Photograph: Brent Hofacker/Alamy Stock Photo
Back in March, in the early days of New York’s lockdown, I bookmarked a six-minute workout video on the New York Times website. This was during the period before the longevity and breadth of the pandemic became fully apparent, when it was considered briefly acceptable to promote lockdown as a professional and personal opportunity. We should rethink our routines; we should get started on a novel; we should form new, better habits.
At best, these directives were delusional. At worst, obscene. Nonetheless, there remained a sense that, somewhere buried inside the global disaster, there was a chance for us all to reset.
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Of all the changes brought about by lockdown over the last six months, the most intimate have been wrought on our bodies. For those lucky enough not to have fallen sick or been rendered destitute, this change has registered mostly glaringly at the level of fitness. Like a lot of New Yorkers, before the virus I paid for membership to a gym that I went to, in a good year, once every four months, while getting all my exercise from running around. Between dragging the kids to school, running home, running to the store, running home, running to the subway to run to a meeting before running to pick the kids up from after-school, then running home with a final pit-stop for groceries, no formal provision for exercise was needed. I had no core strength and was out of breath after one flight of stairs, but my endurance capabilities, I was pretty confident, were up there with a triathlete’s.
When the pandemic hit and everything shut down, I assumed I could coast through as I always had. Running around my apartment clearing up after people would take the place of running around outside, and anxiety would take care of the rest. It would be like breastfeeding two babies, when I couldn’t shove food in my mouth fast enough to make up for the expense of nervous energy at the other end.
Well, to state the obvious: ha. Here we are in August and for many of us, the experience of the last six months is written on our bodies. It’s not just the zips and buttons that no longer clasp, nor the feeling of moving differently through space. It’s the physical swings and impulses – the lethargy, the sleep disruption, what Michelle Obama described as “low-grade depression” – that accompany these changes, to give what feels like a physical account of life under lockdown.
In my case, the impact of Covid has coincided, unhappily, with early stage perimenopause, so not only has my metabolism packed in and my motivation to move around evaporated, but I’m in a state of hair-trigger rage for at least a third of the month, to which the only succour seems to be the bakery department of Whole Foods. Every online order I make these days includes two frozen key lime pies, family-size, which I eat directly from the freezer and in a frenzy that is one stage shy of abandoning the spoon to tear them apart with my hands.
It has taken a while for the effects of this to register. Now I’m on holiday, a few hours north of New York, and have a chance to fully admire the fruits of the frozen pie diet. I don’t mind the extra weight, particularly; it seems almost fitting that external events so dire should result in some intimate, material change. But I do wonder if, at 44, this is it now; that this is a state of affairs that will be impossible to reverse. Habits formed over the entirety of my adult life – if I have 45 minutes of down time, for example, I’m going to take a nap, not go to a yoga class – seem unlikely to alter without the pain of greater consequence than having to buy new jeans. And I know my limitations. For a brief period, I deleted the frozen pies from my online order, but it seemed so punitive and miserable to eliminate a guaranteed pleasure that, after a few weeks, I put them back on again.
In March, I did that New York Times workout every day for a week, felt immensely pleased with myself, then promptly got bored and abandoned it. This was consistent with every experience I’ve ever had with organised exercise in a way that seemed almost reassuring.
Most of us understand, now, that we don’t need to emerge from lockdown with new attitudes and skills, and that it’s OK to be sad, mad, anxious and depressed. Beyond that, perhaps, the greater lesson is that it’s OK simply to carry on being who we are.