In bygone days, the expression "feel the burn" was just another insult hurled at poor old witches tied to a flaming stake. Today it's become a bodybuilding mantra for sweaty athletes and workout addicts. But our ancestors required no daily exercise regimen; mostly because they were either rampaging, bloodthirsty cutthroats, or were the sort of desperate, unprotected peasants always running away from rampaging, bloodthirsty cutthroats. Constant rape, pillage and bare-knuckle boxing at weekends kept their adrenalin flowing and their heart rates high. They needed no twelve-speed treadmill or tanned personal trainers in the seventeenth-century. And when not fleeing from psychotic pirates and marauding press-gangs, people were too busy collecting firewood and skinning oxen to bother about slipping into a pair of bright orange spandex pants and joining an expensive gym. The so-called "burn" was felt during their everyday activities. Life may have been, as Thomas Hobbes claimed, "nasty, brutish and short," but it was also a simpler time. Of course, maybe everyone would be dead by the age of thirty, but that's because our ancestors' idea of preventive medicine was drinking frog bile mixed with mandrake juice while chanting old wives' mumbo-jumbo.
These days, thankfully, we know better, even if only slightly so. The local witch has been replaced by the Primary Care Practitioner and frog bile is now called Lipitor. The mumbo-jumbo, unfortunately, has merely been incorporated into your Health Insurance policy, but you can't have everything. Still, on the whole, our prospects of not dying in agony and ignorance before reaching middle age have largely improved. The area in which we have not progressed, however, is our physical fitness. Modern man's sedentary lifestyle means we need far more recreational exercise than our muscular but superstitious, axe-wielding forebears did. This is especially true if you suffer from heart disease, like I do, and so I'm forced to endure something called Cardiac-Rehabilitation twice a week at seven in the morning. Cardiac Rehab, so the brochure says, is an exercise and informational program "designed to increase physical fitness, reduce cardiac symptoms, improve health and reduce the risk of future heart problems."
Like the Naked City, there are a thousand stories in Cardiac Rehab: this guy had a heart attack while collecting maple syrup sap; this guy felt chest pains while singing second tenor in an amateur production of Rigoletto; and this guy - me, for example - just thought he was going for a routine check-up, failed his stress test, and wound up staying in hospital for two weeks to undergo coronary arterial bypass surgery. And so I have to make my way to 75 New Chardon Street in Boston for my bi-weekly exercise, although, as I discovered to my cost, actually finding New Chardon Street for the first time is an exercise in itself: an exercise in extremely heart-unhealthy frustration and anxiety. Apparently, fifty percent of New Chardon Street is an architectural monstrosity called Bulfinch Place, another forty percent is a concrete wasteland named Bowdoin Square, leaving ten percent of actual street which isn't signposted. When I eventually found the place, fifteen minutes late for my appointment, I was too exhausted to jog on the treadmill and had to sit in a mechanical rowing boat for twenty minutes while a nurse lectured me on removing stress factors from my life.
"That's good," she said, as I rowed through imaginary water. "It looks like you're starting to break a sweat."
"Yeah, but I'm a naturally sweaty person," I told her. "So I wouldn't read too much into that if I were you."
"No problem. Just let me know when you're feeling the burn," she replied.