Guest Post! Leveling Up

This post marks the first in a once-in-a-while Tuesday guest post series I’ll be publishing on the blog, “What I talk about when I talk about health” (Why yes, I am a creative titler.)  The series aims to open the conversation about how individuals define “health,” how they’ve come to consider or reconsider health in their day-to-day lives, or other such related topics.

The first post is from the incredibly witty and thought-provoking Editor of the Salem Gazette, Sarah Thomas.  Thanks, Sarah!

It’s nearly 3 a.m. I should be sleeping, but I can’t. I haven’t slept in days; I’ve been too busy roaming the countryside on foot, bringing friends and acquaintances exotic delicacies or gifts from far-off lands. Right now, my back is laden with clothes, weapons, and gems – just a few short months ago, I could barely carry a quarter of what I can carry now, but with exercise and determination I’ve become much stronger.

I don’t eat much, these days. Mostly a liquid diet, tailored to my immediate needs, though every now and then I’ll munch a piece of bread or salmon steak. I’ve even tried some bizarre delicacies – cheese made from the milk of mammoths, the thorax of a lightning bug.

Three-thirty. I’ll sleep as soon as I kill all the zombies and wizards in this cave.


The life I’m talking about, of course, is my character’s life in video games, in this case my current obsession, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. If your experience with video games doesn’t go much beyond making plumbers rescue princesses, let me tell you that the size and scope of this game is staggering. There are thousands of quests to undertake and choices to make. You can be a two-fisted brawler or an arcane sorcerer, a political partisan or Machiavellian opportunist, a noble hero or a dastardly villain.

The one thing you can’t be, however, is fat.

You can see why; just look at those first paragraphs, the description of a typical day in the life of a Skyrim character. Who’d have time to get fat? Running over mountains, fighting through dungeons, hauling gear, and no food. There’s food in Skyrim — the game’s realism even extends to having functional kitchens, where characters can combine ingredients and cook delicious dishes. But I never use them. There’s too many other things to do.

I bring all this up, you see, because it’s January (well, February by the time you read this) and I, like all columnists, could have my Pontification License revoked if I don’t write about losing weight at least once every January. It’s a journalism classic, right up there with “Is Your (device) Giving You Cancer?” and “Teens: The Shocking Truth!”

I’m not saying that this isn’t a germane topic of conversation for me — after all, anyone who regularly plays video games until sunrise is probably not going to make the cover of this month’s Ribcage Beautiful. And I’ve yet to meet anyone, no matter fitness-obsessed, who could honestly audit their life and say, “You know what? I’m being healthy enough. No need to push it.”

So, like many others, I kicked off 2012 by joining a gym, in this case the Salem YMCA. Before I go any further I want to say that this is a great place. Aside from the amenities (which are impressive — there are two pools, a sauna and a steam room, and lots of classes), there’s a wonderful staff that is always friendly and positive and ready to answer my questions.

But all that can’t really distract from one incontrovertible fact; getting fit in the real world is boring. I’ve been to the YMCA just about every night for three weeks now and we haven’t been attacked by a single dragon. In Skyrim, if my character is running and running and never getting anywhere, it’s because the game is glitched and I have to restart the console. In the real world, it just means I’m on a treadmill.

Those who play video games will be familiar with the concept of leveling up — starting with a weak character and, as they go out into the world and have adventures, gradually making them stronger and more effective. With the way games work, leveling up in the early stages of a game is much easier than later on; the first few times you kill a monster give you much more experience than those same monsters will give you toward the end of the game.

Good leveling ensures that a game is fun from the first moment you start playing. If you find yourself having to do repetitive tasks, unable to kill weak monsters early on, or you just can’t accomplish the tasks the game sets you, it means you’re playing a badly designed game.

With human bodies, the experience of leveling up is basically the exact opposite. In the early stages of fitness, every exercise is less fun and less effective than it will be later on when you’ve made some progress. It’s repetitive, unpleasant, and painfully slow. The first levels are the worst. If my body were a game, I’d be trying to get my money back — and that’s a horrible way to feel about my body, and not at all the way I felt about it before I started “getting fit.”

This is what health is? I ask myself as I pull at the rowing machine, ESPN droning on about some sport with unintentionally hilarious subtitles above my head. This is what healthy feels like? This bites. I’d rather be assassinating Imperial dignitaries.
Clearly, fitness needs a total programming overhaul. Here are my modest, video-game derived proposals.

1) Less science, more treasure hunting. I know there’s lots of research about safe ways to decrease body fat and increase metabolism, but that’s really boring. We should replace all of our gyms with underground torch-lit mazes, which can only be navigated by following the clues on mysterious ancient artifacts. At the end of the maze, there’s a wooden chest full of cruelty-free diamonds and Best Buy gift cards.

2) One word; danger. Think you can’t possibly run those last five laps? You will if a giant, fire-breathing polar bear is chasing you.

3) No more cars. You have to walk everywhere, carrying everything you own. I’ll start doing this as soon as my boss tells me he’s OK with me showing up to work a month late because I had to help a farmer in Virginia retrieve his family’s ceremonial dagger from a troll-infested cave in Wyoming.

4) Achievements! When I reach my weight loss goal, I don’t want a sticker. I want the Amulet of Mystical Awesomeness, which has been handed down to the most legendary of fitness warriors since the dawn of time, when Lord Nautilus bestowed it on Charles Atlas from his mighty Throne of Rock-Hard Abbery. I’ll also take a commemorative water bottle.

Well, I’ll let you know if any of these happen. In the meantime, I discovered that some of the exercise bikes at the YMCA have little screens that let you race against other bikers. So far, I haven’t been able to beat them, but I’ll keep trying.

Some days, I don’t know if I’ll ever really get fit. But leveling up? That I can do.


3 thoughts on “Guest Post! Leveling Up

  1. Annie says:

    Sometimes if I’m working out, I imagine I’m a) in the Hunger Games, or b) running from zombies. I would totally sign up for your video game-inspired workout course.

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