Zen and the art of exercise

Each of us has his (or her) own way of combating the national obesity crisis. Some people eat a lot in the hope that they will lose weight when they finally explode. Some go on diets, because it makes them feel miserable, which they equate with being virtuous.

Given these choices, we should all be exercising instead. I recommend rolling up the newspaper and performing calisthenics with it. While it may not do much for your biceps, pectorals, deltoids or even your asteroids, it could have a very healthy effect on newspaper circulation if it catches on.

Yes, I know that exercise can be a nasty and inconvenient business. It can involve wearing tights, which many of us — in particular me — are well advised to avoid. Exercise also induces perspiration, which is not good on crowded buses. If exercise and public transportation are not mixed, however, there is no problem. After all, sweat is merely nature’s way of telling us we need a bath.

As it happens, I am a toiling runner and have been one for at least 15 years. Years ago, out in California, I had a midlife crisis and began running marathons, which is really all I could do because I couldn’t afford a red sports car and a blond girlfriend.

While my marathon days are over, I still call myself a runner, but I am probably more accurately called a jogger or even a plodder. I do not know the exact difference between running and jogging, but I guess it is about 5 mph — more than I can muster except when being chased by a dog. (A plodder is slower still. Dogs don’t bother plodders because there is no thrill in the chase.)

I am a traditional runner in that I run through the streets like a mad person. Some people prefer to do their running on treadmills. This is good exercise, but for my part, if I want to expend a lot of energy in getting nowhere, I can always just come to work.

This is not to slight this or any other form of exercise — to each his own. Yoga has swept America in recent years, and understandably so. Many people now have the ability to twist their bodies into eccentric positions, sometimes with their backsides in the air where their heads might normally be — which may explain how George W. Bush won the last presidential election.

Cycling is also great exercise and has the advantage over stationary bikes in that the touring cyclist gets to see real scenery — such as the inside of emergency rooms when he or she falls off.

While I enjoy falling off a bike as much as the next person, what really keeps me from becoming a pedaling fanatic is that I live in fear of mechanical troubles — a flat tire, a broken chain — that will leave me stranded in the countryside while dressed in clothing that is in the same league as tights when it comes to concerns about public decency.

No, what I like best is going for a simple, natural run. It takes no equipment except a pair of running shoes, an old T-shirt and pair of shorts.

Ever modest, I do not favor the very brief running shorts that some showoffs wear. I feel there is enough sex in our society without me inflaming passions. As it is, the ladies say: “Who is that handsome devil impersonating a snail? And what is he wearing: long shorts or short longs?”

What I love about running is finding unexpected sights. I am just back from a vacation in Westport, Mass., which is very close to the Rhode Island line. I ate, I drank and I ran.

One day out on a run, I discovered a historical plaque that I would never have seen from a car. It was titled “The Legend of the Turnips” and it explained how the Westport turnip, which it said was famous from Boston to Providence — not a great distance in our miles but huge, apparently, in the universe of turnips — was first grown in fields close by.

Who knew? This was almost as good as the monument to the chicken that stands in nearby Adamsville, R.I., another sight best viewed while pecking about in Reeboks.

Despite the heat, summer is the best season for running/jogging/walking/plodding. Get out there before winter comes and all the dogs turn into wolves and the showoffs in tiny shorts suffer frostbite in places that amuse the staffs of emergency rooms.

Now the road beckons. Why, you could establish your own Legend of the Turnip — involving yourself as the little-regarded plump vegetable who found new growth and became famous from here to down the street. Don’t forget to say “good morning” to me as you plod by. Misery loves company.

(Reg Henry us a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com.)

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