My mother has been bugging me lately about finding an activity to get my blood pumping and my endorphins flowing. She says it will be “good for my mental health” and will “help me sleep better” or whatever. She works as a full-time nurse and part-time teaching Zumba and Group Fight at four different gyms — of course she would say that.
My sister echoes this philosophy. She was pulled up to varsity soccer as a freshman and works out all the time. They both have been on an indoor rock climbing kick this month, and the last time I visited home, they were so excited to flex their new and improved biceps. Of course they want me to exercise. They do it every day of the week.
But I, on the other hand, am what you might call the couch potato of the family. The “indoors enthusiast” if you want to be a little nicer about it. When my family invites me to go climbing with them, my typical response is “I don’t want to get sweaty today.”
Here at school, when my friends are arm wrestling, I like to volunteer for a match purely to demonstrate just how swiftly my arm is felled (I lose quite immediately). When I attempt one single pushup, my body sinks from the isosceles triangle position to that of a gravity stretch, and no amount of effort from my pasty, noodle-like limbs will push the ground away. I can do a pullup, though. If I jump.
It’s not that I don’t believe there are benefits to my being more physically active, it’s just that I typically can think of a zillion other activities I would rather engage in: a new book, practicing the piano, baking a beloved recipe. Running feels good sometimes, I’ll admit, but it’s better in theory than it is in practice. The energy it takes to change into the proper clothes and get out the door is greater than the energy it takes to not do any of that.
The annoyances don’t stop at just getting ready and leaving the house. If I listen to a song that’s slower than the tempo at which my feet are hitting the ground, then that’ll be super annoying. And I’ll have to take a shower after I get all sweaty, I hate getting sweaty, and then there’s the matter of carrying my phone to play music on in the first place. The cost of running music is a solid rectangle thudding against your leg with every step. Have fun with side cramps and monotony! I’m going to go make cookies.
My sophomore year of high school, I had to look my doctor in the eye and tell her that I averaged zero hours of physical activity a week, including walking. A bit embarrassing, but 100% true. I am delighted to report, however, that I am writing this with sore leg muscles and a small bruise on my right shoulder, because your friendly neighborhood hermit went sword-fighting.
My breath heaves in and out, in and out as the point is called and the duel takes a pause. I had forgotten what it was to feel my lungs rapidly expand like a parachute and deflate like a balloon. My body runs like a decently oiled machine, propelling life-giving oxygen from the shoulder-width spread of my feet to the fingertips holding the hilt of my epee. With a twirl of the sword and a return to position, I’ve recovered enough to spring back in the fray.
For those of you who don’t know, there’s a competitive fencing club on the University of Michigan’s campus. When I reached out to see if I could try out the sport for a day, the team was happy to help me learn. It didn’t even matter that I had never done any sort of martial arts before; the club allows anyone to join, regardless of experience (or in my case, a lack thereof).
When I arrived at the Sports Coliseum, I received one-on-one instruction on the basics, like how to stand and where to place my arms for “on guard” position. I got to hold three real fencing swords: the epee, the foil and the sabre. The epee has a handle like holding a pistol, and players can score by thrusting its tip toward any part of their opponent’s body. Foils have a more cylindrical grip and can only score by hitting the torso. A sabre is the closest you can get to a pirate sword, and any part of the blade can make contact with anywhere from the waist up for a point. My friend let me whack his helmeted head with a sabre.
The classic fencing lunge was much more complex than I realized. You don’t just learn how your body must move, but the order in which each movement must activate. That was the hardest part for me — concentrating on moving my arm before my foot, before my leg, but having the act remain as fluid as possible.
Awareness of the happenings in my own body is something I’ve admittedly never been good at. My body is never really on the forefront of my mind. I often feel like a walking brain on a stick, an introspective consciousness in the middle of a nebulous mist. But I think there’s something powerful about feeling grounded in your own body through the purposeful use of kinetic energy.
The practice of mindfulness often focuses on an awareness of the body in the present moment, zeroing in on as many of the five senses you can detect. The mind can’t be fully separated from the body, not really. Yeah, our brain is the control center, but the influence between mind and body goes both ways. The body is the filter through which the mind experiences information from the world, after all, and that sensory input is how we construct our entire reality.
To get my head out of the clouds for two hours on a Friday night at fencing practice reminded me that I am real, I am a presence in the world to be reckoned with. I carry a weight, I am tangible, I am substantive, I am of matter. I dig my left heel into the gym floor, let my legs bend to gravity’s will and urge my arms up to fight it, and remember that I am.
Advance, advance, retreat. Swift forward and backward motion. Stay linear, stay balanced. Don’t move one foot a step further than the other. Keep your left arm out of the way. Salute, on guard, fight. Point with your sword first, then lift your front toe, then extend with your front leg and propel with your back, but not too far. Keep your sword up when you retreat. Point, lift, lunge, defend. Advance, retreat. Point, lift, lunge, defend. Advance, retreat. And remember to think.
For some reason, that night, I won the first fencing match I ever tried. Beginner’s luck at its finest. My second two bouts weren’t so easy. When I went up against one of the current presidents of the club, she knew exactly how to thwart my one and only move. With every lunge I tried, she would expertly flick her epee in a spiral motion to bat my blade away. I wobbled a bit trying to keep my form, siphoning my attention down to my feet — an inadvisable field of view for the middle of a fencing match.
Salute, on guard, fight. Advance, retreat. Point, lift, lunge, defend. My opponent is left-handed. I can lean, twist my arm a bit and get a unique opening to strike. Wait for it. Advance, retreat. Lunge! We connect simultaneously, me at his torso and him at my shoulder. The impact is more powerful than I anticipated. Salute, on guard, fight. Advance, retreat. Point, lift, lunge, defend. My advances are parried every time. And I can’t stop smiling.
Fencing has a rhythm and a dance to it that forces your full attention on mechanically intricate movements of the body, and I had an incredible time attempting to learn the choreography. This couch potato isn’t looking so starchy anymore, and she’s even enjoying herself. Unfortunately, my mom and sister are right. Movement isn’t by any means a “cure-all” for daily sluggish woes, but chances are, it won’t make my day worse.
Thinking about moving around isn’t fun, especially when the couch to your potato is extremely comfortable. To quote John Mulaney, “it is so much easier not to do things than to do them, that you would do anything is totally remarkable.”
Be remarkable and remind yourself of your body by moving around in a deliberate way. Boogie down to some old disco music, walk around the block. Or, you could go so far as to pick up fencing. Who knows, you might feel better.
Statement Correspondent Danielle Canan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.