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Does Exercise Have to Be About Weight Loss?

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I grew up really healthy. My mom grew her own vegetables and I was forever picking basil for pesto. We got meat from a friend's family, who raised and butchered cows, and everything else (blocks of mozzarella, knobby carob treats, the occasional bagel chip, palak paneer) came by truck from an organic co-op. We didn't eat sugar, we didn't eat processed foods. Store-bought milk seemed pretty special at the time. Once, when I spilled it, I cried over spilled milk.

I mean, we were just a weird family.

"Do you even have a microwave?" the kids at Hebrew School asked me.

I burst out laughing. Of COURSE. Who doesn't have a microwave? Are you kidding me? What am I, Amish?

In retrospect, it was a fair question.

Now that I'm all grown up and living in Brooklyn, it turns out that everyone wants to eat like my mom. It is totally, epically uncool to not care about what you are putting in your body. They want to exercise all the time.

I rebelled by eating a lot of junk food in college and never, ever exercising (I'm a badass). My whole family exercises. My dad and brothers lift weights for hours every day, my mom used to, and now she does tons of yoga and pilates. I am the only one who doesn't do anything. I have been known to flaunt doughnuts.

But I find myself drifting backward into the future, trying to remember to always make vegetables, spending extra money on grassfed meat even though it's so much more expensive that it pisses me off. The one thing I'm not doing is exercising.

I'm not. I'm not exercising at all. And I should be.

Because that is what conscientious people who respect their bodies do. That is what healthy people do. They do yoga. They go running. They go running and then do yoga. They get off their asses and do SOMETHING about their heart rate. Sex doesn't count. Does it count? Should I do it more aerobically? How? I pace when I'm on the phone. That should count for something. Once every three or four days, I do a deep bend, all the way over, to almost touch my toes. It's like yoga, except it only takes about five seconds and I'm not actually touching my toes, because I actually can't touch my toes.

I have a bad relationship with exercise. I feel like it's this club of awesome people that I'm not a part of. It's this thing everyone can agree on, but I'm still standing on the outside, unable to let myself in. The thing is, no matter how guilty I feel about it, and how convinced I am that the world is right and I am basically an accomplice to my own murder, standing by as the carbs do their worst, I have never been able to motivate myself to work out. Except when I did it to lose weight.

I'm going to just go ahead and admit this here: I signed up for New York Sports Club and got a few sessions with a personal trainer right before my wedding.

"Why are you here? What can I help you with?" she asked at our first session, a few minutes before I was panting myself to death on my back on the grimy floor. And I meant to say, "I'm here to improve my heart rate and build physical stamina," or something. But what came out was, "My arms are fat." That is what came out of my mouth. And I said it in a joking tone, but she knew I was serious.

"Ok!" she said, and we got started.

How embarrassing. I was trying to accept my arms, at the same time. Because I was going to wear this frustratingly sleeveless wedding gown and stuff, and I had to be able to deal. And I was writing about body image already, so I felt I owed it to myself and my 25 readers to not be a huge hypocrite. And there I was, in this alien world of the gym, right before my wedding, like five trillion other brides who are desperate to lose a few pounds before the big, eternally-recorded day.

When I've run on a treadmill, the whole time I've been thinking, "Just burn a few more calories! Just a few more! Do you want to be ugly? Do you want your belly to jiggle? KEEP RUNNING YOU GODDAMN PIECE OF SHIT LARDPOT!" It quickly brings out the worst in me. Like there's a sadistic model scout camped out in the gland that produces exercise hormones and she comes catapulting out when I move too quickly for too long. Also, I figured out that after ten minutes on the treadmill, I'd negated maybe one spoonful of that ice cream I'd eaten earlier, which triggered intense disillusionment. What am I supposed to do, only eat one friggin' spoonful?

I don't really think that there's something horribly, monstrously wrong with doing a good thing for the wrong reasons. Like, if you accidentally gave too much to charity, or if you worked with some inner city kids to impress a girl or something. And I don't think that losing weight is always a bad goal. There is nothing inherently wrong with trying to lose weight. It's not even necessarily terrible and damaged and disordered to lose weight when you feel ugly because you think you're too heavy and feel better when you're thinner. These things are not so simple. And hey, I got a nose job to make my face prettier because I felt bad about the way it looked. I'm not judging.

But I also personally don't want to spend a lot of time doing things for the sole purpose of trying to look better, because I think the pursuit of looking better can be a trap that you get stuck in. Or a whirlpool, where you spin around and around forever, always swimming, but never swimming out.

And so I don't want to exercise just because I think it'll make me look better, and also I am a disgusting wimp, and given the option, I would do all of my work from the chaise section of the couch, with a fluffy blanket over my legs and a pumpkin latte immediately accessible.

The New York Times recently had a piece about exercise and how we need to reframe it or something, so that it's not about all of these things we think it's about, but instead it's about feeling good in the moment. I don't know if I can trick my brain like that. My brain is like, "Ha! Psych! It's really about burning calories! Gotcha!" My brain sometimes thinks it's clever.

But I figure that now that I'm cooking vegetables in addition to eating doughnuts, and now that I occasionally find myself craving watermelon chunks, I can probably also figure out a way to move my body a little bit. Not to get all radically healthy or anything. Not to do impressive stretches or touch my own, ever-elusive toes. But to acknowledge that I believe that exercise is a good thing. That my mom, obnoxiously, was probably right again. TV has done nothing but distract me, and made me feel like watching stories instead of telling them, ever since I turned it on. Damn, I'm just too old to rebel.

So I've started walking more. New Yorkers are famous for their walking habits, but I'm expanding on mine. I'm purposefully going to the grocery store two neighborhoods away. I am getting off the subway earlier and walking ten or twenty extra blocks to my destination. I am trying to learn Brooklyn better. I am exploring.

And as I walk, I am not usually thinking about burning calories, because walking feels so normal. And even though I should probably be jogging and my doctor recommended forty-five minutes of aerobic activity at least four times a week, I like it.

It's calming. Nothing yogic. It's just nice to see what's out there.

A version of this piece appeared originally on Eat the Damn Cake