Workout, the Counterpoise to Worship

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Electronics has been good to me for nearly fifty years. My early interest in it inspired me to pay attention to my math and science courses in junior high and high school. I got an amateur radio license when I was fifteen, studied physics and electronics for two years in college, then started as a mid-level technician in a large electronics company near Portland, Oregon – a career move that resulted in my bachelor’s degree taking twenty-one years to complete. I shifted between teaching and engineering after obtaining a master’s degree in teacher education, and the last twelve years have been back in engineering, this time with the U.S. Forest Service.

Something I learned early in my engineering profession was that it was not an inherently healthy pursuit. It was a desk job, designing and analyzing circuits, and the most physical aspect of it was walking across the street to get parts or tools. Because I knew I could gain weight easily and didn’t possess natural strength or physical skill, I decided to try competitive bicycling as the counterpoise for my desk job. It was harder than it first appeared, but it was something in which I could see improvement if I was persistent in my efforts.

After my first full season of competitive cycling, I took the winter off from training. With a shortage of daylight and the weather offering frequent rainstorms and occasional snow, staying inside and warm seemed like a good idea. What I discovered the following March as the races began again was that I’d lost nearly all of my conditioning from the previous year, and getting back into competition shape was very uncomfortable. I decided after that experience to NOT take another winter off, so I took up running and cross-county skiing to keep my heart and lungs in shape and my weight down while I waited for longer days and warmer weather. With several activities in my collection, I could maintain my fitness level year round and return to the competitive cycling circuit each spring ready to race.

While the physical benefits of this regimen were apparent – being able to ride a hundred miles in an afternoon or run a marathon – I started to notice some mental benefits, too. There were meditative aspects to long runs and rides that came from paying attention to my breathing and focusing on what I was doing. I read Adam Smith’s book, Powers of Mind, his tour of mental exercises, philosophies, and meetings with gurus and doctors. That pointed me in the direction of Zen philosophy, meditation, mindfulness, and, perhaps, my eventual return to Unprogrammed Friends and an appreciation for silent worship.

As I separated myself from competitive cycling, I found that long rides still filled a need in my soul. The passing scenery and the deep, controlled breathing still created a meditative effect. The same was true for long runs and outings on cross-country skis. Aging has limited the distance I can cover and the duration of my outings, but I still feel some quieting in my mind and preservation of my strength as I recover from each outing.

Meeting for worship is a place where I practice mindfulness and being present. I tend to drift into problem-solving and list-making, but I catch myself and return to where I am and what surrounds me.

I have the same practice and distractions in running and bicycling. When I’m present, I feel which way the wind is blowing, listen to birds singing and squirrels chattering nearby, note the sounds that my shoes or bike tires make on the pavement, and monitor the number of steps or pedal strokes I take for each breath. It’s easy to drift into contemplating other aspects of life if I’m not in challenging terrain, but I frequently catch myself and return to being mindful of the current place and conditions.

As I continue to age, I find truth in the words of one of the distance runners profiled in Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run: “We don’t quit running because we get old. We get old because we quit running.” Running is not for everyone, but consistent physical activity offers prolonged mobility and mental capacity. In Younger Next Year, authors Chris Crowley and Henry S. Lodge advise that you choose an activity you enjoy, so you won’t drop it quickly should it become inconvenient. I have friends who bicycle, swim, row, and cross-country ski – conditions permitting. For people who live in climates with inclement seasons, having indoor and outdoor exercise options is critical to maintaining fitness year-round.

There are many days when I return home from work and have a strong desire to take a nap. I often had that same feeling when I was in my twenties and was competing on a bicycle  two or three times each week. I’ve learned, however, that craving the nap ends five-to-ten minutes into a workout. Once or twice a year, I’ll get into a workout and then realize that the day was supposed to be a rest day for me. I generally find that the way I feel at the start of a workout has little bearing on how I perform or how I feel at the end.

Starting – or changing – an exercise program is challenging, and it gets more challenging as we age. Several years ago, we had a good winter for snow in Montana, and I abandoned my winter running for several months of cross-country skiing. When I restarted my running program, I was surprised to find that I needed to walk several times during my half-hour runs, which I hadn’t needed to do the previous spring. It took about a month of running several times each week before running felt natural again. After two months, it felt great.

I now have two motivations to exercise regularly. One is to live up to the claims of research on exercise and aging: delay or prevent osteoporosis, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and other conditions generally associated with aging. I want to be an active member of my community for another twenty or thirty years, or more. My father lived ninety-seven years, so I think I have some potential.

My other motivation for exercise is to practice mindfulness, to find peace on the trail or road as I run, bicycle, or ski. Each outing provides an opportunity to give thanks and an opportunity to be present in my surroundings. This practice helps to condition me to practice my Quaker faith. ~~~

Ted Etter grew up as a birthright Friend in Berkeley and Eugene meetings, but he considers himself a convinced Friend following his years of competitive bicycling, career changes, and moves that eventually brought him to Missoula Friends Meeting (NPYM).