Like brushing your teeth

Sunday, November 15, 2020 - 1:10pm

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Illustration by Eileen Kelly

Nice weather in Ann Arbor in November is a rarity. So if you are like me and most students, you spent the last week trying to soak it in: going outside for a walk or run, having a socially-distanced picnic, doing work outside or hanging out in the Law Quadrangle. 

For me, this nice weather led me to think about why I value being outside. I thought about how growing up, my family valued taking advantage of any opportunity to be active, especially outside, which is exactly what I did this past week. I decided to go outside on a few occasions to run.

Growing up in an active family means many things, the foremost being that exercising is like brushing your teeth in the morning. At first, you may hate doing it and see it as annoying, but as you do it more and more, it becomes part of your everyday routine. It becomes habitual, instinctive and something you do that makes your day feel normal. 

At first I never understood why my parents would wake up at 5 or 6 a.m. to exercise. I would lay in bed, half-asleep and listening to them shuffle around in the kitchen, not imagining being able to run or cycle at such an early hour.  The early nature of their workouts made me view it as a task. 

But I slowly started to notice the differences between the days they would exercise and those that they wouldn’t. On the days of a 5 a.m. workout, my dad had the drive to take on a full day of work, my mom had the motivation to run in circles around me and my sister. On the days without one, they were slower, more irritable, and less productive.

By the time I was 12 or 13 years old, my parents would constantly encourage me to join them at the gym. They not only loved showing off to their gym friends that they could drag their kids to a 7 a.m. cycling class, but, more importantly, they wanted to share their love for exercise with me and my sister. They were hoping we could somehow pick up the same passion and find the same appreciation for what the power of exercise had to offer: visible health benefits, mental wellness and an activity that gave them a break from the real world chaos. 

Spoiler alert: It worked. 

Nonetheless, this passion and appreciation was not instantaneous, and it took a tough lesson to get me to the mindset I have today. 

When I was 15 years old, I began attending Cycle for Survival, a nationwide movement to beat rare cancers, because the founding partner, Equinox, was the gym my mom attended. Cycle for Survival was founded by a woman, Jennifer Goodman Linn, whose passion for cycling was cut short by her cancer diagnosis. The objective of the movement is to raise both money and awareness for rare cancers through stationary cycling. The countless Cycle for Survival events I attended had two overarching messages. The first was that fitness can bring people together for something much greater than the self. The second was that of the phrase that was said at every event: “Ride for those who can’t.” 

All the years I had participated in Cycle for Survival, I felt the power of this phrase: When Jennifer’s husband would stand on the stage at each event and talk about how cycling was his late wife’s passion or when both current victims of cancer and survivors would cheer us on from the sidelines after they courageously shared their stories. However, it was not until a little over a year ago that this phrase became a reality for me. 

In September of 2019, the Friday before Labor Day Weekend and the start of my sophomore year, my mom was diagnosed with a fast-growing, aggressive mutation of Acute Myeloid Leukemia. My life as I knew it was more than changed: It was unrecognizable.

The months leading up to this, however, were anything but normal: My mom, who is known for her ability to take two or more exercise classes every morning, could no longer make it up a flight of stairs with the same ease. Now a trip upstairs looked like a trip up Mount Everest. Her naturally olive skin no longer glowed with the same tan; rather, it burned with red patches. Her beautiful green-blue eyes, which make you feel as if you are looking into the clearest part of the ocean, became dreary with the sadness that her life was inevitably changing and the frustration that she couldn’t figure out why she was unable to do the things she was accustomed to doing. 

This uncertainty and frustration followed us into my sophomore year move-in, which was cut short by my mom’s doctor, who had asked her to leave Michigan a day early because she needed to see her before Labor Day Weekend. We were told that on Sept. 3, she would start aggressive chemotherapy at New York Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.

My mom’s diagnosis ultimately led to me searching for control in any and all aspects of my life — since everything seemed so out of control. I needed something constant. I turned to fitness. I needed an outlet for everything I was feeling: sadness, helplessness and anger. I wanted to get all my energy out using fitness, never imagining how much more I would get than just a way to cope with my grief — losing the woman my mom was before her diagnosis. I didn’t go to fitness for advice or a shoulder to cry on. Instead, I went there for both myself and my mom. 

It became a part of my day that was set aside for me so I could be the best and strongest version of myself for not just me, but more importantly, my mom. This is when I realized, like my parents, I needed something to shift my mood, to make me productive (especially during the start of the school year), to change the trajectory of my thoughts from negative to positive. I needed something that would restore not only my confidence, but also drive during a time when I was feeling so down. 

Each day as I walked into the gym, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I was able to do something that made me feel good, strong and powerful. The phrase from Cycle for Survival, “Ride for those who can’t,” rang through my head each time I stepped foot on the treadmill. I began running for my mom. I ran for the passion I had inherited from my mom, a passion that she was no longer able to nurture. I ran so I could be strong — not just for me, but also for her. I ran for mental toughness — telling myself that if I could run on incline, I would be able to face the hills of my everyday life. 

Fitness has since been an integral part of my everyday life, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. While it has been difficult to not have access to a gym or equipment, I have realized that I don’t need a gym to feel strong — I just need to move. Whether it’s virtual workouts over Zoom, incessantly using the Peloton digital app or taking advantage of warmer days to get outside, I try to incorporate physical activity into my days as much as I can. 

Fitness is so much more than the physical aspect of looking good. It is about the mental aspect, the toughness gained from setting goals and working hard to achieve them. I was able to find my own strength through fitness, which was translated outside of the gym in my academics; I was able to push myself to work harder to achieve good grades. I also was able to translate the idea that progress is not always linear in my everyday life. Some days a workout that was seemingly easy would be tougher than usual, the same way some days outside the gym would be tougher than others, but I was able to push forward. I began to see fitness as a privilege that generated power, rather than a punishment or a task. 

I now understand why fitness has always been like brushing their teeth to my parents. Brushing your teeth comes with its physical benefits, pearly white teeth, the same way fitness comes with its physical benefits, being in shape. However, to me, the most important thing the two have in common is the way it makes me feel. The same way brushing my teeth makes me feel clean and ready to start my day is the same way fitness makes me feel strong and ready to take on any challenge that may come my way.


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