March 2012

Walking the dogs

By David Feela

I never imagined myself as a Rec Center type. I bicycle gravel roads when the weather allows me to ride, and I own a secondhand elliptical exercise machine, tucked into a corner of the barn for those inclement days. When I want a rock-climbing experience, I hike on a mountain or in a canyon, and when I’m feeling like a treadmill, I go for a fast-paced walk around our magnificent city park.

I shower regularly, and I’ll admit to occasionally holding my face close to the shower nozzle and pretending I am doing the breaststroke in an Olympic-sized pool, right beside Michael Phelps. That’s me, the cheap type.

My last few trips to the park, however, convinced me that maybe I’m not so different, I mean not so different from those who purchase either an admission to or a membership at our local Rec Center. I thought these were the people who were the health conscious members of our community, those who set a high exercise standard and a rigorous, disciplined lifestyle for their physical and mental well-being.

I could be wrong about that.

When it’s cold I’ll often pick up a fastfood lunch and sit in my car at the Rec Center parking lot, watching the geese while I’m eating my meal, before setting off for a brisk walk. My dining experience in the shadow of that facility always makes me feel guilty, because the parking lot is usually crowded, and all the people I can’t see are inside working out. What am I doing? Well, I’m not eating right and I’m planning to take a measly walk.

Then I take my trash with me from the car to stuff it into the Rec Center’s trash bin. What do I see? The can is packed solid with bags from Taco Bell, Wendy’s, McDonalds, KFC, Arby’s, Subway, and Pizza Hut. So now I know: A good portion of the people inside are working off their guilt, just like me!

Talking trash about the people inside is not my intent, though noticing the garbage bin makes me feel better. Inside or outside, it makes no difference, so long we all try to do something constructive about our health, but it’s the force that drives us to exercise I’ll never understand, a determination to take control of our health despite (or maybe because of) the indulgences that make us human.

Guilt is a mysterious thing. Recently I made an appointment to see a doctor, not having been to see one in two years. I was feeling fine, not experiencing any dicey symptoms, communicable diseases, or even pertinent medical concerns, but my guilt gene must have been acting up.

I tried working out a little harder for two weeks before my appointment, fearing my indiscretions would show up in some freaky vital sign, but in the end the doctor concluded I was in fairly good shape for my age. She could not, however, cure me of my guilt pains.

News reports claim only 50 percent of Americans exercise for 30 minutes at least three days per week — not good news for our nation’s health. But I can find no survey that goes as far so to ask the respondents if they feel guilty about not staying active. I’d be willing to accept a million-dollar government grant to do some research in that gray area, to discover if a healthy dose of guilt in the human psyche leads to obesity or fitness.

On my walk around the park, I begin by feeling stiff and a bit achy, but then, after about a mile, I start to warm up. I think a mile is the distance it takes to overcome the resistance over having forced myself to exercise in the first place. After a mile my mind wanders, and I am not necessarily responsible for failing to notice a neighbor waving to me from the opposite direction, or for stepping out into traffic at a busy intersection, or for putting my foot into what a perfectly uninhibited dog left steaming on the sidewalk. I am finally free of that human impulse to worry, even about my health.

That ends, of course, when I get back to my car. While dozens of the Rec Center types are inside putting on their street shoes, I’m outside taking mine off, holding the befouled pair at arms’ length, then cramming them into the garbage can while no one’s looking, telling myself as I hobble toward the car that they were worn out anyway.

David Feela writes from Montezuma County, Colo.