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Essay

Exercising Restraint

As a childless adult that works on a laptop, it has mostly meant sitting in my Beijing apartment, compulsively refreshing social media and simply trying to fill time. Frankly, as an increasingly boring married person, this isn’t too different from my normal life, except with the knob marked “dread” turned up all the way and the knob marked “options” turned way down.

By NewsChina Updated Jun.1

As we all know, everything is off-kilter due to the coronavirus pandemic. Depending on where you live, this could have lasted for nearly 100 days already. No matter where you live, it won’t be getting back to normal any time soon. In some ways, maybe not ever. 

So as many of our old routines have been shattered, with no obvious end date in sight, we’re all having to find ways to live in this new reality. For many people, it means figuring out how to survive when your income evaporates. For workers deemed essential it means facing dangerous situations on a daily basis. For frontline healthcare workers, it means confronting the human cost of the pandemic face-to-face. 

As a childless adult that works on a laptop, it has mostly meant sitting in my Beijing apartment, compulsively refreshing social media and simply trying to fill time. Frankly, as an increasingly boring married person, this isn’t too different from my normal life, except with the knob marked “dread” turned up all the way and the knob marked “options” turned way down. 

Over the last couple of years, a key pit for me to throw my time into has been that mainstay of boring people - the gym. It gives me a reason to wake up early, to ensure I’m asleep by a certain time, to pick healthier meal options that facilitate muscular recovery rather than subsisting solely on my preferred diet of beer and nuts. Basically all of the things that working from home under lockdown seems to make largely meaningless. Why do we need to wake up early if we’re not going anywhere? Why should we worry about how our jeans fit if we’re wearing pajamas? 

Of course, gyms were among the first businesses to be shut down, as indeed they should. The average gym is a petri dish of unwashed hands, spittle expelled through performative grunting and stale sweat at the best of times. The water runs brown when I wash my hands after a session at my Beijing commercial gym, which is apathetically wiped on a daily basis by a single extremely tired geriatric.  

In the early days of Beijing’s lockdown, I eschewed exercise entirely. Frankly, I treated it as something of a break from self-discipline. It seems many of us have been feeling an apocalyptic version of the urge that sees people at British airports drinking a few pints and eating vast greasy breakfasts before catching their 8am flight to Spain. I’m not alone in this, according to a report from Forbes last week that shows Americans are consuming more alcohol, junk food and Netflix than ever before amid their Covid-19 epidemic. 

But after close to a month of daytime drinking and a level of cheese consumption I now recognize to be self-destructive, I realized I should probably start to move again somehow. Particularly after I felt my head nearly explode after carrying a backpack full of cans of Tsingtao and bags of those nice chili and Sichuan-peppercorn peanuts up a few flights of stairs. 

Naturally, my inner-city apartment doesn’t have space for a barbell or a rack, and I doubt slamming a weight on the laminate wood flooring would make me popular with either my landlord or my elderly neighbors, who seem increasingly suspicious of me anyway amid news of imported cases from abroad. 

My first choice was jogging. I thought that it would have the dual benefit of getting me out in the fresh air and allowing me the pleasure of quick progression. That was true for two weeks, but it turns out that jogging doesn’t work well with the gung-ho, psych-your-self-up-with-heavy-metal-and-go-for-it approach of lifting heavy barbells and I quit, demoralized after some part of my lower leg wouldn’t stop complaining about the hard work of moving my feet. 

Next was something a bit closer to my comfort zone, doing various exercises on apparatus in my local park, which allowed me the nice part of jogging (being outside) with the unpleasant part (the jogging).  

That was a much better fit. Perhaps too good in fact. In no time at all, seizing on the chance to do something that felt productive, even egocentrically, I began working out twice a day, doing hundreds of pull-ups, thousands of squats, countless dips a week. While this has helped roll back the influence of cheese on my silhouette, a third consecutive morning of waking up after 10 hours of sleep but feeling more tired than when I went to bed forced me to admit that I was perhaps overdoing it and needed to allow the pendulum swing back in the other direction. 

So, I’ve also eased into a routine somewhere between exercising until your joints explode and eating peanut butter out of the jar at 5am, much as February’s high pitch of anxiety here in the Chinese capital has softened into Beijing’s new routine of constant QR-code scanning and limited horizons.  

While it’s not ideal, it could be much worse. Which, it seems, is the best that could be hoped for now.

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