Numbers Game

We are all born to be slackers, and you can look no further than the gym to see many examples of how much effort we truly exert when we’re supposed to be trying hard. And when I say “we”, what I really mean is “me”.  In the case of my weight training regimen, or the times I sentence myself to 25 minutes on the elliptical machine, I kind of half-ass it—because I just don’t enjoy taking part in these things. I’ll get through them, but that doesn’t mean I’ll like it or focus on expending as many calories as my cardiovascular system would actually allow.

My lack of honest effort is the reason I think why my gym has tacked up this “Rating of Perceived Exertion” chart on the wall. It’s color-coded, easy to understand, and is undoubtedly aimed at people like me who risk lapsing into the 5 and below world of effort.

But I find the scale to be a bit problematic and perhaps even unhelpful at times. Level 5, for example, is supposed to mean that I am sweating lightly and find it easy to speak. This is the guidance. But if you asked me to pin this definition to a number on the scale, I’d be tempted to say it’s a Level 3. If I’m exercising using their expectation of a 5, then I’d feel like I could have performed a similar effort while horizontal on the couch trying to plow through my unread copy of Finnegans Wake (because this activity would produce the exact same effect).Such scales, while they are well-meaning, are simply too open to interpretation. Even while lying on the gym mats and attempting a Level 2 post-run stretch, I reflected on how perception of effort depends on so many variables: your body’s age (mine gets to turn 40 this month!), whether or not you are rehabilitating an injury, or other psychological stressors that reach out and hinder your physical efforts. All of these things play a role in the mind-body ability to perform at optimum speeds.

Gauging how hard I work in the gym is like a microcosm for the life on the other side of the sweat-coated double doors. What I perceive as a tough set of challenges can suddenly be reclassified once the intensity is turned up or I witness someone else doing something really crazy (like a pull-up, for example).

For reasons very human and varied, my life the last couple of weeks has felt a bit like a 7 on the rating chart. I’ve got lots going on, and the self-imposed workload, personal and health expectations are all leaving me with little time for slacking. A “7” on the gym wall says that I am currently doing “hard activity: heavy sweating, difficulty speaking”. This means that I am still quite able to carry on, but I’m definitely not at the Level 5 my body craves. At least that’s how I was measuring things up until the end of last week.

“I saw our friend X,” I was told on Friday. “He’s being made to leave his house, even though his wife just had a baby, he has month to make the next six months rent, and meanwhile he’s trying to find steady job.”

Whoa. That was all I could think as I continued to be filled in on details that were more and more disconcerting—things that I couldn’t even begin to divulge here. In an instant, my self-involvement disappeared and my life became a Level 1 (no exertion). Meanwhile, I imagined that our friend’s life must feel like a Level 9 (very hard activity—little left in the tank) and perhaps it was nearing a Level 10. Tough times.

So perhaps it’s not about the scale; maybe it’s just that we are all looking at the thing at different times wearing completely different lenses. I don’t know if it’s purely because I was told about this friend’s misfortune that I suddenly shifted my perspective and felt like I could withstand more. But it did tip things and lead me to believe that things were actually easier, and I should press on and adjust my attitude. My level of personal toil could be so much higher.

In a perfect world, I’d like my everyday life to be filled with an ideal combination of rest and good stress. At a constant Level 5. But life is not like that, and maybe from time to time we need a bit of guidance and insight to appreciate exactly how things are going.  I’m not saying that I’m grateful for the suffering of my friend because it helped me to feel better about my own trials (although I fear that this is the case). The bigger thing to remember is that we are all navigating life on this spectrum of shifting color that feels like it’s working with and against us at different points in time.


Friday morning I found myself out for another early morning run, hamstrings screaming while on roads that are both familiar and far more hilly than I’d like them to be. As I reached the top of the last incline and enjoyed a glorious stretch of flat terrain, I skipped over a sign that had been blown onto the sidewalk. I stopped for a second and looked back. It had an arrow on and it said, “Straight On”—a very British term and one that is heard often and easily understood.

Of all the instructional diagrams, motivational posters and life boosts that I find on the Internet, this half-soaked one is the aid that I find to be most helpful. No numbers, colors or extra words needed. For early mornings, complaining body parts and confounding life transitions, I’ll keep this two word mantra as my standard. It’s straight on as I run, and to not get too pissed off when a bus thunders by and provides me with a spontaneous drenching of puddle water. Because at the end of the day, the rest of the world is out there too, battling all kinds of stuff as they negotiate twisting life paths and their own set of workout routines.