The Secret Benefit of Exercise

It has nothing to do with looking good.

Photo by Maskot/Getty Images

I exercise several times a week. I swim, run, do yoga or take long walks with my dogs. I have dabbled in kickboxing and spinning. I tried aerobics once in the 80s. I don’t do anything that involves people yelling at me because I’m too old for that nonsense. Sure, I can go for months without missing a day, then slack off for a couple of weeks—and I cheat and make excuses when it’s raining—but generally I’m pretty good about preserving an hour a day to work out.

I should note that I’m lucky when it comes to all of this: I have a flexible schedule and I work from home, so I have more options than some friends who spend time commuting and work in offices. I know how challenging that is. Until recently, I worked full-time as an attorney, and finding time to exercise wasn’t easy. I had to get up early or steal time at lunch. It wasn’t always pretty.

Don’t get me wrong: This does not make me a saint or a size two. I’m an ordinary woman of ordinary weight with a touch of asthma who avoids the mirror in yoga class because I don’t want to shatter the image I have in my head of myself as a lithe and limber athlete. I won’t ever do a triathlon or, God forbid, a marathon. But exercise is an important part of my life.

I don’t do it for the cardiovascular workout, despite the fact that my family has a history of heart disease. I don’t muddle through hot yoga classes for increased flexibility and balance to avoid falling and breaking my hip later in life, although my grandmother died after doing just that. I gave up hoping that exercise would give me energy to keep up with my son. I don’t even do it for the cute workout clothes that I spend too much money on in the hopes they will make my ass look good.

I exercise because it is the only time things are quiet. In the pool or on the road or in the studio, the only thing I can focus on is the next breath. There is a stillness that exists for me only when I pay attention to my body and not my mind. Before my heart rate speeds up, it slows down. Just knowing I have time alone is an amazing stress reliever.

In class, I can’t be reached via email to revise a story or solve a problem. When I’m running, there’s no one calling my name or asking for a snack. Exercise gets me out of my head and away from my responsibilities and forces me to focus on myself for however long the playlist lasts. I’ve also discovered that I have small epiphanies and bursts of inspiration when I stop wrestling with problems and start sweating. Something about a change of scenery and an increased heart rate does wonders for my brain, not to mention my mood. I come back to my work and my family with new energy and patience.

If strong is the new skinny, then time alone is the new strong.

This is no small thing in a world where we are always accessible and always in demand. Where value is ascribed to those who never put down their cell phones and respond to email in minutes, if not seconds. Where noise is everywhere and the pull of engagement with the virtual world in tweets and “likes” and followers sometimes diminishes our non-digital existence. I am as susceptible as the next person to those pressures, but to counteract the pull of other people and social expectations and small children and pets and leaky faucets, I have to take myself out of the mix.

That’s why I exercise. If I have to suffer and sweat to get those few precious moments, I’ll do it. If my pants fit at the end of the day? Even better.