McGrath: Row, row, row for health
Years ago, I sat in a rowboat with my father on Saddle Lake near Grand Haven, Mich. There were other boats on the lake, motorized boats and ski boats and pontoons, passing us and rocking us with their wakes.
But we had no motor, just my old man’s beefy arms pumping those 7-foot wooden oars. He had an unusual style, dipping first one oar and then the other in the water, in a rhythm timed magically to propel us straight ahead.
Yet I was unimpressed and impatient, wishing we, too, had an outboard engine to get us more quickly to our fishing spot. Rowing seemed maddeningly slow, inefficient and downright Neanderthal as a means of propulsion. I was tempted to dive into the water and swim ahead of him.
But my father was the picture of contentment, smoothly pulling our weight, along with that of the heavy 14-foot wooden boat, in his own sweet time.
If he could only see me now. Last summer, I took up rowing. Now, every single morning, after two cups of coffee and a couple of newspapers, I row either a boat or a rowing machine for 30 to 40 minutes.
Its chief consequence, and the reason I’m writing this column, is that my previously tormented back, legs, ankles, shins, neck and knees began functioning pain free for the first time in years. This is not an infomercial. I’m not selling an exercise machine or drug therapy. I am simply an aging and rickety ex-softball player, relieved to have found an exercise solution that I want to share.
Way back at age 26, I quit smoking Marlboros and took up jogging. The 1970s were still the Dark Ages of jogging, when shoes were heavy but thin soled, and police cruisers would slow down in suspicion when they saw you loping through the neighborhood.
I started going a mile per day after work, running the sidewalk and street and incrementally increased my speed, covering the distance in about six minutes. Problem was, I had gained weight from not smoking, ballooning from 180 pounds to around 240. While the daily mile runs made me feel better about myself, I stayed a very solid 240.
I increased my run to three miles. It was not easy at that weight, and following each run I would sit on the sofa at home lightheaded, the room spinning. Two weeks of that, and I weighed 243. What? The exercise increased my appetite, and I had no qualms over sating it because, after all, I was exercising.
Meanwhile, I developed a kink in my lower left back. Not a lot of pain but enough that I needed a pillow in the lumbar area for my daily drive to work. I asked the track coach at the high school where I was teaching if I was running correctly. He said I was sliding too much and needed to make sure I landed on my heel. I followed his instructions, my back getting worse.
The weight still stuck, and my wife convinced me that exercise alone wasn’t enough. So I started to diet. This posed an extreme sacrifice — eliminating potato chips, pretzels and cheese and crackers. Hardest was subtracting the 16-inch pizza for every episode of “Saturday Night Live.”
After getting down to 200, I got new shoes and increased my running distance to 4, 5 and then 6½ miles. Ibuprofen grew less effective for my back pain, so I took to running on the grass. This seemed to help, but we had to eventually purchase an expensive mattress. It felt good, but I was nearing 50. I only ran every other day because my knees swelled and stiffened.
I thought I had the back pain under control, having finally learned to run correctly, with a flatfooted shuffle, my weight tipped to the balls of my feet rather than the heels.
Around 55, when I had to finally buy a hospital bed so I could stand up in the morning, I quit running. But I had to do something — you can’t simply stop cardiovascular training cold turkey. So I started bicycling every day. It was easy and alleviated my back problems.
But I could not get rid of shin splints, whose pain keeps you from sleeping, sitting, even resting. The only time I was comfortable was standing. Envying horses who sleep standing up, I stopped biking. I thought about swimming but would have to join a gym in the winter time and didn’t much like exercising indoors.
So while ruminating over the situation in our summer cabin in Wisconsin, it hit me like a canoe paddle to the forehead: I should row. I even have a lake and a rowboat.
The rest is history. Besides being excellent aerobic and fitness training, rowing is about the only exercise that can strengthen the back and heal its pain and is recommended by orthopedic surgeons as therapy. It works. I was able to go camping and even sleep on the ground again. And I’m back to my honeymoon weight of 180 pounds.
Rowing also has allowed me to rest my legs and heal the godawful shin splints. Mind you, the legs can be used in rowing, but the main engine is the body core and abdominal muscles.
I row outside when water is near, communing with the fish and loons. When I’m traveling and staying where there’s no water, I use a portable, lightweight rowing machine that fits in the car and costs less than a stationary bike. And it paid for itself with the first two cancellations with my chiropractor.
David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage.