A woman in motion

January 28, 1994|By Lucy Lee

WHEN I was growing up in the '50s, exercise was not the household activity it is today. In my Southern, middle-class world, if one thought of exercise at all, it was with a certain distaste. Exercise produced sweat, and one of the many things ladies did not do was sweat. I'm from a long line of non-sweaters.

My great-grandmother lived to be 92 while maintaining a fairly sedentary lifestyle. My grandmother died at 96 -- healthy in mind and body until the end. She was, however, a woman who found life generally exhausting. She rested a lot -- a reaction, I always supposed, to the sultry Mississippi climate and her non-goal-oriented approach to life. She spent a lot of time fanning herself and exuding weariness. She was not a Type A.

My mother, at age 72, does tend to charge about -- probably in reaction to her mother's aversion to doing so -- but she has never entertained the idea of exercising. Her motivation for movement springs from a conviction that idleness is sinful. She is unusually healthy and shows no signs of slowing down.

I seem to have inherited my grandmother's propensity to exhaustion as well as her philosophy that physical activity is repugnant. Although it caused me a fair amount of grief among my fitness-crazed contemporaries, I persevered for 50 years with a decidedly non-physical lifestyle.

All of this changed abruptly when I broke my heel in a car accident and was forced to come to terms with what a physical weakling I was. I was unable to muster the upper-arm strength necessary to navigate on crutches, and I didn't have the stamina to drag around a lower leg in a heavy cast.

I solved the problem by settling into an easy chair for three months with a stack of books. I figured that when the heel mended, I'd get up and resume my life.

It was a pleasant three months, but weaning myself from the chair turned out to be a challenge. My total inactivity, coupled with an already weak body, left me feeling shaky, old, tired, lethargic, dependent. I realized that with my longevity genes, I probably had 50 more years to drag around in this state. My husband's and daughters' sympathies were exhausted -- they saw no reason to continue waiting on me once the doctor proclaimed me well.

It was this woeful state of affairs that finally forced me to visit the local athletic club for a consultation. After explaining my limitations (no energy, no stamina, no strength, a bad back, a weak foot and a strong aversion to sweat) to the fitness director, she took a deep breath and prescribed swimming.

"Swim! I can't swim! I mean, I know how to swim but I don't like to swim. It's so . . . strenuous. I get out of breath, it messes up my hair, I hate to swim!"

"I'm not suggesting you train for the Olympics, ma'am. Just get in the water and keep moving for 20 minutes, three times a week. You can use the kickboard, do any stroke you like -- just keep moving. It's the easiest program I can think of."

Seeing that I would get nowhere with this sadistic amazon, I promised her I'd think about it and quickly drove myself home.

I did think about it. I thought about how depressing it would be to shop for a bathing suit. I thought about who might see me in a bathing suit. I thought about how much time it would take out of my day. I thought about swimmer's ear and athlete's foot. I thought about the sweaty, fungusy smell of locker rooms. I thought about casual conversation with naked women and felt faint.

After several weeks of agonizing, I got up one morning, put on an old bathing suit and drove to the athletic club. I studied the kickboards and selected the most reliable looking one. I eased into the water and leaned forward -- cautiously. I did the side stroke to the end of the pool, back up, then down again. Panting, I checked the clock: five minutes.

I did a couple of laps with the kickboard, then switched to the elementary back stroke -- my top stroke as a child because it was effortless. Ten minutes. I was halfway through and felt shaky but was still conscious. I clutched the kickboard and paddled around for 10 more minutes.

The next few trips to the pool were better. I was on the verge of a slightly positive attitude since I'd found I could keep moving for 20 minutes. And there was something about the water -- I liked the way it enveloped me, buoyed me up, made me streamlined.

I soon developed a routine. I got up at 5:45 every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning and went straight to the pool so I wouldn't have to think about it. I was an early riser, so this was a good time for me, but there was one drawback. Several men -- real jock types -- swam then, too. They tore through the water, creating great waves that rocked my body as I crept along. They seemed to attack the water, daring it to hold them back. They soon persuaded the lifeguard to time them, and their swimming turned into a real event, making me feel even less deserving of pool space.

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