Ade Furniss gives up his life as a health-taunting couch potato, and encourages the rest of us to follow suit.
To stay healthy, we’re told that we either need to engage in two and a half hours of moderately intense aerobic activity (e.g. cycling, fast walking, masturbation) or 75 minutes of vigorously intense aerobic activity (e.g. running, tennis, masturbation) per week. Of course, with our busy modern lives, that’s something of a commitment and may, depending on the activity, result in genital sores. But it’s still something that many aspire to, normally on New Year’s Eve. In the first few weeks of any January, most of the British population will choose to join a local gym, excitedly adding their moniker to a monthly £80 direct debit form. However, by early February, the post-work drive to Glumstanton Leisure Village in the pissing rain has usually become far too depressing to contemplate. Then there’s the prospect of struggling to retain dignity and balance on a running machine while attempting to ignore much fitter, sickeningly lithe young bodies leaping from one piece of muscle-pulverising equipment to the next. That’s to say nothing about the choking stench of foot / groin odour in the changing rooms.
I have never joined a gym and never will – the above nightmare scenario is purely the work of my cynical imagination. I am not a sporty person and before 2002, apart from a humiliating arm-wrestling contest with my Uncle Ken at the age of nine, I had done very little in the way of exercise at all. I couldn’t see the point really. It sounded all so tiring, boring, and…not me, a person who was always more attuned to the artistic than the physical (specifically, rock music created by pale, ragged alcoholics with a constant Marlboro on the go). I scoffed at record-breaking athletic achievements, openly laughed in the face of Fatima Whitbread, and roundly condemned keep-fit freaks as vacuous, vain bores. Health was synonymous with the virtuous and prim and I wanted no part of it.
Back in 2001, I recall standing outside a Las Vegas hotel, puffing on a cigarette in the blistering morning sun and guffawing inwardly as my wife and her parents (a soccer coach and a woman that last ate saturated fat in 1978) set-off for a 30 minute run along the strip in the lethal desert heat. I may even have shook my head disapprovingly as they darted past the frazzled gamblers shambling out of Caesar’s Palace. However, it wouldn’t be too long before I reconsidered my views on exercise. Maybe noticing the nascent signs of a paunch on the holiday snaps gave me some the much-needed impetus. Perhaps reading about the therapeutic effects of exercise on the nicotine-starved brain after quitting my fifteen-a-day smoking habit had some influence. Whatever it was that flicked the switch in my exertion-resistant brain (and well-meant pressure from my wife certainly played a part), I started running regularly. At first, it was an arduous chore. Even a fifteen-minute jog around the park was a life-threatening test of stamina. However, after a few weeks, my fitness levels gradually increased and, here’s the thing, I discovered that I felt a lot more relaxed afterwards; a sustained sense of greater calmness not just for an hour or so. A real boon for a neurotic such as me.
Over ten years later, I continue to run three times a week and I’d say it’s as essential to my well-being and as much part of my routine as eating, sleeping, and drinking heavily. I’m not exactly svelte (I am 45 years old) but I’m certainly more trim than I would be had I carried on being the smoking cynic on that Las Vegas pavement. Most importantly, my everyday feelings of stress became (and still are) much more manageable than before. Medical science is increasingly extolling the benefits of exercise on mental health and, leaving aside all the supporting biological evidence, that makes complete sense to me. We are simply not designed to sit huddled over a computer monitor all day, simmering away with a multitude of artificial concerns and anxieties. Without an outlet for all that physical and psychological tension, our minds are bound to suffer.
But forget the gym, at least when it comes to running. Isn’t it far better to just spontaneously dash out of the front door when the mood takes you, hit the pavement, breathe the air, and get away from people and their irksome noises for a few precious minutes? It’s significantly cheaper too, free in fact. There are a few downsides of course. Sometimes, idiotic teenage boys may hurl abuse (e.g. “Don’t give yourself a heart attack, mate!” or “JOGOOOOO!”) to impress their dimwit girlfriends but you can always drown them out with your Ipod or, better still, stop in your tracks and give the most vocal oik a good hard punch on the side of the head. This is also psychologically therapeutic. In addition, you may find that fellow runners will, occasionally, overtake you at theatrical speed in an attempt to spark some kind of inferiority complex. Rest assured, they will flag eventually and that’s your chance to catch-up and dispense the same kind of street justice that you doled out on the troublesome adolescent earlier in your run.
But, take it from me, a natural-born sofa spud, exercise (vigorous or otherwise) can do wonders for your emotional health as well as reducing the spreading mass of lard spilling over the top of your belt. That said, if you do generally get through two packets of bourbon biscuits per evening or smoke over fifty fags on a daily basis, you might wish to consult your general practitioner first. After all, you don’t want the embarrassment of collapsing in the park wearing a ‘Just Do It’ sweatshirt. Not if there’s teenagers around.