Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Fun and games on a slippery slope

One of the passions in my adult life has been skiing. I got a somewhat late start to the sport, at age 25, but I more than made up for that soon after by managing to get in 40 to 50 days on the slopes each season. I didn't want to be just an OK skier — I wanted to be a really good, even expert, skier.

I trace my breakthrough in that quest to a chance meeting in 1994 with a ski instructor at Stratton Mountain, Vermont. The instructor, whose name was Jep, happened to be skiing on his day off when we ended up sharing a chairlift ride. We were both alone, so he asked if I wanted to take a run with him. I agreed. He seemed pleasantly surprised at my abilities after that first run, and we hopped back onto the chairlift together, eagerly chatting on the way back up about books, life, and skiing.

As we slid off at the top again, Jep asked me if I wanted to "play a game" on our next run. "Sure," I said blindly, figuring that as an instructor, he knew what he was doing. He then asked me to follow him down the mountain as closely as I could, keeping the tips of my skis practically on the tails of his. He said if we collided, we'd just get back up and have a laugh. Oh sure, I thought, I'll laugh — so long as the nerves controlling laughter haven't been severed in a bone-shattering crash. I briefly considered whether Jep was insane, then dropped in behind him as he headed down a black-diamond trail.

I'm the sort whose competitive nature can get her in trouble, so I managed to stick right with Jep the whole way down as he carved turns at what seemed like warp speed, first closer to the trail's edge than I usually cared to go, then around lift stanchions and over a couple of rolls before we finally came to a stop, both of us breathless and laughing, our spines intact. This went on for a few more runs, until it was time for me to head home.

I was genuinely surprised that I could ski that well, but it was only later that I truly realized why that day seemed so magical: Jep had gotten me back in touch with the joy of skiing. I had become so focused on my goal that I had lost touch with the means of attaining it. Instead of playfully exploring the mountain and trying new things, I had become beholden to a set of instructions, positions, and expectations. My skiing had lost its spontaneity.

I never saw Jep again, but my skiing improved immensely after our afternoon together — I could simply ski, instead of thinking about skiing.

His little game came to mind as I contemplated why some people seem so averse to regular exercise. Perhaps we've made it too much of a chore (even the phrase "working out" has negative connotations). The movements we spontaneously and joyfully made as children — skipping down the street, tumbling down a hill, running as we played hide-and-seek — have been replaced by a rigid set of rules about what we're supposed to do and when we're supposed to do it, how we're supposed to look, how we're supposed to act.

I'd like to think that becoming fit, or at least fitter, doesn't have to be work. If you don't like treadmills or elliptical machines, take a brisk walk or jog in the woods. If you don't like resistance machines, drop down into the grass for some push-ups or find a suitable tree branch on which to do some chin-ups. Perform lunges while you mow the lawn and let your neighbors laugh — it'll be good for them, too.

If you're the indoor type, do some jumping jacks while watching Wheel of Fortune, dance along with Dancing with the Stars, or try some aerobic vacuuming while plugged into your favorite tunes.

If you're already a gym rat, then mix it up: if you've been doing three sets of 12 reps for as long as you can remember, try two sets of 8 reps with a heavier weight. Add intervals to your aerobic training. Take a yoga class.

My point is, there's no set way to do any of this: just keep moving, and have some fun along the way.

As I write this, I can still remember how the wind in my face felt on that beautiful afternoon at Stratton, when Jep taught me all over again what it means to ski. It felt like freedom.

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