Life In the Fit Lane

Are you using your body for real — or going through the motions of working out with no practical purpose? Maybe it’s time you integrated your fitness pursuits with what you love and who you are.

“I WAS IN THE BEST SHAPE OF MY LIFE.” If you haven’t uttered that phrase yourself, you’ve heard it from a friend or relative – someone reminiscing about his or her high-school days on the swim team, that post-college hiking excursion through Europe, the time he or she trained for a year to complete a marathon.

These fitness memories are usually fond and often accompanied by some sort of story (or tall tale) involving good friends, great adventures and a higher purpose or goal. Yet there is rarely any discussion about the exercise routines these endeavors entailed. Not much is made of the early morning hours on the treadmill or the number of reps done on this or that weight machine. That’s because, in most cases, the workouts weren’t the big deal; the experiences were.

Most people don’t really mind working hard when they’re following a passion or doing something they love.

That used to be me. During the summer after my senior year in college, my friends and I were still trying to figure out what we wanted to do with our professional lives. We spent our days working odd jobs – construction, secretarial work, driving delivery routes – and sweated out our nights on a set of public tennis courts equidistant from our respective apartments.

There were lights, so we would play well after dark: singles, doubles, mixed doubles, Australian doubles, and a few other odd games we invented. We played when it was hot and humid. We played when it was cold, cloudy and windy. We were obsessed. We were having a ball. We were in the best shape of our lives.

A few years ago, our group gathered for a reunion. Some of us now had strollers in tow; some were on our second or third career. Fitnesswise, we were mostly a little worse for wear. None of us, except our friend Tom, could help lamenting that lost summer, when we worked and played so hard we barely noticed we were doing either.

Tom wasn’t lamenting the summer of tennis because Tom had never gotten off the court. Like the rest of us, he had pursued his chosen profession (computer analyst), and then started a family (wife, two kids and a bull terrier). In the early morning and on weekends, though, he kept working on his game. Today, Tom plays in two high-powered leagues, works as an assistant tennis coach at a local high school, and looks and feels as good as he did under the lights in 1989.

That encounter with my old friends got me thinking about my daily exercise routine (or occasional lack thereof) and about the fitness challenges that face most people. Like many, my job requires that I sit at a desk most of the day fielding phone calls and tapping out emails, which often leaves me feeling a bit lethargic when the whistle blows. Sometimes, making my way toward a rowing machine or a stretching mat, I struggle to stay motivated. I get the feeling I’m just fulfilling another obligation – like a kid who eats his vegetables because Mom says so.

Wondering what I could do to stoke my fire, I thought about Tom. I also remembered my lifelong chum Tim, a teacher who hits the gym early in the morning so he has the energy to go Latin dancing late at night. I flashed back to a conversation I had months ago with James, a father of two and a nationally renowned music critic, who says he would have burned out long ago if it weren’t for those fellow writers with whom he plays basketball three times a week. I also tracked down my friend Christine, an ordained minister, to see if yoga was still an integral part of her daily, spiritual discipline. It was.

Then I called Len Kravitz, PhD, coordinator of exercise science at the University of New Mexico and senior exercise physiologist at IDEA Health & Fitness Association. He confirmed my suspicion that people who live active lives – vocationally, avocationally, or both – are more likely to work out regularly and to stay fit and motivated for the long haul.

“There are great psychological benefits of having fitness goals beyond the gym,” Kravitz says. “It can improve self-esteem, self-confidence and self-assuredness. It can also lead to a feeling of mastery and provide a great deal of motivation.”

Speaking with Kravitz left me wanting more. So I decided to survey a few other people who have successfully fused fitness with their best-loved interests and activities – people whose workouts are for a reason.

Here are the stories of three very different people, all living life in the fit lane.

