The Hedonic Rush of Exercise


Summer brings with it a certain set of rites and rituals — and everyone’s are personal and unique. For our summer-long ode to the season, T has invited writers to share their own. Here, the writer Nadja Spiegelman describes both the pain and pleasure of exercise.

My French mother mandated exercise for her children, though she explained away her own naturally slim figure with “I take the stairs,” and the exercise options she lay before my brother and I were, by American standards, strange. Granted she tried to enroll me in soccer and basketball, but my amblyopic approach had been to sit along the sidelines picking daisies, weaving them into chains. My parents were slightly disbelieving when I, who had clamored for dolls and insisted on fairy costumes, came out as a teenager, as was the pediatrician I still saw, who told me that she “knew actual gay people,” and I wasn’t one of them. I was always soft, always in the 98th percentile for my weight, always incorrigibly feminine. When the curve of my stomach began to compete with the curves of my new breasts, curve of waist against hips, my mother thrust Rollerblades at me and told me to get myself to middle school along the wire-fenced path that abutted the F.D.R. Drive. A year or two later, under threat that my summer plans would be replaced by fat camp unless I met a certain goal by June, my chain-smoking father and I began a ritual we called, “doing the stairs.” In the airless fluorescently lit shaft of the building where he had a studio, we ran up and down the five flights 15 times, pausing to sit by the propped open door to the roof, ragged breath audible over the central air units. A gym membership never occurred to anyone.

Exercise was always in extremes — a distance to traverse, an impossibly high number. Every summer spent in the vicinity of a pool, I was to do 100 laps per day. This, too, was referred to in a shorthand — “doing the laps” — that made it sound like normal penance for any vacation. Counting to 100 was a feat, much less swimming there, and my mind went numb with boredom while my family ate watermelon by the pool side. I associated exercise with punishment, with the glossy magazine’s injunction to achieve the perfect body, a waifish small-breasted form that no amount of hotel-room yoga would ever transform mine into.

And yet, when I graduated from college, something shifted. Left to my own devices, I discovered exercise could be as hedonic as any other indulgence. It was a matter of reframing the goal: not to become thin, which was as unlikely as tall or blond, but for the chemical rush in the hour after, for the night of dreamless sleep, for the feeling of my body, a diffuse, frontier-less thing (I was constantly tripping, bruising my hips against countertops, unsure where I ended and where I began) resolving into an object with a border. Exercise was time that was mine, where I owed nothing to anyone, and the next day’s aching muscles could be as secret a pleasure as bruises left by a lover.

Now every summer, whenever I can find a pool, I do the laps. The size of the pool may vary, but I always swim until 100. At the ocean, I choose a point as far away as I can — a distant boat, a rocky outgrowth — and swim to it and back. The pleasure is partly in the terror, halfway there, when the beach umbrellas are as small as glitter, that I will never make it back. The pulse of deep water, the blue-black whisper of down down down, the atavistic tremor as my body realizes, as all bodies have always known, how slight it is against an ocean. And then the adrenaline: thighs and waist and biceps concocted into ropes of steel, hands that slip and reach under the surface as softly as under a skirt, feet that pound impossibly far behind, until I am as long as the shoreline. I’m a strong swimmer but not a good one, and I gasp only to the right, eyes stinging with salt, until I can hear the shrieks and lifeguard whistles and ice cream bells, the sounds of the civilization I almost slipped away from. In the water, my body expands, loses itself, weightless. Back on the sand, blood still pulsing with the ocean’s beat, I contract back into shape, my shape, whose boundaries are finally my own.

Nadja Spiegelman is the author of “I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This.”


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