I love to cook and often reach for kitchen metaphors to explain life. I imagine my attention, for instance, as a stovetop. My priorities go on the front burners; less essential to-dos simmer on the back; and sometimes I flip the heat off the non-important things when I have too many flames going at once. When my son came along, for example, a major re-organization happened, and some of my passions—date nights, reading, exercise—got pushed to the rear to make space for parenting. Sadly, a few of those lights went out, and it’s only now that Felix is 5-years-old and moving toward greater independence that I’ve had the energy to re-ignite them.
That might sound like a sad experience, but it’s actually been clarifying (if you’ll forgive another cooking image) because it’s helped me realize how important some of these passions are. Most fundamentally, I’ve learned how essential exercise is to keeping me not just sane but functioning at my best, especially as an introverted parent. This came as a surprise to me more than anyone.
When I was a kid, I never participated in organized sports and chafed at the term “athletic.” Athletes have good hand-eye coordination, sharp competitive edges, and cooperative team skills, I thought. That was not me. I felt gangly and physically awkward and struggled to open jam jars. I enjoyed sweating but felt calm and blissful afterward, not hyped up and aggressive. I preferred solitary activities such as running and yoga. In fact, I liked being alone so much, I usually ran in silence and not to music, which distracted me.
Then Felix came along, and exercise went from being a normal part of my week to an extravagance. I could do it only when the grandparents came to visit for a weekend, say. Otherwise, I felt guilty sticking my hard-working, fully employed wife with solo parent duty just so I could go to the park and run circles in the sunshine. That seemed unfair to her, and I pushed exercise far back on the burner hierarchy.
As my son left toddlerhood, time became less of a factor, but then money woes plagued me. My wife is the family breadwinner, and we’re a middle-class household. Joining a gym, buying expensive sneakers and socks, or taking a yoga class all felt like luxuries I couldn’t afford. I figured I should tighten my belt so we had more cash for babysitting, my son’s private pre-school program and after-school enrichment, or the family vacation. Of course, I didn’t need to tighten my belt literally: without regular physical activity, I was expanding.
That’s how it went for a few years. If I had them to do over again, I’d do ’em differently— because I felt increasingly like something was missing from my life, something vital. At the time, I would have said that my confidence and physical energy were not as high as they could have been if I had been exercising. But recently, I’ve learned I lacked something even more fundamental.
With a 5-year-old in public school, I now have the time and the cash to join the YMCA. For the past few months, I’ve been going about three times a week to use the elliptical and the rowing machines. Maybe because I am taking some time off or simply because I’m older now, I understand: exercising doesn’t just improve my body—it benefits my spirit.
For the first hour of every morning, my role is to support my family. I make breakfast and prepare my son’s lunch, and I help my wife get him out the door smoothly, dressed and ready for a day in kindergarten. When they leave, I dive into my writing work. In the afternoon, I’m on dad duty, hearing about the highlights and low points of my son’s day, talking to parents while he tears about the playground, helping him with his homework, and trying—though not always succeeding!—to be pleasant, loving, engaged, and patient. At night, it’s time to cook dinner, then clean and spend time with my wife, or go out with colleagues or friends.
I’m telling you this not because I think anyone cares much about the particulars of my schedule but because, like every parent who works, I occupy a variety of roles, and it seems that I am always playing some part. There is a bit of myself that I’m constantly extending into the social sphere—whether it be as a parent, husband, friend, or colleague—and, as every introvert knows, that’s draining. Maybe I’m not going to collapse flat out drained (though on some days, it is just that), but this slow suck of my energy and focus prevents me from performing to the best of my abilities. By week’s end, I can feel tired and irritable, if not down and depressed.
Unless, that is, I exercise. That’s one time during the day when I’m just me, a body in motion. I can run out my frustrations or work up a sweat when I’m feeling stuck in some aspect of my life. When my brain tires, I flip it off, bringing my attention to the body. I don’t have to talk to anyone or think about anything in particular. As my muscles burn, the verbal part of my brain quiets, and I recharge. Maybe not literally—some days, I’d like nothing more than to take a nap! But mentally, it’s as if I took a deep drink of water in between courses and cleansed my palate.
I feel more fully human and complete when I have a regular opportunity to shut my mouth, turn down my interior monologue, and settle deep into my body. With exercise back in my life, I’m a happier, more relaxed, and more energized parent and husband, and my family has noticed. In fact, sometimes when I’m getting edgy, my wife will say, “I think maybe you should get out for a run.” And she’s always right—running revives me.
It turns out that stovetop of mine is big and powerful enough to cook more dishes than I thought it could. In fact, when I take the time to do the things that rejuvenate me, I’m better able to handle life’s heat.