J. MATT KEIL

Keil grew up a star athlete. He spent his adolescence playing golf, tennis, football, basketball and baseball in Beaver Dam, Wis., a town with some 15,000 residents and one high school. He got accustomed to playing for enthusiastic crowds and seeing his picture in the local paper. The seminal moment in his athletic career, though, occurred during his freshman year, when he was warming the bench during a home basketball game. Instead of being focused on the game or checking out the cheerleaders, he found himself captivated by the drummers in the pep band.

For the next three years, he begged his father for a drum kit. His dad finally gave in during Keil’s senior year, but with one condition – he could only practice on Friday nights when the family was out for its weekly fish fry.

“I connected immediately with the rhythm,” says Keil. “Because I was already very athletic, I think the physicality of it was already in me. The drumming came really naturally, really quickly.”

Eleven years later – after playing varsity golf and tennis in college and completing a six-month stint with a semipro basketball team in Hanover, Germany – the now 29-year-old account executive lives in Minneapolis, Minn., and plays drums in two indie-rock groups: Kubla Khan, a horn-driven pop band playing material reminiscent of old Chicago or Steely Dan, and the harder-driving Hi-Test, which Keil describes as a cross between the Foo Fighters and Jeff Buckley.

He still shoots hoops a few times a week, thinks about teaching tennis again and enjoys hitting the links during the summer. Despite the athletic nature of these extra-curricular activities, though, what motivates him to get to the gym each morning is that, come nightfall, he knows he’ll be grooving behind his drum kit – in practice or at a local club.

“I would say that staying fit is the most crucial thing to my drumming,” Keil explains. “I’m self-taught, so I don’t have excellent form, and I’ll forgo technique sometimes to entertain the audience. I very much throw my body at the drum kit. I’m willing to crack a cymbal or push my body past the breaking point – because I can and because I know it’s more fun to see a drummer beating the snot out of stuff.”

Keil’s workout routine is three days on, one day off. Each 90-minute session begins with 10 minutes of aerobic training on a treadmill or bike, followed by 15 minutes of stretching. He mainly concerns himself with keeping his core muscles flexible, often paying particular attention to his lower-lumbar region, which can get stressed-out sitting behind a snare drum. In the weight room, Keil works his chest, shoulders and back on day one; legs and abs on day two; biceps and triceps on day three.

“Strength training is a must,” he says. “If I don’t stay on top of my routine, I can really feel the wear and tear when I play.”

Over the years, Keil has seen his hand-eye coordination sharpen as a result of his training. That’s served his musicianship, he says, and it also comes in handy whenever he decides to pick up a golf club or a tennis racquet. Training has also helped Keil develop his mental discipline and improve his focus while performing and competing – experiences he describes as similar in many ways.

“I have come to believe that, if you put your mind to it, you can do most anything,” says Keil. “That kind of focus, to me, is what goes hand-in-hand between athleticism and the arts.”

Keil underscores a point frequently echoed by people who’ve successfully integrated their fitness pursuits with their other passions: There’s a deeper sense of purpose and meaning behind these workouts because they are a reflection of more than what these people want to achieve physically; they are part and parcel of the way they approach their lives. The satisfaction they get from their workouts is derived not just from their accomplishments in a particular sport, but also from the focus and energy they contribute to it.

“I have a ritual for every single sport,” explains Keil, “and it’s the same thing with drumming. It’s that continual search for a certain zone that keeps me coming back for more and more.”

LYDIA ANDERSON

Experience Life‘s senior art director, is a person who has always enjoyed being in motion. As a girl, she threw herself into ballet, and she spent her teen years raising and training horses. She stayed active through college by doing aerobics and working out at a club, but found she missed being outdoors. She also missed working with horses, which by then had emerged as a core passion.

“Right after I graduated college in 1987,” says Anderson, 39, “I worked as a wrangler on a dude ranch in Estes Park, Colo. After that, I knew that someday I wanted a life in the country. I wanted to live on a horse farm.”

But when Anderson got married, had kids and started pursuing a professional design career, she found she suddenly had less and less time for equestrian pursuits, or even for getting to the gym. “Being fit and active was still really important to me, so I did my best to work fitness stuff in around the edges,” recalls Anderson. “I did workout tapes all the time, and rode this old Exercycle we had around the house, but I never really got into it. There was no joy in it for me, and I think that’s why I was probably in the worst shape of my life during that period.”

