Getting in Shape

“You don’t get in shape for baseball by playing it.”

As I watch the right outfielder trot back to his normal position, I chew that over for a minute or two. We’d just been treated to one of those insane bursts of speed that outfielders are called upon to make, from time to time, without much warning. They go from idling to flat-outting in less time than it takes me to squint and say, “Where is it?”

But outfielders aren’t thinking about where the ball is. Once in motion, they’re charging — not towards some predetermined, agreed-upon, clearly marked spot, but towards some rendezvous point that exists only in their mind’s eye view of their future desired state. To some point where the ball will be, or so they hope, based on a trajectory calculation undergoing real-time updates as the wind plays with the ball’s flight.

Then, at the last minute, if they’ve misoverestimated the rendezvous point, they reach back and catch the ball practically blind, or twist around and do their own squinting into the sun. Ballparks are positioned exactly to put the outfielders at this disadvantage in a typical afternoon game.

Or, if they’ve misunderestimated the ball’s path — or estimated it exactly correctly but been unable to get there in time by staying on the ground — they leap through the air, stretching out their gloved hands, achieving full horizontality just before executing a full-frontal smackdown on the ground. More often than seems reasonable, or even possible, they then hold up that gloved hand in triumph. Got it!

And then they trot casually back to their starting position, where they stand around for the rest of the inning. And, maybe, the next.

It is this disparity between how ballplayers spend the bulk of their time on the field — standing around — and those occasional out-of-the-blue, bat-outta-hell races to a rendezvous with, they hope, a catch, that has caught my friend’s attention. He’s exactly right: They can’t get in shape for those bursts of effort — they can’t develop the cardiovascular capacity, the leg strength, or the agility — by just playing the game.

It seems sort of silly, in a way. Shouldn’t simply doing an activity also be enough to prepare for doing it? Yes, if I ruled the world. But it is not so: not in baseball, and not in life.

Having never been physically active, I don’t put high demands on my body. I don’t call on it to suddenly sprint across an outfield or to run cross-country for a few hours. It doesn’t need to lift great weights or to climb great heights. It can even get by, year after year, without balancing on a surfboard in a crashing wave, or on a narrow ledge without crashing into a precipice.

So I had calculated, maybe subconsciously, that doing the things I enjoyed — gardening, walking, and kayaking now and then — would be enough for me to continue doing them. Crouching down in the garden and getting back up, as many times as it took for the spring and fall clean-ups. Levering myself up and over boulders on that hiking path without losing my balance. Helping to lift that kayak up onto the rooftop carrier and then down from there and into the water.

And if I realized that those recreations might one day be beyond me — that they one day would be beyond me — it still didn’t occur to me that I had to make a special effort to go on being able to climb the stairs in my house without thinking about it. To squat to retrieve things out of low kitchen cupboards. To lift the groceries out of the cart, into the trunk, out of the trunk, and up the stairs from the garage into the house. Because to go on being able to do things, it should be enough just to do them, right?

Not so much. And so much for intelligent design, if we needed any additional evidence.

Recent rudeness from my shoulders and knees — and the muscles or lack thereof surrounding those joints — has caused me to recalculate my trajectory. I can see one possible future careering towards me and I don’t like it. But how to avoid that unwanted rendezvous?

I’ve never been physically active — I think I’ve mentioned that — so it takes something to get me moving in the sense of really working. Enter, stage right, my will-you-still-need me, will-you-still-feed-me birthday. Yes, as you read this, I have just celebrated my 64th birthday. I am now in my 65th year. I can see 70 standing just over there, smiling and waving, and then having to sit down, pooped from all that unaccustomed exertion.

And so I now embark on a six-year project to get stronger. To change my trajectory, since 70 is inbound at a pretty predictable rate. My commitment to myself is this: At 70, I will be — if not exactly sinewy — then at least fitter. If I can’t be fitter than I am today — if the wind gusts in unexpected ways, changing what’s possible for me — then I will at least be fitter than if I hadn’t started.

To keep myself honest, I commit to recording my progress at least semi-annually, in an ongoing documentary. Herewith, the first episode.

Because life, like baseball, is a game I can’t get in shape for just by playing it.



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10 Responses to Getting in Shape

  1. Jim Taylor says:

    I like your outfielder analogy, and the lesson you draw from it about your own health and longevity. But I wonder if you’ve overstated your case. You can take exercises to sustain your physical fitness, certainly. But how do you maintain, or even enhance, your mental fitness, except by thinking? Will doing five hours of sudoku daily improve your ability to decipher the abortion conflicts? Are there exercises that can improve your empathy quotient? And even if there were, wouldn’t they become an artificial environment, which becomes the opposite of what you’re hoping to enhance?
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – I hadn’t been thinking about the mental aspect, but I figure that reading widely and maintaining contact with people younger than I am are my best bets for maintaining mental flexibility.

      • That, or finding yourself in a helluva mess that requires every neuron you can call on to get yourself out of it!

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Laurna – Ah. Well, yes, that would be another approach. I’ll pass. I hope!

          • What I meant is that some research shows older people stay more youthful if they have big challenges to meet, problems to solve. Not that they are the authors of those problems but that the call on their resources keeps them mentally and even physically fit. Taking on the role of Senator certainly would qualify for that type of mental gymnastics, although I was thinking more about the sorts of problems that keep me from snoozing over my knitting in a rocking chair, or I would have phrased my comment more gracefully.

          • Isabel Gibson says:

            Laurna – Not sure there was anything less than graceful about how you phrased it. Some days it seems to take every neuron I have just to get through the day, so adding more seems Wrong, and doing so deliberately, Egregiously Wrong. But problems often come uninvited, which was my first thought. But taking on new challenges – like, oh, say, videography, just to pick something at random – that seems Right. Even though it clearly requires more neurons than I have . . .

  2. Marion says:

    There are a few good lessons here for those of us seeing 70 waving enthusiastically in the not-too-far distance. I was inspired to try your modified half-pushup. I did 5, with maybe a little less dip than yours. Results pending, for as we know, only tomorrow will reveal how MY shoulder feels about it.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Marion – The great thing about strength training (as I recall from a brief period in my youth) is that there is fairly rapid and measurable improvement, allowing for the context of the starting point. Hope your shoulder holds up!

  3. Jim Robertson says:

    Happy belated birthday Isabel.
    Brave of you to be doing this in “public”, but it does give you some incentive I guess.

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