- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 15, 2005

Exercise produces endorphins. That’s what all the magazine articles say. That’s what the exercise physiologists say. It’s universally accepted that rigorous physical activity creates endorphins that make you feel happy — dare I say, even euphoric.

I don’t care what they say; this simply is not true. Exercise produces pain, and only desisting exercise stops the pain.

Like countless middle-aged women, I give just one part of my body adequate regular exercise: my right calf muscle. This muscle’s job is to accelerate and decelerate my minivan as it careens down the streets of suburbia, carting children to their various athletic endeavors and events.

Engaged in a mindless “point and flex” routine, my right calf tones itself by performing millions of “reps,” moving my foot from gas pedal to brake pedal, brake to gas, gas to brake — over and over, mile after mile.

The only problem is, I have two legs, and the automatic transmission in my van leaves nothing for my left calf to do but atrophy — not to mention the rest of me.

The irony of this situation is not lost on my middle-aged physique. Here I am, desperately in need of regular exercise, which I don’t get because I spend roughly one third of my waking hours driving children to places where they will enjoy — you guessed it — regular exercise.

This brings me to the issue of fairness. Why is exercise a priority for my children but not for me? I even posed the question to some other parents at a basketball game: “Why do our kids get a healthful lifestyle while we parents just sit in the stands?”

“There’s no justice,” we agreed while sharing some hot buttered popcorn and avoiding the arduous climb to the top of the bleachers. Our hearts only race when there’s so much traffic on the way to the game that we have to sprint across the parking lot to make the tip-off.

The thing that really tipped the scales for me — in addition to my burgeoning hips — was the sanctimonious attitude I saw growing in my teenage daughter. Clearly, she thinks I’m lazy, if not lacking in athletic ability.

She has no recollection of years spent in the child care room at the health club. In those days, I huffed and puffed for long stretches on the treadmill. I swam laps. I walked the indoor track. I even played tennis.

My children don’t know I used to lift weights, either. They think I’m only strong enough to lift bags of groceries, baskets of laundry and the occasional tall-skinny-caramel-cap-no-whip-no-foam to my lips.

They don’t know I used to be fit, and they think the very idea of my running is funny. People run, not mothers.

In an effort to find my inner fitness freak, if not simply to disabuse my daughter of the notion that I’m a slug, I vowed I wouldn’t accept a sedentary life any longer. Not to mention, my children look as if they belong on the pages of High School Runner magazine, and their mother wears sweats because elastic waistbands are more comfortable than pants with zippers.

I had to face the fact: There comes a time when you can no longer claim “running to the grocery store” as a workout, even if you are wearing sweats.

This is why I started walking. Not just walking — power walking — the kind where you look as if you’re rushing to get to a bathroom or a hair appointment. Walking purposefully — head up, shoulders back, arms engaged, abdominals taut.

My walking routine worked for a while — until the inevitable boredom set in. Even with music piped to my ears, walking is monotonous. Plus, it’s too easy to bail on my workout in favor of the day’s chores and activities (such as driving people to sports practice).

So I declared my quest for fitness by going public. I joined a women’s walking group that’s preparing for a marathon. For a small fee, I got a team shirt, a walking schedule and a certified walking coach who will teach me to do that funny-looking “race walk.” So far, when I walk at her side, I’m only looking at my coach’s right shoulder, but she swears that one of these days I’ll keep up with her.

Did I mention that all this walking takes place in the great outdoors? Nothing empowers a walker in training like a brisk stroll on a Saturday afternoon in subzero temperatures. Besides, once you lose the feeling in your extremities because of the wind chill, you hardly notice the pain.

But what about those endorphins? There’s supposed to be a chemical reaction to exercise that takes place in the brain. Dopamine is supposed to course through my bloodstream, creating a natural “high.”

I don’t get that. What I do get is a healthy sense of self-righteousness when, on a blustery cold day, I’m hauling my cellulite out the door for a power walk while my teenage daughter lolls on the couch in full potato mode. She’s between seasons.

It’s probably too late to change the shape of the bucket in my bucket seat, but I’m not discouraged. One of these days, I’ll be the only athlete in my family to complete a marathon. When that day comes, I’m going to get someone to drive me to the race, just to see how it feels.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 17 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks. com) or send e-mail to marybeth.hicks@comcast.net.

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