Then, in 2000, Anderson and her husband, Steve, got the opportunity to buy her grandparents’ 10-acre hobby farm near a picturesque river town 45 minutes south of the Twin Cities. They transformed an old outbuilding into a horse barn, built some fences and cleared some trees, and within a few months, Anderson had officially launched her girlhood dream: She was living on a horse farm.

“Right away, it felt like everything I’d ever wanted – the time outside, the physical labor, the opportunity to ride almost every day.” All of which meant Anderson got something else in the bargain: a built-in fitness regimen.

Today, the couple lives on the farm with their two daughters (7-year-old Irina and 11-year-old Loretta) along with two horses, a pony, a dog and three cats. To keep the farm running, Anderson puts in at least 90 minutes of hard work daily. First there’s the maintenance: grooming the horses, cleaning the stalls, shoveling manure, hauling shavings for the stalls, and moving 50-pound bags of grain and heavy buckets of water from place to place. Then there’s the hay. “Every summer there are 600 bales of the stuff that need to be stacked in two different barns,” explains Anderson, “and I spend the rest of the year throwing those bales around. That’s guaranteed to give you a really strong back and arms.”

Finally, just in case her heart needs a bit more exercise, there’s plenty of snow shoveling, leaf raking, fence mending and horse walking (she tries to walk each horse for 20 minutes a day if she doesn’t get a chance to ride).

Anderson practices dressage and combined training (an athletic type of riding that includes jumping), so her rides are typically intense cardiovascular and strength-building endeavors, most of which last about an hour. “It’s a physically demanding sport,” notes Anderson. “Especially on an ex-racehorse who doesn’t always want to behave.”

Anderson says that her entire way of life has changed since moving to the farm, and while her schedule is dense, she finds it deeply satisfying. She often rises in darkness to do chores in the barn (being outside and feeding the horses first thing in the morning, she says, “really helps clear my head”). She then sends her kids off to school before heading to work in her grandfather’s old art studio, which she has converted into an office. When the kids get home, it’s back to the barn to feed and bring in the horses, then dinner and family time, and then – on many nights – a few more hours of office work before “hitting the hay.”

Lydia has also noticed that she has much more physical stamina. She says she finds it easier now to deal with the inevitable stress that comes with a steady stream of deadlines, phone calls and photo shoots.

Life on the farm, she says, is her own personal trainer. “You can’t just skip chores,” notes Anderson. “You can’t bow out of this or that exercise because you feel like it. There’s no ‘I don’t feel like working out today’ option. You have to feed the horses and clean the barn.”

Within months of moving to the farm, Anderson says, she quickly lost several pounds, her cholesterol dropped 20 points and her athletic conditioning has seen steady improvement ever since. “I pulled out an old workout tape the other day,” she says, “just to see where my cardiovascular level is at compared to the days when I was doing nothing but aerobics. I was surprised at how easy the workout felt now. I’m definitely in the best shape of my adult life, and enjoying exercise more than I ever have.”

Anderson acknowledges that her commitment to fitness has always been directly related to her general passion for movement and the outdoors. “I’ve always wanted to be strong and active so I could do the things I love,” she explains. “Fitness for me is a means to that end. I know I have to stay strong in order to live this kind of life, so I do. All the chores and care that go along with running the farm are definitely tough work. But I love it. It’s who I am.”

Jim Merli

AS A KID, Merli loved climbing: trees, jungle gyms – you name it. He never bothered to wonder why. He just knew he liked to figure out the fastest way to the top.

While Merli was attending middle school in Virginia, child’s play eventually gave way to more serious athletic pursuits: wrestling and bench-pressing. During college, Merli kept pumping iron and occasionally rode a bike or took a run to let off steam. After a time, though, the schoolwork began to pile up, and Merli says, “I let myself go a little bit.”

