Before we start, we need to establish that I cannot possibly tell you what is best for you. This means that, once again, we’re going to lay down some principles, and then everyone can make a call concerning what will work in their own lives.
I’ve shared a bit of my own story before, but part of it bears repeating: there was a time when I had to give up exercise, and by exercise I don’t mean anything impressive and strenuous — I mean my gentle morning walk. I was in a period of decline. I had been taking almost daily walks that were fairly long since my youngest was a toddler. I often made him walk, too, because part of the deal was to wear him out enough to allow homeschooling to happen. (He’s always been an energetic little guy.) Needless to say, I wasn’t always walking very fast.
Even though I did this for years, it started to become hard. And then harder. I cut my walk shorter. Every day felt like the first day. My muscles were no longer remembering how to take a walk. Or so it seemed. I was so tired.
Eventually, for the sake of my family, I stopped walking.
Why do I say “for the sake of my family?” Because it got to where I couldn’t do other things — if I took a walk, I had to trade that for lessons or laundry or meals because I didn’t have the energy for all of it.
Principle 1: Exercise isn’t just about ourselves — it’s about others.
Let’s begin with laying the foundation of why anyone would exercise in the first place. We talked about this when we talked about P.E. — why ought P.E. be included as a subject among others? What makes it worthy of our time? Is it just health? Or maybe it’s that good health causes the mind to function properly, and since we use the mind in our school lessons, P.E. can be viewed as a tool that helps us have students who deal well with the “real” part of school? My friends kids recently started playing softball in P.E and I wanted to know more about it so I could better facilitate my own children’s physical education. My friend wanted to give her kids the proper exercise to fuel our children’s minds for their academic pursuits.
I like to go to Charlotte Mason’s views on this subject, which closely align with the last 2000 years of Christian classical education: we train the body in order to make it serviceable. It’s the training of heroes. Consider: who is more helpful when someone is drowning? The person who can swim, or the person who can’t? The person who can swim well, or the person who can only dog paddle? It’s a continuum, and not everyone needs to be conditioned like a Navy Seal, but the fact remains that the better conditioned we are, the more helpful we can be.
Because of this, we might be tempted to say something like all moms ought to exercise, even those who are low energy.
But our minds can go around and around in circles. It goes like this: if I exercise this morning, I might not have the energy I need to get through all of the lessons for all of the children today, so maybe, for the sake of the children’s education, I should choose to not exercise this morning — or at least not much. But, on the other hand, if I allow my body to get further and further out of shape, the children will only suffer more over the long term — so maybe I really should exercise this morning.
Exercise is the ideal, but we’ve already talked before about the tension between the ideal and real — the world we live in is not perfect, therefore all ideals will not be realized in the here and now, in this life.
Again, I think we need to respect our limitations and go from there. Some of us don’t get to be heroes — some of us are the ones in need of saving.
Principle 2: Exercise is just like everything else — it’s a use of energy.
Exercise uses energy. This is obvious, right? But did you know that you basically have one energy source, it’s called ATP, and it’s made by your mitochondria?
We are well past the days when little boys could be mocked for their belief in mitochondria (while simultaneously being out of breath and sickened by their malfunction), and yet many of us do not realize that these little tiny guys inside our cells — mitochondria — are responsible for how much energy we have. Mitochondria are the power stations in our cells, storing away energy inside the chemical bonds of ATP molecules. The body produces enzymes that break these bonds in order to access that stored energy.
People with chronic fatigue are already overdrawn in their ATP accounts. By just sitting there, being. So choosing whether or not to exercise is a real conundrum: it’s not a given like it would be for a healthy person.
But it’s also not a given that one ought not exercise. Some people say that exercise makes them feel more energized. I’ve never read a real study on why this might be (this doesn’t mean there isn’t one). One theory I have is based on the knowledge that some people, at least, produce endorphins after exercise, and endorphins can do all sorts of awesome things that aid in health and healing and pain relief and a general sense of well-being. So maybe the higher endorphin production more than makes up for the use of ATP? Or makes the body more efficient at producing ATP over the long term? I think it’s possible.
The question is where you are on the energy continuum. For me, there was a time when my morning walk was a huge benefit, and then there was a time when it was too much. It takes wisdom to know the difference.
Principle 3: Exercise can cause pain, and I don’t mean the good kind.
Your body makes ATP in three ways, depending on the nature of the demands you are making upon it. I like the basic explanation from How Stuff Works — it shows all three ways. The important thing to notice is the second way: lactic acid production.
Do you know what lactic acid is? It is what builds up in your body and causes the temporary pain that tells you to stop what you’re doing. For example, you’re lifting weights, right? You do one rep, two, three, and somewhere in there you reach your max. That feeling you get when your muscles stiffen up and they’re burning a bit? That’s lactic acid.
There is an interesting theory behind the pain experienced by those of us with chronic health issues — that our bodies are stuck in lactic acid production because our mitochondria are malfunctioning.
But in addition to this is the idea of injury. I tried Couch to 5K a number of times. Each time, I reached a point where I would injure myself — my ankle or my knee, usually. So then I wouldn’t be able to do any exercise, not even my walking.
I’m not saying that if you exercise, you’ll be injured — I’m saying pay attention. When I realized that I was always injured at a certain stage of the regimen, I was able to make a decision: do I just continue with the things below this level? Or choose something else?
I decided to shop around and find something that my body could handle.
Principle 4: What works today might not work tomorrow.
This is both good and bad news. In my case, it has mostly been good news. Yes, there was about an 18 month period where I couldn’t exercise at all. But we started to figure some things out in regard to my health, and those things paid dividends that I could cash in in the form of exercise.
The situations we find ourselves in today is rarely permanent, so don’t think that making a decision today is the same as getting married. These types of decisions rarely need to be permanent.
It’s good to have goals. I have some exercise goals — habits I want to build — for this summer. We can hold our goals loosely while still aiming for them. We can decide that even though we want to have the habit of exercising, today — just this one day — it really would be too much. And so on.
Try looking at both the big picture as well as the little picture, and plan to be flexible.
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