In a city of serious exercise, I am a lazy revolutionary. Yoga scares me, Zumbafit mystifies me, Kitsilano beaches nudge me to cover up my inadequacies and the gym is an alien landscape populated with fitter-than-thous and complicated Spanish inquisition machinery.
I run…if a bear is chasing me. The only weights I lift are overflowing laundry baskets, and the occasional unruly four-year old. I do work out…my issues, by reclining in a comfy chair for an hour at a time and exercising my extremely fit and generous tear ducts.
But I do live in a city rife with recreational possibility, and just because I own less than two pieces of Lululemon, have pipes under my sink and not on my arms, and like to shop at Mountain Equipment Co-Op strictly for the fashion, doesn’t disqualify me from discussing exercise. After years of plans, hopes, and rumours of push-ups, I am happy to say that I’ve come to a pretty decent understanding of recreation – one that doesn’t involve punishment, spandex, or sweltering bamboo-walled rooms.
My kind of exercise operates on the following motivational principles: thrift, necessity, fresh air, anti-ambition and play. I love long, meandering walks that happen because I want to smell some flowers and coo over heritage houses, perhaps even practice some pop psychology on dog-walkers and gossip with the neighbours. I like walking dogs, or rather, letting them walk me: running and stopping, jumping and simply playing, with no direct point from A to B. I occasionally flout playground age limits and climb on things, practicing my secret Russian gymnast moves. When I managed a kitchen, I’d arrive before my staff and pirouette around the stainless steel counters, maybe even throw in a couple of pliés by the ovens.
So Aquafit at the local pool is right up my alley. Give me a swimming pool full of bathing-capped old ladies, floating about like distracted water lilies, and groups of retirees vaguely paddling while discussing gardening and grandchildren, while the instructor shouts vainly over the 90s era disco music, and I’m ready for some serious exercise. Every Tuesday, I dip under the chlorinated waters and begin to flail giddily to the sounds of Haddaway’s What is Love?, and a marvellous thing happens. I understand what all those pavement pounding joggers preach about, what the mountain bikers and climbers rave about after a killer afternoon overcoming challenging terrain – I get an aquafit high. As I lunge through the water, and wave my hands in the air, an overwhelming rush of childish happiness and laugh-out-loud excitement at simply being alive encompasses me, and I let the music (which, by this point in the routine is usually a Cher remix or a Chumba Wumba tune) carry me away.
It wasn’t always this way. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with swimming since I knew it was possible to drown. My sister has reminded me more than once about the time I rescued her from cold and mysterious waters of Vancouver Island’s West Coast. I don’t remember diving in to snatch her from the sea, but my overactive imagination has no problems keeping me beachside with fictional events. My born and bred back-country husband can’t get me into his beloved turquoise lakes without a convincing argument against the existence of pre-historic aquatic dinosaurs trapped in said lakes, and sabre-tooth fish with a taste for man-flesh.
And then there’s the whole breathing thing. I failed Orange, the second color in the rainbow of beginner’s swimming, four times. That’s right. Four times. All because I refused to put my head under water and breathe out. At eight, my instructor picked me out of the newest crop of dolphin-like four year olds and simply shoved my head underwater, holding it there for one terrifying minute. Her first words to me on resurfacing were, “I’m tired of seeing you in this class. You pass.” I trust that municipal swimming instructors have more certification tests in the past 21 years. One can only hope.
Lest we forget, swimming also brings on the brave battle that every woman must wage against insecurity, from inopportune hair to culturally under-appreciated juiciness of stature. I’ve done my time in the trenches of bathing suit warfare. I’ve hid in the changerooms, and cowered underwater, and it’s only since I’ve been married and felt fully appreciated by a specific someone that I’ve really let go of that particular angst-filled activity: the walk of trepidation from the privacy of a towel or a bathroom stall to the forgiving, image-distorting waters of the pool.
My weekly ritual of Aquafit engages and redeems more than just my fear of monsters, drowning and bad bathing suits. I love the changing room experience. Seriously. It’s an all-female space where one’s body is just one of many different expressions of womanhood – where “sexiness” and “fashion” are off the table, and the only looks you get are ones of sympathy when you realise your bra is irrevocably tangled or your socks are sitting in a puddle on the tiled floor. Or in my case, you smash your head on an open locker door, and garner motherly attention and sympathy.
The childlike feeling of play that spurs me onwards to splash about is no petty thing either. Psychologically, exercise can make the difference between depression and alertness, the dividing line between vague, unexplained sadness and specific contentment. Moving through the water introduces me to anti-gravity, lesser known muscles, and a pleasant awareness of my own proportions.
Proprioception is a sixth sense that governs balance, movement and the understanding of oneself in relation to the world. Essentially, it’s the fundamental awareness of how your body moves through physical space – for example, my motor brain knows how heavy my arms are, and therefore remembers how much strength to use in moving them underwater. I have spent much of my life feeling too heavy, or out of proportion, and even just a smidge of non-punishing exercise has the powerful effect of nudging me back into a comforting sphere of feeling just right, perfectly fitted in my own skin.
I don’t imagine Aquafit will ever lead me down the epic path to ultimate, jaw-dropping fitness, but it fits me. The cardinal principle of recreation programming is simple: it’s not the outcome of the activity that matters most, but how people feel while participating. (I am still learning to apply this to playing games…)
So here’s to exercise that feels like play, costs less than a latte, and helps me practice my sweet, sweet dance moves.