The case against exercise
Illustration by Dave Cutler
E very morning I have breakfast with a group of close friends who have significant trouble walking. One friend wrecked his ankles playing basketball – in high school, college, eight years as a pro in Switzerland, and three times a week since his pro career ended. He now has a decided starboard list. Another friend tore up his knees playing collegiate rugby, then did in his spine, lower back, thighs, and ankles on the basketball court.
An occasional addition to our group stopped playing basketball after a hip replacement. Or was it two? I myself have three herniated disks in my neck because a dimwit put his shoulder into my face on a basketball court 17 years ago. I have not been able to look over my shoulder since. I have had two operations to repair a torn meniscus in my left knee, and five days after my 60th birthday, I tore my right meniscus. The consensus among the specialists I consulted was that the arthritis in the knee was so severe that shaving the meniscus might only make things worse. “Bone on bone” is how they described it. They said to gut it out for as long as possible before having the knee replaced. So, after 47 years, I stopped playing basketball.
The oldest member of our breakfast circle is 85. Dapper, slim, well preserved, he has not played any contact sports since he was in his teens. He has no trouble walking, climbing out of his car, going for a leisurely swim, or turning his head when merging lanes on the interstate. Free from the grinding muscular and skeletal ailments that afflict middle-aged people who continue to play contact sports long after it is advisable, or even technically feasible, he is not in any obvious pain. And he was born in the 1920s.
Looking back on things now, I wonder if I might not have been better off spending my life as a couch potato, never playing basketball or football or baseball or tennis or anything. Occasionally walking somewhere, certainly – perhaps to the car – but never doing anything strenuous. Not even golf. Then I might be able to walk up the stairs at night without having to take three Advils, apply heat compresses to my knees, and pray to St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes, “I know this is a stretch, but could you please help me get back downstairs in the morning?”
Had I spent my life as a couch potato, I might now have high blood pressure and stents in my arteries, but at least I’d be able to walk in a dignified manner to the drugstore to get my medication, instead of staggering, sometimes forced to beg compassionate passersby for support. Sure, I had a lot of fun playing basketball over the years. But not that much fun. Not enough fun to compensate for a neck that refuses to swivel. Not enough fun to make up for having to stick my head out the window and bellow, “Here I come!” every time I change lanes on the highway.
Longevity buffs will protest that I am forgetting the fitness component here. If I hadn’t done all this exercise, I might not even be extant. But even that is not certain. The guiding philosophy of my generation (a generation that has always mistaken catchphrases and clichés for wisdom) has been “Use it or lose it.” Well, I used it. And I still lost it. I used my knees and now I have permanently lost the ability to run, to jump, or to get up out of the Barcalounger without my legs buckling.
Over the past 40 years, people have persuaded themselves that getting out and engaging in some sort of physical activity is the only way to ensure fitness and happiness. I’m not so sure. Companies that sell running shoes always use thin, spry young people in their ads; they never use photographs of middle-aged joggers staggering toward oblivion. And the ads never show you the dark side of the Great Outdoors. Sure, the wilderness is fun in theory, but there are bears out there, and sometimes they eat people.
Surfing is tremendously invigorating and perhaps even emotionally uplifting. But surfers drown and get eaten by sharks. They collide with other surfers. They get pummeled by debris. They strangle on kelp. Kayakers get run over by motorboats, Liberian tankers, and jet skis. Rock climbers venturing into remote areas can’t get a signal on their cell phones and die of exposure. Or worse – look at what happened to James Franco in 127 Hours.
No pain, no gain
There is a natural tendency in this society to praise those who go for the burn, who boldly declare, “No pain, no gain.” People believe things they read on their T-shirts, such as “Pain is nothing but weakness leaving the body.” Wrong. Pain is not weakness leaving the body. It is a torn Achilles. Your T-shirt cannot make the pain from a herniated disk or a torn ACL or a shredded hamstring go away, as if you had only imagined that the ligaments connecting your knees to your quads were no longer intact. It might, however, come in handy as a tourniquet.
When I was a kid, I used to envy athletes. (Maybe not relief pitchers.) But now, I look at those athletes and see people who have trouble putting one foot in front of the other. Some of these people are in their early 30s.
Couch potatoes, on the other hand, seem to be doing just fine. People who have never jogged, never played contact sports, never gone for the burn are leading rich, happy lives. Some of them have even managed to stay skinny. In fact, the hardest thing about being a couch potato is having to sit around and listen to your physically active friends yammer on about how much their bodies hurt.
When I used to jog in the deep, dark woods, the thing that scared me most was the possibility of collapsing while training for a minimarathon and having my body devoured by birds of prey. This is something couch potatoes never worry about. Couch potatoes are never going to get carried off the court with a torn ACL. Couch potatoes are never going to keel over on a soccer field. Couch potatoes are never going to cramp up and get carried out to sea on a riptide. Couch potatoes are never going to have to figure out whether the dorsal fin circling them belongs to a harmless dolphin or a great white shark. No couch potato has ever been attacked by a cougar. Couch potatoes know that if they have to die, they will die in their favorite armchair, a bucket of gourmet popcorn on their lap, four pints of Cherry Garcia at the ready, with the remote control safely ensconced in their hand. And if they do have to get out of their La-Z-Boy long enough to fetch another bag of Doritos, at least their knees won’t hurt when they do it.
Regular contributor Joe Queenan is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and writes for the New York Times Book Review, the Guardian, and the Los Angeles Times among other publications.