharmacy and having them rejected as being not in their plan. Or waiting until they get special doctor approval, because you got pain medications, which are a controlled substance.
Let’s back up: before finding out the problem with your meds, you called the mail order pharmacy’s 800 number, and waited on hold for 20 minutes, hearing “Your call is very important to us. Please keep holding” at least 5 times.
Getting an appointment with a specialist and then waiting another three weeks
Having unpleasant reactions to your prescriptions and calling the doctor. Of course, you can’t actually talk to him or her.
Let’s hope it’s not something more serious. NPR has a page where people report their issues with the medical system. Many are financial, and that’s a whole topic by itself. But there are other non-financial ones as well. Here’s part of one:
Jacki Bronicki, a medical librarian at the University of Michigan, tells of the frustration she felt about the treatment received by her father, 80-year-old Douglas Harlow Brown, who has Parkinson's disease.
Last year he fell and broke three ribs. He was admitted to the hospital, and his mental state began to deteriorate by the second day. "He wasn't even coherent by the third day," Bronicki says.
Brown, a retired engineer who taught physics, was mentally fine before the hospitalization, Bronicki says. So it wasn't normal for him to be so confused.
But she says the parade of doctors who saw him seemed to assume "that was his natural state, given his age and condition. We would have to convince each new doctor that saw him — tell the story of his Parkinson's, explain that this was not his normal, that he was normally functioning, talking, coherent."
A neurologist finally figured out what was wrong. Different doctors had prescribed different pain medications, and the drugs were interfering with Brown's Parkinson's medication. That caused his mental deterioration and made his limbs rigid.
After the medication was straightened out, Brown improved. But Bronicki and her sisters felt they had to maintain a constant vigil at his bedside to prevent another medication error.
And now Bronicki regrets that she ever took her father to the hospital in the first place. After all, there's no specific treatment for broken ribs, which must heal by themselves.
"He has a lot more dementia than he had a year before," she says. "He can't walk anymore. And I'm not sure if it would have normally progressed like this, or if we really sped it up."
The National Institutes of Health has a page on “iatrogenic disorders.” This is a term you can memorize and throw around at cocktail parties. As the page says:
An iatrogenic disorder occurs when the deleterious effects of the therapeutic or diagnostic regimen causes pathology independent of the condition for which the regimen is advised.
In plain English: it’s a problem you didn’t have before the doctors caused it. Like a drug-resistant infection that you got IN the hospital.
Disclaimer: Of course, no health care professional wants to give people diseases, and as the page says:
It would be impossible to provide the benefits of modern medicine if reasonable steps in diagnosis and treatment were withheld because of possible risks.
Most likely you won’t get an iatrogenic disorder, and the technology they can bring to your problem is mind-bogglingly effective. Still, the prudent person stays away from the medical system altogether.
In the next post, I’ll cover “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” The social and psychological reasons why people do and don’t exercise are a major topic that isn’t discussed very much. The media inflicts guilt on you if you don’t, but you might be embarrassed by what other people say if you do. Tune in next week.