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FIGHTING FIT

Finding balance in a tiny, wobbly boat

Rowing is a physically tough workout and also provides excellent practice in mindfulness - not wanting to flip over is a strong motivation for staying focused.

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Rowing is about perpetually starting over, as every stroke is an invitation to correct mistakes made during the one before.

I woke up one day a few years ago and realised my life had been reduced to a hamster wheel of deadlines. I worked through nights, weekends, dinner, vacations and almost my marriage. At the time, I thought of strength as endurance and thought I could handle it. My body disagreed.

I'd drag all day long then lie awake in bed at night, overwhelmed by the hot buzzing sensation of intense anxiety. Sometimes I struggled to breathe. I'm being choked to death by the invisible hand of late-stage capitalism, I'd say, only half-kidding.

I knew I needed to get offline, go outside and exercise, but physical activity more intense than yoga or walking made me dry heave and break into a cold sweat. My body was sending a clear message: My typical Type-A style of mowing down deadlines wasn't working anymore. I needed a new approach.

I spent about a year building strength by doing 20-minute yoga videos. One day I was stretching on a dock by the river near my home in Philadelphia, the Schuylkill, when a dragon boat full of female paddlers pulled up and invited me, a stranger, to join them. Why not? I climbed in and took a paddle. The random experience inspired me to join a dragon-boating team the next year.

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I enjoyed being on the river, but dragon-boating means you have to swing your paddle at exactly the same time as everyone else in the boat or you slow everyone else down. I got in shape, but it felt like having to hit dozens of deadlines a minute under a blazing sun.

One day, while walking by the river, I spotted a single rower peacefully sculling across the water just before sundown and realised that's where I wanted to be. I didn't want to try to keep up with other people. I needed to find my own pace.

The next spring, I signed up for a new-member training programme at Philadelphia Girls' Rowing Club. Eight weeks later, I was wobbling down the river in my very own, very tippy-feeling, absurdly tiny boat. It was unsettling to feel as if shifting a few inches the wrong way could flip me face-first into cold water. That whole first summer, I nervously stayed close to the shoreline, awkwardly stabbing my oars at the water while watching real rowers glide past me.

Rowing is a physically tough workout but also provides excellent practice in mindfulness. Not wanting to flip is a strong motivation for staying focused on the present moment. Every stroke is an invitation to correct mistakes made during the one before. Rowing is about perpetually starting over.

Slowly, I learned how to stay afloat.

There's nothing like shoving off the dock at sunrise when the water is calm and still as a mirror. I stretch my arms out like a divining rod and press my legs until the boat glides backward and takes me with it. I do it again, micro-correcting my stroke. Whoosh. A rowing lap on the Schuylkill begins by facing the Philadelphia skyline. I can see the statue of William Penn standing atop City Hall a few blocks from my old office, where I spent countless hours alone staring at words on a computer screen well past midnight. Whoosh. The city disappears behind the river's bend.

I took up rowing because I needed to get out of my head and into my body but along the way, I realised I was also rowing myself back into the world. I glide beneath a bridge rattling with trains carrying suburban commuters to their offices, then begin looking for sunbathing turtles, calm kings perched on rocks along the river's edge. I check out the ducks. If I'm lucky, I glimpse a great blue heron and get to watch this magnificent bird's slow wingbeat lift its hollow bones into the air.

You can learn a lot about yourself in a boat.

Over time, I realised my bad rowing habits reflected the same shortcomings that led to burnout in the first place. I can be anxious and too eager to please, so I often find myself yanking on the oars instead of relying on stronger muscles in my legs and back to do the work.

At the end of the stroke, I'm supposed to push my hands away as quickly as possible to set up for what's called the recovery, meaning the slow slide back up to the stern. It took me months to stop rushing through the recovery, even though you're supposed to spend more time in recovery than in the more muscular parts of the stroke.

I still catch myself staring at my feet, miserably muscling through the miles instead of maintaining correct posture and lifting my chin enough to gaze at the horizon. When my coach sees me hunched over, he laughs and gestures at the trees and blue sky. "Look up! It's beautiful out here!"

Sometimes, I realise I must be doing something wrong because I'm too tired, too soon. I've come to recognise exhaustion as an opportunity, an invitation to efficiency.

Like the burnout that led me to row in the first place, feeling exhausted when I have to row two miles back to the dock tells me I need to reconsider my approach, to work smarter, not harder.

Rowing taught me that balance is more important than endurance, and that I can cultivate it. I work hard now but have a life outside of the office, complete with nights and dinners and vacations. My husband no longer refers to himself as a writer's widower. I took tap dancing lessons last year, and I play in a band. I even have sunlight hours to spend on the river.

More experienced rowers tell me that achieving the perfect stroke can take a lifetime. That's fine with me. All I have to do is remember why I got in the boat in the first place, and then start all over again. NYTIMES