I have understood the benefits of exercise to include maintenance, mobility, emotional wellness and a good reminder to breathe. I am a certified personal trainer, and I believe passionately in the power of movement.
Thanks to several recent job changes, however, I see that exercise as I've defined it for years is privileged. The idea of sweating it out at the gym after work is a luxury. The photo of a healthy breakfast bowl is a slap in the face to those who can't afford smoked salmon.
After a summer spent working light manual labor I thought that I had found the answer. Physical jobs can be the new chasing down your food activity of old: movement built into the workday can keep a person healthy and mobile. These people will stay fit and healthy, I reasoned, without needing to purchase a gym membership or make time for exercise.
But the expectations of a physical job can require movement that is often asymmetrical in its demands on the body--think of a production worker reaching and lifting in one direction throughout the day--as well as untidy, with awkward loads that are nothing like lifting the compact barbell. So the reality is that workers with physical jobs ideally still need functional exercise to prevent injuries.
But workers with physical jobs are often too tired for exercise.
I work 12.5-hour shifts at a hospital. I am on my feet for all but forty-five minutes of most days. I am walking between rooms, standing in rooms, moving patients, cleaning patients, changing beds. Occasionally I am pulled to a floor where I sit for the 12.5 hours while monitoring and interpreting patients' heart rhythms.
At the end of either the sitting or the standing shifts, my body feels different effects but the same result: it hurts to move. After I've walked all day, my feet feel unusable and beg for relief; it's all I can do to get to the shower. If I've sat, I'm sore and stiff. And although I know the proper form for lifting and bending, patients come in all shapes and sizes and I still get hurt. If the bed height suits my coworker's frame better than mine, or if one of any number of variables isn't perfect, the strain of moving a larger patient stresses my old elbow injury and creates a new one in my lower back. My willingness to exercise on the days between my shifts is often tampered by uncooperative pain or a need to rest and recover before the next workday.
It is at these times that I remember the aches and pains of my clients with factory and desk jobs. As their personal trainer, I took their complaints seriously but did not fully understand what their bodies were fighting. Because let's be honest: these lower rung jobs, of which I've held many, preclude the luxury of hanging out in the gym five days a week. You don't have the money for it. Your body can't sacrifice the time for exercise or you won't be able to function at your next shift without recovery from the last one. You want to eat healthy, knowing it would solve many problems you've been experiencing, but doing so takes time and money you don't have.
Or--and I've experienced this--depression turns daily living into a test of endurance, with exercise feeling like an unachievable Olympic-level event. Exercise helps with depression, of course, but that doesn't mean this tool is necessarily in reach of everyone. I remember a client who struggled with obesity and a family who bought cake instead of supporting her goals; the futility of meeting with me once a week--she couldn't afford more--eventually won out, and nothing I could say or do brought her back to the gym.
When I see fitness posts on social media, I am reminded of my early passion for lifting and the desire to share my accomplishments. Exercise is a wonderful hobby and a necessary activity for the aging body--which is to say, all of them--and a regular regimen helps everyone. But my current reality makes me see that there are others who can't have what I've been promoting.
We make our own reality, it can be argued; we are in charge of how we use our resources. To that I say this: walk in my shoes, literally, for twelve hours. You will find that your body rebels, will not and actually cannot perform; and that you haven't made enough money to afford the gym.
Though that lens, I view enthusiastic fitness posts--of which I've written many--like a billboard for an upscale restaurant in a poverty-stricken area.
It's been said that you can't talk to a child about grades if they're going to school hungry. I'd like to add that a similar empathy is needed when flaunting fitness, as circumstances hold many people back from doing what they need or want to do.
I will always exercise and will always promote this essential method to achieving health and wellness, but I am Amy, the Trainer With A Life for good reason. Exercise does not govern my life; rather, my life experiences influence the way I see exercise. My sore back and aching feet--your back and feet--teach me life lessons.