Years ago, on a visit to a new internist, I was asked to estimate how much exercise I was getting each week.

“Over the last year, an average of 505 minutes” I responded. “I have daily records going back fifteen years.”

My new doctor gave me a startled look before returning to her note-taking. “I’ll put that down as obsessive-compulsive,” she said with a wry smile and a shake of her head.


I started keeping daily records of my exercise in 1991.

In those days, essentially all of the exercise I got was on a bicycle. I was riding with friends nearly every day. Every summer a group of us rode our bikes from New York’s suburbs to the coast of Maine and for a couple of years the faster members of our group competed in formal races. In spite – or was it because? – of our intense rivalries, we developed close friendships with each other.

Overwhelmingly consisting of simple numbers, interrupted only a few times a year by stray words like “injured”, “sick” or “Maine Ride”, my exercise records exist in near-total isolation from their context. In a larger sense, though, they’re a map of my life.  


I still exercise as much as I used to – more, during the present isolation – but now other sports than cycling – particularly kayaking, swimming and (when the opportunity presents itself) skiing – figure much more prominently in the records than they once did. This diversification of my exercise patterns, originally designed to strengthen muscles that had gone wholly dormant, fits with other changes in my life.

One less-than-happy consequence of this shift in patterns is that I see my riding friends much less often than I used to – but that was going to happen anyway as we moved out of the rigid work/family/exercise schedules of our child-rearing years; the friends – at least the ones who are my contemporaries – have moved on, too (and been replaced in the ever-evolving riding groups by younger, now-faster riders).  

One consolation for the less social aspect of my changing patterns is that I have found that I enjoy kayaking, in particular, much more than I had expected I would. It offers a total immersion in nature and a highly varied set of experiences – sometimes placid and contemplative, sometimes wild and ferociously difficult.    


I’ve learned a few things from my exercise records.

One, which probably should have been self-evident, is that the human body responds promptly to mistreatment in the form of slack periods, weight gains and stress. We get slower and weaker quickly. Getting back into shape – or, in any event, faster than we had been – is a lot harder and takes longer (duh).

Even so, we really can become stronger, faster and healthier than we are, or even than we think we can be, if we devote enough effort (and self-restraint) to doing so. We can change our own bodies pretty considerably. I have done it. And then lost it. And then done it again. And so on, over decades.

At the same time, there are some things we cannot change. Even if we can (almost) always get fitter than we are now, over time we are going to get weaker than we were last year, and much more so than ten years ago.

There’s a clarity that comes from keeping records. I know, for example, that I’ve gained about 20 pounds in the last 25 years, and that even though I’m exercising more now than I did then, I’m nowhere near as fast on the bicycle as I once was; I’m sure I’m weaker in other ways, too.

Father Time will win in the end – at best we can win a few victories, then beat a slower-than-customary retreat into senescence.


Perhaps my doctor was right. Those few takeaways – each of which could have been anticipated with a few minutes’ thought – cannot begin to explain the attention I have lavished on my exercise records lo these many years. Nor can the keeping of these records be justified on any other obviously utilitarian grounds. Quite frankly, nobody else has cared, cares now or is likely to care in the future about what my records contain.

The data I so painstakingly record exist for my own amusement and edification. And, undoubtedly more to the point, for my motivation. Many a day I have steeled myself to go ahead and do a workout that I might otherwise have skipped, not wanting to record a zero. Many times I’ve knocked myself out to see if I could beat last year’s record; sometimes I succeeded.

The records mark time, both literally on a day to day basis, and figuratively in terms of the years’ undeniable patterns. The times are mine, and though they will disappear without a trace, they are dear to me.

I just hope I get to keep them going for another thirty years.

M.H. Johnston           

4 comments to Records

  • KH  says:

    How did you write this essay without using the word…… “fun”?

  • Eric  says:

    Thanks for your observations. I’ve got records from the last 20 years, in several types of media.
    It’s useful to look back and see how my weight has varied, and thereby remind myself that I am the master of this body (to some extent) and what I do and how I live does make a difference.

    Off to the rowing machine, and kayaking and hiking next week!

  • Vivian Wadlin  says:

    Well, bless your little heart… for making me know what a slug I am! It’s about 90 degrees right now, but tomorrow, I will go for a walk. A long walk.

  • Anonymous  says:

    You seem to me to be a man of some moderation – except of course in the exercise and exercise records area. How the hell have you gained 20 pounds in the interim? Ha! You were never a lightweight. Reminds me of the Vietnamese Pot Bellied pig who immediately upon being let to roam freely on the farm gains a similar 20 pounds…or more. Good job Mark. Keep it up.

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