What Sparks the Engine


I am not much motivated by vanity when it comes to exercise. Although I may want to look good at my upcoming college reunion, that desire will prompt me more to buy a flattering outfit than it will to do leg lifts. Furthermore, those ads on Facebook for a bikini body seem like hocus pocus to me, and I mentally block them out.

And though I fear my doctor’s disapproval, it doesn’t make me do anything. Whenever I am scolded, I emotionally shut down, while keeping a polite face.

Telling me I should exercise — as though activity or fitness were a virtue —  additionally leaves me cold. Adulthood is full of shoulds, and when a woman or man has diabetes or any chronic illness or disability, those shoulds are multiplied.

Still, I do what counts as exercise several times a week. The secret is that I’ve found motivators that are personally meaningful to me. These are threads that run through my life, and they apply just as well to exercise as they do to other habits.

Why do I exercise? Why do anything?

1. Do it to learn something.

Like a lot of kids who grew up in Massachusetts in a time before Nintendo and hundreds of tv channels, a lot of free childhood time in winter was spent on frozen ponds or at the local rink.

Advanced beginner

As an adult, I settled in Massachusetts, so when my children were young I got them on skates, and I got them skating lessons. Watching them learn, I realized I too wanted skating lessons. Watching adults older than me skate beautifully made me want to become a skilled skater, a graceful one, to do more than go around and around the rink like a hamster on a wheel, by my 50th birthday. (Yikes!)

At age 40, the group lessons began. At some point, I bought good skates. A year ago, I got up the gumption to find a private coach and commit myself to studying, practicing, and learning even more. In the fall, I joined a skating club.

I’m a better skater than I was six years ago. Learning has created a desire for more learning. Skating regularly at the same couple of rinks has also introduced me to older role models: people in their 60s and beyond who play hockey, speed skate, and figure skate with seriousness. I now imagine for myself a retirement filled with ice, skates, and skating peers. I’ll still be learning.

2. Do it for the social connection.

Although I can run, I’ve never really been attracted to running as a sport, especially a solitary one. Over the years, I’ve heard friends talk about how much they love running, I stood near the finish line when my brother Michael finished his first Boston Marathon, and I put on my sneakers and ran around the block myself a few times on a nice day. It hasn’t really taken, though.

In college, my best friend Jeannie, who was tenacious, would prod me to do things. The route for the Boston Marathon went right by our school, and one year after watching it she said, “Let’s run half of it next year.” We started running the next day, and when we returned to school in the fall, we kept going, working up to five miles several times a week. Although Jeannie and I didn’t do the Marathon — five miles was enough of an accomplishment for us — we stuck with our program.

Flash forward. I’ve started running again, this time prodded by my 15 year-old daughter Lydia, who a few weeks ago said, “Mom, let’s start running. I want to do a 5K in the spring.”


At Jamaica Pond, with daughter in front as the pace setter

Oh, no, I thought. Not running. What I said was, “Okay, honey.” Lydia found an iPhone app called Couch to 5K (in 9 weeks), and we’ve been going to a local reservoir or pond, ones surrounded by walking paths, and doing the program. I don’t know if I like running, but I do like being with Lydia, and we spur each other on. On the path, when I feel winded with my legs burning and I want to stop, I see Lydia a few paces ahead of me and push on.

Some days, it’s cold, and the gusts off the water slow us down. Other days, we sprint easily and feel our progress, and I say to my daughter, “That was good.”

3. Do it for pleasure.

When my three children were small, the most I managed to formally exercise was about once per week. On other days, I would push a baby carriage, make beds, go up and down stairs tens of times, do errands, vacuum, pick up fallen Cheerios and pasta from the floor after dinner, and get some (paid) work done. In the winter, I’d shovel snow. From April to November, I’d rake, dig, and plant.

Hooked on dirt

When I went to my endocrinologist every few months, and he asked me that inevitable question, “What are you doing for exercise?”, I’d answer him truthfully with some version of the paragraph above. I’d watch the monitor of his computer and see the phrase “gym 1x per week” appear as the official answer. I’d wonder why walks in the neighborhood with the baby or cleaning the yard didn’t “count.”

I didn’t stop walking the baby or digging in the dirt, however, and that’s because I liked doing them so much it didn’t matter if they qualified as official exercise or not.  

The baby is now 11 years old, and I no longer push a stroller around the block. But grass keeps growing, plants need tending, dirt is to dig, and I’m hooked on gardening. I can’t not do it. The many hours I spend doing it may not make it into any health center database, but I know it lowers my blood sugar (I have to test regularly when doing it), and for sure it helps my core stay strong. I appreciate these side benefits.

4. Do it in increments.

My days are fragmented — child tending, chauffeuring, commuting, work, housework, keeping in touch, meal prep — and they are additionally punctuated with blood sugar checks, carb counts, and boluses. I don’t have time for long days of golf or skiing, two sports I did as a teen and young adult.

Exercise occurs in short bursts, too, and seems wedged between other important or obligatory tasks. This works for me.

Progress is also incremental. On any one day of skating, I sense that I skate no better or worse than the day before. On any day in the yard, the plants look about the same as they did the day before. But when I reflect back on a longer time period, I observe real change, and it’s affirming.

Incremental, positive change — although it may accumulate invisibly — feeds motivation. It’s a system.

Readers, what sparks your engine?


Top image by Grace Guterman. Other two images by Jimmy Guterman.

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Jessica Apple
10 years ago

This is a great post, Jane.  I think I relate most to the paragraph about caring for little kids, and then next to the fragmented days.  I don’t run, but I should walk more. 

Riva Greenberg
10 years ago

I too am a walker. Why? I know it’s good for me, and i LIKE it. I’m lucky to be a city walker where I find every street a visual adventure. But, once while visiting a friend in Wales, I had him drop me off on the highway back to his village so I could walk an hour to his house. Crazy? I liked the challenge, maybe that’s also a motivator for me to have been walking already more than 3 decades and never see myself stopping. I’m going to be that 85 year old woman power-walking and smiling. Now… Read more »

10 years ago

The day I was diagnosed, my doctor, a GP, told me to buy a pair of running shoes on my way home and start running 5 miles a day, every day.  Can you imagine that?  I was not  even a runner.  But, I tried.  I worked up to 2 miles and ran most days, but I never really got that runner’s high.  When a complicated pregnancy halted my running, I put it aside for that and the next baby.  When it was time to resume my running, I tried, but after about a mile realized that I just don’t enjoy… Read more »

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