Move Your Skin

diverI often wonder how my brother David would have reacted to developments in the world had he lived. Would he have joined Facebook? Probably — he would have liked creating photo albums of his trips and carrying on conversations in threads with other athletes. I think Instagram would have delighted him, with his penchant for nature and travel photography, for capturing outdoor achievements.

I have blue-hued underwater shots of fish and coral from his first foray with new camera technology while diving. Images of him crouching next to a kangaroo in Australia, hand easily rested on the animal’s tan haunches. Shots of his adventure racing team scaling snow-capped heights in Montana. Photos of cyclocross races, colorful bikes hovering in the air after a jump. His social media feeds would have been beautiful and thrilling.

I think, too, about how he would have responded to quarantine. Though he isn’t here, I feel sorry for the exploration he would have missed — by extension, what others like him are missing. If I feel chronically bored and stir-crazy at home, he would have been jumping out of his skin. He would likely have had a half dozen trips planned across the globe that had to be cancelled. Races that were rescheduled. Adventuring limited to his backyard pond and suburban neighborhood.

But he would have moved his body. On a regular day, David easily squeezed in a 5k run. Before breakfast. He would have biked 20 miles with just a banana for fuel. In lockdown, his home weight bench would have gotten more use. At least he could have availed himself of those things despite having to stay close to home.

A lifelong flaky and inconsistent exerciser, I’ve been doing nearly daily online yoga classes and regular walks of 10k+ steps for the last 14 weeks. I went kayaking for the first time, and loved it. I even bought a nice new bike, inspired, in part, by my brother and how much cycling liberated him. I never thought I’d reach a point in my lazy life in which I even got this close to understanding how much getting outside and working my body would help my sanity; how I’m finally learning a little about what it offered him. We all know intellectually that working out reduces stress. But leveraging it like my brother did, rapaciously, and experiencing it within my body always seemed extreme — until now.

One day last week, I did an hour-long yoga class, a several mile bike ride, and went swimming in a friend’s pool. Afterward, I joked that I felt like I had done triathlon. But seriously, I realized that I was beginning to understand something else about David and his addiction to working out. I felt good. Healthy, strong, resilient. Mentally sharper. Now, if a day goes by when I don’t do something physically challenging, I feel logy, crabby, foggy-headed. I believe I can safely say I have finally learned.

I read an article in the New York Times about those of us desperately missing handshakes and hugs, even fist-bumps — how physical contact with others is usually such a healthy way to connect and cope, to decrease anxiety and depression. What to do now that we humans aren’t supposed to touch? The author offered this surprising alternative:

“When you move your skin, you’re slowing down the nervous system and the production of stress hormones,” Dr. Field said. “I think people who are home alone are going to have to do a lot of exercise, a lot of walking around the living room to stimulate, to move their skin. That’s what’s really critical for health.”

It explains why I have eagerly embraced long walking dates with friends as well as enjoyed them alone while listening to music through my earbuds. Why I jump on my shiny bike for a 15-minute romp through the neighborhood and am fully enlivened by the wind in my hair and my legs pumping. Why, at long last, I yearn for a Yoga with Adriene routine before I “go” to work, despite still not being a morning person.

As I imagine David would have, I yearn for a drive to some remote and spectacular natural place, where I might hike up high, challenge my muscles, move my skin. A place to be amazed by the beauty living all around me. I want to sweat, to heart my heart in my ears, enjoy the rush of endorphins, find a good view. Take some great pictures, post them on social media, wish I could share them with my brother.

Photo either by David Boyd or of him underwater.

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