How an Exercise Routine Changed My Reading Habits

As my life has changed, my reading habits have necessarily changed. When I was in middle school and high school, I found my footing as a fantasy reader, filling my time with many books. I still remember finding Meredith Ann Pierce’s Darkangel series on the school library shelves and feeling like I was the only one who knew about it.

In college, I had little time for pleasure reading, but when I did read outside of class, it was recommendations of friends that pushed me out of my usual reading. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, Alice Walker’s Revolutionary Petunias, and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, fully frightening under the George W. Bush regime.

After college, I traveled and books became necessary and more scarce. Books are outrageously expensive in Australia and New Zealand, even secondhand, so backpacker book exchanges were my friend. I couldn’t carry more books than the one I was reading (it was before ebooks were pervasive), so I left each read at the hostel or WWOOF I finished it at. I found some unexpected treasures, such as Benny and Shrimp by Katarina Mazetti.

I became an avid reader again after having children, when you’re glued to the couch with a little person glued to you. I had an ereader by then and always had a book in progress. Did you know that if you dry your hands between turning pages you can read on a Kindle while doing the dishes? Ebooks allowed me to discover books based on descriptions and read-alike suggestions, as those grainy covers were too tiny to judge a book by. I went from Cinder to Soulless to London Steampunk to The Iron Seas. Sometimes the algorithms do work.

I also got into audiobooks, finding them a faster way to both read a book and still get the dishes washed. Audiobooks let me read while caring for littles and going to grad school part-time. They let me become a super reader, as it was my only hobby, folding neatly between vacuuming piles of sand off the stairs and doing group projects on tablet use in schools.

Now I’m in my 30s and reading is part of my professional work. I always have an audiobook (or two) on the go. I have a small stack of books to read in physical form, but my time is so stuffed with other obligations that sitting down time means arranging play dates, scheduling summer camps, and doing paid work for my jobs. When I do sit down to read, it’s with my kids. The Wild Robot is delightful, but I also like to read adult books. Time for sitting down and reading for myself has become hard to come by.

The Change

Until a couple months ago when my husband bought an exercise cycle for our downstairs room. We’re now of the age, and of the Western lifestyle, where our GPs always suggest that we get in more exercise. I’m a long distance walker by preference, taking two- or three-hour walks by myself, clearing my head and enjoying being outside. High intensity workouts turn off my brain and bore me, and I just won’t follow through if that’s the workout I’m supposed to do. So, yep, those two-hour walks will fit right between taking the kids to swimming lessons and hustling to the grocery store while they are at a birthday party. An at-home stationary bike fits in with my life right now. I can put the kids to bed, spend 30 minutes on the bike, then finish the dishes, and head to bed. No scheduling in leaving the house required.

The cycle is awkwardly placed (aren’t they always?) right in front of my bookshelves and I realized that I could use reading as an incentive to get some light exercise. I know that this isn’t a revolutionary idea. People do it all the time with TV shows, but I’m not good at TV so it wouldn’t motivate me. I know that no one ever finds time, you can only make time for things important to you; I make time to read to my kids, but I’d stopped making time to read to myself. Now that my doctor reminds me that I need to make time to exercise my body, why not make that time also count towards something else that I want to make time for?

My form is terrible. I’m not trying to train for a race, or reshape my body; I just don’t want to have a heart attack. I get to pedal along next to my shelves, thinking of the Anthony Powell quote, “I get a warm feeling among my books.” And I get to read. I get to read the way I did when I was a kid, or when I was settling babies and toddlers in semi-dark rooms. If I lace up my shoes and get on the damn exercycle, I get 30 minutes of uninterrupted reading time. Every day.

I can read books that I’ve been meaning to get to, but they don’t have an audiobook (or I didn’t jive with the audio) so they’ve just been sitting at the top of the list getting passed by again and again. I finally sat and read The Bear and the Nightingale. It didn’t click for me, but I now have an opinion on it. Because I have strong place associations for locations where I’ve read a certain book, I’m now waiting on the edge of my uncomfortable bike seat for Stephanie Burgis’s novella Thornbound, the follow up to her novellas Snowspelled and Spellswept, which I read while calmly pedaling in December. I’ll definitely be taking my hold for Once Ghosted, Twice Shy to the stationary bike, because my memories of reading A Princess in Theory are fixed in that room. While I’m firmly an audiobook aficionado and I have listened to some books while pedaling, I’m finding a lot of joy in reading text with my eyes. The placement of the words on the page, the speed with which I can read quicker than anyone speaks, the associations I have for character names because I am seeing them. I had kind of forgotten about those parts of reading.

I’m not going to tell you that this is the best exercise routine out there. And I fully acknowledge that having in-home gym equipment isn’t feasible for everyone; between space and cost, it certainly wasn’t an option for me until recently. But this set up I have now gets me exercising regularly. And it puts me in the mindset of self-care, that I can make time for myself, caring for my bodily health as well as giving time to my first love, reading. These are important ways to spend my time.

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