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I was never very into sports, but from early on—age seven all the way through high school—I swam competitively. I did this despite the fact that I didn't enjoy it all that much. In fact, initially, it felt like torture.
I have vivid memories of waking up when it was still dark outside and being driven to the pool for morning practice. An instant physical and mental dread would set in as soon as my alarm went off. It took everything I had to muster the willpower to slink out of bed. I was buried under a tremendous sense of foreboding, unable to find relief or think about anything but the wretched and frigid task at hand.
I'd get in my mother's car, sulking, and ease the passenger seat as far back as it would go while she drove. I stewed in my resentment, half trying to sleep, half trying to slow time down in a foolish and useless attempt to keep the icy solitude of that chlorinated water at bay for as long as possible. This ride was especially bad during the school year, when my general melancholic state would edge up to full-on depression, knowing that after I finished this brutal early morning practice I had an entire day of school and then another practice after.
Even during practice, a cloud loomed. I'd dive into the cold, cold water and begin the monotonous back and forth from one end to the other, muscles aching, lungs burning. The strange muted sounds of underwater exhaustion intensified my morbid thoughts. Swim practices typically lasted four hours total, every day. Each second felt like a punishment.
But when it was over—inevitably, magically—I'd feel great. Practice pushed me to my physical and emotional limits. And though I didn't know it was happening then, it changed me in ways that were undeniably profound and lasting. It taught me the importance of pushing through something unpleasant in order to let it shape you for the better, and that doing so would make you stronger in ways both observable and immeasurable.
My time in the water also taught me the value of exercise and how it could drastically improve my mood, my mind, and my outlook. As much as my mom pushed and encouraged me to swim, she didn't demand it. I could've quit at any point if I really wanted to. And I didn't. Some part of my spirit understood this was good for me. It was building needed and desired character—by submitting to this unpleasant routine I wanted little part of, and coming out the other end, I blossomed.
Now, I should say here: Exercise and fitness aren't something I often promote or speak about. Generally I find talk of one's workout regimen slightly embarrassing and shallow. There is something paradoxical about fitness. In one way, it is the epitome of a vain approach to living—focus on it too keenly and you risk celebrating only what's seen on the surface, and elevating it to a place where it's prized over other things in life like kindness and wisdom that are arguably much more important. But in another way, our body truly is the vessel through which we traverse this journey of life, and its dutiful upkeep is vital. None of our inner experiences could take place without this physical form we're able to inhabit and through which we can explore the world.
I've tried to think of fitness as a personal obligation—something I simply do and refuse to think about too deeply. I take the choice off the table. I work out because I realize it's part of what I am meant to do. I don't need there to be a point to it, or have a goal, or a result in mind. Those aspects of exercise can work to motivate some people, but for me, they distract. As long as I'm doing something active each day, I know I'm ahead of where I would be otherwise. I try to make it as basic as eating or drinking water. It's just something that's part of my life. It needs to be.
Over the past ten years, especially, I've noticed exercise has given me a direct outlet to channel anger and rage, and can turn a bad day around. There is something undeniably magical about taking a negative feeling and literally pushing it out of yourself and into a weight, and having that action result in a positive development for your body and overall health. That is true alchemy: taking the lead of negative emotions and transmuting them into golden energy.
Whenever I have felt bad, resentful, frustrated, overwhelmed, or just very dark, I can always push against gravity with those feelings and have them ultimately make me stronger or feel better. For me, no number of physical results are worth even a fraction as much as the positive mental impact exercise has on my mood. If nothing else, I owe it to the people around me to exercise, because it truly makes me a better functioning version of myself—more patient, more thoughtful, more calm, more focused, more human.
I'll never forget the contrast of feelings before and after those brutal swim practices. Before and during them, I wanted to die. After, I felt alive. I'd almost float afterward as I ran back outside to my mom's waiting car. Opening the passenger door, I would see the seat I had left reclined all the way back in my pre-exercise state of sulking misery. I couldn't believe that earlier in the day I had been that person. It was unrecognizable to how I felt post-practice: clear headed, optimistic, and energized. Exercise is never easy, and is often painful, but it's always worth it.
For me, working out makes life more alive.
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