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Fitness After Fifty: The Book Nerd's Workout

Fitness After Fifty: The Book Nerd's Workout


Full disclosure: I’m 57 years old, and twenty pounds over weight – and that was fine with me, at least until I caught a glimpse of myself, ambushed by a an unexpected mirror. I can’t tell you exactly what I saw (I’m sure you can guess) but it did not match up with my svelte 20-year old self-image. It was a stiff dose of reality I couldn’t shake. All those pairs of pants kept getting tighter, and it wasn’t just the shrinking effects of the dryer, though I remain a staunch supporter of the shrinking effects of the dryer.

I had to fix the problem, but I knew my options were limited. Getting up at six A.M. and running five miles sounded good, but I had tried it before and I knew it wasn’t going to happen. A personal trainer would have been great, but it was a little out of my price range. Just thinking about exercising seems almost like the real thing. It takes up time, distracts you, tires you out. Plus you get that all-important sense of self-satisfaction: You get to say stuff like “Exercise, just happens to be a major priority for me!” 

Well it all sounded good but I was still getting fat.

My solution was to join the local health club.

They had treadmills – and a shower, which my current antique apartment did not. There were other people there – who could be depended on to snicker at me if I slacked off.  And I thought if  you give some one three hundred dollars in advance for three months of Health Club membership, you feel especially profligate and irresponsible (not to mention lazy and puny and lame) if you don’t go. It’s a good system – it puts every kind of pressure on you, and the combination usually works. 

I don’t really like listening to music when I’m exerting myself.  TVs line the walls, with the sound off.; I don’t like ear buds or ears phones when I am exerting myself. This is bad because I realized quickly that distraction is the key to getting through a workout. What do I do when I’m bored any other time? I read. But books were too cumbersome to set on the treadmill’s shelf. And the print too tiny to read while running.

Driving home on the third day, I realized the solution, with that familiar twinge of retroactive impatience and annoyance. It was so obvious! Why hadn’t I thought of it before?

That day I ordered a BIG print edition of  Virgina Woolf’s To The Lighthouse from Amazon. I wanted a book I had been meaning to read for a long time, something challenging. I wanted to improve my mind along with my body.

When the novel arrived in the mail, I razored out the first twenty pages and took them to the club with me. They fit perfectly on the Treadmill shelf and to my mild surprise they were utterly engrossing. And distracting: I ran six minutes before I even noticed - (three had been my outside limit before I partnered with Virginia).

What the lady herself might think of me vandalizing her novel to place the pages on an exercise machine, I have no idea. I hope she’d be pleased. The thing that might please her most I discovered entirely by accident. The big print renders her book shockingly accessible. Classic literature has always meant small type: brown pages packed tight with tiny indecipherable text. It’s like the way we see World War Two in black and white, from all those grainy newsreels. But people shot color footage then also (John Huston made some stirring documentaries), and seeing those times in all the hues and shades of the real world creates a haunting new intimacy with those people. It restores the dignity, the imperative human truth of their long-extinguished lives. BIG print does the same thing for the classics, removing the mystique of eyestrain and rendering the sentences, however antique and complex, fresh, approachable and seductive 

Good writers control your breathing: you literally hold your breath though a compound sentence and pant along with a series of short staccato ones. With Virginia Woolf in charge of my respiration and my mind taken up with Mrs. Ramsay’s walk into town with the egregious Charles Tansley, the exercise becomes almost incidental.

My next goal: twenty minutes at 4.5 miles an hour through all the inclines …and Mrs. Dalloway Then 5mph and The Moonstone! Six mph and Middlemarch. But why stop there? Seven mph and anything goes -- Mao II, Midnight’s Children, Mason and Dixon --

 This blog post is an edited version first posted 10 years ago by the author, who is currently doing an elimination diet to once again rid himself of those pesky extra pounds. 


Steven Axelrod



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