I just came across some great news for joggers. Researchers have found that strenuous exercise like jogging does NOT boost the risk of arthritis in one’s knees. A recent study enlisted nearly 1,200 middle-aged and older people at high risk for knee arthritis. Result? After 10 years, those who did strenuous activities like jogging and cycling were no more likely to be diagnosed with arthritis than those who did none. (See the July/August 2020 issue of Nutrition Action, noting a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.)
And according to a writer in The Washington Post, most data show that running actually helps keep knee joints lubricated. (See the report by John Briley on August 6, 2020.)
So…maybe I shoulda ran?
When my daughters were small, my husband and I often relied on PBS kids’ programming to keep us from going bananas whenever we were home with them for more than a few hours.
I’m still indebted to “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” for offering wonderfully positive content that expanded our daughters’ minds.
I can still remember many of Fred Rogers’s episodes and his delightful music. The recent films (e.g., “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) that highlight his music and the many layers of his unfailing kindness are moving tributes to everything he did. (I obliquely noted Rogers’s important role in our family when I briefly mentioned him in my 2011 novel, Jealous Mistress.)
Similarly, I can’t forget countless “Sesame Street” sketches and songs we watched over and over again. In addition to stalwarts like Kermit the Frog and Big Bird, I loved less-prominent Muppet characters like Don Music, who’d take out his creative frustrations by crashing his head on his piano keyboard.
One “Sesame Street” sketch I vividly recall focused on words than rhymed with “an.”
The setting is a rundown alley in a big city. Tall buildings loom in the distance. As the sketch begins, two Muppets garbed as gangsters breathlessly arrive at this spot. The savvier gangster tells his partner Lefty that “We got the ‘Golden AN’.”
The word “AN” is clearly written in bold upper-case letters on a metal object he’s holding. Explaining their “plan,” he points to a “tan van” and says, “This is the plan. You see that van? You take the Golden An to the tan van. You give it to Dan, who will give it to Fran.” He adds: “Everything I’m telling you about the plan rhymes with AN.” He takes off, leaving Lefty alone.
Lefty, who’s pretty much of a dolt, repeats the plan out loud a couple of times while a Muppet cop is watching and listening. The cop approaches, identifies himself as “Stan…the man,” and tells Lefty he’s going to get “10 days in the can for stealing the Golden An.”
Lefty then chides himself: “I shoulda ran.”
This carefully crafted sketch was clearly intended to teach little kids about words that rhyme with “an,” although much of it seemed aimed at parents and other adults watching along with the kids. How many little ones knew the meaning of “the can”? The bad grammar in the sketch (“I shoulda ran”) was forgivable because kids watching “Sesame Street” didn’t really notice it, and the whole thing was so darned funny.
But what has stayed with me over the decades is the final line: I shoulda ran.
When I was growing up, I always liked running fast, and I rode my fat-tire Schwinn bike all over my neighborhood. So I wasn’t indolent. But as I grew older and entered public high school in Chicago, I encountered the blatantly sexist approach to sports. Aside from synchronized swimming, my school offered no team sports for girls. So although I would have loved to be on a track team, that simply wasn’t possible. Girls couldn’t participate in gymnastics, track, basketball, baseball, tennis, or any of the other teams open to boys our age.
We were also actively discouraged from undertaking any sort of strenuous physical activity. It was somewhat ironic that I applied to be, and became, the sports editor of my high school yearbook because I was completely shut out of the team sports that I covered in that yearbook . And I foolishly gave up my coveted spot in the drama group to do it—what a mistake!
I had a somewhat different experience during my single semester in school in Los Angeles, where I spent the first half of 8th grade. Although sexism was equally pervasive there, girls at least had a greater opportunity to benefit from physical activity. Because of the beautiful weather, we played volleyball outdoors every day, and I actually learned not to be afraid of the ball! I was prepared, when we returned to Chicago (reluctantly on my part), to enjoy a similar level of activity during my four years of high school. But that would not happen. The girls’ P.E. classes were a joke, a pathetic attempt at encouraging us to move our bodies. And things didn’t begin to change until 1972, when Title IX was enacted into law.
Over the years, I continued to ride a bike wherever I lived and whenever weather permitted. I took up brisk walking and yoga as well. And I sometimes thought about running.
Jogging– less intensive running–took off in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Why didn’t I begin to jog?
There was a bunch of reasons. First, I was afraid of damaging my knees. I’ve always loved aerobic dancing, the kind popularized by Jacki Sorensen. I’d jump along with the music in my favorite Jacki tape, and I began to notice that jumping was possibly beginning to wear away the cartilage in my knee joints because occasional pain resulted. So I kept dancing, but I stopped jumping. I figured that running would place even further stress on my knees.
And then there was Jim Fixx.
I didn’t know a lot about Jim Fixx. He became a media celebrity when he published his best-selling book, The Complete Book of Running, in 1977, and his claims about the health benefits of jogging suddenly showed up on the news. But in 1977, I had a brand-new baby and a toddler, along with a challenging part-time job, and I couldn’t focus on starting something new like jogging. By the time I was getting ready to launch into it, I heard the news that Fixx had died of a heart attack while jogging. He was 52.
Fixx’s death shook me up. I didn’t know at the time that he may have had a genetic predisposition to heart trouble and he had lived a stressful and unhealthy life as an overweight heavy smoker before he began running at age 36. All that I knew was that this exemplar of health through running had died, while jogging, at age 52.
Chicago weather also stood in my way. Happily ensconced in an area that allowed our family to ride our bikes along Lake Michigan and quiet residential streets, and where I could take long and pleasant walks with my husband, I was reasonably active outdoors during the six months of the year when good weather prevailed. But during the harsh winters, confined indoors, I had less success. I played my Jacki tapes, I tried using a stationary bike (it never fit me comfortably), and I sampled a local gym. But I didn’t pursue strenuous exercise.
Now, learning about the recent evidence I’ve noted–that, if I’d jogged, my knees might have been OK after all–I regret that choice. My current climate allows me to be outside almost every day, and I take advantage of it by briskly walking about 30 minutes daily, much of it uphill. So that’s my workout now, and it’s a pretty good one.
But I probably would have loved running all those years.
It’s a bit late to start now, but I can’t help thinking: I shoulda ran.