How to Outlive Your Husband: Marriage & Exercise

Would it be okay if I stopped trying to live forever and just had fun?

Back when I was in school, I played field hockey and basketball and lacrosse. Doug wrestled and ran cross-country. You can see the germ of our current conundrum right there: I chose team sports, and he was inclined toward the solitary contest. He’s an only child; I’m a middle kid who grew up fighting to win more attention from my p­arents than my siblings got. This is a strong, primal urge; there was a time, evolutionarily speaking, when getting extra food or the first boost away from danger would have meant my life saved over theirs. Doug never faced that fight. He grew up secure. Not me.

But like me, he feels that with the kids off doing their own thing, we owe it to ourselves as a couple to do some reconnecting. And he’s made stabs at reestablishing the sort of athletic simpatico we had back when we married 30 years ago. “Would you like me to buy you a bike?” he asked not too long ago, as he headed out on a long solo ride.

I thought about it. The lure of that Scottish idyll is still strong. But I know how he rides now; I see him come home soaked in sweat from a 30-mile jaunt. I don’t want to ride 30 miles on a bike on a sunny weekend day. And if I ride 10 miles with him, well, he won’t be getting much of a workout, will he? He’ll be going easy for my sake, and I hate the thought of that.

Just to see if this sort of standoff is common, I called longtime Main Line personal trainer Nancy McKenna and laid our dilemma out for her. Did she have other middle-aged clients in this situation?

“I’m in that situation myself,” McKenna, who’s 53, said. Turns out she plays soccer in a suburban women’s league, while her husband prefers triathlons. “Some people are more into team sports,” she acknowledges. “You’re looking for companionship, the camaraderie.”

Still, she notes, with so many exercise options available these days, there must be something Doug and I could do together. She suggests compromise: “He makes sure he gets his workout, and then there’s what you do together for the sake of spending time together. Something you do instead of going to the movies.” We never go to the movies. Instead, we watch sports, live or on TV: baseball, football, basketball, soccer. Not so much because he wants to. Because I do.

“It’s hard to turn off being competitive,” McKenna says, then pauses before posing a logical-sounding question: “Do you have to do something together?”

No. We don’t have to. But we both feel we should. Aren’t these golden years supposed to be filled with the suffused glow of a Cialis commercial? If we keep on exercising separately, might we not begin to do other things separately—like sleep, or take vacations? What if this is just the beginning of the end? Who wants to watch 30 years of marriage circle the drain?

Midday on a Sunday, my cell phone rings. “What are you doing?” my friend—let’s call her Jill—asks at the other end of the line.

“Heading out to visit Marcy”—my daughter—“in the city.”

“Oh,” Jill says, sounding a little crestfallen.

“What is it?” I ask. “Is there something you need?”

“I don’t want to hold you up.”

“I’m not in any hurry,” I assure her. And that’s when the story comes out: She started off on a long bike ride that morning with a bunch of other people. She made it 10 miles, but now she’s run out of gas. She’s beside an empty cornfield in the middle of nowhere. Can I come get her, please?

Of course I can. I drive the 20 minutes or so to where she’s waiting. I make sure I have a couple of granola bars and some water for her. She’s embarrassed by what’s happened. I stick her bike in my trunk and a granola bar in her hand.

Jill’s husband is a serious biker. He’s always taking part in charity rides, the kind that take as long as a week and reach across the entire state, or from here to the Shore. She’s my regular racquetball partner; up until a few years ago, when she hurt a knee, she was the only woman who played soccer with the macho Latino men down at the public park. She’s pretty fearless. Or she used to be.

“I thought maybe I could get good enough to keep up with him,” she says of her husband. “Now I don’t think I can.”

It’s my own worst nightmare. There are times when I imagine what it will be like one day when I’m stuck in a wheelchair and Doug has to push me around. When we were younger, I pictured us growing old together at the same rate. I don’t know where I got the notion that aging would
be fair.