The OR nurse’s comment was as predictable as it was common.
“So, this was a mountain biking crash?”
“Yup,” I replied with a grin, knowing full well it sounded much more impressive than it was. The crash that snapped my collarbone was a non-event. I wasn’t going fast, or jumping anything, or picking some extreme line at the Red Bull Rampage. I just lost the front tire on an unexpectedly slick rock.
“See,” she replied, “that’s why I don’t do exercise.” And then she proceeded through the same set of tired jokes about how if you see her running, you should run the same way, and so on. The jokes were funny, at least the first fifty times I heard them, and it’s not as if she was in terrible shape (at least from what you can tell from someone wearing scrubs). But to me, there’s a sad shortsightedness behind that line of reasoning; one that I hear trotted out far too often when people become reflexively defensive about the way they care (or don’t) for their bodies.
As I felt the anesthetic flow into my veins and my consciousness begin to go soft, my last thought was that this was nothing to be afraid of. There are far scarier fates than the surgeon’s scalpel.
What Fears Do You Choose?
Fear of injury. Of discomfort. Of finding out just how out of shape you really are. Of embarrassment. Most of all, fear of failure. For many people, the barrier between the life they live and the life they wish to live, especially when it comes to their health and fitness, is the fear they choose to follow.
Fear is a natural and rational emotional response to any sort of threat, perceived or actual. It is neither bad nor good, and everyone experiences it to some degree. A percentage of the population becomes crippled by fear, and require therapies or medications to control it. Another portion of the population thrives in terrifying environments, using fear to fuel them to actions that the rest of us can barely conceive, like jumping out of airplanes with no parachute or kicking down doors in the darkest corners of the world to take down terrorists or rescue hostages.
But for the rest of us, who occupy the middle part of the bell curve, the fear itself is irrelevant. What matters is what you’re going to do about it.
One of the under-realized benefits of the relative comfort and safety of our modern society is that we can largely choose what we fear. We’re no longer contending with other apex predators for resources, absolute war doesn’t threaten our cities and towns, and even rampant, deadly disease has been largely eradicated. We can choose to be afraid of terrorist attacks, though that fear isn’t statistically justified. We can choose to be afraid of the police, or ethnic groups we don’t understand, or worldviews that stand in direct contravention to our own.
We can also choose to act despite, and sometimes in defiance of, those fears. Instinctual responses to threats are often categorized as fight, flight, or freeze, but there is a fourth course of action that, I believe, is a big part of what separates us from the animals. We can see our fear, recognize and appreciate it, and then rationally choose to proceed anyway.
My Ongoing Relationship With Fear
The last eight years of my life have been largely devoted to answering the question, “why can’t my body do that?” When I was physically destroyed after a 15-minute session on , the answer was that I was fat and in terrible shape. So I bought a mountain bike on Craigslist and started riding. When I couldn’t breathe climbing hills on my mountain bike in California, the answer was that I needed to quit smoking. When I nearly failed my annual fitness test in the Air Force, the answer was that I needed to drop a lot of body fat and start running more. When I couldn’t lower my 5k time to save my life, the answer was to join a running team and learn the magic of interval training.
Underlying all of these pursuits has been a certain type of fear. At a deep level, I am afraid of ineptitude. The words “I can’t” are anathema to everything I believe about myself, the world, and my place in it. If there’s something I can’t do, or worse, somebody tells me I can’t do something, I immediately investigate and begin to attack the reasons why. It is likely, for example, that I never would have adopted running as a sport if my PT after my knee surgery hadn’t told me that I’d never be a runner.
I guess you could call that a type of “fight” response, but often it requires a lot more than instinctual fire. My physical circumstances and life experiences mean that the things I take on are never easy, very often not fun, and frequently scare the shit out of me. Mountain biking, especially since that crash a couple years ago, has become as much a psychological exercise in confronting fear as a physical exercise to keep me in decent shape. But I choose to do it anyway; to take on the risks and look my fear in the eye.
I’m not always successful. Sometimes I balk and freeze at a jump or a log-over that I know, rationally, I could clear. But then it’s my job to get back on, have another go, and try to do better next time. Greater rates of success come from greater frequency of exposure to the things that scare me. Sometimes that means entering a race I don’t quite feel ready for. Sometimes that means getting up before I want to, so I can hammer out a long run that I’m not sure how my knees will handle. Sometimes that means ignoring how heavy the barbell feels on my back, and trusting my body to do the work.
Fear is always present—but it is never an excuse to not try.
Assess, Choose, then Act
It’s not that I’ve overcome my fears. I’m still afraid of crashing, of getting hurt, of being uncomfortable. I’m afraid of missing lifts, of being shown up at the gym by athletes 10 years my junior, of getting destroyed in races by people who just started running six months ago.
But I am far more afraid of the slow, excruciating, humiliating slide into decrepitude that is the guaranteed result of sitting on my ass and doing nothing. I am afraid of losing the capabilities, however humble, that my body currently has. I am afraid of becoming trapped in the unspeakable, undignified hell of a nursing home due to circumstances I could have prevented. I am afraid of the type of pain and distress that can’t be solved with outpatient surgery and a few weeks of recovery, but instead doom you to a life of dependence on others for your most basic functions.
Broken bones heal. A broken life is much harder to fix.
Everything I have learned over the past decade tells me that the way we have come to understand aging is not only wrong but unnecessary. Your physical capacity may decline, but you don’t have to lose it altogether. Your mental acuity can be maintained through proactive work to preserve it. My fears have created a fire in me to do everything I can to avoid the fate to which I have seen too many others resign themselves.
Be mindful of your fears, and how they drive your actions. An undue focus on your short-term fears will guarantee you a lifetime of pain, mediocrity, and suffering. If you had to tell me the stories that you tell yourself about why you “don’t do exercise,” would it embarrass you? Would it sound unjustified even as it left your lips?
And if so, what are you going to do about it?