After leaving school, he would exercise now and then but never got into much of a routine. As his waistline threatened to expand and his muscles began to shrink, though, Merli suddenly found himself aching for a good climb. He began pondering what it might feel like to scale rocks as an adult. He even started buying magazines on the subject, just to familiarize himself with the terminology. Years would pass, though, before he would once again get off the ground.

That opportunity came four years ago, when the then 27-year-old Merli moved to St. Paul, Minn., and went to work for REI, a sporting-goods chain that caters to outdoor adventurers. Surrounded by people who loved to climb, he soon got up the gumption to take an hourlong introductory rock-climbing class at Vertical Adventures, a gym near his apartment.

Since then, gym workouts have held a lot more purpose for Merli – particularly when the gym includes a climbing wall. “I figured out right away that this was a great way to get exercise and have a lot of fun in the process,” says Merli. While he liked that climbing increased his cardiovascular fitness as well as his overall strength, Merli was also drawn to climbing as a mental adventure.

“From the get-go, I was drawn to the challenge of employing all these different kinds of movements – figuring out how to use specific holds that were in front of me to get to the top,” he explains. Merli was also reminded why he loved to scale heights so much as a youngster. “Finding the best route from bottom to top was like solving a riddle or putting together a puzzle,” he says.

It’s little wonder, then, that Merli prefers “bouldering,” which involves climbing a number of relatively short, low-to-the-ground rocks – or wall “problems”– without a rope. “The first big challenge is figuring out the best route,” he says. “Once you’ve selected a route, the average climb only takes around 20 or 30 seconds.” The problems are so difficult, however, that it can take dozens of runs to succeed, which requires a tremendous amount of physical strength and stamina.

Merli works inside the gym year-round in preparation for his seasonal outdoor climbs. “I train three to four days a week in the spring, summer and fall,” says Merli, “a little less in winter, unless I’m traveling for a climb.” His gym sessions are often three to four hours long. “If I’m outside, I work longer. I’ll spend a month in California climbing every other day, all day.”

Where has all this climbing gotten him? You guessed it – the best shape of his life. “I’m absolutely in better shape than I was during high school or college,” notes Merli. He credits not just climbing, but also the associated lifestyle. “Along with the climbs themselves, which build muscle and help burn body fat, you also end up going a lot of places where you have to hike, which can be quite rigorous.”

If it’s possible to develop an outright addiction to something this healthy, Merli says, he’s well on his way. During the day, Merli now works as an installation technician for art museums. But as his passion for climbing has grown, he’s begun to see his work as a sort of “day job.” If climbing would pay the bills, he says, he would gladly make it his full-time career.

Merli, like all the other exercise-loving people I know and quizzed, describes his interaction with his sport of choice as a sort of “flow” experience. “There can be times when you’re climbing,” he says, “and all distractions just seem to fade away. You’re not even aware of noises. It can feel very peaceful and calming, even if what you’re doing is rather difficult. I’d compare it to the runner’s high: You’re flowing through the movement and it’s effortless. You feel like you could climb forever.”

Listening to Merli, Anderson and Keil talk made me realize that I haven’t had this sort of fitness-flow experience in a long time – probably not since my tennis days. It also made me realize how important it is for me to reclaim it, whether on the courts or in some other quarter.

The key, it seems, is finding a sport that is not merely a means to an end, but rather an end in itself. It’s recognizing that the optimal fitness situation is not when you are exercising just to get your ideal body, but when your ideal body is the almost inevitable outcome of a rewarding, demanding form of work or play – an endeavor that draws you into it so completely that your life and your workouts begin to merge.

This, it seems, is when the magic happens. It’s when you start looking forward to the thing that most people are forever putting off. It’s when the struggle to get in shape ceases to be a battle and becomes a quest – an adventure that actually takes you somewhere. It’s when “the best shape of your life” is now, not some remote period of history. It’s when life in the fit lane starts feeling less like a rat race, and more like the only road you ever want to travel.

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