23 August 2011

Get Out Of Gyms, Get Into Neighborhoods

Having never been a member of a gym in my life, it's easy for me to tell you to get out of your gym. Perhaps you're rather fond of your gym and find value in going there on a variety of levels. I've only been inside probably two gyms: once for a television promotional announcement I was producing and once to briefly check out the swanky setup at AOL in Sterling, VA. I've also never owned a piece of exercise equipment. Not even a pair of dumbbells.

Do I have some sort of aversion to gyms and equipment? Was I laughed out of a gym or mauled by some treadmill in my past? No, nothing that dramatic. More likely, I'm just cheap.


Perhaps my outlook would be different if I had grown up in a big city or never had easy outdoor alternatives to exercise. From my perspective, why buy a machine for your home that often becomes a clothes rack or borrow a machine that's been profusely sweated on in a gym when those same exercises can be done outdoors?

But let's step back a bit.

Growing up, I enjoyed the outdoors but I don't remember being "outside all the time." I didn't play any sports for personal recreational time and wasn't on any high school or college teams. Thus, my weight's always been on the heavy side.

Arriving in the Baltimore-Washington area in June 2004, I weighed 200 pounds. While this may have been a bit overweight for my six-foot frame, over the years I would pack on 70 additional pounds.

Yup, according to doctor's records from my last check up in Jackson, Mississippi, I was 70 pounds lighter. Depending on how you know me, you might have either thought that I really didn't show it. Or maybe when you mentioned that I "looked good," you were rationalizing how the extra weight looked good on me.

I've often wondered during trips over the past few years to Mississippi if my family or friends have been startled by my appearance. In your mind, you have an image of what a person looked like the last time you saw them. Then, you see them in person years later and they've packed on some pounds. You're startled. Maybe it's only in your eyes as you concentrate on not showing anything other than joy for seeing the person. But startled you are. "My, they've gained some weight," you say in your head. We're human. Sadly, we judge books by their covers all the time.

For everyone, there's a currency. It's that moment that gets your attention. My shrinking wardrobe wasn't it. The extra effort dashing up stairs wasn't it. My current doctor asking me if I wanted to be around for my daughter's wedding wasn't it.

For me, it was seeing that I had gained 70 pounds since living in Maryland.

I thought back to when I first moved to Maryland and was working in DC. Then, I used the Metro to get to work. So, I walked at least a couple miles Monday through Friday and sometimes on the weekend. WUSA9 has four floors and I often chose not to use the elevator. Plus, it was a stressful job with daily amounts of drama. Thus, my weight gain working there was minimal and often negative.

When I started working for AOL, mostly at home and enjoying less stress...the pounds began to creep on. Yet, going to the gym or buying equipment were still not options. Equipment is not an option due to our two-story 1100-square foot townhouse. As much as I would enjoy riding a bike, we have no space for that either.

While the 70 pounds motivated me to do something, I still didn't know what to do until AOL started a Virgin Health Miles program which included a free pedometer. I'd heard about people tracking their steps with these little devices but never really concerned myself with their benefits.

I started walking around the neighborhood. From our house and return was a mile and some change. So, I started walking 1 mile. When that became too easy, I added walking Maddy, our Beagle, for a mile. When that was easy, I walked 2 miles and Maddy for 1 mile. Now, I walk 3 miles plus the 1 for Maddy.

Granted, not everyone feels safe or has the time to walk around their neighborhood. But the value of doing so is great. You get to know your neighbors by random conversations and sometimes lending a helping hand. You get fresh air and sunshine. Sure, it rains sometimes but that's when you grab an umbrella.

Randomly, I have older ladies tending to their grandchildren or walking their dogs tell me how great I'm looking or how impressed they are with me keeping up the routine. Positive reinforcement does wonders for the soul and it seems I've encouraged a few of them to walk.

My initial reluctance to neighborhood walking may be yours. If you walked, you might have to speak to people. You might have to care about their lives. Is this why it's better to pay a gym or exercise in your home? You can shut out the world and focus on yourself. There are times during the day I prefer to walk because I know I'll encounter less dog-walkers or perhaps avoid certain people. Sometimes, those plans work out. Sometimes, they do not.

Do we treat our health as an anti-social activity? Discuss below.