Let’s Get Physical

December 28th, 2010

With the New Year right around the corner, there will be plenty of resolutions to get in shape or to drop a few pounds in 2011.  If history is any indicator, a  lot of that resolve will disappear within weeks and it will be another year of failed resolutions.  To be fair, modern life does not exactly make it easy to meet those goals.  But I contend that those resolutions shouldn’t have to be goals we explicitly make every year.  One reason for this prevalence of weight and exercise based resolutions is of particular interest to me: the loss of a physical culture.

You hear it all the time: we lead a largely sedentary lifestyle.  Many of us no longer have jobs which require any substantive physical activity.  We sit hunched over desks at work and sit in cars to commute.  Common leisure activities also involve sitting, like television and video games.  If we go to the gym to get exercise, we might even sit on a stationary bike to do our exercise!  We spend an inordinate amount of time sitting.

As a consequence, many people forget how to move their bodies since they spend so much time sitting instead of moving.  That’s really a shame,  since humans are designed to move and thrive when they move a lot.  Exercise has a whole host of benefits, including (but certainly not limited to):

  • Improving overall health and well being
  • Boosting brain power
  • Strengthening the immune system
  • Counteracting stress
  • Increased happiness
  • Graceful aging
  • Improves productivity
  • Boosts energy levels
  • Improved mobility and quality of life

Plenty of people go to the gym; yet, I would argue that many gym goers are not actually fit and move poorly.  They are in the gym which is a good start, but going to the gym does not equate with physical fitness.  In my opinion, there are fundamental flaws with a “gym culture” for our fitness needs.  In particular, I see three major problems with the gym fitness atmosphere: (1) people don’t know what they are doing, (2) there are misguided attitudes about exercise, and (3) being physically fit isn’t correctly valued.  Although the three are related, let us consider them individually.

People don’t know what they are doing.  I see this on a regular basis both in gyms and when I teach martial arts classes.  Since people do not move as much as they should, their bodies forget how to move properly.  Possibly, their bodies may never have learned to move in certain ways at all.  As a result, people frequently use poor movement patterns and terrible form while exercising (and probably also in everyday life).  They lift with their backs instead of using their hips and legs, planks are done with a sagging back, bench presses are done with floating (unstable) shoulders, they use bad running mechanics on treadmills, lunges are done with misaligned knee positions, etc.  People already have poor movement patterns from a sedentary lifestyle.  Going to the gym will not fix that fact.  It only means they will continue moving poorly in the gym until they either get injured or learn to correct their movement deficiencies.

People have counter-productive exercise attitudes.  The primary example would be the “no pain, no gain” misconception.  While striving for high level fitness is commendable, exercise is not supposed to be torture.  The vast majority of people are not elite athletes, so constantly training with high intensity and volume makes no sense.  In addition, the physical improvements from exercise actually occur during recovery rather than the active exercise.  Training too much of the “pain” side of things means no recovery and no gains.  Unpleasant workouts which only marginally improve physical fitness are unsustainable in the long term and ultimately counter-productive.

Related misconceived notions include “more is better” and “all or nothing.”  Though plenty of people do not exercise enough, more is not always better.  Exercise and activity is good up to a point.  Just because some exercise is good for you does not necessarily mean that more exercise is better.  The body can only do so much before it needs rest to recover.  You can see this sort of misguided “more is better” idea with people’s New Years resolutions and with weekend warriors.  Their gung ho exercise plans do not include proper ramping up of exercise load over time or sufficient recovery periods.  Their jam-packed exercise routines are unsustainable and exceeds the recovery threshold;  it eventually leads to over-training and burning out.  The “all-or-nothing” idea that then takes over is an equally ludicrous extreme.  As motivation for the unsustainable high exercise load wanes, the exercise stops completely.  It’s not a binary choice between an all out effort at the gym or staying at home eating bonbons.  There can and should be a moderate middle path.

Being physically fit is not correctly valued.  People say they value fitness, but their statements do not match observed reality.  If fitness is so important, why do we watch television so much more than exercise?  Physical activity is so easily dropped from our busy schedules, which suggests that it actually is not valued much.  So many things we do in daily life detract from being physically active: driving everywhere, taking the elevator instead of the stairs, skipping the gym because we’re tired, watching t.v. instead of taking a walk, playing video games simulating sports instead of playing said sports, circling a parking lot for 5 minutes looking for a close spot  instead of just taking a spot and walking the extra 50 yards, etc.  We opt for a passive solution in life where we could be incorporating physical activity.  Rather than being a lifestyle priority, physical activity is treated more like a red-headed step child.

Another problem is that physical fitness has become valued in consumerist terms.  Almost all aspects of our lives are driven by monetary value.  Even the something as basic as staying physically active has not escaped commoditization.  By basing exercise on a concept of monetary value, we have succumbed to a mistaken idea that physical fitness is like any other consumer product or service–something that can be resolved with a simple purchase.  We spend money on trendy exercise programs, memberships to gyms with fancy new equipment, and a large variety of gear and fitness accessories.  Being fit is central to our well-being, yet we find it necessary to pay other people to tell us how to move our bodies and sell us the equipment to make ourselves fit.  People have maintained their fitness long before commercial gyms and exercise videos.  People around the world without access to either gyms or equipment somehow manage to stay fit.  Something has gone terribly wrong when something as basic as physical movement is dominated by commercial interests.  Physical fitness has to be an inherent part of a lifestyle and not a purchasable quick-fix.

Now that I’ve painted this glum picture of the sorry state of physical affairs, is there anything that can be done?  In fact, yes, there is a lot that can be done.  Returning physical culture to our lives is readily achievable.  Changing the mindset from a culture of sitting to a culture of moving would be a good start.  Where possible, we can walk and bike instead of driving.  We can choose to park far and walk instead of circling looking for a close spot.  We can take the stairs instead of waiting for an elevator.  We can shut off the television and spend time with others in movement based leisure.  We can play pick up games instead of playing video game simulations of sports.  We can take responsibility for our own physical fitness instead of falling prey to instant result promises of commercial products and services.  We can reconnect with our bodies by moving more and experiencing the joy in moving.  We can integrate movement into our lifestyles instead of making exercise an extra task to fit into our schedules.  In short, we can re-instill personal and community value in physical activity. The return of physical culture to modern life is well within our reach.  We just need to choose to bring it back.

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