I spent much of my youth avoiding all forms of exercise, and became an expert at the art of persuading my mom to write me yet another note to get me out of gym class. My biggest athletic achievement was being coordinated enough to navigate the school hallways without removing my nose from the book that was inevitably in front of my face at all times.
After I was done with school and began spending most of my waking hours in cubicle land—complete with free carbonated beverages and candy bars in the break room that I used to reward myself for making it through
stressful days everyday—I packed on an extra handful of pounds in seven months. Or, more accurately, a couple handfuls. I began to feel sick all the time—both from my stressful and unhappy work situation and from the poor food choices I was making to fuel my body.
Once I realized that my health was indeed a choice and good grief did I ever want to feel better, it was fairly easy for me to progressively make the dietary changes that my body craved—moving away from daily Lean Cuisines and pre-packaged snacks and towards a whole foods, mostly plant-based diet. Having given up alcohol already, I was familiar with the process of listening to my body and responding intuitively to what would really nourish it.
But exercise was another story. I joined a gym and bribed myself to go by allowing myself to indulge in any crappy reality TV show or magazine only while I was working out. I timed my gym visits with “The Hills” and “Project Runway,” and trudged along on the treadmill and elliptical long enough to get rid of the extra weight I’d put on.
After that point, I knew I should keep going to the gym because I could stand to tone up and lose even a few more pounds, but there was nothing enjoyable about the process. With the exception of the occasional blissful yoga class, exercise was BORING, it didn’t feel good, and I didn’t get any sort of rush out of it (save for the occasional eye candy working the weight machines). I assumed I was missing the gland or whatever it is that produces endorphins… or those workout fanatics were just dirty liars.
And so my relationship with exercise remained in the same category as cleaning the bathroom, visits to the dentist, and making small talk with my weirdo uncle. It sucks, but it must be done.
But something has shifted in the time that I’ve been in Ireland. Give me a spare afternoon and mildly decent weather, and all I want to do is drive somewhere new and hike—up a mountain, along the coast, or between towns. I’ll even settle for the walking path that weaves through the golf course next to our apartment if I can’t travel anywhere else.
This desire to move is actually changing the way I view traveling. A previous version of myself would have been happy to spend all my time eating, café-dwelling, and museum-visiting in new cities. While I still enjoy those activities, the current version of me craves feeling my feet on the earth and my head in nature. This feels new and wonderful and strange; I’ve never, ever been able to consider myself “outdoorsy” before.
These hikes are considered exercise by every standard definition of the word, but they feel like much more. There’s something wonderful about the combination of fresh air, the grandeur of nature, and physical movement. It quiets the mind, delights my eyes, and I come away feeling happy, restored and renewed.
I do believe I’ve activated my endorphin-making gland—it just took some fresh air and vitamin D to trigger.
In comparing my new feelings towards these walks and hikes with my previous notions of “exercise,” I can see what went wrong. I’d always regarded exercise as a “should” or a “have to”—I have go to the gym, I should lose X number of pounds. While I was able to listen to my body and shift my eating habits towards a more intuitive—and therefore more nourishing—way of eating, I didn’t allow myself a similar process with exercise.
Exercise doesn’t have to be like the dreaded timed mile tests of middle school, or running on the treadmill like a caged hamster on her wheel. Just like my intuition led me towards a healthy, wholesome way of eating, my body has led me to the great outdoors. It finally feels good to move.