WHEN WE WERE ELEVEN YEARS OLD, my best friend Melissa and I decided we should jog. It was the 80s, and everybody was doing it. I even owned a little yellow-and-white terry cloth jogging suit. Our “jog” consisted of a ¾ mile walk-trot up the road to the shopping plaza, where we landed either at a) the donut store; b) Burger King; or c) Carvel Ice Cream.
Thirty years later, my style of exercise hasn’t changed
much. I’m trying to get used to the idea that I should exercise to lower my cholesterol or to prevent cancer or because I’m 40, but I still require a reward-based motivation of some sort to move my legs faster than a lollygag.
Food remains a primary motivator for me to get off my butt, though what I consume after my workout has taken on a more grownup tone. Instead of If I jog to the plaza, I can have an ice cream, it’s now more like If I spend an hour on the treadmill of torture, I deserve a gin and tonic.
Take for example my summer hikes with my girlfriend in the National Forest: proximity to food and drink is the key. All of our hikes revolve around an accompanying sandwich and hazelnut coffee at the Grist Mill Café in Burdett. Which means we don’t walk on Sundays and Mondays when the Grist Mill is closed, nor do we walk after 3 p.m. Sometimes when we eat there, we don’t make it into the forest at all.
Though the gym is so close to my house that I can hear it laughing at me, working out eludes me, perhaps because the gym has no adjoining restaurant. However, it tempts me with television. My reward for running is an hour with the Real Housewives of New Jersey or Stephen Colbert. I’m also fostering a meaningful connection with FitTV’s Bollywood Workout babe.
If I’m going to be walking somewhere unusual, far from TV or a place to eat, like on railroad tracks or along a desolate dry creek bed, then I identify off-color reasons to keep me interested in moving. Like maybe I’ll find a dead body, which I’ve wanted to do ever since I watched Stand By Me.
My most surprising adulthood exercise initiator is a dog. As a kid, I wasn’t allowed to have any indoor pets. (Now that I’m the one cleaning the house, I understand why.) I got my first dog when I was in my early 30s, and that’s when I found out that a dog gets my ass out of the armchair where I can otherwise sit for days on end with my laptop computer.
When I ask my dog, Eesah, if he wants to go for a walk, he does a hoppy little dance like he just won the lottery. How can I resist? A walk around the block – past the same houses he’s walked by hundreds of times before, and the same lilies he always prefers to pee on, and the same squirrels he pauses to point at – is the most rewarding experience in the world to him. This exuberance is matched only by his reaction to occasional car rides and his regular daily meals, the same Purina One chicken chunks he’s eaten for the previous nine years.
Eesah eats, walks, pees, runs, sticks his head out the car window, and he’s happy. He doesn’t think to himself, I should walk today so I don’t get osteoporosis, or Let’s see, I ran six miles. That means I burned 176 calories, so I can eat all of my dog food without guilt tonight. Wait a minute, how many calories are in these chicken chunks?”
If only I were so easily pleased, and so easily motivated. The dog does not require an additional treat at the end of his efforts. The walk itself is reward enough.